BHMF Art: God is a Woman of Color

The regality of blackness was on full display at the “God is a Woman of Color” (GIAWOC) exhibition at the Student Hotel on February 28th.

As GIAWOC was one of the final events of BHMF, a night of celebration was definitely in order. The music and decor complemented the infectious energy of the room perfectly, but it was the main attractions that stole the night.


Photographs depicting women basking in the richness of their different shades of blackness took center stage. Surrounded by these images I could just feel their energy bouncing from the walls. The glow of their skin was unreal, and their poses and facial expressions evoked power, grace and elegance. I loved the artists’ ability to capture both their strength and delicacy simultaneously in every shot.

A collection of poems was featured in the exhibition as well. They accompanied the photographs and provided some context to the exhibition. My favorite poem read:

Woman

Your existence is a fight

To be recognized

To be heard

To be autonomous

To your own body

To free your mind

To replenish your soul

With this poem I was reminded that to be woman and to be black intensifies this fight even further. The uniqueness of the black woman’s experience in this world is her existence at the intersection of these two worlds — blackness and womanhood — and her ability to navigate through the struggles that come with those two identities.

In a world that celebrates and promotes Eurocentric standards of beauty, It was refreshing to participate in a genuine appreciation of the beauty of blackness. Beyond its celebration of black features, afro-textured hair and melanated skin, it also celebrated the inner beauty of the black woman, her hardships, and the strength that she has built up because of it. Her glow was not just her glow, but the glow of the women that came before her, and their fight to survive a world that invokes constant attacks on their blackness.

BHMF Talks: Reimagining Spaces With Karyn Olivier

Karyn Olivier’s resume is intimidating, but at her talk entitled “Invisibility, Mutability and the Reimagining of Spaces,”  her warm demeanor made everyone in her presence feel at ease. She sees her immediate environment as her canvas, transforming the mundane into works of art that are not only thought provoking , but that serve the users of the spaces she engages with. She guided the audience through her impressive portfolio of artwork, imparting her inspiration behind the art, her creative process and the impact of her work. Here are three stand out pieces from the talk:

The Functional Library
Born in Trinidad in Tobago, Olivier holds her Caribbean heritage very close to her. Though she left as an infant to live in New York, she returned home every summer where she had the opportunity to authentically engage with her roots. However, being split between these two worlds (New York and Trinidad), she acknowledged that a complicated view of one’s identity can arise, so she wanted to facilitate the expansion people’s knowledge of their Caribbean heritage. She decided to transform a Caribbean food store in New York into a functional library, placing Caribbean literature in between food items. Bottles of pepper sauce and candied fruit were accompanied by a variety of Caribbean titles, an unexpected but poignant pairing. A Caribbean food store conjures feelings of nostalgia of home for many Caribbean people, and serves as a means to preserve one’s cultural identity in a foreign place. As books are not perishable like food is, the library was a symbol of an enduring connection to one’s home away from home. It was great to see the images of community members interacting with the books as they shopped, reminding me of the genius of the interactive nature of her art.

You can see pictures of this work on her website: http://karynolivier.com/?page_id=683

Community Billboard
Another one of my favorites was a project where she challenged what images are displayed in a highly gentrified black neighborhood. Responding to the reality that many poor, black neighborhoods are often purposely plagued with tobacco and liquor advertisements, Olivier decided to give this community an alternative to this harmful imagery. She took a picture of two residents of the community and placed it on an advertising billboard, which to me, conveyed a message of them claiming ownership of their community. This was an act of defiance, and a means to hand this community a sense of power over what they choose to put in their community. Though simple, her project was an extremely bold way of fighting back against a system that has stripped black communities of their autonomy.

The Dome – “Witness”
My favorite piece of artwork that she presented was a project that mimicked the elaborately painted domes of cathedrals. Instead of religious symbols and figures, she placed painted figures of slaves around the inside of a gold dome, symbolic of elevating them to the divine. I was especially moved by this work considering that slaves who were stripped of their humanity and agency are now elevated to a point of sacredness. Besides the beauty in the technical execution of the art, I thought the project was a beautiful way to honor the lives of the oppressed. The writing around the dome is a Frederick Douglass quote which reads “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”  

You can see this work on her website: http://karynolivier.com/?page_id=11

BHMF Talks: A Culture of Avoidance

Mackda Ghebremarian’s lecture entitled “It has been said it is not racism” exposed Italy’s culture of avoidance and denial when it comes to race.

As this was my first introduction to race relations in Italy, Mackda’s lecture was truly enlightening — her passion for the subject matter was immensely apparent in the potency of her words and the sternness of her tone. Zeroing in on two occurrences of violence perpetrated against black bodies, she exposed the dynamics that preserve the prevalence of systemic racism in Italy.

On February 3, 2018, in Macerata, Luca Traini opened fire on a group of black migrants, injuring six. On March 25, 2018, in Florence, Roberto Pirrone shot and killed Idy Diene, a 54-year-old Senegalese man. Mackda emphasized that these were no random incidents but rather a reflection of the brewing sentiment of xenophobia and racism that has been ravaging Italy, which she referred to as “xenoracism.” However, the discourse surrounding these events was even more telling of Italy’s racial climate. What followed was an outright denial that these incidents were racially motivated, changing the narrative of a hate crime to just crime. Trying to avoid conversations of race at all costs especially with an ever-growing immigrant population in Italy will only be detrimental, as avoiding the existence of racial tensions can only last so long.

