Category Archives: African Diaspora

“Easy to Swallow, Hard to Digest”: An Interview with Nina Chanel Abney

The Live Unchained team and I were discussing how artists, in general, but conceptual artists in particular, are often stereotyped as tortured functional depressives. You don’t really hear about how these artists have to be resourceful and trust their instincts. From an early age Nina Chanel Abney created pieces that resonated with her, even if they didn’t fulfill others’ expectations–i.e. young Nina’s painting of a bloody eyeball that caught her art teacher off guard.

Paper Magazine described her work as combining “strong feminine and masculine images infused with humor, irony, perversity, satire and fantasy.” As to the playful, challenging nature of her paintings, she says they’re “easy to swallow, hard to digest.” Having exhibited works throughout the United States and abroad, being featured in The New York Times, Essence and Glamour, people like us, are eager to see the stories her paintings have to tell because they make us better–even if we have to choke a little. Here, Nina discusses how she came to be so bold in her work, her creative process and visual storytelling.

Nina Chanel

Could you share with us a little about your background? What made you want to become a painter?
My love for art and my hate for the “9 to 5” drove me to seriously pursue painting as a career. I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a child. But it wasn’t until graduate school that everything started to come full circle for me. My boundless imagination and I moved to a place where “anything goes.” Prior to coming to New York, I had a very limited view of who an artist was; I had a very limited view of art in general. I had never been into a gallery. I had no idea how artists made a living. I had no notion of contemporary art.

Most of the schools I attended insinuated that a “good” artist was one that could draw and paint realistically. And though that was what was typically taught, because my gut told me differently, I began a mission to find my own truth. And that started by me purposely doing the opposite of what my art teacher expected. As a fifth grader, I remember having to paint Rene Magritte’s “The False Mirror” as an assignment, and I turned in a painting of a bloody eyeball. And from then on I continued to push the limits of my assignments and my teacher’s buttons by doing my own thing.

And I never meant to be rebellious in a disrespectful manner. I just needed to paint by emotion and instinct rather than paint out of docility.

"Close But No Cigar," Acrylic on canvas

To me your work appears to possess a playful yet mysterious quality that I am drawn to? How would you characterize your artwork?
Easy to swallow, hard to digest. The playfulness of my work is a result of my use of vivid colors and my interest in satirical cartoons. I love the fact that anything taboo suddenly becomes tolerable as long as it’s not “real”. I’m a huge fan of The Family Guy because of their ability to spoon feed their audience touchy topics with the use of humor and animation. If it were a sitcom with actual actors, they would no longer be on television. And as far as the mystery…I personally find the artwork that I am mostly drawn to is work that keeps you guessing and keeps you coming back for more. I enjoy work that doesn’t give me a definite answer, but challenges me answer my own questions. I cannot even sketch an idea for a painting because the definitive nature of the act itself would make me lose interest in the painting before it’s begun, so I couldn’t possibly expect the viewer to want to continuously look a painting that is too literal.

"Null and Void," Acrylic on canvas, 77 ½ x 45

During the opening of my second solo exhibition, “Emma’s Basement”, there was a woman who came into the gallery, stood in front of my painting, “Null and Void,” and left with a look of utter disgust. She then came back about 10 minutes later, and I knew then my work was doing exactly what I wanted it to.

When looking at your work there appears to be layers to the narrative, which I find really interesting. Is there usually a specific story that you wish to be conveyed in a piece?
When I begin a painting, I never have a specific story in mind. I usually have a few general topics that I want to start a discussion about, or attempt to resolve for myself. And in that process I usually end up with a lot of contradictions. It is not until then that I meld together all of these disjointed elements to create a narrative or multiple narratives. And to adhere to the mysterious quality of my work, in my most sinister voice, I say, “I NEVER share the stories!” ☺

From what sources do you get your inspiration?
Most of my inspiration comes from personal thoughts and experiences and the things that arose from those experiences, or resulted from those thoughts. I then relate them to specific songs, emotions, movies, celebrities, world issues, etc. So I am constantly watching television, movies, browsing the internet, looking through books, magazines, and listening to music in order to immerse myself in the things that relate to the topic at hand which is usually what I am dealing with at the moment in some shape or form.

But when I find myself in some sort of slump, in which for whatever reason I am not feeling very moved by anything in particular, I usually go to any art museum, or go check out some gallery shows to rejuvenate myself.

Could you discuss your collection GO BERSERKER? What made you create this collection? I was specifically drawn to your pieces: “A Capitol Offence” and “The Liquidators,” could you speak about those?

THE LIQUIDATORS (2010) acrylic on canvas 66 x 80 in.

A CAPITAL OFFENCE (2010) acrylic on canvas 36 x 36 in.

