Using photography, film, oil, acrylics and embroidery, “Empowering Women of Color” showcases women both as creators of, and prominent subjects in, art. “It came together in a natural, organic way,” says artist and organizer Emma Brodeur who graduated from UVA in 2015. Six months ago she was embroidering a portrait on a friend’s jacket and she started thinking about how the very presence of women of color in art was a statement about visibility. As a white woman, she says, “I couldn’t fully speak to the issue”—but the group show evolved and is currently open at The Bridge PAI through February 24.
Two of the artists Brodeur asked to exhibit are former UVA classmates—Golara Haghtalab and Kemi Layeni. Originally from Hampton, Virginia, Layeni is a fourth-year who will graduate in May with a double major in English and studio art, and a minor in African and African-American studies. She has worked in photography and film, as well as composing light and sound installations. “Instead of picking a medium and sticking with it,” she says, “I have to listen to what the project is saying to me and try to find the best way to give it life.”
Her contribution to the show is a short film called American Beauty in which Layeni, who is also an actor, alters her appearance to align with white standards of beauty. “I focused on my childhood experience and the desire to be beautiful, which I equated to being white,” she says. Given that “art institutions have a history of exclusion,” Layeni says, the concept of this exhibition is “like saying yes to our existence.” The piece of art she always returns to, she says, is Manet’s “Olympia,” in which a nude white woman reclines and a clothed black woman, either a servant or slave, stands in the background. “If I don’t paint myself or put myself in the forefront, who will?” Layeni says. “I am saying ‘yes’ to my life and my experiences.”
Friend and fellow artist Brodeur has also put Layeni in the forefront in the form of an oil and embroidered portrait named “Kemi.” Until the gallery opening, Layeni had not yet seen her portrait. “In a way, seeing your own representation, or someone who looks like you, is important in legitimizing your experiences,” she says. In the portrait, Layeni stands alone, a camera hanging from a strap around her neck. But Brodeur based the portrait on a photograph in which Layeni stands beside Leslie McFadden, the mother of Michael Brown—the teenager slain by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. By a twist of fate, Layeni met McFadden at the iconic St. Louis Gateway Arch when she was in Missouri in 2015 taking photographs and interviewing residents in Brown’s neighborhood for an art project on police brutality. In the background of the portrait, Brodeur embroidered oversized lotus leaves springing up behind Layeni. The lotus is a symbol of rebirth and strength, Brodeur says.
Karen Mozee is self-taught: She creates portraits using acrylics, oil pastels and paint. She searches online through photographs for inspiration and, for her, it begins with a face. “Something in them grabs me,” she says. She combines elements from different images she sees and alters them to create an original image, the eyes especially distinct and expressive.
Another artist recommended the work of photographers Porcelyn Headen and Sarmistha Talukdar. When Talukdar isn’t creating multiple exposure photography or painting with oil and acrylic, she researches stem cells at VCU Medical Center. When she first moved to Richmond four years ago, she says, she saw artists “sharing their talent and work with the world, and it got me started getting my art out there.” The idea behind her multiple exposure photographs, she explains, is to “try to capture both the physical and the symbolic expression of a moment by blurring two different aspects.”
Talukdar’s series “Spirit of the Forest” combines images of the artist’s friend and exposures of leaves and tree branches as an exploration in environmental racism. In her oil and acrylic series “Nebula,” she overlaid one image over another on canvas, resulting in a sort of Rorschach test that represents the complexity of multiple expressions.
“Women of color definitely have their own voices, journey and perspective, which unfortunately gets lost, buried and sometimes even suppressed under other voices,” says Talukdar. For this reason, she says, she is grateful for the exhibition and the opportunity to see what other participating artists have to share with the world.
The sheer range of medium and style of expression in the show, Brodeur says, speaks to what they are trying to accomplish, to highlight individuality and visibility. “Because even though we have this broader concept of women of color,” she says, “it’s also very much advocating for each artist whose work is in that space.”