Katie Matuska, Kyra Watson, Sabrina Ibabao, Adama Kamara [Group E]
Professor Nicole Morris – English 210W Hurston – 01 May 2017 – Artist’s Statement – The Tastes of Africa
Aims of the Project
Our aim for the project was to explore the African student population on campus, more specifically to see how being African influenced these students’ college experiences, and how being an Emory student influenced how they approached their African culture. We wanted to showcase a culture and community of people that is not well known by all campus members. As a predominantly white institution, a lot of black student organizations are not in the spotlight. This is why our group felt a responsibility towards this community to observe and represent them in the most accurate way possible.
When we initially faced the task of coming up with a subject for our final project, our group was interested in studying a cultural group on campus. We briefly discussed studying various ethnic groups such as the communities of Caribbean or Latinx students at Emory. We ultimately settled on the community of African students when Adama Kamara mentioned that she identified as an African student and therefore would have information about the African Students’ Association (ASA) . In addition, she informed us about the Taste of Africa Event that takes place towards the end of every spring semester. After some discussion as a group, we decided we wanted to center the majority of our project around the Taste of Africa event that happens every year. Taste of Africa is a showcase of different African cultures through fashion, food, music, and performances. This event provided the perfect climax for our project by allowing us a way to engage in the population with all of our senses.
Originally, we planned to create a video compilation of all the research we had gained from our studies. With this intention in mind, we recorded our first few interviews. As we progressed in our project, we decided that a more symbolic artistic adaptation could better encapsulate the data we had collected through our research. Upon this realization, we discussed other potential mediums for recording our research. Ultimately, we decided upon a large painting. One of the debates when deciding upon a painting as our medium, was the problem that not everyone in the group felt as if they had the artistic ability to produce a painting. Eventually though, we decided to use this diversity to our advantage. The fact that not everyone could bring to the project the same skills, meant that we could greater represent individuality — a topic that became the major focus of our presentation. Each canvas represents one group member’s approach to a particular field experience. In this way we are highlighting the individuality of the experience, the individuality of the painter, and the unique approach that the specific group member could bring to their canvas.
Parallels to Hurston’s Work
Due to the obvious racial similarities between our population and Hurston’s, we found many parallels to Hurston’s work. The primary similarity stemmed from our attempt to get ourselves close to the population and to accurately portray them. Adama Kamara was already a member of the African Student’s Association, which gave us access to their meetings and auditions. Still, some of our group members had to consider the racial barriers which their own ethnicities created. Katie Matuska and Sabrina Ibabao presented the potential problem of not being able to relate to the people whom they were interviewing. To help remedy this problem, Katie and Sabrina always made sure to get onto a friendly basis with the people they were working with. This was how our group imitated Hurston’s style of getting close to the population in order to see how they truly functioned.
One major theme we found emerging through our research was that of relationships. In Hurston’s novels, her female characters often were defined through their relationships. Janie’s grandmother, in Their Eyes Were Watching God pushed Janie towards marriage in order to make herself into a woman. Similarly, in our population, two girls we interviewed told us that their parents did not want them to date out of their ethnicity. This was was their parent’s way of attempting to preserve the culture. Yet, these girls are not willing to accept this rule. Just as Janie saw self-betterment through Tea Cake and the idea that she got to speak and think for herself, our interviewees feel that they should date who they want here at Emory based on their friend groups and what is right for them.
Just as Hurston has explored dialect, language emerged as a very interesting theme within our research. One of our interviewees, Sumah was born in Buffalo, New York. She said that she tried to maintain her verbal skills in her native language, but she is not fluent. She says that she believes this degradation of language retention is one of the main ways she can feel her culture slipping away from her.
In an effort to keep in contact with their culture, many students at Emory join the African Student’s Association. ASA is a group of African students focused around preserving their culture, discussing current issues, and facilitating a community on college campuses. At the General Body Meeting which we attended, the topic of discussion was colorism. In Hurston’s essay “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” she explains how men prefer lighter skinned women. Indeed, this is a topic that we see overwhelmingly in many of Hurston’s novels. For example, in “Color Struck” the character Emma was so insecure about her dark skin that she would not leave her lighter skinned daughter alone with her lover. In the ASA meeting, members were explaining how western media influence has made lighter skin seem sexy. Many women feel the need to bleach their skin in order to make themselves seem more appealing to the darker skinned “manly” men. It is eye-opening to see this tragic discrimination of the 1900’s being perpetuated into the modern world.
Finally, during our in-class discussions, we have pondered Hurston’s approach to capturing the black population. Instead of creating typical protest literature, she worked more to display the mannerisms of the populations she was observing. One theory we devised for this method of presentation was the fact that Hurston was trying to convey the pride of her community. These ideas of pride, unity, and community were central to our research. Members of the African community told us how they tended to seek each other out and form friendships. As one of our interviewees Kehinde said, it is easier to form relationships with people who have a commonality with herself. The African students on Emory’s campus have formed a very tight knit community which supports one another. The support and pride at the Taste of Africa event was overwhelming. As each performance occurred, everyone in the audience seemed to know the performers, and were cheering them on. All the students on stage were so happy to be finding modes of expression for their culture. Our artistic adaptation worked to display this prideful community. Our Emory centric display shows the unique aspects of culture coming together to form the African community on campus.
Although the paintings are supposed to represent the individuality of every student, we wanted them together as one to represent the Emory community. Therefore, the nine canvases will be put together as a large square, with the Emory logo in the middle. We decided to make the background for all the canvases the same by spraying it with black paint and splatter-painting the colors green, red, and yellow, which are common African colors, to symbolize the unity of the community as a whole. The Emory logo is in the middle to tie all the other paintings, and their individual perspectives, back to Emory.
