Walking in W. C. M. A is a creative project in Self-Portraiture, that explores African black female subjectivity. That is, the contours of embodying 'African-ness', blackness and femaleness in contested or inorganic spaces.
This piece is inspired by the notion that for many of us with an African upbringing, the only "serious" subjects to be pursued at University, are Engineering, Medicine or Law. Pretty much. If you went to a top government high school such as Kenya High (ahem ahem, but do I say), you are expected to wholeheartedly register for the most technical subjects at University. You know, the likes of Chemistry, Biology, Economics, Neuroscience and Computer Science. Damned you shall be if you dare enrol in English, Art Studio or Art History.
In fact, the running joke among many African international students, is that one only becomes a language or arts major if they are guaranteed unlimited access to a family endowment that will sustain them after graduation. In other words, if you are really serious about building some sort of successful career, steer clear of these art related subjects.
If only I had dared to take a different path when I first came to University. Like any smart African student should, I went straight for the technical subjects. In fact, I registered in my freshman and sophomore years for Calculus and Econometrics. Need I mention, I earned a D and C+ respectively in each class. These classes (all respect to the Math gurus amongst us) deadened and bored me. However, this past semester, I dared to take an Art History (you read right) class called Writing About Bodies.
Now, get this. I am in the final semester of a Bachelors in Political Science, so this was an experience in uncomfortable and unconventional learning. But oh, how I needed this class! We explored different types of writing, from scholarly writing to fiction and New Yorker profiles, with a special focus on living bodies, bodies that were once alive, and bodies that move and perform. I was drawn particularly to the photographic work of Carrie Mae Weems and Walking in W.C.M.A is particularly inspired by Weems' Roaming.
Walking in W.C.M.A is a record of my engagement with the Williams College Museum of Art (W.C.M.A) - a space in which my African, black, female body is rarely seen. So rarely, in fact, that the (American, white, female) museum curator gave me a startled stare when I walked through the front door and my (American, white, female) friend, Maggie, had to oddly state that , "we're just here to look around". (PS- Maggie ALWAYS saves the day when words fail me! Love her!!)
This is a record of my confrontation with the myths that surround a body like mine. This is an affirmation that an African, black, female can be whomever she wants to be and go wherever she wants to go. She too can occupy inorganic spaces. She can be regal, beautiful, intelligent - and universally so!
What stereotypes have you come against in the US (or abroad)?
What does it mean to you to represent your true self as an African, black female in the diaspora?
What are the tales and myths that you began to believe about yourself when you first encountered America's racially-charged culture? Can we unearth them? Can we share our lived experiences - our true stories?
***My artistic process was informed and inspired by Tamar Garb's Bodies of Modernity and Gender and Representation. In each portrait, I stand against pieces from a W.C.M.A exhibition titled Looking At and Looking Through: Rethinking Portraiture. My favourite piece is Fathi Hassan's Migration of Signs in which he explores tales of the diasporic condition, spiritual journeys and the reforms of the Arab Spring. By juxtaposing my body against each piece, I seek to include bodies like mine in the conversation on portraiture. My goal is to explore questions of gender, sexuality and race in representation. These self-portraits were graciously taken using Maggie's iphone.
All photographs are moments of Y E L L O W - ness: blossoming, change and fluidity.
Thanks for stopping by!