Heavy crown to bear
We have hair that defies gravity, hair that reaches down to remind us of the earth we are a part of. We have skin that is the most fathomless, rich umber that absorbs sunlight, and also skin so bright it shines when the sun hits it. We are black women, and among us, we have such a fantastic diversity that it beggars belief. Why then do we even consider that we are lesser? Why do we allow ourselves to be told so, to believe so, and why do we whittle away at the resilience of our sisters in the process? Why do we feel the need to cast aside our crowns?
For the Eighth National Exhibition (NE8), April Bey and Anina Major – both Bahamian-born and bred and currently living in the U.S. – unapologetically make their coronations as proud, black women. The criticality with which they question their placement as black Bahamian women seems quite pertinent – not only for last year with a failed referendum for equality but also with the upcoming 50th-year commemoration of Majority Rule. Considering that the women’s suffrage movement played a significant role in helping to cultivate the ground for Majority Rule to grow into being, and given the current state of women as constitutionally lesser citizens, it seems that there is a question of just who counts as the majority today.
It is out of these conditions that so many women in The Bahamas make work dealing directly with their womanhood and their blackness. We may have won the racial struggle to let our black majority have the right to govern ourselves, but in these acts of human justice, it is sometimes easy to forget that people can suffer and be marginalized on some fronts at the same time.
As Audre Lorde, the lauded feminist, womanist, and civil rights activist – who, I might add, was born to Grenadian parents living in the U.S. – so aptly put it, “There are no single-issue struggles because we do not live single-issue lives.” The lack of intersectionality in how we view struggles as Bahamians has let many of our ‘majority’ fall by the wayside. Art is a direct conduit for expressing this dissatisfaction with hierarchy, and serves as a way to disrupt that hierarchy by making yourself, a black woman, the top of that hierarchy as the queen you feel you are.
Anina Major quite literally uses her spiked ceramics to crown herself – but the weight of it is still much to bear. ‘Heavy is the Head’ (2016) pays testament to this, the simultaneous strength and the burden we carry that forces us to constantly show this strength. “It was a heavy summer for many women. So what started as a joke and bit of levity, with this spiky orb on my head, became a moment where the orb act as a genesis of me and where I’m from and the power and strength of where I come from, and then a representation of the strain of this load on us.”
The work is situated at an intersection of performance, video, painting, and ceramic work – which seems like a tall order, but it this act of balancing everything all at once that conceptually ties it all together and addresses the issues she is dealing with in her work.
A video screen self-portrait of Major set in a gilt frame, she sits with the spiked ceramic orb on her head in a queenly bearing.
“The idea of putting the sculpture on my head, as the weight, seemed appropriate in dealing with how we as women are always trying to balance that. But nobody seems to talk about it! Dealing with my personal feelings and what was going on in the world, The Bahamas, The States – it all got quite overwhelming. Somehow, as a black woman, you aren’t supposed to show any effects of this. I was finding that to be the ultimate balancing act.”
Black women are constantly under strain, not only from external and internal struggles with politics, place, and being, but also with the exhausting task of constantly ‘appearing to be strong’. It is wearying to have to display strength all the time, and through Major’s self-portrait, she offers us all a crown and a nod to the daily grind we all face that often feels as though it wears us down. “At the end of the day, I had to carry that weight still, and do so with poise and not let it disrupt or destruct my daily activity while being that regal source of strength, ‘got it together’ person that we are expected to be. It’s about that, that struggle, and how it’s less about how we can handle it and always do but more about how it is not an easy task.”
Where Major gives us crowns, April Bey immortalizes strong women in paintings installed as grand banners, holding testament to the ‘triumph’ of these queen Venuses, picturing the iconic Woman of Willendorf. The paintings on laser prints, suspended from the ceiling and shivering subtly in the space, feature hand-sewn strips of Ghanaian Hitarget Chinese fabric and act as a portrait of strong black women she has engaged with and had conversations with, women she has been inspired by: The Rt Hon. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Esenam Nyador (Miss Taxi Ghana), Sister Loretta Butler-Turner, Chief Theresa Kachindamoto.
The work is laborious, and while Major struggles with weight bearing down, Bey picks up the mantle of the difficulty of balancing hard work and the feminine. “I clocked 80-90 hours per scroll hand sewing. I’m thinking about labour, feminine ways of making and the strength needed to repeatedly complete hard tasks because life demands it.”
Demanding is perhaps an apt word for the struggle. “Black Women Are Magic was a now common mantra I wrote down often while traveling and was the basis of my residency proposal for Ghana. Magic insinuates that which is beyond reality and logic. I’ve witnessed many black women in my life perform feats that are beyond reality and logic. The resilience and stamina black women have to navigate this world is awe-inspiring. Black women are ruthlessly sovereign, but society often teaches us to withhold the respect due”. And Bey deals with this misogynoir, this societal injustice that black women must continually face, with grace and with fire.
These are women who are not only picking up what belongs to them, but what belongs to us all. Where the world fails to give you due recognition, you’re your way of making yourself and your fellows realize they are sisters in the queendom. It is an act of self-love, which is so severely lacking amongst us.
Again, as Lorde says, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” And this act is done with the poise, magic, and grace that we share with the world every day.