I don’t attempt to communicate anything specific to the viewer. I simply share my thoughts and hope that the viewer will have an experience, rather pleasant or unpleasant, that will start a conversation, spark an emotion, or help to them to convey their own message to themselves. And I don’t have a specific audience in mind for my work. Creating work for a specific type of person would create too many boundaries. I create the work for myself, and then share it with anyone who is interested.

The pieces in my exhibition Go Berserker, explore introspection and the idea of fighting against and/or accepting the things one might find when looking inside oneself. With that body of work I was also interested in exploring the collision of instinct and intuition, as well as the power in the ability to harness both.

Are there any specific pieces of art you would like to share with us?

Nina Chanel Abney The Escorts, 2008 Acrylic on canvas 93 x 66 1/2”

Nina Chanel Abney Law and Order, 2010 Acrylic on canvas 65 ½ x 74 1/4"

Nina Chanel Abney Holey Grail, 2011 Acrylic on canvas 48 x 40"

 

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

Living unchained for me is living for myself without regrets and obligation.

I have a shameless plug…

I’m currently collaborating with a well-known brand to develop my own line of limited edition t-shirts that should be out sometime this summer.

I will be in the traveling exhibition 30 Americans, which is coming to North Carolina in March.

http://www.ninachanel.com

http://twitter.com/ninachanel
(I haven’t tweeted anything since July, but I’m working on it, ☺)

So, what do you do, Ngozi Odita of Society HAE?

When you see the name Society HAE, one question that may come to mind is, What does HAE stand for? The acronym stands for Harriet’s Alter Ego.  Who’s Harriet, you might ask?  C’mon, you know who Harriet is…

Yes, that Harriet.  Harriet Tubman!

Initially Harriet’s Alter Ego was a Brooklyn-based fashion boutique and

art gallery that also served as a performance space. Think of everything you’ve learned about Harriet Tubman.  Then imagine a place where a wondrous woman with that kind of passion, talent, and commitment to freedom could go to just…chill.  Express and pamper herself. Get cute. Maybe read a little poetry.  Or just hang out and enjoy the atmosphere.

When the store closed in 2009, the question for its founder, Ngozi Odita, and team became, “Where do we go now?”

They moved online, converting the project to an arts and entertainment social media platform. The Harriet’s Alter Ego crowd found them online and supported them in this new medium.   Society HAE was born.  Ngozi describes the community they’ve created as a place that resonates with artists, musicians and designers because it gives them a bigger voice.

In December 2010, the Society HAE team of bloggers, or Team SHAE, traveled to Dakar, Senegal to blog from the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture. Since its inception in 1966, the festival has provided a forum for political as well as artistic and cultural dialogue, attracting the likes of Alvin Ailey, Duke Ellington, and Clementina de Jesus.   This time around, Yossou N’dour, Jay-Z, Wyclef Jean and Rhianna were on the guest list.

Team SHAE gave their readers live coverage of the three-week long event that showcases fashion, photography, theatre, architecture, music, design, literature, film, and even sport from people of African descent throughout the diaspora. (See SHAE video below)

Ngozi Odita

“I wish everyone could have seen it, “ says Ngozi.

Ngozi’s love for the arts began during childhood.   She is proud of her heritage and remembers growing up dancing to her father’s Nigerian music in a household where there was always music playing.

“Fashion and the arts were always a part of me,” she says.

A humble and modest woman who laughs easily, Ngozi has grown this appreciation into a business that allows her to travel the world.  She shares some words of wisdom for the budding entrepreneur.

“There are opportunities everywhere,” she says.  “If you’re passionate about something, there’s an opportunity [to pursue it].  Look for the opportunities within that passion.”

What does Living Unchained mean to Ngozi Odita? To Ngozi, living unchained means being free, doing the things that move you.  It means having the freedom to be who you are, free to engage people.

Article by Ciara Calbert of Everybody is a Journalist

Kenya’s Creative Fire: A Conversation with Rachel Gichinga of Kuweni Serious

Art is politics; and, it’s the weapon Kuweni Serious uses to, as they say, “fight the evil forces of apathy,” they saw plaguing Kenyan youth in the aftermath of the country’s 2007 elections. Kuweni Serious is a cultural activist organization based in Nairobi, Kenya. Their team includes three creative minds committed to raising political consciousness among Kenyan youth, encouraging them to be active participants in the political process. Rachel Gichinga, Jim Chuchu (of the music group Just a Band) and Mbithi Masya work incollaboration with Just a Band, Ghetto Radio, NiSisi! and Roma Media to create and share creative works that capture our imaginations and inspire us to think critically about unjust political practices and proposed alternatives.

We had the great pleasure of speaking with Rachel Gichinga about Kuweni Serious. She discusses Kenya’s turbulent 2007 elections, which led the team to develop this project. Rachel also shares her thoughts on Kuweni Serious’ creative approach, Kenya’s future in relation to all of Africa and the stake people of African descent abroad have in realizing their vision for Kenya.

