This week I sat down numerous times to recall the highlights of 2021 and how they shaped my writing this year. So many of these positive memories were nearly eclipsed by personal loss and the neverending distractions from the news cycle. Throughout this year I found solace in the visual image. Art continues to be a balm that offers both a respite from reality and a knowing nod to my current emotional state. Most importantly the visual image helps me contextualize the world and the tiny place I occupy within it.
On New Year’s Day, I attended a virtual vision board party led by artist Kesha Bruce. She was continuing a tradition started by her late mother, inviting her friends and followers into a communal space of intention, community, and visual goal setting. Spending time collaging and synthesizing images, text and shapes helped me express goals that I had not dared verbalize or share with others.
At the center of my board were the words : “Finding Grace” flanked by two pillars that guided my actions in 2021: “No Fear” and “Be Enchanted”.
This year I was blessed with the great fortune of financial support through the Warhol Foundation’s Arts Writers Grant; this helped me sustain a period of research and discovery during a time when travel was not a possibility for me. While accessibility to shows was hampered, I gave myself the time and grace to explore art that was inspired by historical moments and their intersections with the present. This led me to work by contemporary artists practicing in the Southern United States with stories and perspectives that were shaped by the South. While busy this year, my writing this year felt somewhat disjointed, but when I look back I find threads that lead me back to grace, which takes me back to how I started the year.
In January I attended a Creative Mornings session featuring artist Clarence Heyward. The theme for the month was “Promise” which was quite apropos for this season of intention. I learned something powerful during his talk. While the path may be unknown, trusting your instincts and following what motivates you is what’s important. There are valuable lessons to be gained from every step in your journey whether it’s planned or not: “that’s where the promise lies… in the walk”. Just take the step.
On February 6th, I came across a historical marker that quite literally changed the trajectory of my year. “Early black feminist”, “1858”. I immediately needed to learn more. Anna Julia Cooper’s story was one that guided much of my research in 2021. I immediately read A Voice From the South, and was captivated by her life’s work.
History Loves Company
The Black Oak Society graciously published my enthusiastic missive on her life in the 4th volume of their zine this spring and shortly after Walter Magazine re-published the piece in their August issue.
Anna Julia Cooper reappeared to me in another important way when artist Amy Sherald’s solo show titled The Great American Fact debuted at Hauser and Wirth. The title of the show came from Anna J. Cooper via Kevin Everod Quashie’s The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. Much of Anna J. Cooper’s written work explores what it means to truly be free, and in Sherald’s exploration into the interiority of Black life, offering viewers a glimpse into the simple pleasures of the banal, allowing us to visualize these quiet moments that are free from conflict and trauma. In a conversation between photographer Tyler Mitchell and Sherald in ArtNews, Mitchell describes “epic banality”, a term attributed to director RaMell Ross: “for me, epic banality is simply about existence—it’s about just being and finding those moments of joy.”
The Epic Banal
In Sherald’s L.A. show she captures the epic banal in two works that encapsulated the necessity and potency of Black joy not only a form of resistance, but a mode for survival.
The titles of these paintings alone are magic: A Bucket Full of Treasures transports me to a world that’s An Ocean Away. This summer 2 timely stories out of Los Angeles compliment Sherald’s works, encouraging a very different conversation about the privilege of banality and interiority. If anyone were to question idea of recreation and leisure as a privilege, these stories about Black surfers in Manhattan Beach and the legacy of Bruce’s Beach, a historically Black stretch of the coastline stolen by the local government through eminent domain challenge that assumption: both of these stories shed light onto the calculated, systemic efforts to thwart simple pleasures and the herculean efforts it takes to overcome these barriers.
To me the visual image performs a heavy emotional lift; they conjure memories, they invite learning, they inspire and they enrage. These images become their own historical markers.
As my eye travels around the images I collaged on January 1, it triggered the many moments of joy that have become the highlights of the year. My writing assignments became more personal, I diversified the publishers I worked with, I joined the board of directors at CAM Raleigh, met some amazingly talented and inspirational women, wrote 2 catalogue essays, and I interviewed a record number of artists whose words have inspired me beyond measure.
When I think about the art that I encountered during a year that calcified my reluctance to travel, the visual image became an important restorative energy source. Images are invitations to explore, learn, support and share. My writing has always been the vehicle I’ve used to document these visual journeys. Here are few of the pieces I wrote this year that played an important role in charting a visual path toward healing and learning: