By Nicole Goodwin
When I think of being an artist I cannot help but rupture into the fragile struggles I have had to face in my own life. My struggle to define myself as a black, cis-gendered, bisexual woman outside the boxes created to ensnare and entrap me before I even knew what my own identity was. I think about the fight to claim and reclaim my own language and imagery outside of what others thought.
Black art itself is about consciousness, the ability to raise a more intimate awareness. One that not only sheds light on our existence but also illuminates the absence of our presence in entitled spaces.
Our absence isn’t a coincidence. It is erasure at its most poignant. It is a fear that I have been fighting for nine years as an artist, and 36 years as a person. For what can be done with artists—with people who do not fit into the stereotypical roles that American society, casual acquaintances, and personal connections try so hard to create? How do you encase the ideal representation of voice, of spirit and history into the rhetorical, safe waters that it has consistently known without sacrificing the possibilities of nurturing new voices?
It cannot be done. My only alternative has been to seek out and integrate into spaces that repel this standard. Spaces like The Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics whose philosophy has awakened new sensations in terms of how I intend to live and create.
It was from “Hemi” that the “Ain’t I a Woman (?/!)” Project was born.
The purpose of “Ain’t I a Woman (?/!)”, a project in which I pose topless on the streets of New York City, is to elevate the social conversation surrounding women’s bodies. This conversation begins with race and body politics—especially the favoritism that happens in cultures prone to body shaming, sexism, and misogyny, such as within the confines of American culture.
Through my topless exposure, body art, and performance the precipice of body shaming and body acceptance are pushed to the forefront immediately because it takes place live and in public.
When I first performed the piece, the notion of the objectivity of the black female form was prevalent, and still is a preference in this, the earlier stages of the project. However, what makes “Ain’t I a Woman (?/!)” so poignant as a performance piece is that it is a malleable construct that can be performed on an individual basis, or expanded to included numerous, and various female participants. Members from cis and transgender communities, as well as women from multitudes of races, economic backgrounds, and body shapes, create a cipher of dialogue for audiences to observe and ponder in the moment.
The basis of the work was founded upon Sojourner Truth’s declaration “Ain’t I a Woman?”, but also the interpretation of the declaration and how it relates to women in today’s cultural and societal institutions.
At first, I found the quote “Ain’t I a woman?” disheartening. But after I realize that my work was a vital addition to the retelling of Sojourner Truth’s legacy—as well as a dialogue with said legacy, I avoided the conceptualism of baring my breasts just for “shock value” as many may have seen it. By tapping into a legacy, I felt the work being supported and myself as a person, a woman, a black woman being released from a burden. This was crucial for me. Receiving backlash from the women in my family, and being banned from Facebook for a day because of my topless photo would have been devastating otherwise. It is difficult to uncover those who wish to understand Black Art at its most radical.
For some women, the performance is a display of female eroticism, for others, it’s about feminist/womanist power, and still for others a trite demonstration in exhibitionism.
I see it as a mimicking performance of minimalist displays and minor movement practices through my body posing, positioning, and repositioning for 45 minutes to an hour. I become both canvas and sculpture. Canvas, due to the insurmountable opinions launched my way. And sculpture again referencing the posing.
Through the canvassing, the pedestrians themselves become part of the work, whether through insult or praise; their comments and actions stimulate the emotional entrails of the work and guarantee a reaction out of me. Both the benefit and deficit to my emotional well-being can be seen through my expressions and pose. I become a living stone.
These interactions, connections, disconnections, and possible reconnections transcend societal limitations and happen like a whirlpool on NYC streets. It is both exhilarating and exhausting.
I hope to expand the project to include up to twenty-five women from within the cis- and transgendered communities. The goal is to broaden the conversation concerning the objectification of cis versus transgendered bodies—regarding the “realness” of womanhood. And to explore why the fight for the survival of Black people has been divided due to transphobia as well as “trans face”, a term exploring the media white-washing of transsexuality.
But what makes “Ain’t I a Woman (?/!)” both challenging and rewarding is the spontaneity within the process itself. As much as it draws attention to multifaceted issues it isn’t bogged down by diatribe. I offer no solutions to the questions raised. I can only draw conclusions from the give and take in the moment and its aftereffects.
Looking back at the first performance, I am able to reflect on Black Art as a whole, and how in relation to the conceptualism of every project within that realm there is a sphere of controversy, meaning the better and more politically direct the art is the more controversy it generates. Black Art isn’t necessarily political art, but it’s hard to ignore the politics of art that boldly tackles society’s designations on an intimate level and exposes perspectives that we are told to ignore in order to survive.
