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Reflections from Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter

“We were a congregation of red-beaded necklace adorners, velveteen ushers, rattlers, and clenched-fist praise dancers.”

Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

On the first night of September, more than 100 Black women artists took over the New Museum. Invited by artist Simone Leigh as part of her exhibition The Waiting Room, the women filled the institution from white wall to white wall with performances, workshops, videos, chants, a text collage, a digital altar, and more. The event began with a procession into the museum and ended with a parade out; in between, the space swelled with an unapologetically empowering celebration of Black women and lives. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a museum. It is something I hope to see much more of.

Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter (#BWAforBLM) began in July. The group met at the New Museum every week throughout this hot, violent summer to discuss how to creatively support Black Lives Matter; in the process, the women said, they also ended up supporting and sustaining themselves. Here, 10 of them offer some brief reflections on their collaborative creation — how it came to be and how it felt, what it was and what it meant.

Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich)
Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich)

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Ariel Jackson

On September 1, some of us wanted a space to laugh and celebrate our blackness in the face of trauma. Others wanted a space to scream, cry, and holler. We ultimately agreed that we wanted to express our humanity — both joy and grief. Firelei Baez and myself took responsibility in conducting administrative work in support of the object group. With consultation from Nontsikelelo Mutiti, we designed three banners and four flags. In collaboration with the performance group, members of the object group held up “joy” and “grief” flags we created as we all stepped together towards the New Museum. Chanting “I am my sister’s keeper” and “say her name” with the performance group was the method of healing that I responded to the most. I felt a strong sense of solidarity and respect overwhelm me. I can still hear the chanting in my mind and feel it as I’m straightening my back and walking in line with my sisters.

Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by Maria Koblyakova)
Opening processional for Black lives, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by Maria Koblyakova)

Nina Angela Mercer

Summer 2016    Pulse   Philando Castile     I went to the ocean  Alton Sterling   I met a poet-sister at Union Square to shout our lives’ urgency at cops and sit outside past midnight, talking to kindred strangers And Dallas     Baton Rouge  I could not stop watching      and transcribing Sandra Bland’s daily messages on her YouTube Channel, Sandy Speaks      Then      Korryn Gaines:    I joined a collective of 100 Black women artists. I was strengthened by the force we made together, immediately. No matter what I had to do in other aspects of my life, I wanted to be there every week because I needed that shared space and possibility. We laughed. We broke bread after meetings. We sat at a table together and conjured a ritual healing, one that made space for the bitter and the sweet, sweeping floors with Lucky Leaves, the Second Line, our fists raised while BLM’s policy platform was read, where we danced ’til we sweat. Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter — many red bandanas whirl from our hands while DJ Tara spins. We chant a litany, wearing red for our fierce rage and life blood, for collective strategy, rhythm, and insistent Black joy.

Tiona McClodden

Working with the women of BWAforBLM really rescued my faith in what pointed and timely collaborative action can be. I traveled weekly every Wednesday from North Philadelphia, where I live and work, to be a part of this. It was just too important of a gesture, that Simone gave us the space to do something like this, for me to not show up. I believe that art can really invoke change and epiphany within people’s mind in regards to injustice, and this was a chance to really put that aspect of art making to use. The caliber and range of the artists in the room was enough to blow your mind each week. We came together and brought our respective skills to the tables with the highest level of commitment. Working in Team Ephemera with Nontsikelelo, Nomaduma, and the others has encouraged me to be more open about collaboration in a way that I hope to utilize for the rest of my career. The day of the takeover I was truly able to see the power in numbers. That day surpassed my expectations, and we really supported each other, as it was immensely emotional for us. We were very much the primary audience for this happening.

Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich)
Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich)

Alexandria Smith

The event was greater than anything I had or could have expected. We all came together and supported one another. I’ve yearned for an art world that would do just that. Over the years, as I became more immersed in this alternate reality called “the art world,” I began to feel jaded. I was disheartened that so many are focused on developing relationships for opportunistic reasons and weren’t genuinely in it for the love and passion of the craft but merely for the fame and fortune. I made a decision long ago that I would never become that artist, and although it’s become increasingly difficult, our event solidified that I had made the right decision. I was in the company of women who wanted to use their gifts to instigate change, to let our humanity be seen and heard despite what others may believe. I know our work is not done and that this collective will continue to bring about healing and work against the grain in other iterations at other institutions. I look forward to continuing to help carry that torch. Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter has reinstilled in me a belief in our abilities as Black women artists to be nurturing, compassionate, genuine, and powerful by any means necessary.

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

white to remember. red to honor. these first notions were introduced to me as a child in Harlem on Mother’s Day. whether it be carnations or roses, these two colors I understood were how we might communicate with the living & the dead. red. blood. the heart. for love. life. the vibrancy of red. like red wine. ecstasy. anger. inflammation. resistance. revolution. white for ancestors. worship. light. peace. calm. cotton. snow. coconuts. clean & cooler than Klondike. like spotless Adidas shell toe & Puma baskets. heavenly. grounded. as a newly formed collective of black women artists — some I knew personally, many I did not — red was appropriate. it is, after all, at this very moment in America’s history, as it matters to the lives of Black and Brown people, a color to represent all of the extremes. when Simone Leigh’s call to action came via social media following the murders of Alton Sterling & Philando Castile, I was in Japan outraged & tearful. yet I kept myself in the mix, supportive & awake. arriving later to the collective I went with the flow. there is no singular way to describe the “action” that took place on September 1. we were a gathering, a protest, a performance, a multifunctional kiosk, a fundraiser, a conference, a roundtable, a time out, a dance party, a new moon ritual on the day of some annular solar eclipse only visible in Madagascar & Central Africa. did any of us know it was a new moon? we were a congregation of red-beaded necklace adorners, velveteen ushers, rattlers, and clenched-fist praise dancers. we were holy ghosted, mounted, released, & made well. joyful & grieving. both audience & participant. the black & sequined flags reflected upon other aspects of ourselves that day. decoration. Sun Ra. disco. Egypt. veves. spirit dolls. quilts. black for the people. the ideology. power. love. beauty. mobilization. if any of us forgot, we were reminded to honor our blackness.

