Like most teenagers, Sahara Clemons is figuring out who she is.
She describes herself as “quirky” and “introverted,” a bit shy and quiet. She wears bright lipstick and expresses herself via clothing. She likes to read, travel and look at art. And she’s a Charlottesville High School rising senior who only recently started thinking of herself as an artist.
Clemons can’t remember a time when she wasn’t drawing or sketching, and was often told that she had talent, but she wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. “Talent can motivate you, but it’s hard to distinguish” between enjoyment and talent, especially when you’re young, says Clemons.
She developed a distinct visual voice through both pop art pen-and-ink self-portraits and fashion design—Clemons has participated in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Teen Stylin’ program more than once and won “most creative construction” accolades. She has always created for herself, as a means of self-reflection, but about a year ago, she noticed that people weren’t just looking at her work—they were reacting to it, connecting with it. That’s when she felt like she could call herself an artist.
Clemons’ exploration of her identity as a black woman is a central theme in her collection of paint-and-textile works of abstract portraiture on view in the Backroom at Second Street Gallery—how she sees herself, how she imagines others see her and how she can’t help but incorporate the world’s perception of her into her inner self.
At the top of a long, vertical piece, Clemons’ face is drawn in pop-art style, with thick, expressive black lines outlining her features, hair, arms and hands, all rendered in yellow against a deep cobalt. The viewer has caught her mid-dance pose, and below Clemons’ face is a pattern comprised of four pairs of feet, all on tiptoe, in yellow and black, dancing across a striped plane. In each black shadow cast by the feet is a dancing figure.
This particular piece represents Clemons’ love of dance, an aspect of herself she generally keeps under wraps. Not that she doesn’t want people to know, but because she likes to surprise people by dancing when the moment is right. By publicly declaring her sub-secret love for dance in a slightly abstract way, she says she is able to “reiterate my means of feeling different, but also feeling somewhat empowered by keeping it in.”
The pattern is reminiscent of Dutch wax fabric (also called ankara), which Clemons first saw during a trip to Uganda where she connected with the bold, unique fabrics in a way she didn’t connect with other things in the country. The fabric has a long history, but in brief, the Dutch adopted a centuries-old Indonesian wax resist-dyeing technique and brought it, along with the bright, batik-style patterns, to Dutch colonies in southern and western Africa in the 19th century. Ever since, the brightly colored bold patterns have been widely associated with West African garb.
One of Clemons’ favorite artists, Yinka Shonibare, uses Dutch wax fabric in his sculptural works to comment on “expansionism and colonialism…and how the world was tapered with that kind of imperialistic mindset,” Clemons explains.
She says the fabrics have allowed her to reflect upon her identity “as a black person, feeling like I was taking something that was part of myself and putting it out there [in a way] I hadn’t done so before.”
Another piece in the collection, “Bleached,” is inspired by the same trip to Uganda, where Clemons and her mother, Eboni Bugg, stayed in a birth center. In the piece, a light brown figure appears to either consume, or be consumed by, white liquid bleach, while a smaller, darker brown figure looks on; they’re cradled by bright green pieces of a Dutch wax fabric pattern.
At the birth center, one woman had much lighter skin than the other women and children there, including her own child, Clemons says. She later learned that this woman bleached her skin “probably for years and months” in order to lighten it.
Clemons felt extraordinary sadness at the idea that this woman was reacting to pressure to look a certain way, and she also “felt some sort of guilt” in her own (naturally) light skin: “I felt like I was perpetuating something for her,” says Clemons, adding that she intends the piece to “show the generational trauma” that can persist among black women when the idea that light skin is more beautiful than dark skin permeates a society. And she wonders how it has affected her perception of, and the perception of her within, black culture.
In creating these pieces, Clemons has come to understand how many things converge to form her identity. “As I became more developed and more aware of things that would be reflective upon me as a black person, my character, my self-expression, it sometimes became easier to walk life more freely, and it became harder, too.” Such is the paradox of self-awareness.
But Clemons continues to search, (she’s still in high school!), and that’s the function of art, after all, she says. It’s “a language to find something in others, find something in yourself, that you didn’t see before.”