Could you tell us a bit about your background, and your first brush with art?
From an early age, I could always be found drawing and creating with colours. In addition, I drew on everything I could find so I was often in trouble for drawing on the walls, sidewalk, fences, etc. I was fortunate to have a mother who put me in a variety of art classes at a young age. From there, I went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Art, master’s degree in Fine Arts and master in Education Leadership. I was raised in a community where people were often multifaceted. By this I am describing people who may have had many skills and talents and used them in various fields. I was encouraged to be multi-faceted so while I create art, I have also taught at the university level and worked in higher education administration. What has remained consistent is that I have always created art.
How have Dubai and the UAE influenced your art?
Living in the UAE influenced both the topics I address and the materials used. The easy access to fabrics from so many regions of the world is always exciting. Some of my best days are spent roaming fabric markets, or searching for beads and other art materials that are unique to this region. In addition, my works are narrative tales and inspired by the world around me. So I find my pieces now may address a topic like migration, grief, family, etc. from another perspective.
What do you think of the arts and culture scene in this region?
I like the way that the arts and culture scene has been growing rapidly and encourages /supports both emerging and recognised artists. I especially love the commitment and enthusiasm that is here for local artists and art organizations that highlight their work. I recently took a class at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation and Warehouse 421. Those experiences were great and gave me a sense of being part of a larger art community.
How has your time in Senegal affected your creations?
I was born in Ohio, and have lived in Senegal for almost 20 years. Living there has also been a major influence related to materials and themes. There my home is full of beautiful African fabrics, beads, shells and other notions and found objects. It is a visual overload! Often the moment I find these items, I don’t always have a specific use but suddenly one month or one year later they find their way into a new piece. Living in Senegal has always encouraged me to explore and narrate pieces related to the people, history and culture of the African Diaspora.
Tell us about being selected as Artist-in-Residence at Xavier, how it came about and what it entails.
In 2018, I was selected for the Dak Art Biennale in Dakar, Senegal. Information about this exhibit was shared with Xavier University (XU), Cincinnati, Ohio as I received my Bachelor in Art from this institution. From there, I was introduced to two phenomenal women, Dr Kyra Shahid, Director of the Center of Diversity and Inclusion at XU and Phyllis Coly, Co-Director of Diasporic Soul. Offering leadership development and heritage travel experiences in Senegal, Diasporic Soul is committed to offering a healing-centred approach that includes culture, yoga and other body-centred practices, spirituality, social justice and collective healing. When I was in Cincinnati last summer, I had a chance to meet with Dr. Shahid and she laid out her vision of Xavier University wanting an artist-in-residence to create works in line with the universities desire to address racial reconciliation and healing and expressed interest in my work.
Could you tell us a bit about the Stained Glass initiative and the issues it explores?
The Stained Glass Initiative (SGI) aims to address Xavier University’s (Cincinnati, Ohio) historical connections to slavery. Bishop Edward Fenwick's list of recorded accomplishments is long. He is considered to be a pioneer in the expansion of Catholicism in Kentucky and Ohio. He was Cincinnati's first Bishop. He built Cincinnati's first cathedral. He also launched a college for boys called the Athenaeum, which became St. Xavier High School and Xavier University.
But there's something about him that's less well-known and that the current president is working to start conversation around, however difficult that conversation may be. Fenwick owned slaves.
The Stained Glass Initiative is the culmination of recommendations put forth by the Working Group on Xavier’s Historical Connections to Slavery and serves as the umbrella enterprise for projects, research, and institutional hires that further the recommendations of the Working Group. The symbolism of stained glass captures the essence of Xavier’s work concerning slavery and racism. Recognising that their history is stained by slavery, Xavier is committed to institutionalizing racial repair and reconciliation. Just as stained glass admits and reflects light in different ways, the Stained Glass Initiative seeks to acknowledge and perpetuate the diversity of experience and reflection that is needed to envision a better common good. As a creative art form, stained glass brings together different pieces to create a whole. It symbolizes transformation, spirituality and sacred history. I find the whole organization of this project to be a brave step and am impressed with the vision of Michael Graham, president of Xavier University and Janice Walker, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for their commitment to putting this in place. I am honoured that they selected me to work with them.
How can art work as an avenue to explore tough subjects, contribute to a conversation on divides from race to gender, and effect change?
In my opinion and from my personal and professional perspective, we live in a world where the voice of some people is easily heard. At the same time other voices, depending on who is speaking, may not be heard. I use my art as a tool to address a variety of issues related to identity, migration, oppression, self-development, etc. Perhaps because I am working with textiles and mixed media, people assume such delicate material will yield delicate topics. In reality, the intense colour, rush of imagery, and most often images speak about issues that some people may prefer to not address. Acclaimed writer Chinua Achebe said, “Those who tell you do not put too much politics in your art…. are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is…. What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” While my intent is not to always be political it is often to encourage people to engage more with the art and step outside their comfort zone if necessary.
