‘The Art of Afrotherapy’: Decolonising Beauty via Black Girl Magic at University

ART, IMAGE ACTIVISM, WORKSHOPS

“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”― Nina Simone

The Psychology department of Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham U.K. were looking for a creative that they could collaborate with on the topic of black women and their black hair to produce an event. One of the reasons that I was recommended to them because of this…

Contemporary Natural Hair by the Pickyheads:

CNHG 1 LOG2 PICKYHEADS
Contemporary Natural Hair by the Pickyheads is a facebook group/blog that I initially created in order to counteract the sheer lack of contemporary representation of  black beauty. Another reason why I created the group is that I wanted to re-brainwash myself into loving myself aesthetically eg. my natural afro hair texture and skin tone. Very quickly as I started to unearth more information about history, race theory, black feminism, visual sociology and ethnography and injected this into the group. I started to garner attention from people of African descent throughout the world. Im not saying Im famous by any stretch of the imagination but a friend of mine that lived in Belgium was told about my group by a Black Dutch woman who was gushing about it and my friend soon realised

‘but thats my friend Honey!!!?!!!’

I realised that the group could be used as a tool to

‘Dismantle racism, white supremacy, colourism and misogynoir, using all forms of artistic expression within contemporary culture. All with the emphasis of bigging up skin tones, hair textures, hairstyles of african heritage in order to decolonise beauty’

The Event: The Exhibition

I was asked by psychology department of Trent University and Esther Akanya Educational Developer (Success For All- Social Sciences) Centre for Academic Development & Quality at Nottingham Trent University to come up with an idea for an event that would link psychology to black hair. So I came up with the idea of creating an exhibition and a workshop called ‘The Art of Afrotherapy’: Decolonising beauty through art afro textured discussion.

AFROTHERAPY FLYER

Creating artwork with 0 funds is tricky especially when you’re covering a topic that is arguably a part of the reason why you have 0 funds #irony – but that is another blog post. I have used my years of experiencing the slow poison of the intersectionality between anti-black misogyny, fatphobia and hair texture discrimination and how that effects every facet of life eg. employment, relationships, social media.  I also wanted to enthuse a sense of self care practised through creating art, music and also through facebook blogging, providing a space for a small part of a huge community of beautiful black women and images and links that centre our us, a reconnection with nature and black culture into my art.

I wanted a part of the exhibition to be immersive and so I invited the university to write their thoughts about black women, black women’s hair, the exhibition, and here are some of my favourite comments and images from the exhibition:

  • ‘Our rich and saturated melanin! it indeed pops severely and they be MADD!’
  • ‘Colourism is colonisation’
  • ‘Dont Touch My Hair’
  • ‘Black = beauty’
  • ‘People who complain about my hair in their face while dancing, Bitch you just been blessed :-)’

I started with creating my art and in a short space of time I had created a collection of pieces that were about decolonising beauty plus the colonising minds and express. Started with creating some new pieces of art on a shoestring and collecting older pieces that tied in with the theme of the exhibition.

I wanted my work to feature womanity of african descent, the different skin tones and natural hair textures, I wanted to communicate a sense of vulnerability, endurance and the beauty within that.

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 21.52.50

The Event: The Workshop

In the U.K. and throughout the western world we are forced to conform to ideals of beauty and femininity that are racist white supremacist, patriarchal and anti-black.So in turn the afro textured natural hair that naturally grows from black people’s heads is often deemed unkempt, dirty, un-marriable, undateable, unemployable, rebellious, masculine and ugly. As opposed to men, it is still largely socially unacceptable for women not to have hair I’ve often wondered what effect this is having on women of African descent as it is seldom measured, analysed, unpacked and discussed not even nearly enough in the UK, especially outside London. Coupled with the fact that many black women are often culturally socialised to be self sacrificial and are often expected to hold families, churches and communities together often resulting in a degree self neglect but this level of self sacrifice it is not reciprocated. I have often wondered what effect does this have on the psyche and wellbeing of women of african descent in the uk?

presentation Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 21.51.52

There is a sizable population of women of African Caribbean descent that were born in Nottingham (largely of Jamaican descent and West African descent). Nottingham’s boasts 2 prestigious University’s both Nottingham University and of course Nottingham Trent University, both attract students from all over the globe. I wanted to to provide a space  within Nottingham Trent University that would act as a place for black women and others to vent their views on the topic of black hair, beauty and how it feels to be a black woman in the uk as there is catharsis in airing this topic usually hidden in plain sight.

