Having opened “Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment” – her latest exhibition at Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg – last week, Ms. Ayana V. Jackson, the American artist with global tentacles, shares some thoughts on her childhood, black womanhood, her work and more. In her own words, as told to MR SIPHIWE MPYE.
I am a Black American woman, artist and global citizen, splitting my time between Johannesburg, Paris and New York. I come from a divorced household, so then, like now, I lived in three different places: my mom’s, my dad’s and my paternal grandmother’s homes. It would be in Grandma Jackson’s house that I was first taught about ladylike behavior. How to sit properly, how to set a table, how to serve my father’s plate. The idea that I should make his plate.
My mother on the other hand, showed me what it meant to be an independent single woman, mother and entrepreneur. Even while modeling and working as a flight attendant, she ran her own salon and cosmetics line. It was in her house and her salon that I learned what a beautiful woman looked, dressed and smelled like. In the midst of all of this, I found my womanhood.
A friend recently started calling me ‘ungovernable’. I didn’t realise this was a ‘thing’. What I understood him to mean was that I – like Eartha Kitt, Brenda Fassie, Nina Simone and my Mother – am not easily controlled. While I may have a double consciousness that is aware of and capable of conforming to modes of behaviour based on morality or patriarchy, I am not governed by them. Forty years on this earth has taught me that as long as I can sleep at night, that is all that matters. As a result I am not easily shamed. I accept my success as well as my failures as part of my fabric and am unashamed to admit when and how I have fallen.
“While I may have a double consciousness that is aware of and capable of conforming to modes of behavior based on morality or patriarchy, I am not governed by them. Forty years on this earth has taught me that as long as I can sleep at night, that is all that matters.”
At heart I am an activist. My work is inherently political. That said, I also like to make beautiful work, and to render the black body, or more to this exhibition, the black woman’s body as beautiful, light, soft and delicate. This for me is also a political act. I don’t know what would motivate me to make work for the sake of aesthetics alone.
Sexism is an epidemic that knows no boundaries. It can be found among men and women across all sexual and political orientations. I think we all need to look at ourselves, our relationships and examine the ways in which we either uphold or exhibit sexist behavior. Intersectionality is key to progress. The intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, but also tradition and modernity is where things become interesting. In a place like South Africa, much like the United States, we need to shed a CIS male, Eurocentric vision of the world if our humanity is to thrive, and this needs to be reflected in our education system, especially in a country that is 80 some odd percent black.
I first came to South Africa in 2001, and came again in 2007. Since then I have spent half or more of my year here. There are too many shifts to count, but what I will say is that I am so inspired and encouraged by the post ‘94 “born frees” coming of age. I can’t get Ms. Dineo Bopape out of my mind. Her winning presentation for Future Generations Prize at Venice this year was haunting.
I don’t know that I understand the concept of work/life balance. I am extremely grateful that I love what I do, I wake up thinking about work and I go to bed thinking about it. Weekends and holidays are not part of how I understand my time to work and time to rest. My work gives such extreme pleasure that I’d rather not stop. Do I have friends, family, and lovers? Yes. I believe I live a fulfilled life and the people in it understand my way of working. If I had to express a downside, I would say that partnerships with people without a similar travel schedule are not easy as I really do require a lot of trust and understanding because I spend so much time away. But overall, I have been quite lucky in that area as well.
I have three galleries on three continents so my collector base is varied. I will say that because of my collaboration with Gallery MOMO and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery – both owed by Black dealers whose program includes cultivating Black collectors – I am very proud to say that a significant percentage of my work is in the hands of Black collectors, something that is hard to achieve for the black artist.
Recognition for the work you do is often enough. There is a certain amount of visibility that comes with it, which is always good. That said, as a Black American artist who was essentially groomed in Johannesburg and Paris, there is a certain amount of validation that comes from being acknowledged by your own community. To quote Malcolm X (and Beyoncé’s Lemonade for that matter): “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” I would venture to say this to be true not only in the United States but across the globe.
“Fragility, tenderness … the need for protection has in recent history been the domain of white women. We do not need to look very far to see the extremes that have gone into protecting white womanhood at all costs by white, as well as ‘non-white’ men. Who is rising to defend the Black woman?”
Fragility, tenderness … the need for protection has in recent history been the domain of white women. We do not need to look very far to see the extremes that have gone into protecting white womanhood at all costs by white, as well as ‘non-white’ men. Who is rising to defend the Black woman? How much abuse and humiliation, both physical and psychological has been launched against black womanhood over the centuries? How damaging is our reputation as strong/ resilient/ having a high tolerance for pain?
This is not to say that we need to be seen as powerless or incapable of taking care of ourselves. It is to say, however that our strength should not be a reason to justify all manner of abuse. As Dr. Threadcraft says in ‘Intimate Justice’, the inspiration for this exhibition: “Key in ensuring black female bodily integrity is changing the meaning of black womanhood, so that for example, black women are no longer blamed for the assaults they experience.”
‘Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment’ is on until August 27.
Gallery MOMO, 57 7th Avenue, Parktown North, Johannesburg. (011) 327-3247