Tropism, an involuntary growth often used in the biological sense, is the title of your mixed media collage series. How did you come to this phenomenon as your guide in creating this series of work?
The title came after the first few pieces of the series were created. Initially, I wasn’t sure who my subjects were nor what they were trying to say. In the meantime, several seemingly unrelated things happened: I was working on a poetry manuscript about good girls of color; I visited Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic” exhibit—his large scale portraits place his subjects against ornate often floral backgrounds; I began trying to make sense of The Timaeus by Plato and his ideas about existence and moreover being; and I found a book of anatomy drawing studies in a used bookshop. As I continued collaging the subjects, I realized that the pieces I was collaging were extensions of the manuscript and that they were interested in how she [this good girl] existed in as well as how she navigated space. Her navigation is necessarily organic if we consider her identity is mostly erased. The repeated background of the images came about as a way to reinforce the organic-ness (and is influenced by Wiley). As a writer, I’m always reaching for the most precise way to say a thing; turns out tropism is the specific organic phenomenon to articulate the process I’m exploring.
Is your thought with “Tropism” that there are certain threads of black girlhood, which can be seen as a response to external factors like expectations and stereotypes?
Dr. Yaba Blay curates a digital archive including a hashtag and YouTube docuseries of the “Professional Black Girl.” It affirms the corporeal performance of black girlhood—from hair to attire to attitude as choices black girls make to assert themselves in spaces that are not affirming. This particular thread of black girlhood I’m interested in, the good girl, is often invisible; I’m not convinced she fits into the behaviors and decisions that comprise the professional black girl, so certainly any act of agency on her part is a response, even if indirect, to expectations of who she should/not be and how she exists in the world.
How do you define a “good girl” for the purpose of the exhibit, and how do you feel the label “good girl” factors into the various journeys for girls of color?
I use as a loose theoretical framework the trope of the “final girl” described by Carol Clover. The final girl is the last girl to survive in horror films. And she survives because she is sexually unavailable—often because she’s chaste but more often because she’s not perceived in a sexual way, carrying as she does an androgynous name and having the ability to handle the antagonist, which acts as a means of phallic appropriation. She’s behaved—never participating in the hedonistic behaviors that distract her peers and cause them to be filled by the antagonist, and she’s smart—surviving because of her intelligence and resourcefulness.
A recent Georgetown University study “Girlhood Interrupted” confirms what we’ve known at least since Donald Bogle identified tropes of blackness in film—black womanhood in part—in Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes, and Bucks. The study says that girls of color are rarely seen in any of these ways [in reality]; [but] are [viewed as adults] and made out to be sexually active, aggressive, and if not intellectually delayed, use their intellect in nefarious ways like to manipulate or deceive. In other words, historical representations suggest that by virtue of being black, a girl can’t be good too.
You were one of the fellows this year at JMU’s Furious Flower Seminar Facing It: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa. Has your work as a poet informed your other artistic processes as a photographer and collagist?
My processes overlap. I tend to see what I’m writing and hear what I’m creating, which is especially where the images that incorporate text come in.
I’ve moved between text and image since I can remember, but I’ve only publicized the habit recently. Usually, I find that when I’m having difficulty expressing myself in one medium, I can do it in another. Also, I find that some ideas seem to want to be expressed in specific forms.
Artists and writers are often sensitive to external stimuli that play the role of the muse for their work. In this case, is internal growth, rather, your muse, and if so, how do you mold that growth into a series of images?
The images closely follow my personal trajectory, so while I did not order or name them that way, I’m able to read them as different places in my life; different locations on my journey. The project definitely started as an interior monologue I recorded in journal after journal…after journal. That kind of repetition usually tells me I need to create.
A former professor used to remind us “when you’re green you grow when you’re ripe you rot.” So all my work is part of my own growth—or attempts at it. So this project has helped me to reflect on my own journey, to interrogate my performance, my prerogative, [and] the space I occupy in the world—especially to avoid shrinking, and [instead] grow.
If you are willing to share, what are you hoping visitors will take away from the series?
It’s fairly radical in Western culture to see black girls in the fullness of who they are or what they can be. I teach so I regularly meet young people performing selves that don’t let them be whole. So I want to encourage viewers to take the exhibit as an opportunity to interrogate where they may also shrink to fit and where they may, in the limits of their vision, cause others to do the same.
Interview by Adriana Hammond, 150 Franklin Gallery Curator