I created a presentation that aided the discussion, culminating in sharing examples of black girl magic enthused artistic expressions of self care such as recording artists: Solange’s song ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’, Jamila Wood’s ‘Holy’, Soul II Souls’s ‘Back to Life’ and powerful imagery of intoxicatingly beautiful natural haired fashionistas from the Afropunk Festival based in Brooklyn NY but now worldwide. Resulting in a brilliantly  nourishing, amusing, intimate and enlightening conversation. The changes that I would make to the workshop are that Id make it much more art based as I feel that there is a toxic amount of subliminal emotion tightly compacted and stored away within the intersectionality between British politeness, patriarchy and misogynoir… still to be unpacked.

Staying Woke & Unpacking Misogynoir: Interrupting The Blissful Sleep of Young Black British & Mixed Race Men

IMAGE ACTIVISM, WORKSHOPS

 

‘Sleep: A condition of body and mind which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended.’ -Definition of ‘sleep’ by the Oxford Dictionary

‘To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’ -James A. Baldwin

GROUP1 - black boy2

The word was out that someone was on the look out for a “a strong black woman” to be invited to act as a role model and explore topics such as positive relationships with women, managing stereotypes and lead a discussion for an initiative called black on track UK. Despite the tired trope of ‘Strong Black Woman’ it sounded exciting and agreed to do it.

Black on Track UK:

Black on Track UK is a unique cultural group for young Black males at the then South Nottingham College now Central College Nottingham, supported by the School of Education at Nottingham Trent University in 2012.

Dr Sheine Peart pic1

Dr Sheine Peart

The launch of the group followed a 15 month research project by Nottingham Trent University’s Sheine Peart, course leader for the Masters in Education at the School of Education, which was carried out at South Nottingham College and the former Broxtowe College.

Along with Dr Sheine Peart, South Nottingham College learner achievement coach, Claudius Dyer and Lecturer Norris Stewart have also been instrumental in establishing the group, with support from its deputy principal, John Gray.

[Read More About Black On Track Here]

Enlightenment, Where to Start?

‘There can be no freedom for black men as long as they advocate the subjugation of black women.’-bell hooks

The topic of the discussion was ‘Black Mens Attitudes Towards Black Women’ as at the South Nottingham College had noticed that Black male students increasingly wanted nothing to do with black women. Though excited by the prospect of possibly being involved in enlightening some young black men with regard to black women and the issues we face. Needless to say I was daunted at the prospect, what would I discuss  with them? Where do I start? Because misogynoir against black women in the UK is particularly tarte and it hasn’t gone unnoticed to me or any other black women I know.

It would be a task for me to eradicate all known misogynoir from the UK but perhaps I could attempt to remove the sleep from a few young black men’s eyes and minds and enlighten them to the fact that black women are not as derogatory a concept as some of young black british males have been hypnotised by western society to believe…. infact #blackgirlmagic is real.

Waking Up To Decolonising Beauty Ideals

The group of young men were made up of 6 black men and 1 mixed race man, all of the students were aged between 16 and 18. They all looked slightly nervous as we introduced ourselves to each other. One of the first things we did to ease us into the topic watch a YouTube vid, A Girl like Me  is a 2005 Award winning short documentary by a then 16-year-old filmmaker Kiri Davis. The 7 min documentary examines such things as the importance of colour, hair and facial features for young African American women.

Most of the students said that they felt bad and angry for the girls in the documentary. The reenactment of the Doll Test from the Brown vs. Board of Education case in Civil Rights era America stood out for them and we also discussed how racism effects black girls and black women in uniquely different ways to black males.

and I googled the words ‘beautiful woman’ and they were shocked at the results…Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 01.52.58

it goes on like this for pages…

Now we scrolled for about 16pages and then we started to see pics of Beyonce and couple images of Oriental women speckled through the results. All the young men looked like they had just a dose of smelling salts in response to the results. We all agreed that it was telling that we had to scroll past hundreds of images of caucasian women who were not famous and the first WoC, black woman to be deemed beautiful enough to show up in the results had to be as famous, successful as a european appearing as Beyonce…in order to be deemed beautiful as a black woman? They began to empathise with black women and see how manipulative the media can be.

Then we discussed what their ideas of beauty were….

I asked them who their top 3 most attractive famous women were…
Names such as Emma Stone, Cheryl Cole, Jennifer Lopez, Megan Fox, Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johanssen, Alicia Keys, Emma Watson, Kate Winslet and Kelly Rowland came up… no real surprises. Only one of them singer Kelly Rowland was a black woman all of the rest of the women are white or racially ambigious /mixed race. I pointed out that isn’t it interesting that the people that they found attractive reflected the results of the doll test in the documentary, they agreed.