The "Black Joy Catalyst" digital altar screening at the New Museum during the Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter event
Joiri Minaya, still from “Binólogo #3 (braid)” (2012), 3 min 8 sec, HD video, screened as part of Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by Alexandria Smith)

Nontsikelelo Mutiti

The color was red, and I would not have chosen it myself. I wore black out of habit; many others did too. That group of red women took up space in a most unmistakable way. Red coming in from the street and gathering in the lobby. Red running all the way through every level of the building. I remember seeing this red mass of women together the whole time. I had no idea what this red group of performers would do outside of the few notes we received, but I did know that whatever they did, it would become bigger than they intended. It is hard to not see red, to feel something by looking at it. Red demands your attention, and the performance group held us captive the entire night with their swaying and chanting and singing. I stood in my black clothes, blending into the rest of the crowd. I was receiving, marveling, swaying, and singing in response to everything we had won, not just that day but over the weeks of planning. We were visible, we were together, we were strong, we made ourselves heard. We took up space, not to create discomfort or to mark difference, but to give to each other — our understanding, our work, our gifts, our ability to lead, our desire to move together through doors, through the heights.

Tomashi Jackson

On the evening of the event I accompanied DJ Tara Duvivier, and eventually the Women in Red, in the lobby and read aloud from the Movement for Black Lives policy platform, “A Vision for Black Lives,” throughout the evening, which includes six clear demands and accompanying policy briefs with recommendations. It was imperative that our audience leave knowing that there is a way forward and that grief is not the last stop in response to the state-sponsored violence that continues to target Black people and other maginalized communities. Before the concluding Second Line procession, the entire lobby was packed to capacity with people engaging in call and response, repeating the first demand — “END THE WAR ON BLACK PEOPLE” — in perfect unison. It was amazing.

Nomaduma Rosa Masilela

In the face of the festering trauma caused by state violence against Black life, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter sought to confront an overwhelming sense of impotence and to build a reality of creative agency. Spending a month collaborating with this group of open and creative artists reaffirmed my profound belief in the transformative power harnessed by a group of women speaking and creating together. We produced works through a patchwork of resources, ingenuity, and institutional support. We made them with the belief that showing their DIY nature would inspire and empower others to make and share more such artwork, and would encourage institutions beyond the New Museum to support it. This work has long been brimming to be shared; however, all too often what is missing is a platform so others can hear, and someone willing to clear it. This collaboration was only possible because of Simone Leigh, who belongs to a long line of black women who are not thwarted and silenced by the (art) world’s overwhelming inequalities, but who decide to leverage their abilities into a wealth of potential for others. Rather than remain part of the trickle, she made space for a flood. For all of the Black women who are consistently and committedly taking up creative arms together, and who are brimming just as we are, I hope that this day of action inspires a sustained increase in support, critical engagement, and praise from institutions and allies. As for what happens with this group of Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter, I hope I know them forever.

Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A moment during “A Litany: A collectively devised poem,” Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Kameelah Janan Rasheed

BWA for BLM was a beautiful burst of collaboration among Black women artists who are invested in publicly addressing issues of Black subjugation in America and the ways that our collective art practices can bring these conversations to the surface. BWA for BLM was the perfect incubator to not only create a meaningful intervention at New Museum; it was also a fruitful opportunity to build relationships and feel a sense of community among other Black women artists. Everyone who attended the event was able to see the final product, but what people were unable to witness with the energy and spirit of our planning, where we grappled with what it means to collaborate ethically and sustainably, how this intervention functions in the larger ecology of arts-based responses, as well as how to hold space and nurture one another. I was heartened by the intergenerational context of our collaboration, which allowed us to reflect on the best practices of decades of practice to inform our work. Every meeting felt like a deep learning experience. I am forever thankful to Simone for inviting us into this collaborative work, for being so sincere, for being so honest, and for reminding us of the possibilities of collective practice. I hope that this work continues on in some iteration.

Simone Leigh

I sat down in the lobby at 6 o’clock that first night and I knew this was going to be different, because women had already gathered a half hour early, which is not typical. And I watched black women roll into the New Museum every Wednesday night — it was like a dream. The joy sustained me through what was probably the most difficult month of my career so far. In one of the first meetings, I noticed that people were taking me really seriously, because it was kinda my gig, so I did not join any of the groups, and it helped. I stayed in the background; I guess I became the liaison with the museum. One night I left the meeting early, at 8pm — I jumped into an Uber on the way to JFK. Then I got a text message. It was curator Emily Mello. “Hate to ask – but If you get to the airport and checked in comfortably, can you call me with some notes so I might report back/begin making some requests?” she wrote. “Please give me a call after you get through security. It can’t wait until tomorrow.” She was mirroring the seriousness, determination, and loving care of the 128-plus Black women artists of the group. The event was by us and for us. Some people have asked me: What is the goal of Black Women Artists? We support Black Lives Matter. Other than that, we insist that we don’t know. We will have varied goals and outcomes along the way. We’re not trying to meet some benchmark. That’s why it’s art.

Closing processional for Black lives, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Closing processional for Black lives, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

The Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter event took place at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on September 1. Simone Leigh: The Waiting Room continues at the New Museum through September 18.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly labeled the video screening in one of the photos as the “Black Joy Catalyst,” not a still from Joiri Minaya’s “Binólogo #3 (braid).” We regret the error; it has been fixed.

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