Monday, February 23, 2009

Artist Profile: Fafi

OMG, its Fafi! This is one artist who can reduce me to a giggly fan-girl. Her pieces, mostly of lovely women and cute animals, are cute, airy confections with a bit of street toughness mixed in for good measure.

Born in Toulouse, France, Fafi entered the art world graffiti style, as her adorable creations began to grace French walls everywhere. According to Fafi's bio, "by exploring feminity through stereotypes, and using it to her advantage, she drew enormous attention and thus started to travel the world with thousands of Fafinettes in her brushes and paint cans."
Fafi continued her meteoric rise within the pop art scene by designing collections for Adidas and LeSportsac, and also creating vinyl toys. I was so happy to get my hands on a great Fafi LeSportsac tote at Bloomingdale's in early 2007. It travels with me everywhere, the colors are a great pick-me-up, and you never have to worry about not knowing which piece of luggage is yours at baggage claim!

Fafi's work is an inspiration. She's so unique and definitely has her own style. Check out this wonderful video that Adidas did with Fafi a couple years ago for their ad campaign. And check out more of Fafi's work at

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Artist Profile: Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson

There are so many artists I admire who have influenced my work over the years. When it comes to textiles (one of my favorite mediums to work in, and the second emphasis I chose to complement my painting major in college), it's all about Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. Many of us have grown up with the tradition of quilting in our families, and if you're like me, you may have some beautiful old family quilts passed down from relatives. Quilts are also fine art, as exhibited by artists like Faith Ringgold (who deserves another post altogether), and successful traveling shows like the Quilts of Gee's Bend which caused such a sensation a couple of years ago. Robinson came along, took everything we knew and loved about quilts and patterns, and flipped the script. She boldly mixed colors and prints, added objects, text, and three dimensional shapes to create an expression that was truly one of a kind.
Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1940, Aminah's father taught her how to draw and create homemade paper from "hogmawg" (a mixture of mud, clay, twigs, leaves, lime, animal grease, and glue), and her mother taught her weaving, needlework, and button work. She knew from a young age she wanted to be an artist, and honed her skills at Columbus Art School. Aminah "creates sculpture, RagGonNons, rag paintings, paintings on cloth, drawings, and books. Many of them are about her family and community and the stories she has been told by her elders. She also researches the lives of abolitionists, civil rights leaders, and writers and depicts them in her art."

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robison's work has really inspired me to think outside the box when it comes to working with fabric. Her pieces are so imaginative, and a great reminder that when it comes to creativity, the sky's the limit!

No matter what medium you work in, or if you just love to look at great art, I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Symphonic Poem, a wonderful retrospective book of Robinson's. It is an experience.

Inspiration: Thelma Golden

"Going to museums as a child, it was clear that somebody put those things up. When it became clear to me what that job was, that was the job I wanted."

Wow, Thelma Golden. It's tough not to gush when it comes to my undying admiration for the Executive Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. She's amazing because she's not afraid to take chances and shake things up in the art world. She's helped broaden the spectrum for art created by people of African descent, and challenged us all to think and see in new ways. She finds new and emerging talent, and takes risks with the way she presents it. She's a true inspiration. The following is a great biography I found on Ms. Golden.

Thelma Golden has become a driving force in the art world. Since disrupting the status quo with her 1994 exhibition, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, Golden has continued to create challenging dialogues around art and artists, making her one of the most respected curators in America. After ten years at the Whitney Museum of American Art, one of the nation's premier art institutions, Golden took up a new challenge in 2000, joining the Studio Museum in Harlem and becoming executive director and chief curator in 2005.

Thelma Golden knew she wanted to be a museum curator since late childhood and early adolescence. Born in 1965, she grew up in Queens, New York. As a child Golden first developed a love for art by studying reproductions of works from the Art Institute of Chicago's permanent collection. Golden found the prints on the playing cards for the board game, Masterpiece—despite her lack of interest in the game itself. She also became fascinated in museums themselves. "I think I, in going to museums as a young child, really realized that someone did that—I didn't have a name for it, but it was clear that somebody put those things up, somewhere," she recalled for Diane Haithman of the Los Angeles Times. "As soon as it became clear to me what that job was, that was the job I wanted." Indeed, Golden discovered the role of a curator when she was 12. She read about the pioneering African-American woman curator, Lowery Sims, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Golden found her inspiration.

