Reclamation is the essence of artist Nastassja Swift‘s work. Through her trademark wool sculptures, Swift works to honor the body of the black woman—both in the past and present. Historically, the black woman has been seen as a sexual object…existing only (in the world’s eyes) for the gawking gaze of Eurocentric culture. As one of the many products of colonialism, stereotypes drenched in racism, sexism, and misogyny have plagued black women for centuries. From being carted around like a zoo animal (e.g., Saartjie Baartman) to being publicly shamed and blacklisted (e.g., Janet Jackson), black women have dealt the brunt of society’s hand.
And anytime a black woman celebrates who she is and the body she was born with, you can guarantee that there will be backlash because that black woman is establishing autonomy over her body…and that ultimately disrupts the power that the world thinks they have over her.
Swift recognizes this and uses her art to redefine the black woman and her body as is with poignant pieces (e.g., “I Wanted to Give You the Ocean,” “A Party for Sojourner,” and “Passage”), collaborative works (e.g., “Remembering Her Homecoming”), and exhibitions/residencies at national and international institutions (e.g., The Urban Institute of Contemporary Art in Michigan, The Colored Girls Musuem in Philadelphia, MASS MoCA, and the VCUQATAR Gallery in Doha, Qatar).
Embark on a one-of-a-kind expedition through time to Slawstrips Kalb–“a hyper-satiric alternate reality” where the audience is subject to the “Black American life” by way of four teenagers working through the challenges brought on by “the choices they make and temptations they follow.” Written, composed, and directed by the Newport News Contemporary Arts Network’s (CAN)Tunny Crew, Black Spirituals is a “retelling” of the black individual’s story “from a place of empowerment.” The art installation will debut this Saturday, January 23rd at the Newport News CAN HQ, and will run on each consecutive Saturday for the entirety of Black History Month (visitors may also purchase tickets to tour the exhibit on Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the month of February). Purchase your tickets here and read up on Popscure member Jasmine’s pre-debut thoughts on Black Spirituals below!
There was a general route I would take during my daily commute from the James River Bridge to the far ends of Newport News. Every day I would pass through this monochromatic route of grays and browns—heightened especially on gloomy days. And each day, I would scan the surrounding buildings…my mind always on autopilot mode. That is…until I saw a building I’d seen a million times, but this time things were different. This time the building had character…presence. Funnily enough, the building’s side was painted in a pattern of black and white—yet, it was as if it was saying, “Look at me!” As time passed, more murals were added to the lone building, ultimately creating a beacon of life amidst the lifeless stretch of road—signifying the possibility of what could be, of what can be.
Little did I know that I would be in that same building (many) months later taking in before me a vast set-up for an art installation—Black Spirituals. But just limiting it to the description of “art installation” almost doesn’t seem to do Black Spirituals, or its vision, justice. Deemed “an emancipated Negro Spiritual,” the experience is a stimulating amalgamation of mixed media creating an alternate reality as expansive as its goals to produce dialogue and education through topics ranging from mental health surrounding grief and loss, police brutality, racism in America, the drug epidemic, familial dysfunction, and exploitation within industries. With works from the CAN Foundation’s First Patron artists (Mahari Chabwera, Nastassja Swift, Asa Jackson, Hampton Boyer, and Adewale Alli) and CAN artists (Dathan Kane and Alex Michael), the collaborative venture bypasses traditional limitations in favor for delivering its message through a play and exhibition, original motion picture, and album. And really, I think that is the underlying beauty of Black Spirituals.
The topics in and of itself are undoubtedly important and way past overdue for discussion, but the true gem of Black Spirituals lies in the possibility…the possibilities. To me, the reclamation that is Black Spirituals transcends past its initial purpose to educate and furthermore invites you to imagine…to manifest…to change…to reclaim. The black narrative has been tainted throughout all aspects of life in history with black people being consistently portrayed as lesser than…lazy…sexual deviants or violent criminals—all damning qualities consciously and subconsciously taken without any further thought. You see it in the way the media portrays black individuals after the umpteenth fatal death by a police officer’s hand, or the way young black girls are seen and treated as sexual beings before they’re even able to comprehend what that even means. No one ever seems to ask about the “how’s” or “why’s” of social disparities as it relates to poverty and welfare, lack of education, drug abuse, or the most favored red herring of debate—“black-on-black” crime. How do you think a young child would feel if they were constantly inundated with such toxic preconceptions before knowing what that word even meant? Black Spirituals reclaims the black narrative, reimagines the story, and reveals the possibilities. Black Spirituals is the reclamation of identity…sense of self-worth…sense of purpose…sense of belonging. Black Spirituals is the possibility of what could be, of what can be.
Black Spirituals will debut tomorrow and run from 7:00-10:00 PM. Can’t make it? Don’t worry—the installation will run throughout Black History Month every consecutive Saturday and be open for Wednesday and Thursday tours throughout February. Get your tickets and find out more information here, and be sure to stay tuned for more from Black Spirituals.