Made with thinking of all my fellow Black Skins that are compelled to wear White masks every day.
Often, I think we hide behind all sorts of devices, like masks, that conceal the power that we actually have inside. Sometimes, these masks are intended to protect us- kind of like the very large mask that is at my back, like wings. Other masks serve simply to hide us, make it a little harder for the other to see the underside of who we are.
Made with thinking of all my fellow Black Skins that are compelled to wear White masks every day.
During Black History Month, I polled the question:
I honestly didn’t realize the true appearance of my face until my photographer partner, David Harris, shot it a month ago. Contrasted with my iPhone selfie, it looks like a completely different person, when it’s really just a different camera.
The selfie is from an aprox. 22mm lenses, while the bodypainted shot was done with an 85mm, which is also about the same focal length that a human eye can see. I stared at the 85 mm for hours, just wondering how I didn’t realize that I actually looked like this, that my mirror wasn’t lying to me after all.
And I still struggle-to not criticize myself. To say that my nose is fine, instead of it’s damaged by a childhood accident and it’s too big. That my skin, with its spots, is still beautiful. That I am enough. That I am worthy.
For anyone reading this, as a femme, Black, and disenfranchised by any of the million ways that America fights against you...I see you. You are beautiful. You are valid. And the only thing that really matters is how well you can actually see yourself. And sometimes, you need friends and those who love you to hold up a mirror. As for those who can’t see your true face, and never can, then leave them in the dust. Your perspective is valid. And theirs, with this deliberate misunderstanding of who you really are, is not.
Sometimes, the “king” is a “woman.” Also, what exactly is a “single mother”? When you really think about it, does that phrase even make sense?
One of the most healing things I’ve ever learned, from Yoruba sociologist Oyeronke Oyewumi (pictured below) is that the term “single mother” is nonsense, because the mother’s role in matrifocal Africa is defined by the existence of her child, not through the presence of her sex partner. I wish I knew that when I grew up with my own mother, who raised me with the help of family and the grace of God.
Another thing I’ve learned is that with the cultures I profiled, frequently, “the king was a woman.” In other words, hierarchy, not gender, denoted rank. And gender itself? It defined reproductive roles, but little else.
In the slideshow above, you see Oyewumi, a dyad from the #APerfectPower show (which was possibly made by an artist named Kaseya Tambwe Makumbi) and some of my thoughts in between about the show itself.
I hope that I will continue to learn about the people, gods, and countries that I briefly discuss in this review. Thanks to Rebekah Kirkman and Cara Ober for editing.
Can you tell what I’ve altered?
If you can/can't, that's the point. Since you weren’t a part of making this image, you can't see it all like me*, or how the photographer David Harris can. The same problem/solutions exist with rituals and ancestral memory, I think. What to keep? What was thrown away by colonialism, internal pressure, or just through the passage of time itself? Or are these things from our past sometimes erased to make things better?
I have yet to see an African art show that addresses any of these questions. So, to make do, I’ve decided on piecing together a recreation of my own-is one side all original? All fake? Hard to say. I won’t pretend that I have any of the Orishas’ blessings with this, but I did pray for ancestral guidance before this shoot. I hope that’s enough.
I just started a new page, just for this project http://www.lyricprince.com/wapapo.html). Enjoy.
*Yes, I said what I said 😉
During the last few months, my research into indigenous cultures of Africa and America has slowly forced me to examine myself as an artist and person. Who am I and what are my influences?
I’ve never gotten a dna test, but many of my friends have. Their results vary in percentages of African and European, with a smidge of Native; their tribal breakdowns are scattered all across Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea, or elsewhere. A little bit of Fulani, a smattering of Luo, and more people, places, and descriptions in between.
The slave trade has erased what Black people here know about Africa; also, colonialism has eroded a lot of what we know about the traditions and practices around masks in Africa. What ceremonies were they used for, pre-contact? Why, in 9/10 of cases, don’t we know the artist’s name? What inspiration can I get from a subject that I know little about but need to know about-my origins?
One way for me to cope with such a huge amount of erasure regarding my lineage is making and performing in my masks. Another is to find and gain inspiration from the artists that I can find the names for, and learn about culture in that way.
The mask in the second panel was made by Abdul Aziz Mohamadu, selling his original artwork on Novica.com . My masks are made of paper; Mohamadu makes his from wood. The mask is named “Inido,” which is “beautiful” in Igbo. According to Mohamadu’s page, this type of mask can be a courting gift or worn by man to show how he feels about a woman. Even more fun, this Igbo/Nigerian mask was made in Ghana.
