ain’t i a woman

Brooklyn’s MOCADA featured a group exhibition titled for the purported refrain from Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. Curator Kimberli Gant assembled a group of women artists and paired each of them with a female African poet from the Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry as inspiration for their work. While the flow of the exhibit was as confusing as the Truth theme and African women’s poetry collabo, there were some innovative pieces among the bevy of mostly brown bodies crammed in the tight, almost maze-like space. Elizabeth Columba’s Phyllis combined shadow with vibrant color. The thoughtful piece also embraced the show’s theme without being too literal.

As a literary scholar, I like projects that bring together text and visuality but I found that some pieces drew from the poetic inspiration in much too literal of a way, by incorporating lines from the poem, for instance. It’s a subjective critique to be sure but I just looked for more clever ways to think about the poetic-visual pairing. While I found Phoenix Savage’s “Antithesis” to be a well-conceived and visually striking piece, for instance, I thought the way she brought text into installation was distracting.

Kimberly Becoat’s pieces, on the other hand, integrated text into her paintings in a subtle yet powerful way. Her blazes of color, floral patterns, and small patches of black gave a nod to Henrietta Lacks. “Soon Henrietta Come Hela” captured the vision of the exhibition without recourse to cliche or reductive tropes of black womanhood.

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About jennifer williams

Jennifer D. Williams is a writer and professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies. She has published in academic journals and online at Ms.blog, PopMatters, among other sites. Jennifer is currently working on a book that looks at black women's urban literature between the Depression and the civil rights era.

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