A few weeks ago I attended The Art of Living Black (TAOLB), a group art exhibition that includes sculptors, painters, jewelry makers, mixed media artists, photographers, and doll makers of African descent. The annual event is held from the beginning of January through the end of March at various venues throughout the Bay Area, including my Alma mater, Mills College.
The only artist of the group I know personally is Ajuan Mance, my former professor at Mills and the author of Inventing Black Women: African American Women Poets and Self-Representation, 1877-2000. Ajuan is one of those crazy-smart scholars who happens to be personable and artistic. She carries herself with a smooth confidence that rivals President Obama’s. Her series of drawings, 1001 Black Men, is inspired by the men she sees in Oakland, and by memories of her family, friends, and neighbors back east. On her website, 8-rock.com, Ajuan writes of her series:
“I push past entrenched stereotypes to create images of Black men that reflect the wonderful complexity of African American lives—our history so deeply embedded in our present, our celebrations so often tempered by grief and, yes, the pleasure and danger we find in so many of the people, places, and activities that give us joy.”
At the time of this posting, the latest in the series is number 512. The first piece of art I saw from Ajuan was during her office hours my first year at Mills. I remember being nervous that day for several reasons, one of which was the uncertainty of what to write for my thesis, as my novel was in its infancy at the time, and the other was not wanting to sound like a dumb-ass while talking to Ajuan about African-American history, my mixed-race heritage, the social construction of race, and the exclusivity of whiteness. As we talked, I noticed a painting, leaning next to her against a desk or chair, similar in style to those in her current series, of a Black man, only more abstract. As I became comfortable in our conversation, I let my eyes wonder and art seemed to jump out from all angles of the office. I expected books, of which I saw plenty, but not paintings and sketches. I had been inspired by Ajuan from day one of class by the way she carried herself and by what she said and how, but the combination of scholar-artist added another layer of respect and her works continue to inspire in me creative energy.
As I walked through the exhibition to see Ajuan, I stopped to look at Thearthur Wright‘s striking paintings in black, brown, gold, and white. This alone would be worth mentioning due to his talent and the initial impact the paintings had on me, but the hot kicker is they were painted with bleach! He withheld this fact for a good while into our conversation and my mind was blown when he finally mentioned it. I asked him about technique, especially with bleach, and he said he works in dots, many dots, and the age of the bleach determines the color on the canvas. By that point, my mind had already begun humming as it does when good art and a new way of creating comes about. He also mentioned he started out as writer and had several publications, but painting came later in life and eventually became his focus, especially after retiring from a career as an electrician.
I write this in preparation, as inspiration to write into the novel this weekend. My novel is now in two parts. The first draft of part one is complete. My goal is to have the first draft of part two finished by May. Hard task because of work and other commitments, but being a novelist is one of those dreams I can’t let go.