Golden's career began early and developed quickly. By her senior year in high school, Golden had begun training as a curatorial apprentice at the Metropolitan Museum. Soon she would attend Smith College in North Hampton, Massachusetts, where in 1987 she graduated with a degree in art history. One year as a curatorial intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem followed, and another as an assistant at the Whitney. Until 1991, Golden gained experience as visual arts director at the Jamaica Arts Center in New York, where she curated eight shows. After taking a position at the Whitney in 1991, Golden began to rise to national prominence in the art world.

Earned National Reputation

As the Whitney's branch director at Philip Morris from 1991 to 1993, Golden opened up the museum to previously under-represented artists—women, people of color—and gained a national reputation. At the Philip Morris branch Golden exhibited a number of artists, including Glenn Ligon, Suzanne McClelland, Gary Simmons, Y. David Chung, Alison Saar, and Judith Shea. Also, Golden explored more physical aspects of organizing an exhibition, as when she organized a showing of drape paintings, Golden Element Inside Gold, by Sam Gilliam in the Sculpture Court. Gilliam's works were among those representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1972 and have been part of the permanent collection of The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC.

Meanwhile, Golden stepped out of New York City to spread her artistic message. In 1993 at the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio, for example, she delivered a lecture and slide presentation entitled "African-American Art: Myth and Reality" in which she examined social protest and black life and culture in twentieth-century art by African Americans. The Columbus Call and Post advertised that her address would bring "new insights" to viewers of a concurrent exhibition of the works of a Columbus African American artist, Roman Johnson.

Golden affected her main impact in the U.S. art world during the 1990s through the Whitney, however. After a promotion in 1992 to associate curator, in 1993 Golden contributed to the design of a major event in the U.S. art world, the Whitney Biennial, a tradition which dates back to the Whitney's founding by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney when the philanthropist hoped to introduce the work of emerging U.S. artists into an art world dominated by European modernists. On a team led by the curator Elisabeth Sussman, Golden was one of four curators of the 1993 exhibition.

The 1993 Whitney Biennial combined video, performance art, photography, documentary material, text, objects, artifacts, and painting to challenge the viewer on controversial social issues. An investigation of race, gender, sexuality, AIDS, and gay rights, the show included direct social and political statements. "If, as it would seem, the purpose of this Biennial was to take the pulse of America, its vision is of a nation mired in racial, ethnic and sexual conflict, still reeling from the L.A. riots and the Clarence Thomas hearings and deeply ambivalent about 'difference' at the same time that the fact of social diversity becomes ever more inescapable," commented Eleanor Heartney, art critic, in Art in America. Reversing past practice at the Whitney, the vast majority of the 87 artists participating in the 1993 Biennial were women, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and gays.

The Biennial's aggressive social and artistic tack elicited substantial debate. Newsweek's art critic, Peter Plagens, derided the 1993 Biennial as "more a dyspeptically sad show than a radically feisty one. It's a melange of social complaints that sometimes takes on the tone of the New York Post edited by the Guerrilla Girls," a group of feminist art activists who protested the 1987 Biennial for racial and sexual exclusion. Quoted in Ms., the Guerrilla Girls praised the 1993 Biennial: "It's a show everyone likes to hate because it's a comment on our times…. [It] seems like this show is polarizing the aesthetes from people who see art as an expression of a certain time and a certain place." As one of four curators designing the prestigious Biennial, Golden played a central role in placing the Whitney at the center of this debate in 1993.

Sparked Controversy

Consistent with the bold approach at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the 1990s, Golden sparked national controversy in 1994 and 1995 with an exhibition she curated herself, entitled Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. Works by 29 artists chosen by Golden to illustrate current conceptions of black masculinity spread across the second and third floors of the Whitney. The artists were black men, such as Gary Simmons, Glenn Ligon, and Lyle Ashton Harris; black women, such as Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, and Renee Cox; and a few Asian, Hispanic, and white artists to provide a multitude of perspectives. The exhibition also incorporated film, video, and media and was accompanied by an extensive catalogue.

