Review: The First Annual Rated PG Black Arts Festival by Angela N. Carroll
“I resurrected without you, you didn’t wait for me, don’t play me, don’t lie to them, tell the truth about me, this ain’t a choice no more, this is in defense of my life.” – Yaya Bey
The Rated PG Black Arts Festival is the first event of its kind in the region hosted by Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center (PGAAMCC), a historic institution nestled in the small community of Brentwood. Curated by artist Yaya Bey, the festival is a collaborative mashup of contemporary visual and performance artists based in the DMV who visualize and celebrate the contributions of Black women.
“It’s about reclaiming the Black aesthetic,” Bey explains. “When you see us in the media, [we are] presented as monolithic. I wanted to show us as dimensional.” The exhibition, Tell the Truth About Me, spans three galleries and features the work of Lakela Brown, Alanna Fields, Nakeya Brown, Shan Wallace, Adrienne Gaither, Monique Muse Dodd, and the cast of the short film series 195 Lewis.
Whiteness, and more explicitly, the aesthetics of white women, has set the standard for beauty around the world. Straight rather than kinky hair, thin rather than broad nose or lips, light or pale skin instead of dark complexions; the proliferation of white beauty standards has catalyzed unsettling trends. Women of color are more prone to depression, low self-esteem, and the purchase of products or medical procedures to more closely resemble white women. According to the World Health Organization, 25% of Malaysian, 77% of Nigerian, 27% of Senegalese, 35% South African, 59% Togo, 61% of India, and 40% of women surveyed in China have purchased skin lightening products. The implications of this data reveal the devastating power of advertising, and the resultant isolation and Othering that women of color encounter.
A current example of the subtle ways Othering pervades advertising can be observed in a recent promotion for DOVE soap. The ad shows an African American woman wearing a skin tone shirt disrobe to reveal a white woman, who then disrobes to reveal a brown, racially ambiguous woman. The odd gif was quickly removed from the company’s Facebook page after mass protests and statements of concern flooded the company. Viewing audiences read the message as an overt supremacist commentary that compared Black bodies to unclean, dirty objects that could be transformed (literally whitewashed) by using DOVE soap. People were quick to offer counter responses on social media. Many argued in defense of DOVE’s ad, noting that Black women were being overly sensitive, and reading too much into the ad that was not intentionally racist. Even the African American model featured in the gif, penned a response that she was not a victim in the advertisement. Rebuttals that followed confronted the long history of racist advertising DOVE, among other companies, have contributed to, that have triggered critiques and calls for more cultural awareness.
As an exhibition, Tell the Truth About Me confronts these subtle but profoundly disturbing jabs in three collections. “This Hair Deserves A March” is situated in the front gallery while “Like Blood from a Stone” is in the back, while the center gallery housed an active beauty salon.
When I walked into the museum for the opening of the exhibition, I was drawn to the center gallery by the sweet familiar scent of black hair care products: coconut oil, shea butter, and the whirling sound of hooded hair dryers. The salon, comprised of two chairs and a hair dryer, was a living participatory performance, an interactive site of engagement for patrons to sit and receive a complementary hair treatment. The scene was telling and provocative, a literal intervention to exemplify and appreciate Black beauty. Black salons and barber shops have always been intimate safe spaces dedicated to the edification and sustainability of black beauty. Bey’s consideration to recreate that safe space inside of a museum is a profound intervention that reifies and elevates her pride and love for Black beauty aesthetics.
“This Hair Deserves a March” and “Like Blood from a Stone” further the assertions presented in the salon installation, that Black aesthetics are beautiful and worthy of reverence.
Black culture informs Black aesthetics.
Shan Wallace and Alanna Fields both offer untitled portraits that are installed on opposite ends of the front room gallery. Wallace’s crisp observations of the stoic expressions and elaborate hairstyles on varied mannequin heads displayed in beauty stores in Black communities are quickly recognizable. The mannequins stare blankly into the distance. A price tag dangles down their plastic face towards a handwritten description of the hair style, taped onto their hollow collarbones. The photographs capture the mundane consumable goods that recur in beauty stores, as well as the beauty aesthetics of the communities who support those stores. Each mannequin is adorned with a styled wig, weave, or box braids.
“Those mannequins are replicas of black beauty in the hood,” Wallace shared during a brief interview. “The ghetto urban look is being appropriated so much, but people don’t consider why that look exists in the first place.” Black culture informs aesthetics that are embraced universally, but often, only once they have been accepted by whiteness. With proximity to whiteness, those aesthetics; hairstyles, fashion, accessories, colloquialisms, dances, social justice movements, become marketable, palatable, consumable and adornable.
Alanna Fields’ portraits trouble singular definitions. The back of a model’s head is photographed against bright yellow or orange backdrops. The model, presumably an African American woman, stands closer to the camera and further from the colored light. As a result, details of the model are flattened into a dark silhouette, a black so dark, they become an anonymous shadow haloed by the colored light of the backdrop. Slight variations in the positions of the models head, and the color of the backdrop help you distinguish between the three photographs.
