Let’s go all the way in!
Check out more of Nafis’ work @ www.nafiswhite.com !
NW: I am an artist. I observe and synthesize my surroundings, digest, process and put back, channel and make magic, that’s what art is to me, deep seeing and hearing, translating and speaking in tongues. My art practice is rooted in speaking out about a myriad of issues, and in particular in the last few years it has been about the Black struggle in the US. The Black struggle is also my struggle as a Black woman, and my art making speaks to my personal experiences. I have lived in the USA, a country sick with racism all my life. I have lived in the Deep South, in the northeast, in the west and have travelled across the country numerous times and lived abroad. I have been profiled, stopped and searched by police frequently, left out of opportunities, disregarded, passed over, and so I speak about community through my lens and through these experiences of being treated very much as a second-class citizen. When I read W. E. B. Dubois or Audre Lorde, or Bell Hooks, or James Baldwin, I feel like not much has changed from their time and their experiences to now. My work is a present day call to action, it is a response to atrocities, it is a memorial to people gone too soon, it is a way for me to process trauma, it is so many things and hopefully, the work speaks to others and inspires, makes people think, let’s people grieve, speaks names that have been hushed and impacts people in a way that makes them move forward, makes them do something more today than they did yesterday.
My works are political, they are, and I relate that to my presence in the world, because Black bodies in space is a revolutionary act. Political just by the very fact of existing, of being here in a place that doesn’t want them. My body is political because Blackness is so watched, so scrutinized, so feared, so criminalized. I am reminded of Du Bois words, “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word” I think of the Black experience on the daily.
I was raised by parents and relatives who took stands against racism, against war, against inequality and so you could say that I was raised in an environment where people were advocated for, where human rights were a chief concern and it was taught to me that everyone was important and that the myriad of cultures in the world should be celebrated. As a child I used to have nightmares about World War III and of saving society, so if that gives you any idea of the level of concern I had for humanity as a young-person… We can say that the struggle has always been with me, advocating for others has always been a part of my way.
My art practice of late has been influenced by pain and trauma and I have been building large-scale process-based works that require time and care and hours upon hours of meditative work to reach completion. For example, the piece, What Cannot Be Said Will Be Wept is an installation made in 2016 of 65 large photographs of Black women who have been killed by police. The women are in rows according to their age with elders high above the ground, and youth nearer the ground, a spacing that indicates time passage in decades. In addition, there are 5 human scale large sculptural wreaths that are formed from 1204 hand made paper roses representing each victim of police killing in the United States in 2015. Numbers are important in my work because it is vital that I think about all of these people, I must see them, because to ignore their passing is to forget, and I don’t want to forget these women, these men, these children. We as a country must not forget. I think of them as I make the roses, for hours, and days and weeks. The scale of the process is laborious, herculean in effort, but necessary for me to do. I can’t explain it more than that, I am simply just that impacted by the scale of devastation in communities that I had to do something, so this memorial work is my way of grieving the colossal loss.
bstox: Your favorite word?
bstox: The last book you read.
NW: I am in the process of a few books right now, but staples have been Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and W. E. B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk. In current rotation are Cruising Utopia, The Then and There of Queer Futurity by José Muñoz, The Choreographic by Jenn Joy and Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon.
bstox: The most recent cultural moment that really resonated with you and why?
NW: The current presidential election is something that is resonating with me deeply. I am currently living in London, studying for my MFA and to watch from afar just how much hate is being spewed by the Republican nominees is frightening to watch. I have never seen so much violence, violent acts and violent speech in a campaign with plans to violate the human rights of women, Muslims, Latinos, Black people, LGBTQ, the poor, etc, etc. It is something that can keep you awake at night.
I am proud that so many people are gathering from a multitude of backgrounds to stand up to the hate speech. Chicago shut it all the way down recently and I had friends out there making a difference by putting their bodies on the line. Standing up for others, that’s love.
bstox: What do you think the role of art is/should be in the current Black Lives Movements?
NW: Art is about communication and transference of energy, creating feeling and stirring emotion. Art creates change and is the historical marker of events. Art is all around in the BLM movement, from cardboard signs to banners, graphic design to sculptures. There is even a group founded by RISD Alum called Artists Against Police Violence that exhibits works that are made by activist/artists, or artivists as I call them. http://artistsagainstpoliceviolence.com One work that really touched my soul in recent years was a massive banner by JR, carried by many people during the Millions March in NYC. The banner was of Eric Garner’s eyes. That was it, just his eyes. It stirred my soul deeply. You could not stop looking into his eyes, there was no avoiding the magnitude of the police killing, that he was innocent, that he never should have been harmed let alone killed for selling cigarettes. Those eyes spoke of colossal loss, of pain, and were also a source of such love for his wife and family and it was powerful.
Art has really taken a big space in the movement because you not only have works in the street, in the protests, but you have galleries and curators creating shows around the movement and inviting artists who create political works to join in and build up massive shows. The largest by far was one that I was featured in at Smack Mellon in New York called Respond!, which featured 300+ artists from around the world. http://smackmellon.org/index.php/exhibitions/past/respond/
I have had my artwork carried in protests, and I have shown work in gallery spaces and art fairs that speak about our experiences as Black people, that raise up Black Lives.
bstox: What does liberation look like / feel like to you?
NW: Liberation to me is freedom, real freedom, freedom from fear and from judgment. To be able to live in my skin, simply to live and not fear for my safety, that’s liberation. I’m not there yet, Black folk are not there yet, but it is a fight we must continue to wage in order to attain true equality in the world. We are worthy of love, and safety, security and happiness.
I think Nina Simone says it best when she says, “What’s free to me? It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling. It’s like how do you tell somebody how it feels to be in love? How are you going to tell anybody who has not been in love how it feels to be in love? You cannot do it to save your life. You can describe things, but you can’t tell them. But you know it when it happens. That’s what I mean by free. I’ve had a couple times on stage when I really felt free and that’s something else. That’s really something else! I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: NO FEAR! I mean really, no fear. If I could have that half of my life. No fear! Lots of children have no fear. That’s the only way I can describe it. That’s not all of it, but it is something to really, really feel. Like a new way of seeing. Like a new way of seeing something.”