The painting of three women dressed in African clothing was inspired by the fashion show at Taste of Africa. The theme of Taste of Africa was Ancient Africa: Past meets Present. This theme influenced the decision to paint both traditional and modern clothing worn by women in Africa. The woman on the left is wearing a traditional West African headscarf and traditional dress which flows long down the length of her body. The woman on the right is in West African clothing, but in a more modern outfit with a fashionable headscarf. She is wearing an off the shoulder top with a skirt, and her midriff is exposed. The woman in the middle is representative of East African cultures. When designing this canvas, it was imperative that East Africa was represented as well as West Africa, even though West Africa is the dominant group of African students on campus. East African students are still members of this community, so their representation was vital to portray the true unity of the community. The East African woman is wearing traditional Habesha clothing, which was worn by a group of performers at Taste of Africa.The color red was incorporated into all of the outfits to tie them together and to display a sense of unity between the different regions of the country.
The canvas with the bi-colored face is centered around the field experience with the African Student’s Association General Body Meeting. The topic of discussion at this meeting was colorism. Colorism is promoted through western media, and that is what this canvas worked to represent. Centrally, there is face — half light, half dark. This represents someone of darker skin tone who felt the need to bleach her skin. Near her ear, in the right corner, is a skin bleaching ad. This ad shows a lighter skinned woman next to a darker skin man, and perpetuates the stigma that lighter skin is sexier. The ad is located next to the ear of the person to show how this message influences her decisions. Below the face, is a Google search for the work “Pretty.” All of the top results depict lighter skinned women. The final picture, in the top left, is a replication of a snapchat from famous African (and well known skin bleacher), Bobrisky. In context, this snapchat conveyed the message that one cannot be truly beautiful unless she bleaches her skin like he does. This canvas takes a different approach to individuality, and shows what negative modern day factors can, in fact, decrease one’s individuality and make her feel the need to conform to the societal “standards.” In the African Student’s Association GBM, they worked to provide solutions to this issue, and thus they were promoting individuality.
The canvas with the song lyrics was modeled off of an interview with Kehinde. In this interview, Kehinde talked about how she kept in contact with her culture through the music she listened to. When she was contacted a few days later asking about some of the names of her favorite songs, she replied with a huge list. Some of the songs on this list were Afro-beat songs. The lyrics on this canvas are all from Afro-beat songs. Afrobeat music was selected because the lyrics of the songs are all a combination of African and English lyrics. This meshing of the two languages is the perfect representation of the assimilation of the two cultures within the students.
The canvas with the silhouettes of a man and a woman in love is based off an interview with a girl named Samah from Sudan. One of the things we talked about during her interview was how her African culture shaped her relationships. In her culture, she is not supposed to date, and if she does date, it should be with someone of the same ethnicity as her. Her parents want her to date within her ethnicity in order to preserve their culture and their family line. This is difficult to do in America and at Emory because there are not as many people who come from the same background as her. Therefore, this canvas shows a man and woman in love. However, in order to depict relationships between different ethnicities, the woman is painted with the flag from Sudan and the man is painted with the flag from Sierra Leone. The choice of these flags not only represents Samah’s background, but also portrays a recurring theme we found in our fieldwork: the differences between West Africa and East Africa, and how they come together as one community on Emory’s campus.
The painting of a blue woman adorned in yellow/gold accessories is based off an ad for Taste of Africa. The purpose of this painting is to portray the African Student Association as a whole and represent its role in bringing the African community together at Emory. Taste of Africa is its biggest events of the year. Both during the event and in preparation for it, Taste of Africa brings people from all different parts of Africa together. The colors of the original ad were changed to blue and gold to further represent the African community represented through Emory.
The canvas with the drum is representative of a performance that took place at the Taste of Africa Event. There were two drum performances at this event, both of which were intended to be reflections of ancient African culture. The second drum performance was performed by a group of local women. At the end of the performance the leader of the group spoke about how impressed she was with the community of African students at Emory. She spoke about how she was overwhelmed at the pride in the room. She said that she wasn’t used to being among other people who effortfully kept in contact with traditional bits of their culture. She summed up the sentiment of how, although everyone in the room may all have come from different backgrounds and have different experiences, they were all impacted by African culture. This speech perfectly represented the work that we were trying to accomplish as a group: capturing the beauty and diversity of African students at Emory University.
The canvas with the silhouette of an African woman is based off of the HAIRitage project that was presented at the Taste of Africa event. The creator of the project, Ifechi Okonkwo compiled photos from a photoshoot she organized into a video that featured students on campus sporting African hairstyles. This video celebrates and honors the influence that African culture has on society. On the canvas based on this video, is painted an African woman with a natural hairstyle and makeup that resembled that of the makeup featured in the Ifechi’s photoshoot.
The painting of Ethiopia and social media is representative of an interview done with Mariamawit, from Ethiopia. During her interview, she spoke a lot about the different controls her country has over social media networks, and how these controls affected what she was exposed to while growing up. This environment is so different from what we have here in America, where there is no censorship. This canvas is a representation of her homelife and its stark contrast to the social media presence at Emory. The Ethiopian flag is painted inside the outline of the country, and different logos for social media such as Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, CNN, and Instagram are depicted. X-marks were put through some of the icons to symbolize the censorship and how those platforms were blocked in the country.
Each of these individual canvases is centered around the Emory shield. This was our attempt to show that while each student may be from different parts of Africa, and they may each have different ways to stay in contact with their culture, they are all a part of the supportive African community at Emory.