At a Glance …

Born 1965; raised in Queens, NY. Education: Smith College, BA, art history, 1987.

Career: Curatorial apprentice, Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY, 1983; curatorial intern, Studio Museum, Harlem, NY, c. 1987; curatorial assistant, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, c. 1988; visual arts director, Jamaica Arts Center, Queens, NY, c. 1989–91; branch director, Philip Morris branch, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, 1991–93; associate curator director of branch museums, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993–96; curator, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996–99; special projects curator, Peter Norton Family Foundation, 1998–99; deputy director for exhibitions and programs and chief curator, Studio Museum, Harlem, 2000–05; executive director and chief curator, Studio Museum, 2005–.

Memberships: Institute of International Visual Arts, board member;

Addresses: Office—Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, New York, New York 10027.

Greg Tate of Vibe outlined the poles of the subsequent debate, including the anger at negative images by some in the African American community, and the disdain for black and political art by some conservative white critics. In a review in the New York Amsterdam News, Mel Tapley could provide only mitigated praise. "Except for the size of several of the canvases and photographs, nobody sees the black man as a monumental figure who can conquer, love and rule," she wrote. "Curator Thelma Golden has certainly furnished us with plenty of material for discussion groups throughout the winter. If the 125th Street vendors picketed the storeowners and merchants because the police evicted them, the 100 Black Men might consider demonstrating against art schools and art supply stores for assisting in perpetuating these recorded images."

When Golden heard similar perspectives voiced in the Los Angeles black community when the show toured at UCLA, she responded with the frustration of an artist misunderstood by her audience. "I'm so finished with that, the positive/negative thing? I'm done with that. I can't even go there anymore. I can't even remember what I used to say about that…. Work that is branded homoerotic in content is branded negative, and implicit in that statement is that that is wrong—so therefore the work is negative. You can't even talk about an entry into a certain feminist dialogue, because feminism is wrong!" Exasperated, Golden named some positive images in her exhibition. "The black people are the ones who are doing it, which is what really flips me out—they can't get with the Mapplethorpe because he's gay, but I'm like, these are some of the most beautiful photographs of black men ever taken—who cares?"

To conservative white critics who charged her with overlooking artistic values for black identity politics, Golden answered with a reasoned dismissal. Greg Tate, a young black writer for Vibe who contributed an essay for the exhibition catalog, summarized Golden's response: "Contrary to what some evil-ass critics like Hilton Kramer in the New York Observer have written about Golden, she does love art as much as she does being black, and unlike Kramer doesn't believe the two are mutually exclusive."

Critical response to how successfully each artist and the show itself succeeded in defining beauty and challenging viewers varied. First, Essence writer Veronica Chambers surveyed the scene comprehensively. Calling the show Golden's "largest and boldest exhibit yet," Chambers reported, "Golden … is simultaneously getting kudos and catching hell for her 'adventurous' taste." As if to demonstrate that ambivalence, in a New York Times review on November 11, 1994, critic Michael Kimmelman considered the show less than all the hullabaloo surrounding it. "The exhibition feels digestible: modest, almost," he wrote. Still Kimmelman found some work of value: "Much of it is the predicable inside-the-art-world-Beltway stuff that the Whitney, and countless SoHo galleries, have regularly been offering. Beyond that, there are challenging, sometimes moving works by artists like Adrian Piper, David Hammons, Robert Colescott, Leon Golub, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Barkley Hendricks…." Finally, in a disagreement with art critic Peter Plagens, who called the show "well-intentioned but disappointing," Newsweek contributing editor Ellis Cose reasoned that, "I'm not so sure it's quite so disappointing as all that. It certainly tries to sit on both sides of the argument. And, given the firestorm around the last Biennial, that is perhaps understandable." Long after the furor in the press subsided, Golden remembered the exhibit in an interview for Bomb magazine as a "significant show that defined who I am as a curator."

