There have been times where emotions surrounding Black history would simply surmount me. This year taught me that my art is a very powerful place for me to transform the heated vigour of my anger and to nourish my desire for change. For example, my first semester of CalArts I took a class called ‘Blood in the Water’ about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The first day of class, our professor had us all lay on the floor, under tables, packed in like sardines next to each other. He turned off the lights and asked other students to scream at the top of their lungs for what felt like ten minutes. Our professor, Douglas Kearny, wanted us all to embody a very small taste of what it was like to be the ‘cargo’ aboard these ships. At a certain point this class was so unbelievably emotional for me that I decided to drop it. I didn’t feel as if I had tools to navigate all the trauma and emotion it brought forth for me when I was eighteen. However, I respected our professor’s approach to teaching so very much and always regretted that decision to drop. During an artist residency this summer, I found my syllabus for ‘Blood in the Water’ and decided to read every single book & text that was on that list. I dove head first.
In my piece called ‘The Hold’ I painted a slave ship. I wished to mourn the lives lost on these ships. To remember those who’ve been forgotten to the tides of history. I also wanted to draw attention to a massive issue affecting another segregated and neglected population in our current moment.
For the left side of the painting, I referenced an actual diagram from the early 19th century of the ‘Brookes’ slave ship that depicts how unbelievably & inhumanely jammed, cramped, & sardined slave ships were designed to be. Of the approximately 13 million Africans transported in the middle passage, about 15 percent died aboard the ship. The designers of these ships predicted these ‘loss margins’ and accounted for them by overcrowding the ships, stacking African peoples on quite literally on top of one another.
On the right side of the painting, I painted depictions of present day incarcerated Black folk, mirroring the style of the ‘Brookes’ slave ship diagram. I think most people know by now that slavery and mass incarceration are linked at the hip. This link is written in plain daylight in the 13th amendment. The amendment that ‘freed’ all slaves. However, I wanted to paint a literal link between the barbaric cramming of slave ships and present day prison overcrowding. I made this painting during the height of COVID-19 last summer where incarcerated peoples all over the country were dropping like flies due to the virus. There is no way to self-isolate & quarantine effectively within a prison. In January 2020, California state prisons held 33% more prisoners than they were designed to hold. The slave ship in my painting is an entity that is currently and continuously moving for the benefit of capital. Even if we cannot directly see it everyday, we are all in the wake of this ship.
In many of my pieces, I merge my take on realism with prayers or dreams of a new world. Around this ship, I painted African symbols within the Adinkra system that symbolize freedom, transformation, and unity in diversity. American history likes to teach you that our history as a people, started here, on this continent, with the English language and assimilation. Painting these symbols was a way for me to connect to the legacy of my ancestors’ history before 1619 and the docking of the first slave ship.
Although I incorporate social justice elements in my artwork, I do not believe that artmaking is the most effective way to perform social justice work. I’ve also found that many BlPOC artists are subject to this unique expectation to make artwork that holds social justice significance, when white artists are not held to this same standard. At times it is also important to allow my art to be free from these expectations.