I. Drawing Black Life:
by Marsha Pearce, PhD
“I am made up—composed—but not a concept.
Nor are you, for that matter.” — N7.
i. On Meditation
Breathe. Fill your lungs. Let that breath fuel your heart, your blood, your body, your brain. What comes to mind when you hear the term Black Meditation, when you see it?
I suppose you would first have to believe it is something conceivable—a probability rather than a contradiction of ideas. The image of Blackness as a mindless existence is an old, lingering fallacy; a confining illusion. To invoke a vision of Black Meditation within the space of an exhibition that attends to Black Life—rather than death and curtailment—is to attempt to free ourselves from myths that would restrict us. It is to open ourselves to our creative possibilities. To creation. And in that openness, to find Blackness, not “set in stone,” but in the artist’s pigment—that which can be tinted and toned for variegated shades of being. Blackness as a fluidity, ever-capable of taking new shapes, while holding out against any final form.
I watch Kevin walk to the centre of the room and lift a wooden stick, known as a bwa (bois) in Trinidad. The bwa is an instrument used in Kalinda, a stick fighting martial art brought to Caribbean plantations from the African continent during the colonial period. As part of its fashioning, the bwa is said to undergo spiritual ritual and can be imbued—mounted—with the energies of the dead. In the quiet gallery setting in Port-of-Spain, he lifts the bwa, stretching it along his shoulders. With his right hand, he grips the stick on one end, while winding his left wrist on the other end, his arm relaxing in the shape of a V. In this gesture, I imagine him elevating a line of ancestral warriors, the bwa now a compass needle with these spirits as his guide.
This is a meditation on bearings and distance…
…we exist in relation to each other, and we are never far from those who have gone before us. This is a meditation that requires casting one’s mind along the bwa and beyond—across an expanse of years, a long consciousness spanning space and time. Despite the limited reach of his body, I wonder if his mind stretches past the confines of the room, to a gayelle in Moruga, or to the Kambulé uprising of 1881.
The irony, of course, is that this is my meditation, my reflection on what his pose has brought to my awareness.
In this act of observing him, I am mindful that imagination and meditation are closely allied and that together they can work in service of my freedom, in seeing and composing my Black self in its full range, sprawling in all directions, linked to an enduring history and unfolding future.
ii. On Resistance
Mel’s stance offers a clarity of vision and being. Standing with her arms akimbo, she is an arrow in a drawn bow—an image of potential energy and hope.
She seems ready for what’s to come. Pointed and determined. This is her rendering of Black Resistance, a physical declaration of survival in spite of a world that would constrain her possibilities and dreams. Her will to survive is visible in another sense. A look at her chest reveals the scars of a double mastectomy. They appear as two closed eyelids with stitch marks for lashes, set upon a face that has a navel for a nose and a mouth formed where her thighs meet her pelvis.
It is a raw countenance, in contrast to the one hidden behind a mask. But I do not mistake its expression for slumber, or blindness, or even death.
Instead, it is an assertion of life. In closing these eyes to the world, she chooses to see herself into next week, next month, into the years ahead. Her “closed eyes” represent a looking inward, where her essence resides, where her humanity has its roots. They signal a refusal. She refuses to see and accept the molds made for her—the illusions of womanhood, the myths of sensuality. This is her resistance.
Watching her, I am reminded of my own vulnerabilities and strengths. What face do I show the people around me?
Is it unguarded?
Days later—long after she had stepped out of that posture—I find myself going before my mirror at home, again and again, naked and searching.
I scan my dark skin, trace the stretch marks on my belly, and scrutinize my dimpled hips.
Look at me. Whole.
A life. Alive.
See me as I see myself.
II. Deep Breaths in Graphite and Pigment
If you truly see me, and others like me,
you will know you cannot draw us using
the same techniques….
Black Life is complex and plural. The work of portraying us, beyond the boundaries of what is typically known, invites a departure from formulas, a testing of points of view, and a widening of approaches. I shift my gaze from the models to the artists, and I am moved by their intuitive understanding of this labour. Sundiata’s linear hatching gives tonal dynamism and spirited weight to ideas of love and power. In contrast, Sabrina’s clouds of smudged charcoal describe subtleties of mass in space. She presents a tender interplay of light and shadow, in her formulations of joy and meditation. Maya’s closeups provide intimate portraits. Her mixture of “wet-on-wet” and “wet-on-dry” methods allows for visual texture and a free flow of paint that runs, blots and trails in undetermined, open-ended ways. Her dripping linework is juxtaposed by Simone’s sure, clean contours. Instead of highlighting and shading, Simone is concerned primarily with shapes. She defines her silhouettes by paying attention to their edges. In this way, she gives sharp, unmistakable outlines to notions of leisure and resistance.
These artists trust their own ways of seeing—not yielding to more dominant visualities. They attend to abstraction on their own terms, translating it to the figurative. They build on what they see, on what the models have literally figured for them.
From one corner of the room,
I hear an artist ask:
“What color is Black Joy?”
The question sparks other considerations: If color is a component of light, is Black Joy a reflection of a light from elsewhere, or does it emit its own glow? What is the intensity of such joy? Does it become blacker? More Black? Does it exist in levels or degrees? What does it feel like? And how do we convey and represent it? In asking, a new line is sketched: a line of inquiry that extends image-making beyond the paper on the easel to a drafting of deeper, more richly layered impressions of Blackness.
In this creative session,
no assumptions are made.
Drawing is not taken for granted.
Breath is intentional.
Marsha Pearce, PhD
Dr. Marsha Pearce is a visual arts lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus. Pearce has curated a number of exhibitions at home and abroad, including her work with the National Portrait Gallery, London and the Pérez Art Museum in Miami.