Can you tell us where the name Kuweni Serious comes from?

“Kuweni Serious” means “let’s get serious”. The Kiswahili word “Kuweni” employs both the collective and the imperative, and this is the sentiment that we’re trying to capture and relay. We felt that it was important to get young Kenyans thinking and talking about their country’s political development, and, hopefully beginning to act as well. One of our favourite contributors, Njoki Ngumi, put it best in her interview when she said, “We are not as powerless as we think we are.” Kuweni Serious aims at letting primarily members of our generation know exactly that.

All of us have a creative background and work in the arts, so it just made sense to use that format as it is one which we understand well, and one that we think our peers relate to with comparative ease as well.

Kuweni Serious has been very involved in mobilizing people to vote in the 2010 Constitution referendum.  Why was the new constitution so important?  Now that the new constitution has passed, what new opportunities and challenges do you think lie ahead for Kenya’s youth?

Let me provide a bit of context for this first. Kuweni Serious was borne out of the aftermath of the 2007 presidential election. We noticed that we and our peers spent that terrible period online, on Facebook, passing on information and opinions about what had happened/was happening. People were angry, scared, hurt, apathetic—the full gamut of emotions. The common thread there was that people from this particular background (young, educated, with some level of exposure to the world, folks who know what good governance should look like and are therefore particularly put-off by the fact that this is so absent in the Kenyan context) either genuinely cared about the country and wanted to do something but had no idea about how to get involved; or viewed the problem as too overwhelming and too detached from their common reality, and were, therefore, apathetic.

Continue reading

Interview with Imaginative Scientist Nyokabi Musila: What Science Can Teach Us About Art, Africa and Ourselves

Kenyan blogger Nyokabi Musila has a scientific mind and an artistic spirit. She believes science is a tool that can help us decide which questions to ask. While living in London, Nyokabi came to wonder: “What does Africa really mean?” She continues to return to this idea, exploring the representation of Africa and Africans in the arts.

Nyokabi is a pharmacist with a PhD in pre-clinical drug development and is currently based in Nairobi, where she has been working in a research team that has supported the development of Kenya’s first national evidence-based policy for pediatric care. Also, a columnist for a national Kenyan newspaper, she discusses the medicinal properties of food.

She nurtures her creative side by writing on various arts, including film, theatre and photography that reflect African realities on the blog www.sci-cultura.com, under the not-so-secret pseudonym, “sci-culturist.” One of her latest posts discusses photography and film projects on Nubians in Kenya and colonial legacies in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Here she shares her views on scientific thought, the arts, Africa and what she wants people to gain from her writing.

Why did you start the Sci-Cultura blog? What does Sci-Cultura mean?

I started Sci-Cultura for the very self-indulgent reason that I wanted to create a space where I could express my thoughts and also engage with like-minded people who were interested in the similar topics. I was bubbling up with stuff I wanted to say and blogging was the easiest outlet. In effect it is a public journal. I started off rather impersonal and factual but somewhere along the way, quite early on, I unknowingly started to inject more of me in my writing.

The meaning of Sci-Cultura is a bit like the blog itself – it has evolved, which I suppose is reflective of me as a person and what is going on for me. I’m sure you’ve gathered that I made it up. I wanted a name that expressed my scientific persona and that also incorporated a single word that captures the human experience. Cultura is the Spanish word for culture, which just rolled off my mind and I liked the ring to it. Overall, it is about the meeting of 2 worlds – science and the arts. I had initially planned for the science aspect to be obvious but found myself being led to a more subtle expression – the root of science is about seeking answers to questions.

Can you tell us about your background, and how it influences what you feature on your site?

I started the blog as a Kenyan living in London, England. Someone has said this before – when you land in Heathrow, you take on a new identity – you are labeled an African. I felt the drive to explore how being African was being expressed in the arts and to answer the question: “What does African really mean?” Continue reading

Poetry is Not a Luxury: A Conversation with Tara Betts

Tara Betts’ career, writings and experiences show that art serves an important social purpose and, simply, some people were put on this earth to write and help others develop their creative voices.

Tara has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and the Black Family Channel series Spoken with host Jessica Care Moore. After winning Guild Complex’s Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award, she represented Chicago twice at the National Poetry Slam. She has performed in Cuba, London, throughout the Midwest, the East and West Coasts, and the South. In addition to all this, Tara has coached and mentored countless young writers and performers that have participated in Brave New Voices and the Louder Than a Bomb teen poetry slams.

We are so grateful for the opportunity to have a discussion with her on creative inspiration, the importance of poetry, her new book Arc and Hue and, of course, what it means to live unchained.

What sparked your interest in poetry?

