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  • Writer's pictureTILA Studios

Empowering the Whole Woman: Black Female Bodies, Motherhood and Art

We were in full bloom at the EmpowerHER Brunch. The Perez Art Museum Miami gave us the most beautiful space imaginable overlooking the Floridian ocean. Our space was a garden, a true celebration of art, light, life, and love.

2018 Garden Fellows | L-R Grace Kisa, Shon Pittman, Ebony Black, Evelyn Quiñones, Angela Davis Johnson, Christa David, Jasmine Nicole Williams, Ayanna Smith and Ariel Dannielle.

Shout out to the all-women team for conceiving and executing such a momentous inaugural event.  Between the 2018 Garden Fellows and professionals of the arts industry , who consisted of other artists, curators, collectors, influencers and press, the terrace of PAMM felt like cloud 9 filled with beautiful reflections of each and every woman attending.  In the midst, they were able to encourage each other throughout the brunch using handwritten cards on The EmpowerHER wall  And also share this unforgettable moment in the garden-themed photo booth. If you have never added flowers to your mid-day cocktail, you should and thank us later. The bar served AH-MAZING TILA-inspired drinks that were blissfully garden-fresh and sweet.  And what is a Brunch without vibes, Bae Worldwide DJ’s Duchotae and Gina brought them all and kept our feet moving. Oprah would be proud. I mean, it rivaled her legend’s ball big time.

Aja Monet embracing Garden Fellow Jasmine Williams after reading her work during the EmpowerHER Brunch. Photo by Sierra King

Poet and Activist Aja Monet touched us deep in our souls and bones. Her words struck a chord in us to be more and do more. She challenged us to remember to make our art touch every individual in our communities. She even attested to being one of the first people to hear from our founder Tiffany LaTrice about the vision for this sanctuary. Such a full circle moment right there. Happy that the manifestation was so real. It was right on time too. Behold what happens when you speak life into your dreams and do the work to bring them to life!

Tiffany Latrice, Founder and Executive Director of TILA Studios and Naima Keith, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of California American American Museum Photo by Dierra Font

We took the conversation even higher if you can imagine. Because the zenith of all these things was the fireside chat between our founder, Tiffany LaTrice and Naima Keith. Naima is currently the Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the California African American Museum.

Before CAAM, Naima was positioned as Associate Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem for five years under esteemed curator Thelma Golden. Between faith and universal timing she received a call from CAAM. It was perfect for Naima and her husband who felt NYC was feeling too crapped to raise their first child.

“The museum, the board, really wanted to change the direction of the museum drastically,” said Keith. “The attendance had waned quite a bit. They really wanted to encourage a younger audience to come to the museum. And having seen The Studio as an amazing model with Thelma’s efforts really encouraged them to seek me out in terms of bringing me back to L.A. My charge was to really think about the exhibition program but really think about the museum overall.” Since Naima’s appointment, attendance at openings has increased from about 300 people to 2,500 or 3,000 people.

Increasing the Visibility of Black Female Bodies

One of the exhibitions curated by Naima featured a somewhat bold and formidable topic. California-based artist Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, who Naima had known for a long time, was working on a complete body of work about the violence that happens against African American women every day and how there’s 64,000 missing African American women with their identity unknown.“I was moved by that, not that I didn’t know that, but just because it really hits home when you just think about the number that exists right now,” said Keith. “And we have no idea about anything about them.”

HBO ran a documentary film entitled ‘Tales of the Grim Sleeper’ (2014) that delved into the case of serial killer Lonnie David Franklin Jr., charged with murdering almost a dozen black women, many who were prostitutes, in South Los Angeles for well over two decades. This tragic crime inspired Hinkle’s series.

CAAM also hosted a much different exhibition: Derrick Adams: Network, curated by Mar Hollingsworth. It thought about California, Los Angeles in particular, as a sight or hub for Hollywood and the events and official culture that comes out of L.A.

“I want people to visit the museum and there be something for everyone,” said Keith. “I know you can’t obviously please every audience. But the same way someone may have a reaction to Kenyatta’s work someone might have a different reaction to Derrick’s work. And the idea is since we’re a state museum is that we really do have to serve a large audience. And also because we’re located in a park where there’s a science center next to camp, natural history museum and football stadium. We cover a very unique space, so one, we have to think about shows that can invite people in but also challenge them to think about artwork or think about a particular subject in a different way. That show really resonated with a lot of people. I think it really did finally bring some conversation around invisibility of African American women and violence in particular.”