Being Conscious of Racist Stereotypes Applied to Black Women

By the time we got to this point they were quite comfortable talking to me and each other. I asked them what do you think of White women, Black women, Mixed Race women?….it was my turn to be a little startled…

Black Women: Queens, Dominant, attitude, dont take any shit, facesty, some are too loud, wear weaves alot, they stick up for you, Mothers, they are providers, big lips, they dont like their hair, rude, argumentative, some are sexy, harder to chat up, big bums aka ‘back off’, get high marks.

White Women: Liars, bitches, not to be trusted, easy, agreeable, they do what you say, pretty, nice long hair, dumb, bimbos, easy to trick, they’ve got alot of freedom because their parents let them do whatever they want, flat bums, wild, up for doing new things.

Mixed Race Women: Stuck up, pretty, bit facesty, always got their hair slicked back, confused, curls, light skin, some lean more to their white side and some lean more to their black side, lost, think that they are too nice, more trouble than its worth.

I was startled because the one who said that black women were queens and that white women were ‘liars, bitches and not to be trusted’ was the young Mixed Race man, it made me want to know more about his story? what had happened in his young life that had made him come to such conclusions? We discussed where the stereotypes came from, we talked about the fact that if they all were the female versions of themselves that based on all the women that they said they were attracted to they probably wouldn’t find themselves attractive.

In summary I had learned that those students were open to hearing about black women’s lives. The students said that they enjoyed discussion and thought that it met their needs much better than school. It spoke to their experience more than just the academic side and there is no formal cultural or emotional support for them, an issue which is replicated in Further Education across the country. I’m glad that I could play a part in at least presenting a new perspective that they possibly hadn’t considered in depth before, perhaps ignorance isn’t so blissful afterall..

How To Turn Poets into Choirs and Words into Songs in Germany

MUSIC, WORKSHOPS

Welcome to Braunschweig, East Germany Honey!

Braunschweig aka Brunswick is a pretty little city in Lower Saxony in East Germany, full of 17th century architecture and 1980s shopping malls, brutalist realness and the ever so colourfully quirky Rizzi House by architect Konrad Kloster in honour of Artist James Rizzi. Back in October 2015 in a time before brexit,  I had flown over to Braunschweig with the Mouthy Poets (Nottingham Based Poetry Collective) led by Deborah Stevenson who is a Poet/ Dancer/ Grime MC/ Teacher. The reason we were there in East Germany was to perform with the Loewenmaul Poets aka ‘Lion Mouth Poets’ at the beautiful Staatstheater Braunschweig as a Singer and a Poet and to partake in workshops whilst meeting other poets from across the pond.

 

Most people were very friendly and welcoming there but many of the local people did stare at the people of colour in our group, as if we were aliens or refugees which was both interesting, mildly amusing but did start to have a negative effect on us after a while. I stayed with a lovely lady called Helene who looked after me well and made me feel at home.

Braunschweig-1790-Edit

Staatstheater postcard

Postcard of Staatstheater Braunschweig, Germany

IMG_1565

Vocal Workshop: Choral Skills

Inside the grand walls of the Staatstheater, I was asked to lead a Choral Vocal Workshop, this meant that I had to craft a lesson plan that could work for a mixed ability group.

I used some of the techniques I have used with my choir The Gang of Angels such as…

  • Locating your diaphragm,
  • Breathing techniques,
  • Warm ups
  • Harmonising and being split into Sopranos (High woman singers), Alto’s (Low woman singers) and Tenors (High male singers)
  • Choral songwriting skills

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 23.41.48

We ended up collaboratively writing quite an ominous, dissonant, yet amusing song called ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE’… which we sang on a round (some people still sing this to me lol).

I think that everyone did really well, they took direction and everyone participated even though some were convinced that singing was something that they shouldn’t do. There is something about filling rooms with harmony that restores something in me… I wasn’t sure if they got that same feeling but everyone appeared to enjoy it.

2170554A-6A7A-4ECC-ABD6-109135CDDD35

Instant Feedback:

Mouty Poets and Loewenmaul Poets later did a writing exercise in one of the many opulent rooms of the Braunschweig Staat and one of the tasks was to write an anonymous note to different people in the group. In the note we had to tell the person what we had learned and or gained from them. We then folded our little notes up, put the persons name on it and gave note to them.

I had always meant to blog about this because it touched me alot, people had lots of kind words to say about me. I had kept the little notes and recently rediscovered them. I dont talk about negative experiences much but and as a woman who encounters alot of fatphobia and misogynoir, it was novel to receive a barrage of positive feedback like this all in one go!?! which made me feel appreciated.

 

Some of my favourite notes were …
‘I learned from your quiet confidence’
‘Wisdom, light and positivity’
‘I’ve learned to sing’
‘Always be yourself, without shame’
‘I love your voice and I loved your workshops, it was one of my favourites’

All in all I enjoyed my time there.