By publicly stripping myself of my clothing, I exposed these layers within myself—all of the derogatory body shaming pumped into my self-image, all of the racism I was content with not speaking out against, all of the sexism that has silenced me daily.
Getting to the core of honesty; that is the power and nature of Black Art.
But the struggle to create such honesty continues. The arch of creating Black Art is simultaneously linked with the struggle to find support alongside an adopting audience. The creation of collectives amongst the poor remains scarce. The exposure to the arts has been virtually eliminated from schools and unsupported as a career choice in homes.
Still, Black Art mustn’t be afraid to boldly break molds. Black artists shouldn’t fear creating works outside of the realm of self-understanding, diving deeper into the creative pools that do not mirror each other but instead mirror the present position of the artist.
I no longer believe in heroes and heroines to come into my life and uncover what needs to be said. I as a Black woman cannot afford this wait. Instead, I have opted to become the hero that I want to see in the world. This for no other sake but to save myself from a lifetime of muted regrets that I have seen befallen many women—especially Black and Brown women.
And our work does not have to come from the same spaces. My book Warcries is solely based on the experiences I had while I was deployed to Iraq and my continuous frictions concerning returning to American soil. “Ain’t I a Woman (?/!)” started out as a poetry book project and manifested into a live public performance. The only similarity between the works is that the same person created them. My ultimate goal is to continue to find passion. I seek the fire within my process, not necessarily the duty to create political actions out of art.
My intent on doing such does, however, come in conflict with my role as a woman. This dilemma rears itself in my creative process as well as in my afterthoughts about the art as a whole. As a single mother of a teenage daughter, I am privy to subjugation from within and outside the art realm. While the voice of women as artists is present, the role of the artist as a mother isn’t—not that I have seen. This coincides with the appearance of woman as woman, however that may be defined and redefined.
Women as artists are molded by a world of men. When we incorporate our identities as mothers into our work it is considered “therapeutic,” which is layman for not good. When women incorporate sexuality within our work it is considered pornographic—and therefore rarely taken seriously, or in other cases seen as sexless. Again, this is a discouragement to the creation of work that speaks to and challenges the woman-mother motif. Art in this realm is all consuming. All encompassing. Yet it gives nothing back to its creator or its audience. Something vital is silenced.
Being the mother of a mixed-race artist, I am fully aware of the contradictions within both worlds. The requirements of being an artist definitely, and almost always defiantly try to supersede my duties as a mother. Yet both of these possess pitfalls and pressures that are societal, almost to the point where to be either seems to be unnatural in origin. It is here in this strange conundrum that I find refuge and solace in both Ancient and Modern Black Art. This isn’t to say that art, in general, doesn’t depict motherhood; it is just to say that I don’t see myself in these renditions of it.
I don’t create art because my story is of great importance to the world. I do it because I feel it is a voice that isn’t represented. It’s something that I have to create and claim for myself. It is what has kept me from losing my mind while waiting for the things expressed in my works to be stated by someone else. But why wait?
Black Art takes everyday life, everyday dramas, everyday comedies, and everyday tragedies and spins them into epics. Epics for those of us who are constantly berated as the “other” in a society that claims to accept all. To see your history, your face, your energy depicted in myriads outside the reach of false diplomacy means value. To have your frustrations exposed and explored means balance. Black Art saves Black lives. I believe the process of creating my work saves my life every time.
The creation of Black Art is an accomplishment, a feat that in retrospect is a coping mechanism and in foresight a reimagining of our American narrative. My contributions to Black Art is an adamant force within me. I am not certain I will be remembered, but my work will never be recognized if I don’t create it at all. It’s a daring thing. I push myself to see past the boundaries, the bullies within me that are intent on muting my most vivid intentions. By being a part of the world of Black Art I feel as if I am contributing something better—not at my best, but at my most optimistic rather than remaining silent stewing in my own pent up frustrations about how things are.
Black Art gives me a glimpse into another world; one without the limits I feel, without the fear of rejection. I want this in abundance. I want this in spaces that can’t quite understand why such stories are still necessary. I want this in spaces where people are baffled by my rage, my constitution to remain above indifference. I want Black Art everywhere because it is a reminder that I am not dead.
Online version edit by Adamma Ince
**A version of this article appeared in print in Honeysuckle Magazine’s HERS issue, summer 2017 edition.