While celebrating Dr. King, who has been mythologized away from his more controversial political beliefs, I want to do my own part of corrective attribution. Too often, I think the object and their meanings are separated from the physical bodies of those that wore them in the name of classification, defeating the pursuit of wholistic knowledge. The ancestors that made our oldest masks may not be known, and the dances or songs that went with some may be lost, but that’s not true for all of them. I would love to see an African art show that explores attribution and memory more throughly.
This is my newest piece of art- my very own face mask. It’s not for wearing outside, though—I made it in honor of my ancestors.
The idea came from a visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) to see and write a BMoreArt review of A Perfect Power, their newest exhibition on African objects. While there, I briefly took off my own mask to wipe my face, and the guards quickly reminded me to put it back on. It got me thinking about the changing meaning of masks through societies and history. The masks in the exhibition, for instance, were all worn by men but were made to call on a higher mother power, a creative force that reigns supreme in the matrifocal cultures in Africa. Were they always worn by men, though? Or did that change with colonization and the subsequent gender roles it assigned onto different societies? When, in other words, were women shamed for being fully present in a public sphere?
The lead cultural consultant for the show, Yoruba scholar Dr. Oyeronke Oyewumi, told me in my interview with her that Yoruba society didn’t use gender in the same way the West does- instead, social roles were designated through seniority.
As for why I’m posting this right now? It’s because of a story that the BMA curator told me about the Ivory Coast, where 40,000 women bared their chests (or wore leaves, or all black) in order to end The Second Ivorian Civil War. Also, if white people can show their whole ass by storming the Capitol, then a little body paint and censored boob action shouldn’t hurt anybody.
By posting this, I’m honoring my fellow body painter and friend (Kitakiya Dennis), a dear spiritual ancestor that frequently used body paint (Michael B. Platt), and my own roots/indigeniety from Mother Africa herself, which I’m still in the process of discovering. The show is no longer open to the public, but the books and writings germane to the profiled societies are available to rent or buy online. I highly recommend Oyewumi’s The Invention of Women, a text that has been celebrated by activist Alok Vaid Menon and others. Ashe and onward.
(The D’mba array, the crown jewel of the show, is from the Baga people of Guinea.)
The final (Zoom) installment of the Youth Council’s was about time management. In other words, how do they manage the most precious resource they’ll ever have?
To start, I asked them to do a list of 10 tasks in eight minutes- find out the first weather satellite, or do 10 jumping jacks, or even find and share the link to their favorite recipe. Anna won, doing all of the tasks- but the other two weren’t that far behind. They all prioritized the tasks differently, picking stuff that was quickest or easiest for them.
Next, I had them think about how a highly successful person (Ahmad Woodard brought up Michael Jordan) spends a day-think a 1998 playoffs game, Bulls against the Utah Jazz. We came up with a likely schedule of his day together. When did he get up (5am)? Practice (6am-time of game)? Or press conference (10 minutes)? We deduced that someone as busy as he was wouldn’t have much time for social media or niceties-his focus was on the game.
Finally, we each made a pie chart of our regular day, examined what we had to do, and determined if each action in that day built towards the future that we wanted. During this exercise, Mark and Anna mentioned the time other mentors gave to them, too.
I’m glad that they chose to spend time with me. Plus, they’ve helped me learn so much about my own priorities these past few weeks. The kids will be alright.
The Youth Council managed to meet this week, after all.
The staff Project Create DC started up Zoom, and smushed all of our faces together for our first virtual tour of a museum.
The popular choice was NMAAHC. The website experience was different from the Instagram-like, teachers on one side, youth on the other- but you learn different things at different places for a reason.
On the website, we looked at a manifesto authored by #BayardRustin and #CesarChavez- blue in English, black in Spanish, signatures out big as John Hancock’s, owning all of that front page.
We of course talked about lots of artifacts, but just as importantly, we talked about our daily lives and what surrounds us while we’re living them. Anna showed off her custom designed wall in her house, a cube that Shannelle started painting, and everybody made some slight fun of Mark for getting left behind at a past museum trip (he stayed with us this time, though.) Anna, who had the energy to do softball, volleyball, and play Cinderella as a kid kept that same energy while we we were all on Zoom, and it helped make the class special.
While we were traveling #apeoplesjourney on IG, we talked about Queen Latifah’s key, Run DMC’s Kangol, Aretha’s long furs. Sometimes, with our own history, it brands us (like the story behind the key); or, artists can brand history (Applebottoms,etc.) Finally, we landed on something that I thought was a #NormanLewis painting- but it was the pieces of the #Clotilde, the last slave ship to wreck itself in America. I showed the youth council Norman’s work, of Klans members or of white flags fluttering against the pitch dark.
Ultimately, I tried to get them to think about how leaders either take ownership of or subvert a story altogether. It’s an important skill. Stay tuned.
Artist by way of academic. A long journey, partially written about here.