Ended a Decade at the Whitney

Thelma Golden continued pressuring for more inclusion of African Americans and people of color into the art world through the 1990s. During her decade at the Whitney, Golden rose to the position of curator and director of branch museums by 1996 and left for other opportunities in 1999. While at the Whitney she hoped to press the public to look beyond stereotypes and to open up the mainstream museum to African-American and other previously under-represented artists and art-lovers. "The art world is still the last bastion of exclusivity," Golden remarked to Veronica Chambers in Essence. In the book American Visions: Afro-American Art—1986, author Carroll Greene Jr. reviewed the acceptance of African American art and artists within U.S. cultural institutions in the mid-1980s. "Indeed, the window of opportunity opened two decades ago may now be closing." Greene warned. "And Afro-American art remains the neglected step-child of American art, receiving only occasional recognition by individual art scholars." Thelma Golden's work at the center of the contemporary U.S. art world in the early 1990s showed the beginnings of the kind of achievement possible. Other exhibitions Golden organized at the Whitney included: Heart, Mind, Body, Soul: New Work from the Collection (1998), Bob Thompson: A Retrospective (1998), and Hindsight: Recent Work from the Permanent Collection (1999).

Three years after being named curator and director of branch museums at the Whitney, Golden decided to seek other opportunities. Working briefly as the special projects curator for the Peter Norton Family Foundation, she accepted a job at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2000. She would be able to work with the woman who had long ago inspired her, Lowery Stokes Sims, the Museum's executive director. As Deputy Director for Exhibitions and Programs Golden hoped to expand the type of art the Museum exhibited. The Museum had focused mainly on contemporary works by African Americans, but Golden helped to set a new agenda, one that would include the large African diaspora and incorporate references to the multicultural influences on African-American art. Golden emphasized the importance of the new agenda in Essence, saying that "never before had there been so many artists of African and African-American descent bursting onto the scene."

Continued Pioneering Ways at Studio Museum

As Golden began her work at the Studio Museum, she had to mount a hurdle. People were having difficulty with the label "black art." "Similar to woman artists and other artists of color, all this naming had become such a contested place. It had filled a whole decade, the 80's, with conferences and books and articles about what it meant. I felt that because so many artists were investigating this it couldn't be ignored," she explained to the Gothamist. Although she tried to use the label to simply categorize artists and not a style of art, she had trouble finding a good definition for "black art," and began to explore different terms. "Then when I began to think about doing a show of young artists," she added, "I was amazed by the fact that so many of them had incorporated this thinking, not into just the way they theoretically define themselves, but in the way they had an attitude towards it that was somewhat—it seemed to be at the time—very freeing. The artist Glenn Ligon and I began to refer to this stance, this attitude, as post-black art, meaning that these younger artists seemed not oppressed by the strangle-hold of the terminology…. Somewhat ironically, we began referring to it as post-black art, and then it got shortened to post-black. It was a way for me to put a very loose bracket around a way to understand a younger generation." The term stuck and has helped Golden and others expand the way in which they discuss and classify art.

Golden's early work at the Museum with Sims not only helped redefine the art of artists of African descent and doubled museum membership, but also, as Sims told Essence, "reestablished" the Museum "as a magnet for art lovers and emerging artists." The range of works the Museum exhibited were reflected in the shows Golden curated: Isaac Julien: Vagabondia (2000), Martin Puryear: The Cane Project (2000), Glenn Ligon: Stranger (2001), Material and Matter (2001), Freestyle (2001), Red, Black and Green (2001), Yinka Shonibare (2002), Black Romantic: The Figurative Impulse in Contemporary African-American Art (2002), Gary Simmons (2002), Aaron Siskind: Harlem Document (2003), and Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor (2004).

Golden clearly enjoyed her work. In countless interviews, Golden offered a constant stream of new ideas about art and clearly relished creating exhibits. She described her 2002 exhibit of Gary Simmons art in a diary for Slate as "emblematic of what I consider my best work, as it comes from a combination of deep engagement with an artist's practice and a constant desire to be in dialogue." In 2003, Golden rated Freestyle her favorite exhibit in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, saying that "it was my first attempt to look at who's coming up behind the black artists who emerged in the 1990s to put a multicultural stamp on a very complex combination of form and content."

