Thursday, November 7, 2019

What Is It Like to Be a Black Womxn in Duluth, Minnesota?

On Monday evening, there was a very powerful event in the Zeitgeist Atrium, the eleventh now in  this Year of the Womxn, highlighting women's stories. The November edition featured artwork with narratives by Terresa Moses of Blackbird Revolt along with a panel discussion featuring three black women artists, moderated by Sandra Oyinoye, titled "Cocktails & Conversation." Oyinioye is an advocate, poet, programs coordinator, mentor to youths and co-founder of DanSan Creatives.

The feeling I had as an observer was similar to the feeling I had at my first Ojibwe Pow Wow, that I was witnessing something sacred. The candor and vulnerability of the artists moved some people to tears and left many others deeply stirred.

The three black women artists were Terresa (Terri) Moses, Carla Hamilton, and Kym Young.

(L to R) Terri Moses, Carla Hamilton, Kym Young
Moses describes herself as "a proud Black queer woman dedicated to the liberation of Black and Brown people using art and design." Hamilton, currently based in Duluth, grew up in Wrenshall before moving to Stuttgart, Germany, where she studied art and observed the complex history and culture of Germany through her Wrenshall lens. Young is a Human Rights advocate for marginalized groups who uses her artwork and her knowledge and experience to educate and advocate for those whose voices are not heard in mainstream society."

The questions began much like a standard art interview that I might conduct, the first being, "When did you first start to take an interest in art?"

Terresa said it began in school. Carla said she used it as a language to express her emotions, a theme that would be developed further as she grew. Kym started as a commercial artist in 5th grade. Her mom wanted her grow up to be a lawyer.

"What kind of work do you do?"

Terresa pointed to the pictures on the wall of the Atrium, which I would encourage everyone to try to see this month. More importantly, try to make a little time to read the accompanying texts.

Carla said her process starts with writing, collecting and research. "It's much more organized than I appear to be" she laughed. She shared how art saved her life. When angry and scared, she'd go home and make art.

Kym works in oils, painting in layers. "My job is to put down what I feel," she said. Her path was painful, because her male teachers didn't understand her work.

The view from the back of the room.
A theme began to emerge as the conversational questions and answers proceeded. Black women artists have had more challenges than we usually talk about or are aware of. Terresa Moses asserted that it is important to "make sure the underrepresented are present." Her focus is on "telling untold truths."

Kym explained that "written history doesn't tell the story as well as art imagery. My journey is to understand the intersectionality of me."

Intersectionality is a word that has been used quite a bit this year. It addresses the the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group.

Though all three live here in the Twin Ports now, each has connections to life in the Deep South. Terri and Kym come from Texas and Atlanta respectively, and Carla's father lived in Texas. Texas may be racist, but they're upfront with it, Terri said. "Minnesota is subversive."

A discussion afterwards. (Moses seated, right)
Pointing to the artwork and stories conveyed, Terri continued, "This is my story of the frustration of being a black woman in Duluth. All this stuff is me. This is absolutely my story. This is not cute little pictures. This is my life."

"This is what we deal with every time we walk out of our houses," Sandra added.

Carla Hamilton, whose work I've been following since she returned to the Northland from Germany in 2012, said things have changed for her. "I'm not holding back any more. I bring them in with candy and smack them in the face." (With the messages in her work, not with a slap or literal fist.) "I'm still on my journey," she said.

"Our art changes because we change," Kym Young said.

During the question and answer period with the audience, very real emotions broke through, with stories that clearly needed to be expressed. It seemed that this kind of cathartic moment could occur because of the sense that it was safe to be so vulnerable. The art helped foster an important dialogue that needs to continue.

This coming year will be the 100th anniversary of the lynchings in Duluth. One hopes that these kinds of open discussions leading up to that memorial event will somehow bring greater healing and a sense of hope regarding our mutual journeys, individually and together. 

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