February is Black Herstory Month in San Antonio. Two concurrent exhibitions, conceived separately, celebrate Black women as symbols of strength and joy through innovative portraiture.
The Black Herstory project by photographer and radio journalist Bria Woods is on view at The Impact Guild coworking space through March 31, and the Carver Community Cultural Center presents The Glorious Way She Moves – Black Venus, an exhibition of large-scale watercolors by painter Barbara Felix, on view online and in person through April 2. The exhibitions are free and open to the public.
Both exhibitions present portraiture with an emphasis on Black women as figures of joyousness, exuberance, and empowerment.
“Joy is as much a part of the black experience as our struggle and as the things that we’ve overcome, and that was important for me to highlight as a Black woman,” Woods said.
Struggling and smiling
Mainstream media tends to portray Black people, activists in particular, as “angry and struggling, and not soft and tender people,” she said. Kimiya Factory of Black Freedom Factory is one such activist who embodies this issue, Woods said.
“I wanted to reposition these women and show you that Kimiya smiles, she laughs,” Woods said. “She will grab a bullhorn in a heartbeat and go stand outside and protest because she needs to, but she’s also a whole human being. … That narrative, that tenderness, that ability to see them as a whole person gets lost.”
Factory is one of 15 portrait subjects (including Woods herself) featured in the project, which aims to capture the singular essence of each whether smiling exuberantly, portraying strength and confidence, or in a state of contemplation.
Morgan Taplin, a business owner and entrepreneurial advocate, admires Woods’ photographic skills. “She has a unique eye. She can see what you don’t,” Taplin said. Taplin was impressed enough by the portraits Woods made of her that she purchased them for herself.
“You see what she pulls out of her hat, and it’s like, oh my God, I didn’t even see myself in this light,” Taplin said.
Woods said empathizing with her subjects is a key to her approach. She studied journalism and works in media as an executive producer for KAVU-TV in Victoria. She also locally hosts a program on Trinity University’s KRTU 91.7 radio station. She brought her extensive experience interviewing subjects to the Black Herstory project by pairing each image with a brief audio clip of the subject speaking on the subject of joy.
“There’s a lot of power in people using their own voice to tell their own story,” she said.
The emergence of the experience of Black women in America marks an important moment for Woods.
“It means that the stigma, the mystery, those clouds are moving away,” she said. “Now we understand and recognize that Black people are not a subsection, we’re not an elective. We are Americans, too. … That’s very liberating and comforting for me.”
Felix described her approach to portraiture as recognizing struggle while seeing more deeply into the humanity of her subjects.
“Black women are the unsung heroines, often invisible in our society,” Felix said in a statement about her exhibition. “As an artist of color, I strive to bring women into a magnified view that recognizes our magnificence as multifaceted human beings.”
In nine nearly life-size portraits – a scale unusual for watercolor – Felix said she wanted to convey a sense of movement and energy in the women of color she admires. Her subjects range from high schoolers Aralyn Solei Hilliard and Alayna Reese Hilliard to elders who have had significant positive impacts on San Antonio culture, including Gloria Ray, a trustee of Alamo Colleges; Gracie Poe, former president of the San Antonio Ethnic Art Society; and Janet Scott, a retired international diplomat and former championship-level tennis player.
Each subject, or “muse,” as Felix refers to them, was asked to dance in front of video and still cameras. Felix selected images and combined multiple portraits in each painting to convey movement and to glimpse something of the essence of each person.
Dancing comes naturally to the 76-year-old Scott. “I think I dance exactly like I did when I was a teenager. When I get out of bed I do a little Watusi and a little twist to get moving. … I think I dance even when I’m sleeping,” she said, laughing.
Six figures of Scott superimposed in bold colors of gold, deep blue, and pearlescent pigments portray the world traveler as a confident and self-possessed presence.
Another portrait subject comfortable with dancing for the camera is Aissatou Sidime-Blanton, a financial advisor, former journalist, and art enthusiast who recently curated Felix into the 2019 Re/Devaluing Colorism exhibition she organized for the Southwest School of Art.
The intricately patterned clothing and hand-carved adornments worn by Sidime-Blanton for her portrait pay homage to her West African heritage, as did the music she danced to, she said.
“The movements that she captured in a painting are me dancing as women would normally if they were at a formal event” such as a birthday or wedding in the territory of ethnic Mandinka peoples, who live in what are now the countries of Mali, Guinea, and Ivory Coast.
Not long ago, Sidime-Blanton said, standards of beauty did not allow for a full range of Black women to be portrayed in mainstream culture. But with the emergence of strong personalities such as Vice President Kamala Harris, Georgia gubernatorial candidate and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, and inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, Black women are seeing their potential realized, she said.
“All of that has increasingly made it more possible for African American women of different stripes and different backgrounds to come out and be themselves,” Sidime-Blanton said.
Jubilant and exuberant
One figure uniting both projects is Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson, the current San Antonio poet laureate and artist-in residence at the Carver Community Cultural Center through September.
The Grecian-style dress Sanderson wore for her Felix portrait inspired the “Black Venus” portion of the exhibition title, and her portrait is unique among the nine images for its symmetry, with a central figure holding its place among several smaller portraits in shades of orange and pink.
The “Vocab” portrait for Woods’ Black Herstory portrait also stands apart, with Sanderson gazing contemplatively out into the far distance beyond the frame.
In her audio statement for Woods’ project, Sanderson speaks to collaboration as a source of joy, giving examples of recent work with the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Agarita chamber music ensemble.
Her residency work with the Carver aligns with her mission as poet laureate, she said, to inspire people to read and write.
She plans to continue collaborations with various musicians, writers, artists, and activists through her Carver residency, while leading writing workshops, a weekly writing prompt, and other activities.
Her mission as poet laureate is to inspire others to read and write, which aligns with Woods’ emphasis on creating platforms for voices of color to be heard.
Like others involved in these projects, Sanderson lauded the achievements of Harris, Abrams, and Gorman and said “all of these things, they matter. … It’s our time, it’s a time for a new day.”
Her Black Lives Matter-inspired street mural around Travis Park also spoke of joy beyond struggle, she said, with its lyric “Jubilant and exuberant is the melanin of our skin / From despair we have arisen.”
“I was seeing that for us,” even back in August when uncertainty around the pandemic and politics prevailed, she said. Despite such challenges, though, “there is joy. We’ve overcome some things. We’re going to continue to overcome. We have arisen, and here we are manifesting. God is allowing it to happen, and I’m so excited about all of it.”
Bria Woods is a San Antonio Report freelance contributor.