A Radical Pluriverse
Reflections on Black Womanhood on Both Sides of the Lens
“You are now entering my universe. I am the lens, the subject, the authority.” (Rebeca Huntt, Beba, 2021)
When African and Black women evoke a strategy of self-proclamation, it changes lives. Summoning through art, critical texts, rigorous study, a commitment to shaping cultural memory through restorative representational acts of care. I return to the challenges of self-documentation that live within the limitations of imaging Blackness and particularly Black womanhood, in awe of how self-actualization becomes central to the work of conceptualizing our lives in social space.
An embodiment and physical manifestation of world-making.
The undeniable genesis of Black womanhood in the aftermath of slavery is the ongoing development of affirmation through which we form our identities. Oral and documented declarations of self propel us into spheres of being we simultaneously design and operate. Though I haven’t been gifted stories that predate my great-grandmother, I’d like to think our sources of self-regard exist far beyond resistance to colonial and post-colonial contrived references to the Black woman. I consider it a privilege to access a spiritual legacy of mothers, sisters and daughters—a lineage or genealogy of Black women(hood) that is defined by collective self-awareness, shared political consciousness, love, magic, quests for liberation and futurism.
Omitting redundant queries concerning external constructs of Blackness, I acknowledge the strategic and deliberate formation of these tropes and unchecked sentiments within institutions, in form or in thought. Scholarship from Afro-diasporic feminist thinkers like Alice Walker, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Maria Isabel Romero Ruiz and Hortense Spiller build a foundational understanding of the complex trajectory of harm Black women experience in the media. Ripped from their sovereignty and purged from intellectual spaces, impacts of race, class and gender have long upheld the imaging of Afro-diasporic women. Far more dire than the crosswinds of history is Western infatuation with Blackness, Black womanhood and efforts toward its destruction, reinforcing the societal power dynamic between the historically (pre-determined) author and (imposed) subject. Particularly for systematically marginalized communities, the threat of documentary is the power of the documentary: the provisional truth, the uninvited and the intention and supposed authority to mediate, adopt and appropriate. Understanding this exploitative power is imperative to determining modes of resistance— the bravery of illuminating a version of self beyond the veil of whiteness is unique to the condition of Black women under imperial scrutiny. At constant odds with a visual, literary, emotional, social, living and breathing archive of colonial thought is our ongoing interpretive intervention. We have always done the double work of creating intercommunal guides: how we see ourselves, while dismantling the archive, and how they see us. Black women documentarians dismantle the universalizing logic of Western visual regimes.
Black women are rarely both the subjects and authors of artistic studies, but are instead objects for social scientific investigation as exotic representatives, often partially or completely bereft of cultural grounding or clear identity. The common characterizations of ghetto girl, class poor, one African (dissolving nuance), jezebel or mammy provided “sufficient” depictions of the Black woman form to serve white society. The Western desire to author, contain, frame and collect meaning-making perpetuates an often violent “othering” into our social and visual consciousness, outlining the anthropological implications of a voyeuristic chronicle. Where Black women push themselves into visibility, their work holds the potential to call into existence complex and decisive articulations of history. There is an almost indistinguishable line between the politicization of the Black woman and the visual history of Blackness in front of the lens.
Thus, the transformative potential of a documentary: a self-portrait, a counter archive and a voice of adamant positioning that foregrounds the lived experiences of Afro-diasporic women, expanding, interrogating and disrupting conventional storytelling. It can be an offering of “tell it like it is” interventions against assimilation, language and respectability. I champion an approach that prioritizes the redistribution of authority, burgeoning opportunities for new narratives, expansion of accessibility and the daylighting of our disillusionment. In this gesture of autonomy, marginalized communities take up self-imaging as a tool to establish, enact and reflect on their presence in complex and meaningful ways. Practices that require both adjacency and cross-disciplinary methodologies challenge surface-level representations of Black womanhood in favor of participatory telling, and rearticulate public visual narratives that bridge the personal and subjective, and document lived experiences beyond their current state of representation with care. It is through this lens that we produce an honest, multilayered framing of Black womanhood, ancestry, identity and coming of age. Self-documentation as a mechanism of power, ascribing new meanings to our experiences through reclamation, preservation, grounding and collective self-care.
Nya Lewis’ practice is a culmination of centuries of African resistance, love, questions, actions, study and embrace. Lewis’ sees her practice as a continuation of a long lineage of work undertaken by Black artists, curators, writers, activists and thinkers who blaze(d) a trail of critical discourse surrounding the Black experience. She works across the disciplines of art making, curating and writing. Her work is multivalent in form and expression but is always driven by the reimagining and reclaiming of community. Lewis, MFA is an independent curator/writer currently serving as the Director/curator of Artspeak Gallery, and the inaugural Research fellow at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Beba screens Friday, May 5 at 6:15 PM at The Cinematheque. For tickets, Click Here