INTERSECTIONALITY IN THE STUDIO
Fig. 1: Pamela Sneed, Mourning Series, 2018, mixed paper collage, 7x10 in. Courtesy the artist.
I gravitate to places past their prime
No longer hot spots or trendy destinations…
Where it once may have been avoided at all costs
I might now choose to go to Cancún Mexico
for a quick get-away
Now that all the hipsters have invaded all other parts of The Yucatán
Looking for more untouched, pristine, authentic,
even spiritual experiences
I have a new and reignited love for Cancún
Because I’m not a night-life person
or looking for a straight hook-up
I can go there unperturbed
Find some pocket of pristine beach and turquoise water
and just relax
practically invisible to the red faces of sun burnt white tourists.
These days, like Cancún for some, the term lesbianism is in decline; it isn’t a popular destination. It’s been replaced with words like Queer among others. Perhaps that’s part of the evolutionary process of language. There was a time in the early 90’s when I too stopped identifying as lesbian. It was after I’d spent almost a year traveling as a performer/poet in London. It was the first time I traveled that far from home for any real length of time. Many things changed for me. After spending time in the UK I saw myself as an artist who was part of an international and world community. I belonged to a global community that now describes the millions taken out of Africa, forced into labor in the Caribbean and American colonies; I was part of a diaspora.
After being in Europe I could no longer identify with just a few Black Lesbians that lived and traveled below 14th Street in Manhattan. I also developed new questions asking myself: Was being Gay or Lesbian enough to unite us as a community? Was a shared skin color enough to unite people? My inability to identify as a Lesbian also came from some supreme disappointments I’d experienced in early Lesbian relationships. I became aware of the hypocrisy of lesbians who bullied other women, operated in cliques, shamed and shunned others. At that time I didn’t feel Lesbian aptly described my desire, which is fluid. I do know that I have never identified as a straight person. For a brief time I identified as a Lesbian identified bisexual.
That didn’t change until sometime later in the late 90s when I had to conduct a writing workshop at a remote school in upstate New York. There, I was introduced to a young Black Lesbian writer who was very isolated because of her identity. She was suffering. I thought about what it was like to hear and see Audre Lorde speak in the late 80s and early 90s and how much it meant for me to hear her say out loud: “I am a Black Lesbian, mother, warrior poet doing my work, coming to ask you if you’re doing yours?”
Her pride and declaration of identity saved me. With the young woman whom I met I knew I couldn’t lie or avoid. Her life and perhaps mine depended on it. So Isaid, “I’m a Black Lesbian too.” Those words marked my return to lesbianism and being able to name myself as such. I also learned it didn’t or doesn’t have to be about what a community did or doesn’t do, it’s about me and how I define myself and what I need.
At this time now more than ever I need to assert myself as a Black Lesbian. I need to declare publicly, “I love women.” I need to say this in a culture that despises women and Blackness, dykes, the working class, the disabled and the underresourced. We live in an environment where cis women and trans women of color are brutally murdered daily and both populations impact me, where domestic violence is an epidemic in America and Lesbians of every color and class are murdered systemically, and yet there is no public outcry. In 2015 I published Gift, a chapbook with Belladonna chaplets series. It was named after the murder of a 23-year-old Black Lesbian in South Africa named Gift Makau who had been raped and strangled with a hose shoved into her mouth. I wanted there to be a document for Gift, that somewhere someone would say her life mattered and to create a piece of literature where there was none, and probably outside of what I wrote there will never be.
For me, to say I am a Lesbian is way of fighting, to raise my fist as Winnie and Nelson Mandela did at the height of apartheid, to signal we are still here. There are still so many including myself that need to see us.
Years ago I taught at a school where Queer culture was rendered invisible. I finally encountered a young Black gay man who was out in my class. Because of him, I decided to incorporate Queer history into all of my lessons. I wanted him to know he was not alone and that our contributions throughout history mattered. After every class he never failed to turn to me and say, “Thank you Pamela.”
At present I teach online at School of the Art Institute Chicago, in their low residency MFA program. I also teach at Columbia University in the MFA in Visual Arts program. I teach New Genres, Poetry, Performance, and Visual Culture. When I was approached to curate this section on Intersectionality for the The Archive, I decided to primarily focus on my students, with the exception on Nona Faustine. For each artist I asked both general and specific questions about intersectionality and its complexities including: what they want others to know and think about and what they don’t see of the artists themselves. I also wanted to reference specific conversations we’ve had together in their studios. I wanted people to see and hear what I experience in studio visits with my students at Columbia. We have conversations about Queerness, intersectionality, and art that the general public are rarely privy to. So often conversations on intersectionality and overlapping identities become route. I believe the reason that many movements fail is because of their failure to recognize and discuss intersectionality. In many ways I think we have come a long way from when poet Essex Hemphill discussed having to choose between his Blackness and Queerness in the 1989 experimental film Tongues Untied and how each identity to him is vital and equal. Still, with most students that I’ve met regardless of school or region or background, they all voice a feeling of invisibility. The artist students that I know are dealing with such complex and layered issues. Bravely through their artistic practice and lives they are forging paths where and when there are none. Each of them in their own way is courageous, like the Queer artist who had to leave Bangladesh after being targeted by the Taliban or a young Latinx woman fighting the erasure and gentrification of her New York neighborhood. I also asked my friend Nona Faustine whom I consider a Queer ally whose work and photography on slavery touches me and speaks to my own work. Her struggle as a Black single mother written here makes me cry. There are many other touching essays here Orlee, Joseph, Susanna, Kiyan, Aika, Rasel and Fontaine.
For many of the people I asked to participate in this discussion, it is their first time penning a personal essay. For others such as a Queer artist from Iran dealing with survival and erasure and another from Hong Kong who lives and works, here while being terrified by the Chinese government’s shooting of protestors, it was too difficult to speak of and write on such issues, at least for now. Every day they are terrified while fighting marginalization in Trump’s America.
I spent the last month and a half assembling and curating artists for this section on intersectionality. I had to convince some that their stories and art were important. After doing this and honoring my own commitment to provide a space for artists to speak, I was hesitant to include my own visual work. I am a relatively new visual artist, practicing and learning for four years while working as a visual artist unconsciously all my life. I was originally willing to provide a space for others, but not for myself. I told myself, “Oh they just want to hear you as a poet.” But I am and have always been an interdisciplinary artist. For my visual work, I paint and create collages. As in my own life, I take broken torn and scraps of things and reorder them to sculpt something beautiful that feels whole. In an upcoming show with Avram Finklestein at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, I will exhibit a trip-tych of full-length body collages. One has a slave ship projected on a jet black body, to portray the way that bodies contain history and how the personal and political intersect.
Recently, I confided to a friend of mine that I wanted to write an article about anti-blackness within Queer and artistic communities. I am constantly dealing with situations where all the players are white. They refuse to see or hear me, I’m projected upon just as Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland were projected upon before being murdered. Sometimes in those white faces I see fear. I’m only a caricature in their fantasy. My expertise, intelligence, and integrity is undervalued and unseen. It’s remarkable how comfortable they seem in this, they don’t see or experience anything wrong. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m still living in the apartheid era where whites fashion out great lives for themselves, free from responsibility, in which their lives are built on Black labor and Black pain.
Pamela Sneed is a poet, performer, visual artist and professor. She lives in New York City, and will publish a new poetry and prose book with City Lights in September 2020 edited by Amy Scholder. She is author of Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom than Slavery, Kong and Other Works, Gift, Black Panther, and Sweet Dreams by Belladonna Press.