In the 4 pieces you are set to create at Ohio, you have decided to focus not just on the trauma of slavery but the contributions made by slaves. Why?
The works I am creating for the Stained Glass Initiative are not focused solely on the trauma of slavery, but reflect on the long term global economic contribution made by slaves. They will also humanise the individual slaves. Tobacco, sugar and cotton, for example, were cultivated by slaves and were fundamental in establishing an economic empire still in existence. Many education institutions, banks, insurance companies, etc. can trace their development to funding that was directly or indirectly gained via the slave trade. Slaves contributed greatly to the Catholic community and indirectly to the founding of Xavier University. Some will say slavery happened and get over it, or argue that everyone was doing it. Yet as stated by Sarah Churchwell in her article, The Lehman Trilogy and Wall Street’s Debt to Slavery, ‘The fact that everyone was doing it is not a defence; it merely measures the scale of the crime.” In reality the residue of this trauma remains worldwide, along with the societal role, position and value often assigned to a people based on their skin colour. It is my hope that these pieces will speak to issues of equity and justice as well.
You also own a bookstore and academic research centre in Senegal – does this impact your art in any way?
My bookstore provides an opportunity to channel my creative energies, love of books and passion for community development and higher education into a tangible initiative that is full of rich history and diverse cultures. I come into contact with clients from around the world and we share/compare our lives and book referrals. In many instances these personal experiences and of course books are reflected in the art works I create. We also support students and their families with their study abroad search. I really enjoy engaging with young people and often their experiences or stories they share become woven into my work. The book store like my work is a place to shine and not feel the need to hide my abilities or water them down.
Tell us a bit about any other projects you are working on.
From May 23 to October 5 three of my works were in the Filam (a) nt exhiit at Fondation Bachere Art Centre, Francis. This was great as I seek more international opportunities. In less than two years, two of my sisters have died and their deaths have influence a new series of work titled MY SOUL TO KEEP. These works focus is on the process of transitioning through grief while also examining the importance of self-care and well-being. I am also working to develop a pop-up exhibit for the 2020 Dak Art Biennale. The Artist Residence at Xavier University also encompasses a community aspect, so I am now working to identify schools or organizations to work with.
What’s an average day like for you? How do you maintain a work-life balance?
Some people assume that when you create you must first sit in a corner and wait for inspiration. I work according to a schedule most of the time sometimes getting up at 5 to work for a few hours before work. At minimum, I put in about 25 hours per week including evenings and weekends. It is not a hardship as I am always excited to start creating. Then there are times when I am completing a work and I need to take a few days off to rest before starting something new. I pace myself, remain focused and do not apologize for being selfish with my time.
Do you obsess over your art?
Not at all.
What have been the most interesting reactions to your art – positive and negative?
People sometimes assume that as I am working with fabrics and mixed media my message or focus will be soft and pretty, delicate images. My works are narrative tales that explore and give testimony to people of The Diaspora and their shared experiences and philosophies with relation to other cultures worldwide. Most times people respond to the narrative aspect of my work. Yet, at the same time, I have encountered audiences who are unaccustomed to seeing images of black or brown people in contemporary art for the first time. Because the works address various social issues for some people he works may require too much thought.
Artistic life is said to be a lonely one. Thoughts? What do you do to counter this?
Neuroscience founding father Santago Ramon y Cajal said, “Oh comforting solitude, how favourable thou art to original thought!” I agree with this belief that solitude and the process of creating are a good marriage. To be in my space drawing, clipping fabric, sketching, painting or researching for a new design is a great time. I normally listen to radio programs, podcasts, listen to music, or watch good movies while I am working. If I work for 2 hours or 8, I am not lonely but simply at ease. I do, however, find it necessary to interact with other creative people to dialogue and assess my work. This is something I work hard to do via taking classes, joining art groups, etc.
What are the greatest challenges you face when creating a work of art?
Knowing when to accept that the piece is finished is the greatest challenge for me. As I work, I learn so much and the image may evolve exactly as the original design or reflect subtle changes. There is always the desire to go back and do it again, do it differently, etc. The hardest thing is to make that last mark and accept that the work is over so that all that you have learned is utilized in a new work of art.
What tips would you give young artists starting out?
I encourage young artists to also understand the business aspect of art. I think it is imperative to know how to work effectively with galleries or an art rep; how to prepare an artist bio, artist statement or CV; to know how to price works and all the necessary steps to take to avoid being cheated or have your work just disappear and most important how to market their work and continue to identify good exhibit opportunities. I also would encourage young artists to develop an appreciation of artists worldwide. Many art programs will focus on Western Art. They will know Monet, Gaugin, Matisse, etc. but there are many other artist an art movements that they should try to learn about.