What does it mean to feel free and to be seen as your fullest self?

By Mya Lewis
@xoxo_mya

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“Within this country where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision, Black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism. Even within the women’s movement, we have had to fight, and still do, for that very visibility which also renders us most vulnerable, our Blackness.”

- Audre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

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Ancestral Women: Journeys of the Historically Silenced

PART ONE

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Emerging artist, Shayna Sutton (b.1990) reclaims recycled materials and found objects to sculpt forgotten or overlooked women in history in her Mitochondrial Eve series. Shayna sculpted Saartjie Baartman, who is also known as Sara Baartman, a name given to her by European traders/colonizers. Saartjie was an enslaved woman living in what is now recognized as South Africa. At 21 years of age, Saartjie was forced to sign a contract that stipulated she was to travel with her captors (William Dunlop and Pieter Willem Cezar) where she would work as a “domestic servant”. Ultimately, she was inhumanely displayed in traveling exhibitions in Europe, and used in experiments to try and prove Africans were biologically lesser than Caucasians (this being the big lie!). No one saw her as a human being.
 
Trauma is stored in the body until we release it. Shayna explores the vital need to provoke the relationship between history, visual art, and the Black women's perspective. This series aims to educate herself, her daughter, and others on the importance of relationships formed between African pasts and the people of the African diaspora today.

Saartjie, Shayna Sutton, 2021, 36 x 40 x 60, recycled cardboard, organic fibers, wood paper, found objects

“Black bodies occupy a contentious space in Western minds, and I try to complicate that space,” writes Houston-born artist Robert Pruitt (b. 1975), whose charcoal portraits rework iconography from science fiction, history, and popular culture. In Women with Tiara, Pruitt adorns this woman with a craniometer, a nineteenth-century tool used in the racist pseudoscience of phrenology which claimed to measure intelligence through cranium shape. 

The craniometer carefully rests over the woman’s hair and transforms into a tiara, becoming an iconoclastic symbol for breaking down (white) power and privilege rather than being subjugated by it. Her stature is reinforced by the monumental size of the drawing. Seven feet tall, it rivals full-length portraits of European kings and queens, leaving the woman to preside with all the grandeur of royalty.

 

Defiant in the face of bigotry and racism, regal in the power of her own birthright. 

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Women with Tiara, Robert Pruitt, 2007, 84in x 60in, conté, charcoal, and gold leaf on coffee-stained paper, Amon Carter Museum of American Art

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In Seventy-Three, Ayanah Moor (b. 1973) embeds an image from an advertisement for a hair product that she clipped from a 1973 issue of Ebony. Using the geometric, hard-edged abstraction, she creates triangular patterns in richly hued colors that evoke the pan-African design identity of the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s—red, black, and green. The choice of the hair product advertisement subtly evokes questions of dominant beauty narratives in our culture and the pressure for black women (and men) to assimilate to white beauty standards. 

 

Through her paintings, prints, and drawings, Moor operates within a visual field where notions of blackness and gender identity take shape. She utilizes existing material and cultural artifacts to generate alternative histories, often repositioning the subject as a corrective gesture or to create counter-narratives. 

 

We are fabricating and crafting our own realities and expressions

Seventy-Three, Ayanah Moor, 2018, 48in x 60in, acrylic and mixed media on wood panel, Museum of Contemporary Photograph

Being Cared For as a Black Woman: Journey of Personhood, Selfhood, and Liberating Expression

PART TWO

Don’t you feel like the hottest girl on the block when a 13 year-old/preteen compliments you on your look or hairstyle? I know I do because them lil kids are unabashedly honest. This painting by Dallas-based artist Niki Dionne (b. 1992) reminds me to dress in a way that 13 year-old me would be ecstatic about! No one owns you, your UNIQUE image, or even dictates the beautiful ways in which you choose to express yourself. 

 

Through her work, Niki explores how the ‘perceived self’ influences the ‘presenting self’ of Black women and shapes their identity. Through various mediums including fiber, oil pastels, and digital illustration, Niki captures moments that all women can find themselves in.

Niki was inspired by a period of time in her life where many of the black women she was surrounded by, including herself, experienced life changing healing and self-discovery. Niki shifted the focus of her work to illustrate her biggest inspiration, care-free black women. As an artist who has struggled with her identity as a black woman, every piece she creates has a part of her and the work invites viewers to find bits of themselves, or the women in their life, in the faceless women.
 

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Sasha, Niki Dionne, 2021, 6in x 8in, oil pastel, available for sale

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Living Room Beautician, Tiara Unique Francois, 2020, 4’ x 4’, acrylic, sharpie marker, Elmer’s glitter glue on canvas

Remember your mom doing your hair in the living room? The blow dryer, the hot comb, the curls, the bubbles, the barrettes, the blue magic gel, and pink lotion caressing your scalp. Untangling, tuggling, pulling back. 

Having one’s hair done or doing a loved one’s hair feels like an act of communion. Pouring love, time, and skill into a stunning and unique creation that becomes a wearable art style and vivid means of expression. 

Dallas-based artist, Tiara Unique Francois dives, “I am interested in layers. Layers of transparent paint to build brown skin, layers of paper and laser cut wood and shadows and black women and girls and hair products stacking on top of each other, layers of black culture and familial history and the unspoken language of personal style.


Layers of people… Black women and girls are often seen and othered before there is even a thought of attempt to understand. Loud and bold and strong and independent and sassy and ghetto and angry, but never soft and fragile or quiet and sad. 


I’m thinking about this idea of creation. How we, as black women, learned how to do our hair and the hair of our children and create these iconic styles with water, gel, grease and holding spray. Kitchen and living room beauticians creating such vibrant expression, through hair. Becoming pros at the craft, with no formal learning. Some women went to beauty school, but not all. There is something so sincere and golden, innovative and simply artistic about black hair being crafted in such a specific way. There is love and skill and pride in black women’s hair.”

“You deserve safety, you deserve protection, you deserve love, you deserve peace.” 

Abi Salami’s series titled, “I Don't Want to Hear that You Were Suffering,” is a collection of large scale works that explore the negative effects the "Strong Black Woman" rhetoric has on Black women and how it prevents them from having enough energy to center themselves and settle in their femininity.

As a proud black woman, born in Nigeria and currently living in Dallas, Abi’s work centers the black female form in its most holistically honest state. A necessity because we suffer significantly with poor mental health and African borne taboo shuns us. Her work normalizes our essential need for engaging in radical self-care: normalizing black women taking a day off and enjoying themselves; normalizing black women wearing luxury items because it makes them feel good; normalizing black women’s natural hair or whatever different hairstyles they choose.

Your body is not an apology or currency for anyone – your body is a sacred vessel that deserves respect, love, and care poured into it as often as possible. No matter anyone else’s expectations or beliefs, you owe this to yourself to give you everything you deserve and live beyond your wildest dreams.

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The Sweet Reflection, Abi Salami, 83 x 63 x 2.5, acrylic paint and gold leaf on canvas