Most of what we see in regards to South America is a whitewashed Latin lie. That is what compels me to replicate my journey through art.
Most black people don’t find themselves in art galleries often. I grew up in Baltimore City and went to a charter school located directly across from the Maryland Institute College of Art. We took trips to art museums weekly. I even worked as a gallery assistant in college at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I felt no real connection to visual art outside of film until I discovered Kehinde Wiley’s work on Tumblr. I was literally sitting in a Visual Arts and Design center continuously uninspired by the work they would feature when Kehinde Wiley’s work came across my Tumblr feed.
The piece entitled, “Mrs. Waldorf Astor” looked like me. A grand oil on linen painting of a black woman in a white sleeveless floor length gown, her hands clasped behind her back, she looks at you from just over her shoulder, chin up high, hair in an impossibly large up-do. She looked as if she is bored in all her majesty. The background of the painting is cluttered with vines and flowers in rich green, pale lavenders, corals, and peach. Colors that made her skin glow with a realness that only true masters of oil painting could convey. Physically I was in a Eurocentric art space, but digitally I was exploring other worlds full of black art from all over the world. The internet would become the place for me to find the art I didn’t even know I needed. It would also become my means to not only see art from other countries but meet the actual artists.
I would go on to spend the last five years traveling throughout South America exploring what it means to be “black.” What it means for me to be a black girl from the States traveling independently through various countries as well as what it means to be a black person born and bred in South America, most notably the countries of Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia.
My results have varied. I realize it’s not something that can be neatly deconstructed and analyzed. Blackness is even more nuanced by the artwork inspired by it; it is not a monolith. I’ve also grown to understand that I bring my own internalized notions of race that are heavily influenced by the way we classify our social hierarchies in the States. So when people ask me, “What was it like in (insert country)?” I take a long inhale and try to explain how the transatlantic slave trade, plus the United States of America’s domination of the hemisphere has created a very unique experience that is to be black in South America into a nice concise response; I usually end up responding, “beautiful.” Mainly because it is, but also because it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
As a starry-eyed pan African artist I see Brazil and Colombia and even Ecuador as black nations. I see these places comparable to Harlem, Atlanta, Lagos. But the difference is, not enough people see it that way. Blame the historic whiteness of the media and the art world, but no one knows. Therefore, I made sure that my journey into these countries was intentionally black. I searched for people with hues similar to mine although this was harder in some countries than others.
The communities that sheltered me, taught me the language, and fed me were always majority black. But this is hard for me to explain because most of what we see in regards to South America is a whitewashed Latin lie. That is what compels me to replicate my journey through art. By bringing my digital time capsule of a blog, “GlowingPain.com” into physical reality, I intend to put the viewer not only into my shoes but place them at political marches that celebrate African spiritualities and black hair in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil with me. I intend to bring the viewer into the home of Betty Veliz in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, the black woman who runs a cultural center dedicated to sharing the history of Afro Ecuadorians. I want the viewer to see Queen’s Barbershop in Cali, Colombia which is run by Jerry, an Afro Colombian man who sees the haircut culture in Cali as a space for learning and camaraderie as Cali tries to overcome its violence-ridden history.
Half documentary photography show – half installation, the exhibit will feature three distinct moments in my personal history in Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. Marches that call for a stop on the extermination of the lives of young black Brazilian women, as well as tolerance for inherited African religions, the living room of a community leader and single mother, and a black-owned barbershop. Three places where black life is happening while also being analyzed at the same time. Three places that if you were not present at the time of said events, you would have never known these things were happening, that these people existed. I intend to share the same feeling of awe, urgency, and inspiration that I experienced in my travels with my intended audience, black folk in the States.
The show primarily consists of sun-drenched portraits of black people living their everyday lives in three different South American countries. These photos already exist online on my website, but since returning home to West Baltimore and learning about the huge internet disparity we have here, it’s not enough for me. I need these works to take up physical space in galleries. And I need other black people to come and see these images. I need a full circle moment of being the disinterested gallery attendant to filling the gallery with the color it so desperately needs.