Curating Art for Exhibitions is an Evolving Process

As a highly respected curator with two huge appointments coming up (co-organizing Prospect.5 in New Orleans 2020 and Curator of EXPO CHICAGO’S 2019 “Exposure” section), Naima is an authoritative figure on the practice. But with so many viable artists and artwork, how does one pick the right exhibit, at the right time? Naima took us through her process, dropping gems for curators and artists alike. (Heads up artists, build those relationships with curators now and keep the conversations on-going!)

“Sometimes an artist is working on a body of work that feels like it’s ready for museum exhibition because it’s reached a mature stage,” said Keith. “Okay, it’s out of the studio or it could use the critical context that a museum can bring. Or it’s a point in their career where they’re ready for the next major leap.”

Naima said that there’s a difference between museum exhibition, gallery exhibition, and studio work. Consequently, if an artist wants to show in a museum, it’s really a process that they have to work up to. And the curator is their partner, their guide, and their cheerleader. With Kenyatta, it was a back and forth exchange so that both could see what the project could be. Additionally, Naima felt that The Evanesced, which was the title of the series, could garner conversation beyond the sensitive subject matter, but also on the artist’s drawing, technique, the fact that she uses different types of brushes, and the female form.

“For me, I like to engage in a longer conversation with artists and really be able to support a project that feels like it’s kind of mature enough to enter a museum space,” said Keith. “It’s rare that it’s like, ‘let’s just do something right now.’ It’s usually kind of a longer conversation.”

Mothering in the Art World

Unsurprisingly, Naima is shedding just a little be more sunshine on what women have always done: being multidimensional in all of her roles. A woman navigating motherhood AND an art career was something she never really saw as she climbed the professional ladder (this data shows just how few women and minorities hold leadership positions at museums). So, when she became pregnant, she kind of had to figure it out on her own and choose the sacrifices she wanted to make. The Driskell Prize-winning curator faced some fears, and we think and many others can agree, came out successful on the other end.

“When I was pregnant with our daughter, I just didn’t see a lot of examples of other women curators who had kids,” said Keith. “And I was really nervous, actually, about coming to Thelma. Not that I thought that she was going to do anything, I mean Thelma is a completely amazing and supportive person, but I just didn’t know what it was going to do to my career. And I was just really nervous about being honest about the fact that I was having a baby. I know it was 2016 and I know I shouldn’t be, but I just didn’t know how it was going to be received. There are so many different times when you’re an artist or a curator that you’re told that you can’t have both. Or this is going to damage your career; it’s going to take away your ability to produce. And I just didn’t want that to happen.”

Having kids has not stopped Naima one bit. She fully embraces being a working mom and even posts pictures of them on Instagram and takes them to art fairs and events, because it’s a huge part of her life, she explains.

“To show we are living and breathing women,” Keith said. “Like, yes we have a work-life but we also have a family life and that takes precedence over anything else that I do.”

She said that her kids keep her grounded and humbled. They give her purpose and focus. They ultimately help her career rather than dwindle it explaining, “my kids keep me grounded in terms of prioritizing and realizing what’s important, not just in terms of them, but also in terms of things I say yes to and things I say no to. I have to really think about how will that be in service to the museum and the artist that I want to champion.”

And as if Naima couldn’t be any more of a total rockstar, she said, “When I became a mother and I became much more open about the fact that I am a mom, it made more art moms also come to me and kind of had this secret embrace. Having people see that, it opened up a different community for me.”

Naima DID THAT just by living her life authentically and boldly. She has created a blueprint for us to thrive at being a whole woman with art careers. Naima says she wants to be an example to other, young curators and there’s no doubt in our minds that she is. We are overjoyed that we were able to provide a platform for Naima to share this experience and next level approach to the art world. Give her flowers when you see her! Altogether, at the conclusion of the EmpowerHER Brunch, everyone was physically, mentally and spiritually fed. It emphasized how the growing number of exceptional black women in the fine arts are here to stay. It solidified that we have each other’s backs. And it promised to bring change to the art industry.

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