Painter, sculptor, and poet Malaika Favorite has spent her career rendering the adversities of the Black experience using odd objects and often surprising substitutes for the stretched canvas. Favorite studied fine art earning her BA and MFA at Louisiana State University. She is also a published poet in multiple anthologies, and it is the relationship between poetry and fine art that is especially palpable in 150’s permanent collection room where Favorite’s piece the Furious Flower Quilt has been in residence since commissioned in 2004. The “quilt” is in fact not a fabric design, but a series of mixed media portraits. Like much of Favorite’s work, the quilt is an expression of Black historical progression.
In previous interviews you have discussed how the Black female experience is a major feature of your work. Has your perspective evolved over the course of your career as an artist regarding that identity?
I continue to emphasize the female presence in my art work. Here is an example from a show now on display at the West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen, LA. This is a show of washboards that highlight the importance of Black women as entrepreneurs during and after slavery.
The Black female presence haunts me in art. Black women were often portrayed as either servants or concubines in many early paintings [of Caucasian artists]. It wasn’t until [Black artists] became [accepted into the] classical history of art that Black women were portrayed with complexity.
As a Black female artist, I feel it is important to establish the multifaceted nature of the Black female experience in past and present reality. For that reason, I often step back into the past to open the discussion about the lesser known realities of women. The fact that struggle was often juxtaposed with beauty is a part of the veracity I express in my work. The beauty I speak of is not the preconceived notion of beauty, but beauty in its elemental form. To express this, I incorporate plants and nature that anchor women to the environment and give them courage to continue despite the negatives. This is a lesson I learned from watching my mother and grandmother living difficult lives but holding on to simple wonders.
The evolution in my work stems from the need to encourage women in general and Black women in-particular to be among the change makers in our world. Thus, my latest work often leans more towards a political perspective. As seen in this piece from my 2018 show: Threads of Kinship.
One of the important themes within your work is the universal experience of suffering but through the feminine lens. I am thinking about a painting we have here in the gallery titled For My People as it depicts a kind of poetic African diaspora progression along the center panel with several femme figures. What other ways have you tried to creatively interpret this experience?
In my work I try to maintain a reminder of where we are as a people, where we have been, and where we need to go. I also explore this concept in my poetry.
I tried on the dream again,
it does not fit.
Mom says I will grow into it.
It sags around the waist,
the shoulders droop
over my small arms
like a too big coat on an orphan.
Dreams can’t come true
until they fit, she explained.
If a dream sags
you haven’t grown into it yet.
It’s secondhand I complained.
She replied, all dreams are used.
Do you know of a dream
that no one has worn?
Tie the thing around your waist,
pin up the shoulders,
practice walking in it
with a bucket on your head.
Don’t be embarrassed if people laugh.
They used to dream too,
but when their dream
did not fit their reality
they pulled it off, hid it in a draw
under the pressed linen,
planning to try it on again
when they reached that right place.
The dream dried up under the linen
forgotten like an old scarf yellowed with time.
one day you won’t have to try it on
it will be cozy on your person.
No one will know
It was a hand-me-down dream.
From ASCENSION: 2016 Broadside Lotus Press
150 Franklin’s Furious Flower Quilt features 24 portraits of poets of the African diaspora. What was your approach to each of these portraits and what role did the poets’ work have in influencing your creative interpretations?
I did extensive research on each poet. I wanted each painting to reflect something about that poet’s work and life. I also included a poem by the poets in their portraits as a reminder to the viewer of what they gave us.
The work was inspired by a discussion with Joanne V. Gabbin and Opal Moore in the summer of 2003 at my studio in Atlanta GA. We agreed that it should be a quilt painting similar to my Woman Quilt painting which consisted of twenty four 16 x 20 portraits of women in various stages and attitudes of life. Joanne suggested we show the piece at the 2004 Furious Flower Conference in Harrisonburg, VA. Joanne supplied the list of poets and left the creative endeavor up to me. Opal came over during the creation of the work and gave valuable suggestions for improvements in the work.
I am not a portrait painter, I consider myself more a painter of ideas. I wanted each painting to suggest the character of the poet as well as introduce the viewer to some of the poet's words. I know that many people who see this work will not be familiar with the writing of all the poets depicted in the quilt, so I felt it was necessary to include excerpts from the writing of each poet. In some cases, I allowed the words of the poet to direct my brush in what I should say about the poet yet it is not meant to be an interpretation of a particular poem but a comment about the poet and the poem chosen to represent them.
What were some of the challenges in completing a work of this size?
The difficult part was deciding what to say about each poet. I wanted each image to effectively portray the essence of the poets represented.
The Poets are not arranged according to their importance in the poetic movement but according to where their painting worked best in the overall design scheme. I started with one arrangement but ended up moving people around based on colors and shapes, working to produce a unified work of art. The central paintings suggest the center of a flower opening-up, a “Furious Flower” full of diversity and amazement. The four poets placed in that central area I felt had a big influence on the flowering of African American poetics. From there it was the multiplication of ideas that continue to reflect, spin off and reinvent itself. Once a seed is cast out it is hard to total up all the plants that result from the original seed. My job was to highlight some of the major flowering, and hopefully inspire more creative endeavors as we celebrate what the master writers gave us.
How would you describe the differences between your early work as a painter and sculptor as opposed to your later work?
My earlier work usually focused on a single image or idea in each piece. In my present work I incorporate layers of meaning and symbolism that require a deeper investigation by the viewer.
I can’t say that this is where I will remain with my approach to painting and 3-D art. It could evolve into complete abstraction, but right now, I like the idea of surprise I get in each piece. I have no idea where the painting is going until midway, I see a path and I take it. Each figure in the painting are as much a surprise to me as they are to the viewer seeing the painting for the first time. I start with dabs of color that remind me of a shape, a human figure, or an animal and I go from there; inventing as I go. I believe that the ideas and thoughts that inform me as an African American female artist automatically come out without me planning it or trying to contrive a solution. For me, this is the best way to be a creative person.
Malaika Favorite will show new work at the Baton Rouge Gallery, Center For Contemporary Art, December 2-29.
Interview by Adriana Hammond