Becoming the executive director of the Studio Museum in 2005 upon the retirement of Sims, Golden had even greater opportunities to leave her mark on the American art world.

Selected writings

Exhibition Catalogs

Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994.
(With Gail Gelburd) Romare Bearden in Black-and-White: Photomontage Projections, 1964, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997.
Bob Thompson, Whitney Museum of American Art and University of California Press, 1998.
(With Kellie Jones and Chrissie Iles) Lorna Simpson, Phaidon, 2002.
(With others) Gary Simmons, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Studio Museum, Harlem, 2002.
(With others) Art 21: Art in the 21st Century, introduced by Susan Sollins, H.N. Abrams, 2001.



Greene, Carroll, Jr., ed., American Visions: Afro-American Art—1986, The Visions Foundation, 1987.


Artforum, December 2003, p. 126.

Art in America, May 1993, pp. 43-7.

Call and Post (Columbus, OH), November 11, 1993, p. 6A.

Crisis, March-April 2004, p. 43.

Essence, November 1994, p. 64; November 1995, p. 96; May 1997, p. 152; July 2002, p. 74.

Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1995, sec. CAL, pp. 5, 84-6.

Ms., May/June 1993, p. 80.

Newsweek, March 15, 1993, p. 72.

New York, January 11, 1993, p. 16.

New York Times, December 12, 1994, sec. C, p. 13; November 14, 2005; p. F32.

New York Voice Inc./Harlem USA, January 19, 1994, p. 17.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 1, 2003.

Vibe, October 1994, p. 34.

Village Voice, February 12, 1991, p. 39.


"Bomb Live! With Betsy Sussler and Thelma Golden," Bomb, (accessed January 6, 2006).

"Diary: By Thelma Golden," Slate, (accessed January 6, 2006).

"Thelma Golden, Curator," Gothamist, (accessed January 6, 2006).

Direct link to this article:

Marissa's Work: Meet Azmera

Growing up, I was a comic book fiend. I couldn't get enough X-Men, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, you name it. I lived for the harrowing tales of super-powered people. Storm was my idol, and at recess, while many of my girlfriends were outside playing jump rope, I was trading comic cards with the boys. I never got over my love of comics, my palate just became a bit more sophisticated over the years and I fell in love with indie titles like Love and Rockets, Strangers in Paradise, and Non.

Comic book art has always influenced my own creations (my first drawing lesson came courtesy of the book How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way ) and that love of comics came full circle with the creation of my own heroine, Azmera.

Azmera is part Storm, part Angela Davis, part Ma'at. She's a powerful and fierce warrior-goddess charged with doing something amazing for her people: healing the wounds of history through time travel. She's been given magical powers to make things happen and transform the world, and in the process mend her own broken heart. Azmera's name is Ethiopian and it means "harvest". I chose this name because in this era, at this point in history, we are finally starting to see the fruits of our ancestors' toil and reap the rewards.

I've been painting, drawing, and writing about Azmera for a little over 2 years now. I don't have set things I do with the character yet, I simply let her appear in my work. I've written a story for her, which I've been encouraged to turn into an illustrated book, and I like the idea, so I may do it at some point. Right now, we're still getting to know one another.

The Azmera pieces also present an opportunity to play with a theme that I've been developing throughout most of my work: blending psychedelic beauty and color with harsh realities. I relate it to the 1960s, a decade that has always fascinated me: there was the summer of love, Woodstock, all this beautiful art, music, and exploration. But at the same time, we had Black people in the south getting hosed with water and attacked by dogs, the assasinations of Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, and the war in Vietnam. The coexistence of that beauty and violence fascinates me. I strive to create work that walks that razor's edge, exploding with color, joy, and sadness.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I am SO excited about this!!

This spring Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will be exhibiting the work of artist Nick Cave in Meet Me at the Center of the Earth: New Work by Nick Cave. The show, which opens in San Francisco March 27th, will feature Cave's soundsuits, sculptural and wearable pieces which "seem poised to explode into dance and ritual while exploring issues of identity and myth."

Check out this amazing video featuring Cave's work:

Girlblue Project: Sara Hart

Can I photograph by Sara Hart

Sara Hart is a talented young photographer based in New York City. Her work addresses issues of identity and race. Read on for an interview with Sara.

