"The lights overhead are bright, bathing the city in a yellow glow that glints off the black asphalt of the street we are about to cross. Our laughter fills the air, hanging and mingling with the indistinct surrounding noise, at times a gentle murmur, other times a cacophony of loud voices (“get over here Tony!”) and blaring car horns.
We hook arms as we cross the street - five teenage girls from Gatineau, somehow having found our way to the big city. The feeling is that of invincibility; the cheap headband I had bought from Chinatown, and the four girls by my side bringing me closer to the vision of girlhood promised to me in T.V. shows back home, and even now on the billboards of Times Square.
Loose strands of hair drift in the spring breeze carrying the smell of pretzels and cigarette smoke, but my short box braids remain firmly beneath the blue and beige wool of my headband. Strangers pass us by as we walk, the flashing white light in the shape of a walking stick figure beckoning us forward.
My eyes catch his suddenly; his stare is intense and burrowing. Creases appear on his forehead as he frowns, lips parting to speak. One word is spat out as our shoulders brush, and at once the spell is broken and all pretences of invincibility become shards at my feet, more likely to cut skin and draw blood with every step I take. My feet remain planted in place, suddenly bearing a weight greater than the 130 pounds of a young black girl come to discover herself in New York.
My eyes track his body as he moves away, and my friends, unaware of what just occurred, keep moving forward, leaving me somewhere in between, my body still feeling the pull of the dream of normalcy that had brought me to this exact moment, but also a sense of being disjointed, as though my body was no longer mine to control.
There, on a warm spring day on the streets New York City, a whispered word brought with it a cold sense of realization.
“‘Dirty Nigger!’ or simply 'Look! A Negro!’I came into this world anxious to uncover the meaning of things, my soul desirous to be at the origins of the world, and here I am an object among other objects."
And so begins "The Lived Experience of the Black Man", the fifth chapter in Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Mask. In the subsequent passages, Fanon offers a vivid and visceral description of an encounter between the narrator, and a young white boy and his mother. The moment is one in which the narrator finds himself reduced to his race and seemingly stripped of all agency and indeed of his body altogether: “My body returned to me spread-eagled, disjointed, redone, draped in mourning on this white winter's day.”
It is a moment that is reminiscent of a personal memory I have of an encounter in the streets of New York City at the age of 15.
This exhibition, "Somatic Satiation", borrows heavily from Fanon's work by putting moments like this, and the lived experience of the black woman more generally, at the forefront, making them the subject of deep and thorough analysis, and using them as a vector for knowledge transmission - a long lost artefact to be excavated and treasured.
"Somatic Satiation" (somatic meaning bodily) mimics the phenomenon of semantic satiation whereby repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener. Here, the image of the black woman is repeated over and over again - at times overtly, other times hidden and abstracted, but always present.
In the same way repeated words will temporarily lose their meaning over time, the exhibition aims to overwhelm the viewer with representations and depictions of black womanhood until they begin to question their understandings of blackness (what constitutes blackness? Is it skin deep, or is it deeper seated in the lived experience of racialized bodies? Or is it, as Fanon suggested, only discovered upon encountering whiteness?), of gender, and of what lies at the intersection of both identities (who is the black woman?).
This moment of questioning creates an interval- an interruption, or rather an opening - that allows for a new understanding of black womanhood; one that is intimate and expansive; intrinsic and radical.