By Harold C. Ford
I’m a woman Phenomenally.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
…from “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou, 1978
American literary giant Angelou, who died in 2014, last graced Flint in 2002 during a spoken word performance to a standing-room-only audience at Whiting Auditorium. Fifteen years later, the spirit from her two most identifiable poems has crossed Kearsley Street in the Flint Cultural Center, re-emerging in the Flint Institute of Arts’ new exhibit, Women of a New Tribe.
It’s likely that Michigan’s second largest art museum has never hosted an exhibit quite like Women of a New Tribe in its nearly 90-year history. Tracee J. Glab, FIA Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, agrees. “Not to my knowledge…was there such a focus on the Flint community as being subjects of the artwork,” she told East Village Magazine.
The exhibit features 49 black-and-white photographic portraits, larger than life at 50 by 40 inches, of women from Flint’s African American Community by North Carolina artist Jerry Taliaferro. The 49 were randomly picked from 110 nominations.
Larger-than-life images and inspirational biographies of 49 African-American women might provide Flint-area residents with a joyful shot of community pride—as it did this writer—so badly needed after decades of abandonment by General Motors, high unemployment, a shrinking city with a steep crime rate, and a shameful water crisis.
In the catalog accompanying the exhibit, FIA Executive Director John Henry said the criteria to be nominated as a photographic subject for the project included “1) have a positive impact on individuals; 2) help those around them in the neighborhood; and/or 3) create positive change on important issues in the community.” The wonderful bonus is that the exhibit itself, as a whole, satisfies those criteria.
Some critics contend the FIA has too infrequently used its 25,000 square feet of gallery space to connect with its hometown population in the way that Women of a New Tribe has the potential to do. Fifty women were chosen as subjects for the Tribe project in a random drawing from among 110 initially nominated by members of the Flint community. Eventually, the images of 49 women became part of the exhibit. FIA’s Glab lauded community involvement in the nomination process as “a much more energetic and kinetic kind of experience.” She recalled, “Here we were asking people to nominate the subjects and…that was a unique part of the (Tribe) exhibition process.”
The “process,” nearly four years in the making, began in 2013-2014 when Glab and Henry were drawn to Taliaferro. “We heard about Jerry through his marketing,” recalled Glab. According to Henry, “Taliaferro was inspired to title the project after hearing author Toni Morrison use the term ‘New World Africans.’”
On the opening night of the Flint exhibit Jan. 20, Taliaferro told a group of FIA docents that his interest in photography began when he was in the US Army Special Forces in the early 1980s. While serving in Germany, he honed his photographic skills and was published for the first time. Returning to civilian life in 1985, he pursued a career in commercial photography. With exhibits in several American cities, Women of a New Tribe is one of his latest projects.
Taliaferro explains his preference for black and white photography in his video essay now showing at the FIA’s Tribe exhibit: “I think black and white cuts to the essence of the picture …It allows you to see what’s important without being distracted (by color).”
Taliaferro also explains his artistic goal is to capture the “photographic spray of the spiritual and physical beauty beauty of African American women.” His poetic introductions to earlier Tribe exhibits expands on this goal:
If you seek the soul of a people
look to its women.
For it is at their bosoms
that the seeds of love, compassion
and courage are first planted and
nourished. Look into their faces
and see what was and what
The subjects of the Tribe project were strongly affected, not just by seeing their own images, but by considering their wider implications. Tribe subject Kenyetta Dotson, founder of local nonprofit WOW Outreach and Community Liaison for Genesee Health Systems, told EVM, “Black women carry an extra layer of endurance dating back to memories of discrimination, racism, oppression…The exhibit speaks strength, determination…”
Nominator Kimberly Turner praised her nominee, Candice Mushatt, as a “…strong female role model for women young and old.” Mushatt told EVM, “We are often put in positions where we have to be strong.”
In her article “The Truth Behind the ‘Strong Black Woman’ Stereotype,” Tamara Winfrey Harris addresses the caricature of the strong black woman: “We are the women with the sharp tongues and hands firmly on hips. We are the ride-or-die women. We are the women who have, like Sojourner Truth ‘plowed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head us.’ We are the sassy chicks. We are the mothers who make a way out of no way. On TV, we are the no nonsense police chiefs and judges. We are the First Ladies with the impressive guns.”
“Marginalized people have to be strong to survive,” says Heidi R. Lewis, assistant professor of Feminist and gender Studies at Colorado College and associate editor at The Feminist Wire. “There are times when I assume that black woman resilience—the kind that allow you to face racism and sexism and heterosexism on a daily basis and still maintain your sanity and your health. I love that part of the strength that black women have had to have. That strength is real.”