What do you love about being a Black woman? What's challenging about it?

Being a black woman makes me feel connected. I feel that being a black woman is a visual representation of the connection I feel I have with the earth/universe, with the women in my family before me, and to history in general. My skin, my hair, my shape, even the food my grandmother feeds me gives me a sense of pride in who I am as part of a people.
The challenge is knowing what it really means to be a black woman and stay connected to my history of my family and culture, and feeling like no matter what I do someone will find fault in that.

Who has been most influential in your life?

The people who have been very influential in my life have been my parents. My father showed me from a young age expression through art. He introduced me to the camera and I eventually took that as my form of expression. I used it to tell my story about how I felt as a woman and about being a black woman. And my mom influenced me by being an amazing, strong, educated black woman. And I still strive to be as amazing as she is. She is my hero.

What's most important to you in life?

It used to be being understood by it is understanding myself.

What inspires you to create art? And what are some of your favorite mediums to work in?

Life inspires me to create. My experience as well as the experiences of others makes me want to pick up a camera and take pictures. Photography is certainly my favorite medium. I feel that for me it is the best way to capture/create and express how I feel.

You did a powerful series of photographs focusing on issues of racial identity within the Black community. What inspired the series? How have people reacted to it?

It started as a series to address how I feel about being biracial. Then it morphed into the perceived tensions between dark and light skin women of my generation.
It is a response to American culture and the categorization of people, particularly black women here in America. The reaction to the series has been very positive. My models are eager to participate and share their stories, and people who view my work are prompted to share or take the time to research the history of categorization. And this is what I wanted to do, make people think just a lil' about their ideas of people.

How have stereotypes about Black women affected you?

Well, given my response to stereotypes in my work I would say it has affected me a lot. I was raised (coming from a mixed family) to not see color as a way to isolate or blame but just as something as simple as the clothes you wear or the way you style your hair. It is the character of the person that really matters. Then as I grew up and was more and more out into the world I saw and felt how I was judged by my skin color, hair, who my parents were. Personally since I am mixed, I was said to not really be black since my dad is white. I was said to be more white since I spoke properly and didn't live in the ghetto. Then if I did or said anything that was seemingly "black" I was told I was trying to be black. I felt that stereotypes of black people and white people were/are attributed to me and for the longest time that confused and hurt me a lot. I felt like I wasn't accepted anywhere.

What are your dreams and aspirations?

I dream about just creating my art and having my voice heard. And not being labeled trivially into "black women's art" but as Sara Hart, the photographer who has something to say. I also aspire to be a mother and to raise my family in love and to love themselves as my mother did.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Marissa's Latest

This is my latest piece, an untitled watercolor on paper. The text is based on a dream I had about James Brown a year or so ago. The dream was so vivid I couldn't get it out of my head, so I wrote it down, saved it and figured I'd know what to do with it when the time came.

I wanted this piece to have the random, sort of meandering feel of a dream: a blend of all these elements of waking life and the subconscious. I saw James in a white suit, so I built the composition around that image. I left the background white so that the figure and text would stand out. I chose to make the text colorful (almost every letter is a different color) so that it would pop, and also to bring a lightheartedness to what reads as a rather sad experience. I always try to capture a mixture of joy and pain in my work, because life is a mixture of both.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Girlblue Project: Najah Monique Todd

Najah Monique Todd, 29
Hair Designer
Tacoma, Washington
United States

I was born to a very young mother, with no father around. They broke up before I was born. Like a lot of young women in the 80s my mom got into drugs around ‘86. Thank the stars I had my grandparents whom my mother sent me to live with. It was probably the best thing she could have done for me, although at such a young age I didn’t quite understand. Life with my grandparents was great.They definitely gave me a lot of love,took me under their wings and tried to heal the hurt and abandonment I felt from my mother. I was put into ballet, majorettes, modeling, 4-H, gymnastics and cello lessons. School was hard, and I didn’t really spend my childhood finding out who I was. So without a full sense of self I was made fun of for being “too white”, an Oreo. I was also very confused living in South Carolina after having moved from California. And with my grandmother being black and my Grandfather white, being so young I didn’t really understand the stigma. There was no defending myself because I didn’t know who I was. We later moved to a small town called Lawtey Florida where I enrolled in my final year of middle school and stayed until my sophomore year of high school.

