At the beginning of this year, I was tasked with planning an exhibition for Women’s History Month. With TILA Studios’ mission to empower Black women artists in Atlanta to create and showcase their work in mind, I asked myself, “What is the story you feel needs to be told about Black women’s history and how can you utilize art to tell that story?”
As I reflected on both questions, my mind kept pulling me to Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. Truth, an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, stood before an audience at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851 and repeatedly asked
“Ain’t I a Woman?”: “Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, gathered into barns, no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? [...] I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
While Truth’s question seems to demand a simple yes or no, the act of posing the question speaks to the larger history of Blackness and Black people in the United States. When the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, their white owners stripped them of their humanity and replaced it with objecthood -- they were rendered property with their value attached to their utility. That history evolved over the next two and a half centuries as an economy was built off the backs of Black men, women, and children. The legal, psychological, and metaphorical subjugation of Blacks made the success of Whites possible.
I reflected on this history as I attempted to craft an answer to Sojourner Truth’s rhetorical question and thought, “What if we reimagined it as a statement?” What if the conversation began and ended with Truth simply stating, “I am a woman?”
Truth’s speech would have transformed: “Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, gathered into barns, no man could head me! I am a woman. [...] I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! I am a woman.” The rephrasing of Truth’s speech not only demonstrates that Black women have always been aware of their humanity, but also that it is not necessary to contend with those who have never been able to recognize their humanity.
“Ain’t I a Woman: A Reclamation of Obstructed Humanity” is an exhibition of photographs, paintings, mixed-media works, and installations.
Large scale works like Vernita Akua Hardy’s acrylic painting, “Black is Gold: The Metamorphosis of the So-Called Negro,” encourages viewers to not only reflect on the history of Black women breastfeeding white infants, but also consider the emotional effects of being forced to repeatedly offer up your body to someone else. Smaller works like Kenya Meon’s photographs highlight the fragility, vulnerability, and grace of Black women, providing an alternative to harmful stereotypes. Both women along with Ariel J Allen, Taylor Augusta, Lakita Costner, Ari Dannielle , Rene Fisher, Dierra Font, Imani Green, Jess Hill , Angela Davis Johnson, Neka King , Sierra King, Sachi Richardson, Doriane Sewell , and Jasmine Nicole Williams highlight the ways that Black women’s refusal to dignify the questioning of their womanhood is, in fact, an assertion of their humanity. It explores precisely what it means to retrieve one’s sovereignty.
The exhibition opens this Saturday, March 17, 2018 at 7pm and runs through April 21, 2018.