“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, this exhibition aims to overwhelm the viewer with representations and depictions of black womanhood until they begin to question their understanding of it, and the biases their minds conjure up at the sight of a 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.
back: I. The Exhibition
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 tv shows back home, and even now on the billboards of Times Square.
Blond, brown and black strands of hair drift in the sweet 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 towards the opposite street corner, the flashing white light in the shape of a walking stick figure beckoning us forward.
My eyes catch his suddenly, his stare 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 my own to control.
There, in the streets of New York, on a warm spring day, a whispered word brought with it a cold sense of realization.
A little over a year ago now, my friends and I were huddled up on the stairs in Concordia’s main auditorium, listening to a discussion featuring Janet Mock. The moment that still rings with me to this day is her discussion on how to remain radical when invited into certain spaces, offered certain platforms. “I like to think of myself as a Trojan horse”, she explained, “I ask myself: how do I get in there and blow shit up?” Those words would later serve as a main source of inspiration whenever I was given the opportunity to give a presentation or participate in an exhibition. It is only recently, after falling upon bell hooks’ work on marginality as a site of resistance that I truly began to understand that what I was attempting to do was to bring my marginality with me into the center.
Slowly, I began to find the answers to questions that had once dumbfounded me: how does your voice impact your community, how is your work unique? I know now that the answer to both questions is rooted not only in my positionality as a black woman, but also in my desire to bring my blackness with me into every room I enter, into every exhibition space and onto every platform. It is in my desire to hang my blackness from all walls and ceilings, it is my desire to highlight the strength and the fragility of my body in front of all audiences, and it is in my willingness to cling to my marginality and force others to learn from it.
Standpoint theory, a feminist theory later reappropriated by black feminists such as Patricia Hill Collins, and grounded in a knowledge/power framework, argues that the production of knowledge stems from one's positionality. It questions traditional knowledge production and posits that marginalized and oppressed peoples have special access to a kind of knowledge that is not available to those at the center, and from which society as a whole can gain. It analyzes and critiques power relations, making room for new voices and narratives. As an artist trying to visualize black feminist theory, and in this case, standpoint theory, my questions in creating 'Of Canaries and Revolutions' were: “What can be gained from including black female representation in an exhibition meant to honor and re-appropriate the female form? What can we learn from black women?”Art has the power of bringing the margins into the center, and more importantly of inviting those at the center to witness the revolution already taking place within that radical space of the margins. In the words of bell hooks, “this is an intervention. […] Marginality as a site of resistance. Enter that space. Let us meet there. Enter that space. We greet you as liberators.”