Surviving, Living and Thriving Within White (And Other Oppressive) Spaces: A Visual Study

"An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their choice, but I CHOOSE to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when everyday is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this. That’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore. So I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and NOT reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist." -Nina Simone

I had a friend ask me last week why I was turning down an opportunity to write for their publication, and why I don't use this space to adamantly speak out against issues of injustice as I used to. Why am I not writing words about Trump and the impact of the GOP's racist, xenophobic rhetoric beyond a an occasional Facebook status? Why am I not sharing more of my thoughts on the near daily incidents of brutality against Black and Brown lives, or continuing to speak out on racism's impact on our daily lives? From her perspective it seemed to her that I've grown quiet, and she was curious to know why. "You seem more focused on painting, which isn't a bad thing...it just seems odd," she said. 

Well...she's right. I have gone a bit quiet here. I don't write about racism and brutality like I used to. At least not here, and aside from an occasional election related status on Facebook, I've cut back on doing so there as well. Where she's wrong is in her assumption that my going quiet means I've stopped caring or paying attention. I haven't. If anything, the swelling tide of ignorance, violence, and injustice churns and crashes into my consciousness daily. I'm still "woke", and couldn't close my eyes or heart to what's happening to our bodies and within our society if I wanted to. As a Black woman, an empath, and as an artist it's impossible, and even if it were, I would still encounter and bear the social construct of race upon my being. Short of leaving this life, it's inescapable. 

I mentioned before that I've been struggling to put words to what I'm witnessing. That's still very much true-there are days where I simply do not know what to say, and any words that do appear feel...inadequate. When this happens I make the choice to share and amplify the words and brilliance of others above the noise instead of adding my own. I also make the choice to follow my intuition and turn to paint to process my thoughts. 

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am more focused on creating a statement on paper or canvas than on a computer screen. Paint...feels more natural to me right now than words do. I'd much rather allow it to speak for me those things I can't quite verbalize or translate into something intelligible you'll understand. So that's what I've been doing. I've shifted my focus from the oppression and brutality we experience as marginalized people to the impact both have on us, challenging myself to communicate it visually. What does it do to our psyche, our spirits, our health, our bodies? What does the point of impact look like? What occurs inside of us as we encounter oppression, fight to survive it, and dare even, to thrive in its pervasive shadow? 

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Internal processes. That's been my visual focus and exploration as I take in the news each day, or experience something that reminds me I am an Other. As a result, much of my latest work has involved me using lots of white space. With each piece, I'm thinking about what it looks like to thrive and be unapologetically Other in white spaces, and questioning what those internal thought & heart processes look like. 

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Sometimes I have an idea, and an image will come and imprint itself upon my consciousness, quietly (or loudly) telling me its story. Other times I simply have no idea what's going to come out-it just becomes a matter of listening to my intuition and trusting where it's taking me as I work. 

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I'm still here and I still have much to say. Like Nina, I believe as an artist, it's my duty to continue using my voice and creative expression to speak to issues that are a matter of life and death for us. I have no choice but to reflect these times in my work, be it written or visual. I'm just consciously doing so these days in a different medium, still hoping to cause others to pause and think critically about what they think they know about themselves and Others. I believe in the power of visual art to spark and foster conversation around these issues just like words do. 

I could use words, sure...but it's just more liberating to process and study with paint. For right now, this is my activism and how I choose to be involved. I think as artists...it's less about the medium, and more about using what we have to create those things that challenge, empower, and set free. Write, paint, sculpt, sing, dance, orate, document a moment or event with a photo-whatever it takes. I think it's about yielding to wherever our creativity leads us intuitively. Our challenge is to reflect and give voice to the times we're in. Like Nina, I think anything less is a waste. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

"  It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains."- Assata Shakur

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