The Trauma of Slavery and Paper Dolls

By Ernesto Saavedra

(Author’s note: Leading up to Fresno’s Downtown and Tower District monthly ArtHop events, Kezia Harrell, an artist attending San Francisco’s Art Institute with roots in Fresno, was scheduled to exhibit her art show I Hate White People but I Loves You at Broadway Studios. The artist providing the space for Harrell wanted her to change the title because he felt it was offensive toward White people. When Harrell refused, the exhibit was cancelled. However, Harrell didn’t let up and posted the conversation on social media where she received tons of support from the Fresno community resulting in successfully saving her show from being cancelled indefinitely.

I had the pleasure of meeting Harrell during this whole ordeal, and I was happy with what she was doing and glad it was happening. This brought up what many people of color always knew and felt, White people take up a lot of space, even in the art world, to the point that even people of color modify their own thoughts and behaviors to appease White people. Some of us see this as the result of White supremacy. With that, I had a chance to ask Harrell some questions about herself and her work. Enjoy.)

Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, how it was for you growing up and where you are now?

A: I grew up in a large neighborhood called Winton Terrace, which expanded through the greater portion of Winton Hills, Cincinnati. We all called it “Brick City” because the townhouses reached up above like skyscrapers and were made out of rusty bricks. Winton Terrace was built in the 1940s as a suburban utopia that denied Black people residency. Not until the early 1950s did the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority allow Black tenants, then by 1965 Winton Terrace was 95% Black. As a child living in that space, I can recall thinking to myself what the rest of Earth looked like.

To me Cincinnati was the center of the world on a geographical scale, but as an adult I compare the racial politics of Cincinnati, Ohio, to the broad racial politics of the world.

The first time I conceptualized art and the Black experience was at the age of seven. Instead of playing with my Barbie dolls, I picked up a fascination to create my own cutout paper dolls that contributed toward a dramatic love story. None of the dolls I created were Black nor did they look at all like anyone I loved; they all had idealized skin, hair and body types. As an adult, I now understand that activity was an effect of what White supremacy did to my adolescent psyche.

I moved to California when I was 12 years old, my mother made it her mission to relocate her family to a place where we could strive as African-American individuals. These memories frame my way of navigating “Africa-America.”

Q: How did you get to where you are today as far as art? (motivation, intention, process, theme, accolades)

A: I don’t feel like I’ve even begun yet. I am still developing my voice as an undergraduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute, and that demands me to focus on building my concepts and my artistic abilities. I have recently accepted the fact that I want to do every single thing to produce these untold truths about slavery in the context of the modern-day African-American life—whether it is a busy large-scale drawing to conceptual pickaninny dolls. One thing is for sure, with all of the ideas that continuously sprout in my head, I can never say that I’m “bored.”

One thing I struggle with in art school is isolation— I’m the only Black girl in all of my classes, so when my art is being critiqued by White people, I always wonder if Black people will understand me. I think about how my work may be a sensational experience to many White audiences because of the history of blackface and racist cartoons that actually fed their racist ideologies. I suppose creating imagery around the chattel slavery, Black memorabilia and all of its mental effects will always be profound because America treats slavery like a folk-tale. It is not something that is taught broadly in schools or spoken about on the streets, though it should be. It is my family’s heritage and my ancestor’s stories were not documented but they will be told.

When I heard about the brilliant Dr. Joy DeGruy- Leary and her book titled Post- Traumatic Slave Syndrome: Americans Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, I thought to myself, “Finally there is a term for the mental trauma Black slave descendants experience! This has to be a step toward freedom!” Forgetting the in denial Americans have about the matters of Black people.

Q: What is your experience of being a Black woman in a predominantly White institution? What was your opinion around the supposed controversy of your series I Hate White People but I Loves You?

A: Of course, I have felt some racial tension but it is rare. I find that the people at my school respect my voice. My colleagues and I are organizing an on-campus group called Artists Coalition for Racial Equality (ACRE) that unites all of the students of color into one respectful space, where all can gain support from one another in our artistic journeys. I have met many inspiring artists and art students at The Institute, and I am eager to learn more as the years go by.

Just as any artist, I’ve always been aware that there will be people who will not agree with my approach. I never intended my art to be totally comfortable for anyone. A person attending the exhibition asked me what was my “message” in my work. That struck me because a message is something that is to be interpreted by whomever it is for, judging by the explosive response to the title alone I think the message is to discuss and educate one another on race.

*****

Ernesto Saavedra can be contacted at ernesto.fresnoca@gmail. com.

  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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