Harris argues for a more nuanced role for black women: “Many African American women are increasingly ambivalent about the ‘strong’ label, and not solely because of how we look through society’s eyes. The label also distorts how we view ourselves and, more important, how we take care of—or fail to take care of—ourselves.”
She goes on: “Black women are more likely to suffer from chronic health problems that may be alleviated by self-care, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stress. One in four black women over the age of 55 has diabetes. We are more likely to die of heart disease than any other group in the United States. Black women have a rate of depression 50 percent higher than that of white women, but in 2003 the California Black Women’s Health Project found that only 7 percent of black women with symptoms of mental illness seek treatment.”
However, that was hardly the image seen by Tribe subject Dr. Brenda Rogers-Gray during the community opening of the Tribe exhibit Jan. 21. “I was just ecstatic at the joy and elation of women from all walks of life…I was drawn to tears, overwhelmed for the women I had the opportunity to meet,” she told EVM. “I’ve received many, many awards on a local, state, national, and international level and this had to be one of the most beautiful ones,” she said.
Dotson agrees with Rogers-Gray’s perception. “While walking through the exhibit, I could feel the positive energy in the room (which) inspired me to new heights,” she said.
Author Harris concludes her piece: “I am not sure that the ‘strong black woman’ is dead. But she should be. And it is black women who must kill her. Others are far too invested in her survival. For black women, the most radical thing we can do is to throw off the shackles forged by the stereotype and regain our full and complex humanity—one that allows us to be capable, strong, and independent, but also to be carried and cared for ourselves. Allowing for physical and emotional vulnerability is not weakness; it is humanness. More, it is a revolutionary act in the face of a society eager to mold us into hard, unbreakable things.”
Tribe subject Mushatt endorses the more nuanced view of African American women. “While you read our bios and you see that there is strength there, it also shows humanity…that we are still women, and so with that strength there is also a delicacy that comes with it,” she said. “Sometimes that strength is taken as maybe a bit overbearing but I think it’s been a survival mechanism for quite some time.”
Another Tribe subject, Phyllis Sykes, founder of International Center of Greater Flint (ICGF), agrees with Mushatt. “We are women like anyone else, and there is this image that there is not a vulnerable side, that there is not a side that we want to be loved like anybody else, like any other woman,” she said. “We’re very complex and you can’t put us in a category.”
According to museum curator Glab, “When you read those stories and you look at those photos, I think you really start to see a really positive message of hope and inspiration for the next generation. That is what’s needed right now, not just in Flint, but all over America.”
The Tribe exhibit represents a bold step forward for a museum already noted as a “hidden jewel” by many Flint residents and well-regarded outside the city’s boundaries. An Oregonian left this impression on Yelp after an October 2016 visit: “What a great find in Flint. This museum has a surprising collection of great art.” A Detroit native wrote: “While this museum…is on the smallish size…it’s a high quality venue housing an excellent and extensive collection…”
The “smallish size” of the FIA is about to get a $17.5 million boost. A new Contemporary and Craft Wing will add 8,000 square feet to the east side of the museum’s galleries. The interior courtyard at the art school will be converted into 3,960 square feet of additional classroom space. Construction is scheduled to wrap up in fall 2017.
According to its website, “Each year more than 160,000 people visit the FIA’s galleries and participate in FIA programs and services.” The museum’s permanent collection now exceeds 8,000 objects…plus 49, counting the “New Tribe” collection.
And as the FIA expands its physical capacities, the Women of the New Tribe exhibit invites an expansive and inclusive consideration of the role of art and the artist.
The role of the artist, according to novelist Joseph Conrad, is “To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life…” Visual artist and writer Peter Hilaire Bloch writes in a piece titled “Does Art Reflect Culture?”: “Revealing a sliver of life, even if it is only a shifting and flashing glance, to the audience is the substance and beginning of art. This is the job, the role, of the artist in society: to capture the momentary and transform it into something static and monumental.”
Does art reflect culture? Does Women of a New Tribe reflect the culture of Flint or, more broadly, the African-American woman in America? Or does Tribe reveal a narrower “sliver of life”?
By all accounts—including FIA officials, the artist himself, and the 49 women subjects—the images displayed on the walls of the current Tribe exhibit at the FIA represent the best of the best: educated, accomplished, and strong women. If that is our culture, it shines on the walls of the FIA.
Flint needs a win. Flint needs some winners. And you’ll find them at the Women of a New Tribe Exhibit at the Flint Institute of Arts through April 15.
“God gave me wings. I can fly.”
…Audrey Dismond to photographer Jerry Taliaferro during photo shoot
EVM staff writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos used by permission of the Flint Institute of Arts.