What really struck me was responses from some of Italy’s political leaders. One Italian minister implied that the Macerata attack should be blamed on the influx of immigrants, and blamed the left for creating a “breeding ground” for these types of incidents to occur. In regards to the Florence attack, an Italian politician, condemned the Senegalese community for their protest in response to the killing, deeming it violent and unacceptable. First he claimed to empathize with the pain felt by the Senegalese community, but then proceeded to negate that statement with his opinion that they must entrust law enforcement with the pursuit of justice.

With these responses I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Italy and the United States. This criminalization of the Senegalese community is very comparable to the criminalization of the black community fighting against racially motivated acts of police brutality. Black Lives Matter, a group that was created to fight against the perpetration of violence against black people has been now been deemed a hate group. Individuals protesting against police brutality are often portrayed in the media as unruly and threatening. Yes, protests and civil unrest are not always tranquil, but the over-policing of responses to acts of violence against marginalized communities reflects our preference for silence.

BHMF Music: An Afternoon with Musician Yoisef Teklay and the Eritrean Guitar

Yosief Tecklay doesn’t just perform with his guitar, he tells a story.

On Sunday afternoon I entered the Boomker Sound studio and felt as though I had been transported to a world, meticulously designed and crafted for the sole purpose of harnessing creative energy. The walls were plastered with a haphazard arrangement of photographs, CD covers and drawings — hand-crafted wooden artifacts aligned the walls, a disco ball hung from the ceiling, but yet, not a single component of the interior seemed out of place.

After waiting a few minutes for the sound to be set up, we entered the recording room, greeted by another interesting but less eccentric space. Wooden accents on the walls and ceiling were illuminated just right as the dim yellow light of the room created a serene ambiance. And there was Yosief in the center of the room with his Eritrean guitar, fidgeting a bit in his seat, his nervous energy emanating through the room as we waited in anticipation.

Using a zip tie as a guitar pic, he began strumming casually, trying to find his footing. For such a small and humble-looking instrument, the sound was distinct and polished, and created a heavy pulse that dissipated the tense energy of the room.

The Eritrean guitar, also known as the krar, has an interesting history. Said to originate in Egypt, it was a symbol of patriotism and a sound of the battlefield, used as a means to give strength and courage to warriors. In contrast, it was also considered “the devil’s instrument” said to tempt sexual desire. He showcased this very versatile nature of the instrument, playing in varied intensities sometimes playing a rhythm that could be easily danced to while also playing rhythms that appeared to be a reflection of deeper subject matter.


And then Yosief added his vocals, the soothing yet solemn sound of his voice, juxtaposed with the very upbeat rhythm of the guitar actually created a unexpected but beautiful pairing.

After a few songs Yosief paused to relay his story to his audience with an almost unsettling casualness. Born in Eritrea, he fled at the age of 14 from a dictatorship that obliged everyone to military service. He fled to Ethiopia, where he stayed in a refugee camp for nine months awaiting documents. Then he left to go to Sudan, and spent a month passing deserts into Libya where he spent three months. He arrived in Italy via Lampedusa where he stayed in a camp again awaiting documents. He finally arrived in Florence, but was unable to find stable employment, so he left to go to Denmark where he stayed for over a year.

And after hearing his story I couldn’t help but draw a connection between the rawness of his voice, the sweet but sad melody of the guitar and the tumultuous nature of his journey. Yosief’s musical prowess extended beyond his skill on the guitar. I felt a connection between the intesity with which he played and his personal story. As he switched melodies and strummed with increasing intensity I was forced to think about the intensity of such a journey, and how that emotion must fuel his craft.

BHMF ART : Joachim Silue— Eliminating the Still from Still Life

My initial encounter with Joachim Silue’s art was quite informal. I entered the exhibition space with a simple task — to copy the description of his art onto the wall of his exhibition.

And although I contributed absolutely nothing to this exhibition but the mere wall text that accompanied the work, the mindless strokes I made with my pencil have permanently etched the artist’s intention into my mind.

Silue’s exhibition, entitled Lento Cammino, is a collection of abstracted still lifes, reinvigorated by his choice in materiality, a method that protests this very classic art genre. It is neither painting, nor sculpture, but a layered composition of drawings, photography and assemblage. The 3D nature of his work breathes life into an otherwise immobile collection of objects.

I was mostly drawn to the focal point of his exhibition — the large deconstructed reinterpretation of a still life bottle. The material choices maintain their distinctive characteristics but are manipulated just enough to create interest. The lack of concern for technical accuracy in the form of the object being replicated creates a roughness that is replicated throughout the other works in the exhibition. The scribbles etched onto the composition adds to this rough aesthetic, almost acting as a vandalism of his own work.

The deconstructive nature of his art, in my mind, also points to the need to deconstruct the narrative of what an Italian artist looks like.

As a student studying Art History in Florence, my ability to truly appreciate the works of art that I am presented with is hindered by a nudging awareness of an oppressive pervasiveness of the white perspective in art. As Silue was the first black artist in Italy whose work I was able to view in an exhibition, my affinity for his art was heightened even more.

Because to exist in and fight to be heard in spaces that exclude your own voice is art in itself.

A signed drawing from Silue himself