By Patty Bates-Ballard
I recently became a volunteer docent at the African American Museum of Dallas. I’m White, and I have invited friends of all backgrounds to take tours with me.
At a time when most Americans say race relations are getting worse, I’m on board with Dallas’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation effort to transform our country’s false narrative about African Americans and other People of Color.
Curated by Jennifer Cowley, the #ustoo Phenomenal Woman art exhibition is a PHENOMENAL opportunity to experientially transform our narrative. Featuring 20 local African American woman artists, the exhibition was conceived in response to Bette Midler’s #metoo tweet referencing the John Lennon/Yoko Ono song, “Woman is the N—– of the World.”
The false narrative about African Americans I learned growing up — invented to justify slavery — involved many dehumanizing messages and images. But the entire narrative can still be conveyed in the one very powerful, hateful, hurtful n-word.
The #ustoo Phenomenal Woman exhibit responds powerfully in oils, acrylics, watercolors, mixed media, photographic works, and music. Vivid colors, unexpected materials, skewed perspectives, exaggerated brush strokes, and affirming language convey literal messages yet also stir emotions that take the viewer beyond the visible to discover even deeper meanings.
A number of works evoke strength and resistance to discrimination and oppression. Stacie Monday’s “Rebel” is a beautiful portrait of a confident African American woman surrounded by the words, “In a society that profits from your self-doubt, loving yourself is a rebellious act.”
An incredible hand-lettered trio of “Phenomenal Woman” paintings by Nicole Angelica lifts up three remarkable Black women: Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama, and Oprah Winfrey. Abi Salami’s painting, “Lady African Defiantly Shackled” personifies Africa’s unwillingness to succumb to the vestiges of colonialism and her “unapologetic belief that she deserves a proper seat” at the international table.
Missy Burton’s “Dada” and “A Woman’s Work,” Yolanda Burton’s “Balance,” Tyra Goodley’s “Bus Stop,” and others exude the perseverance, camaraderie, and ingenuity African American women offer each other and the world day after exhausting day.
Yet many works, including Monday’s “Ain’t I a Woman,” Jennifer Cowley’s “Shadow of Herself: Mommy’s Got You,” Tschaner Sefas’s “Nurture Me Please,” and Fiera Smith’s “Don’t Tell Me to Smile” explore the vulnerability of Black women and insist that Black women be supported in their vulnerability.
These paintings are vital because a 2017 Georgetown University study found that adults view young Black girls as less innocent and in less need of protection than White girls of the same age. The Georgetown researchers say they think this “adultification” of Black girls may contribute to the higher rate of school suspensions for Black girls (five times more likely than White girls). Artist Classi Nance Jimoh’s artist statement transforms the narrative with the assertion, “We are all women enough to deserve the covering of love and safety.”
Choke’s “Atabey” and “Fire Panther” and J. LeShae’s exquisite “The Secret Society of Womb Guardians” explore the divine feminine while VET’s “Love Potion,” Lauren Cross’s “So Great in Her Gardens,” and Kaneem Smith’s heart-rending “Cotton Belt Memorial” creatively pay homage to those who have crossed over to the other side.
The exhibit is a celebration of Black beauty, Black resilience, Black hair, Black bodies, Black creativity, Black girl magic, and Black lives, interpreted by artists who live life as African American women. The sense of freedom and joy expressed here invites a reconsideration of our still mostly White male-dominated society. At the artists’ talk in May, it was clear that these 20 African American women have found a rare, life-sustaining connection that promises more inspiring art to come.
I’m convinced that for our city and nation to heal and progress, we must shed our false narrative and embrace a more authentic narrative about African American people that centers their beauty, brilliance, talent, and generosity. The exhibit continues through August 3. I hope you will call soon to schedule your tour and come prepared to be transformed.
Patty Bates-Ballard is Creative Director and Owner of WordSmooth, co-author of the book Navigating Diversity, and developer of the Harvesting Respect communications education program. Previously the Diversity Director for the Greater Dallas Community Relations Commission, she has worked in the field of multi-cultural relations for more than 20 years. She coordinates the student Culture Club at Dallas Academy and is a volunteer docent at the African American Museum of Dallas.