In those 3½ years I experienced some great things: church, amazing friends and my very first love. I also experienced some horrible things, having moved deeper into the south. We endured heavy prejudice and my family’s dynamic didn’t help at all. And when I say heavy I mean KKK. There was aimless shooting and other atrocities. I then moved to Washington with my aunt. My grandparents thought it better to not add to the stresses of being a teenager with having to be a black teenager in a blatantly racist area. Living in Washington was a blessing in disguise. Without all the blatant racism I had a great time discovering alternative music. I actually remember the first time I watched MTV. I saw a Green Day concert and it was all down hill from there….I loved rock n’ roll and couldn’t get enough of it. My family pretty much branded me the "white girl" of the family and so did all the black teens at my school. Somehow I held steadfast to what I loved. It wasn’t a question of rebellion or even finding myself. This was who I was. I loved boys with tattoos, crazy hair and guitars. I loved rock music, and through all the turmoil and the loneliness I felt and the obstacles I had to overcome just to enjoy the music and lifestyle, I still made it.

Now I am a rocking hairstylist for many of Washington’s hottest local bands and I work for a promotions company that sets up tours for bands. I love doing hair….the art and precision it takes to look at someone’s face, consider their lifestyle, and what their hopes are for their style. I love giving them what they want.

My Best friend Del Brown is a girl who had a very similar journey to mine. When I met her I knew she was my soulmate, a punk rock diva just like me and also a woman who has given me balance in loving the music and lifestyle I’m into as well as owning and loving my culture, and I am a better person for it. Music also defines who I am. Del and I are working on a project called “Kalling All Kars”, an indie rock electro clash trip hop band. I’m also the front woman for a hard rock/funk infused band called Modern Union. I would eventually like to be a stylist for some trendsetting stars and musicians, and have a staff spot on a sitcom as a hairstylist. As far as music I really would like to grow as an artist. My band is getting ready to record so I am really looking within myself and looking to other great women such as Lisa Kekura from The Bell Rays to see the deepness and emotion that goes into leading a good rock band. I am starting to modify and design some plus size rock gear and I want to get deeper into that. Most of all I just want to be happy and surround myself with amazing and interesting people. I feel like I am off to a great start.

Next Up: The Girlblue Project

About 3 years ago I started a project that was very special to me. Fed up with narrow stereotypes about who Black women are--what music we listen to, how we dress, how we speak, etc.--I decided to create a book featuring the stories and photos of Black women who had been labeled as "outside the norm." This project allowed me to interview, photograph, and review biographical essays from a group of amazing, strong, and wonderful women. The book hasn't materialized (yet) and although I did release a zine to preview the project, I've had all these amazing photos and stories just sitting on my hard drive begging to be shared. Maybe one day they will take on the form they were originally intended to, but in the meantime I would like to share them in all their glory here on Black Butterfly. Periodically I'll be featuring Girlblue stories, beginning with one of my favorite submissions: Najah Monique Todd. Enjoy.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Aisha Cousins, Double Dutch Diva

Take a group of Black women, over 20 feet of hair extensions, and a double dutch game like no other, and you have the vision of prolific young artist Aisha Cousins. The Brooklyn-based artist calls her performance piece Diva Dutch, and it involves jumping rope, double dutch style--only instead of jumprope, the participant is jumping with two very long, thick braids made from synthetic hair, attached to the heads of two Black women. The result is visually stunning, and a testament to our collective girlhood memories as African Americans. Who doesn't remember sitting at the feet of their mother/grandmother/aunt/girlfriend and having their hair freshly oiled and braided? Or joining in a neighborhood game of double dutch (or if you were shy like me, standing on the side in complete awe just
wishing you could do that!) Diva Dutch is a sweet reminder about how much fun it is to be a Black girl, something we can lose sight of in a sea of sad statistics and news stories. Of her work, Cousins writes,
Diva Dutch is a piece about black aesthetics. And when I say black I mean female, cuz I'm black and I'm female and my black is just as black as everybody else's. It's about celebrating our aesthetics. Period. It's for us. But the hip thing is that a crash course in what black women think is beautiful about themselves is good for everybody else. It tells you more about us than the user-friendly edited version. And this is good because we live here and you live with us and it's time you get to know us. (Cuz guess what: We know a lot about you.)

