I’ve just returned from private view (invitation only but we invited ourselves) of the art exhibition entitled I, The Angry Black Woman’ & Other Stories and thought I’d write a quick blog post about how amazing it was! The trope or stereotype of the angry black woman is firmly embedded in our society and is further perpetuated by the media, mainstream popular culture, in the work place and our educational institutions. Black women are portrayed as being, sassy (think finger clicking and teeth kissing), aggressive, uncontrollable, ratchet, ghetto, masculine, strong regardless of the circumstances (The Strong, Independent Black Women Who Don’t Need No Man) or just plain angry.
Curated by the lovely Siana Bangura, a writer, poet and performer from London, the idea behind the exhibition comes from one of her poems with the same title. Located in the Centrala Gallery in Digbeth, Birmingham, the exhibition showcases the work of three Black female artists living and creating in the UK: Ruth Aquino, Paris Walker and Ejatu Shaw. After having some time at the beginning to view the art up close, the private viewing then began with the short film produced by Siana entitled Denim, which addresses the problem of gentrification in London. There was then an informal conversation with the artists where we were invited to reflect on their work and ask questions.
The work on show ranged in style and medium from photography, paintings and digital art. The exhibition succeeds in deconstructing this negative stereotype in presenting a more nuanced approach of what it means to be a Black woman today; an identity based on individuality, heterogeneity and above all humanity. My eyes were immediately drawn to Paris Walkers’ bright and bold graphic prints. At only 22 years old she was the youngest artist to showcase her work and I was in awe of her talent. Her images undeniably capture the beauty of the Black woman whilst drawing on the emotion that this ‘angry’ label provokes. Her use of bold colours and striking lines undermines the concept that anger automatically links to negativity.
Originally from the Dominican Republic and now living in London, Ruth Aquino explained that, for her, art was a cathartic process based in healing. I felt that the images of her mum and sister celebrate the innate beauty of the Black woman in its purest nude form. Their bodies were not sexualised nor eroticised and instead the images evoked a feeling of inner peace and tranquility. Yet, on reflection my initial surprise at seeing Black bodies depicted in this way, unearths a sadness within me, as it became clear that the usual narrative surrounding Black bodies is so often one linked to trauma of some kind.
Finally, Ejatu Shaw, who unfortunately wasn’t at the event in person, presented two sets of works. The first focused on photos of the victims of the mudslide disaster that happened last August in Sierra Leone and the second, entitled Poly, draws on the artist’s struggle to conflate her multiple identities focusing on the strength found in polymers; it portrays Black women as multifaceted, multilayered and multidimensional beings destroying the myth of Black identity and culture being one homogenous block.
In the Q&A session that followed, Siana explained that she wanted to create an exhibition that explores the idea of anger and how this emotion can actually lead to creativity and a more positive outcome. The focus is not so much on the anger itself perse but on ‘what else is there beyond anger?’. If you google black woman, (without even typing the word angry), so many of the images that appear already depict the trope of the angry or sassy Black woman. As Siana stated in her talk: ‘Why would we create something that you could just google at home for free?’. The artists discussed the inspiration behind their work and what anger meant to them. I asked the question of whether they thought that Black artists should strive to establish themselves in prestige spaces inhabited by their white counterparts, or whether the aim should be in collaborating to create a space of their own? The unanimous vote was for the latter; something that I also completely agree with. The exhibition has its roots strongly in the collective and the collaborative. The importance of reaching out to other creatives via networks such as Instagram and Twitter, and how sharing out the scarce resources available to Black artists was always better than monopolising them for your own good, was stressed by everyone. As there is so little space given to Black artists, an over-competitive toxic atmosphere can manifest itself. Often, we are told that there is only room for one of us – just look at tokenism in the media or any reality TV show. Yet in shifting from the single to the plural narrative and creating our own Black spaces, we can allow the multiple dimensions of Black women to shine.
On a personal level, I found it inspiring to be in the same room as so many talented individuals. The final message I took from the exhibition was one of triumph and the power found in the collective. The art succeeds in delegitimizing the idea of black sameness and allows Black women to reclaim the narrative of the Other. I, The Angry Black Woman looks past negative tropes and focuses on the power we can gain from being angry. Yes, Black women get angry, just like everyone else, but it is what we do with that anger that defines us and makes us bloody brilliant.
I, The Angry Black Woman & Other Stories takes place at Centrala Gallery, Birmingham, from Wednesday 15th November to Saturday 18th November 2017, and it’s FREE!