My interest stemmed from my love of reading, and it also came from the music that I enjoyed. I loved MC Lyte, KRS-One, Public Enemy, and the Native Tongues crew, but I also loved U2 and The Cure. I felt like lyrics moved me and inspired me, almost as much as my trips to the library, where I eventually held my first job and snuck around reading in the stacks. I also dabbled in classical music like Bolero, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky.

I just wanted to soak up anything that fed burgeoning images that would emerge in my head. Of course, poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ntozake Shange, and the anthology The Black Poets edited by Dudley Randall really inspired me.

From what sources do you gather inspiration?

Continue reading

Thoughts From One of Our Readers

Writing in cyberspace, it’s easy to forget that your words are available to the world. We recently reached out to one of our regular followers and learned that we were receiving much love from Brazil. We decided to show our gratitude to “fejapimienta” and learn what his name meant, how he found our blog and why he kept coming back. Here Fernando shares his thoughts on Brazil’s African heritage, diversity and social justice.

Hello!

Your blog is just amazing. When I landed on it by accident I just thought: Wow! I didn’t even know African people got together to reveal a rich portion of their culture multilaterally, to show us online readers many many beauties of such a vast and diverse land!!

So, fejapimenta is the fusion of my surnames. My entire name stands for Fernando Januário Pimenta, and in Portuguese, my native language (as I am Brazilian, of almost completely Portuguese descent, but with a few black grand-grand-grand relatives in the blood line), “fejapimenta” can be read by a curious mind as “feijão (com) pimenta” which could be precisely translated as “bean[s] (with) pepper”.

You must know that here in Brazil we have very deep-rooted African cultural manifestations, especially in the estate of Bahia, but widespread in almost all other estates as well. Capoeira (fighting), umbanda, candomblé (religions), feijoada, acarajé, vatapá (the most delicious Brazilian food is African in its roots!), cachaça/pinga/aguardente (the word with the greatest possible number of synonymns in the Portugues language… they exist by the dozens!!) (–>a very alcoholic [40 GL] beverage derived from the sugarcane, originally produced by enslaved African people brought in cargo ships during the years of 1532 until 1888), samba/carnaval (music, festivity), and a dense and superb folklore, full of myths, proverbs,  and jokes, are just a few of the most known examples  and I, by the way, am very interested in knowing about them. We have many many words whose origin is iorubá, and several others directly linked to African languages and linguistic branches.

Here in Brazil it is a very common phenomenon for middle and lower class white people who study in public schools (unfortunately, but truthfully, recognized here as an educational failure) to have black friends, and vice-versa. As it happens, I myself am middle-class, and as I am sort of broad-minded for acquiring every kind of knowledge about the world and all its beauties, I happen to know and be friends with many black folks.

There are racist people in Brazil, as they exist practically anywhere. As there are xenophobic and close-minded people and fanatics and hooligans throughout the entire globe – let’s exclude the Eskimos and indigenous peoples (laugh 🙂 ) whose “social contracts” don’t tolerate by any means such examples of transgression of essential social values, of inclusion, of a person’s intrinsic worthiness as a human being.

So, I liked very much your blog. It supports diversity, and diversity is what makes the world so beautiful. It is a shame there are so many people who can’t comprehend it.

If we live in loneliness it is mainly because we never learned to communicate with our neighbour’s! All the time they could have shown a new world and brand new perspectives of life to us!

Thank you for asking! It’s jolly good to have a voice! I appreciate your work, it is fundamental for a pluralistic world to breathe free of moral restraints and hateful biases!

So long!

Visit Fernando’s blog at http://fejapimenta.blogspot.com/.

The Diversity Within Us

Yaye Marie Ba has a passion for sharing the beauty, style and cultures of African people. On her blog she speaks with African women on many topics ranging from art to life. Her blog truly shows the diversity of Africa and the importance of learning from each other. We are pleased to have interviewed her and to share her thoughts with you.

Can you tell us about yourself?

My name is Yaye Marie Ba, I am half Senegalese and Guinean on my father’s side, and Malian on my maman’s side. I moved back to the capital of Senegal, Dakar, after having spent 10 years in the United States.

Can you describe your blog at www.yayemarieba.blogspot.com to us?  Why did you create this blog?  What do you hope to accomplish with this blog?

I started my blog close to four years ago out of curiosity and hunger for knowledge about my African culture. I wanted to know more about the youth of Africa, wanted to discover what we are all about. I wanted to find out what a Tunisian or Togolese young woman, for example, was all about. I know what we came from, but I didn’t know enough about where we are today in terms of social development, self confidence and entrepreneurship.

It started slowly, but today I’m proud to say that through this blog, I know that we’ve learned, and are still learning, how to keep our traditions and develop ourselves with Western ideas. Finding the right balance between the two can be hard sometimes, but I think that we’ll get there. Continue reading