Viewing the series, I thought about the ways Fields used definitions about black as a color to experiment with abstracted visualizations of blackness. Black is defined as “the darkest color, owing to the absence of or complete absorption of light. The opposite of white.” In Fields’ series, blackness is not merely the opposite of white, but a bold reflection on a vast color spectrum. It’s dynamic, and more pronounced in its proximity to color.
Nakeya Brown’s “If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown” series and Lakela Brown’s plaster and acrylic relief sculptures are installed between Wallace and Fields portraits. Nakeya Brown and Lakela Brown’s works weight and appreciate staple objects used to beautify Black women. Three archival inkjet prints from Nakeya Brown’s series are displayed: “Going Down Makes Me Shiver,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “You Stepped Into My Life.”
Each print is a time capsule, a staged black hair care still-life that one could imagine was taken in the bedroom of a Black woman growing up in the 70s or 80s. In “You Stepped Into My Life,” named for one of the songs on the classic soul/disco album, “Melba” by Melba Moore, a pastel yellow Hard Bonnet Hair Dryer hovers open above bright yellow hard plastic rollers, a small mirror, pink and white plastic combs and hair gel. A small house plant sits beside the dryer. The cover art from the “Melba” album hangs above the table on a sky-blue wall.
I could not help but to smile as I looked at the series and remembered histories of black women teaching me how to care for and honor my hair. I thought of older cousins and aunties, my mother and sister, and all the equipment and time it took to do our hair. On wash days, I learned to listen and felt safe sharing, as wise women’s hands greased my tender-headed scalp. Labelle, Aretha, Melba, Mahalia, Chaka and so many others were in those kitchens, salons, living rooms with me, affirming our beauty, our bodies, and the birthright of our untamable hair. “If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown” is appropriately named and steeped in the cultural ephemera of black hair care.
Lakela Brown contributes four plaster sculptures, “Bamboo Earrings Sunken Relief with Gold,” “Triangle Bamboo Earrings with Gold Stripe,” “Six of Hearts,” and “Mixed Door Knockers Composition.” Each sculpture is a monumental emboss that celebrates rather than memorializes an accessory that has become a staple accessory in black women’s fashion.
Both Nakeya Brown and Lakela Brown’s works honor black women’s selfcare regiments as sacred rituals. Both series center the agency and engagement of Black women within intergenerational beauty rituals, present the intimacies of black women’s regiments as sanctuary in themselves, affirming interventions that black women participate in religiously.
Black spiritualty informs Black aesthetics.
In the back gallery, “Like Blood from a Stone” explores representation, matriarchs, the divine feminine, sexuality and related intersections. Episodes from Chanelle Aponte Pearson’s 2017 short web series “195 Lewis,” about queer black women living in Brooklyn New York is projected on the gallery wall. Adrienne Gaither’s two large abstract acrylic paintings, “ISSA VIBE (Instrumental)”, are installed on the adjacent wall. The paintings deconstruct the melanin variations of Black women’s skin tones. Black patinas are likened to pantone swatches. Color grids that reminded me of enhanced pixels, stand in place of figuration, and like Fields and Pearson’s works, complicate monolithic definitions of Black womanhood.
Yaya Bey’s installation, “Celie Jr.”, an ancestor shrine encased in glass, is installed beside the projection. The title is a reference to Ms. Celie, the heroin in Alice Walker’s timeless novel, “The Color Purple” and “the women who came before me who made extraordinary sacrifices”, Bey shared. The altar includes a small photograph of Bey’s grandmother when she was a young woman, surrounded by red roses and candles. Like the salon, the film series, and many of the curatorial decisions Bey employed in the collection at large, “Celie Jr.” is yet another example of the curators resounding reverence and intergenerational appreciation for the myriad experiences of black women.
Monique Muse Dodd contributes three photographs, “La Negra de Nadie”, a self-portrait, and two small altar photos “Offerings for Oshun” are exhibited next to Bey’s installation.
Dodd uses black portraiture and still-life to document her personal explorations into Afrodiasporic divine feminine traditions. In “Offerings for Oshun”, Dodd photographs images of altar offerings to the Yoruba Orisha of sweet waters, love and fertility, Oshun/Osun/Oxum/Ochun. In “La Negra de Nadie”, Dodd revises Enrique Grau’s 1940 oil portrait, “La Mulata de Cartagenera”, by photographing herself in the same position in front of a large bouquet of sunflowers. The juxtaposition of the sacred altar items, with Dodd’s self-portrait, recall histories of black portraiture, specifically representations of black women in portraiture, and queries the authorship, agency and mythologies that have shaped Black women’s imagery around the world.
Three more photographs from Shan Wallace’s Untitled series are installed across the gallery from Dodd and Bey’s altars. Each image features a singular portrait of an afro-cuban girl, teenager, and elderly woman in Havana Cuba. Wallace’s iconic images of aesthetics and culture in Black Baltimore, is mirrored in her observations from Cuba; the girls peer out of the doorways of their homes, and the elder woman perches on a small ledge of a home. Black aesthetics are transnational, and Wallace aptly reflects the shared cultural experiences of black women around the world.
“Tell the Truth About Me”, is on view at PGAAMCC until January 31, 2017. Visit www.pgaamcc.org for more info.