The most important aspect of diva dutch, for me, really is looking at black women through black women's eyes. Simple. Logical. But rarely done. Mainly because our eyes are filtered through the eyes of others. As a subculture in the U.S. we have learned to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Constantly explaining. It's one of the differences, I'm betting, between African-Americans and our counterparts in Africa and the Caribbean. We have been taught to see ourselves through someone else's vision. And as black women we are taught to explain ourselves, because the feminine is never normal. Not neutral. One can't assume that everyone can relate. This constant explaining is not only stressful it's restricting. One of the internal restrictions laid on during slavery, that we haven't ever managed to fully shake.

I was able to view and participate in the piece first hand during Aisha's late summer performance outside the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn. The braiding took most of the day and by nightfall, those of us who had gathered at the museum headed over to nearby outdoor eatery Habana Cuba where a lot of folks were gathered to watch a screening of Prince's 80s masterpiece, Purple Rain. It felt like some kind of crazy Playa Holiday or something: Prince music wafting through the streets of Fort Greene on a summer night, and on the corner folks are jumping double dutch with...giant hair extensions? It was quite a sight, it was almost magical. Lots of people had the Diva Dutch experience that night and took turns jumping, myself included.

It's amazing when an artist has such a clarity of vision that anyone who happens upon her work becomes caught up in the rapture of it. Aisha Cousins is just such an artist. She not only creates work, she masterfully crafts unforgettable multisensory experiences that are extremely engaging. And part of her wisdom is knowing when to step back and simply let her art unfold. I was truly inspired by this piece, and I can't wait to see what's next from this talented artist.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Brooklyn Fashion Gets Political

If you were in New York during the Presidential election season, you might have noticed these fabulous handmade pins so many Obama supporters were sporting. Heck, maybe you even participated in one of those pin-making parties at Moxie's Cafe in Brooklyn helped create them and mail them to swing states.
2008 was a year that change was in the air for America, and one couldn't help but be swept up in the fervor and the promise of a new administration, a turning point in this country's history. Fashion was no exception. Famous designers such as Donatella Versace and Marc Jacobs were sending Obama campaign-inspired looks down the runway with messages like "hope", "vote", and "change" emblazoned on their creations. And Vogue's editor-at-large, the influential Andre Leon Talley revealed in his monthly column that "yours truly hasn't taken off the Sidney Garber safety pin and charm with the word HOPE spelled out in pave diamonds since Election Night."
But for those of us with a less diamond-esque budget, a Brooklyn teacher provided us with a charm that was equally fashionable and absolutely free. I receieved my piece of fashion history while ringing up a customer at the grocery store I was working at in Brooklyn Heights. She had the most adorable Obama pin I'd ever seen: it was turquoise with a shadow outline of the soon-to-be President's face, and framed with glitter. The safety pin it was attached to had a set of colorful plastic confetti pieces decorating it. "Where did you get that?" I exclaimed. I had been looking for something unique to show my support, the typical red white and blue color palette and the same boring campaign buttons I'd seen everywhere were not my cup of tea. "Oh, there's a teacher that makes them. Here, you can have mine. In fact, take two. I've got a whole bunch." She handed me the one she was wearing along with a much larger black and white pin.
As Election Night drew closer, these pins were all over Brooklyn, in all sizes and colors. They were such a unique and creative way to show support. And then one day I flipped open a copy of the Daily News, and there's Sarah Jessica Parker working the phones at an Obama campaign office in Manhattan, rocking a hot pink version of the pin! They were becoming high fashion.
The elections are over (and now the real work begins) but like Mr. Talley, I'm still sporting my pin. It not only represents a moment in America's history, but also one piece of the grassroots efforts of creative folks in Brooklyn, New York.