Black Joy

The Pieces of Me: Black collage artists on what their work means to them

This story is part of our Black RE:SET project.

With all the controversy around the new MLK sculpture in Boston and the thinly veiled elitist accusations of Black people not being artistically literate enough to “get it,” one would think only those with the “right” credentials and resources are allowed to be artists. But the truth remains: Black folks have always held the artistic brilliance to make something beautiful out of nothing.

And we’ve never needed the permission of capitalism nor the white gaze to harness our creativity.

In conversation with three of my favorite collage artists, we discuss our journeys into collaging, why it’s meaningful, and using art as both a self-care and spiritual practice.

I am a writer, first. But I could not have found my way to it without first exploring visual art which led me to poetry which led me to all other genres. But it was art that I found sitting alone in my bedroom at five years old. Making strange looking faces that came to me, purple trees, a smiley faced sun. Even when I wasn’t creating those poorly done drawings, I was thinking about art.

I was thinking about the impossible.

Writer and critic, Sasha Bonét, describes collaging as “a historical practice of Black imagination.” It allows us to create worlds beyond the constraints of this country’s persistent violence. Worldbuilding is what Georgia storyteller and collage artist Nancey Price calls it when discussing her own work.

“I remember telling somebody, it felt like being God in a way, especially once a piece is complete. Because I’m doing all this cutting, gluing, arranging [and] image research . . with each collage that I make, whether it’s like a complex piece [or not], it just feels like I’ve made new worlds and told stories.”

Price’s work center’s Black folks in really beautiful ways. Among the stars. In green pastures. In her work, we are limitless and magical and free. Afrofuturistic by definition, in that she imagines us outside the confines of oppression.

But aside from worldbuilding, collaging can be an act of resistance to our material conditions. One of the beautiful aspects of collaging is its accessibility. There are no rules. You can create images and stories out of what you have. In spite of, perhaps, what you’ve been deprived of.

It is just that for Sirene Wata, a hoodoo and multimedia artist from Kentucky.

“Is it [bad] to say that I’m motivated out of spite? I’m a poor person. I grew up poor, and I am still poor. . . one of the strongest missions of Hoodoo is taking whatever I have and [doing] whatever I want with it. [I think of it as] transmutation. . . whatever nastiness or crumbs [I have] in front of me, it may not be the best but I know that I have the innate ability as a creator to make it into something.”

Creating something out of nothing – or in Wata’s case something beautiful and extraordinary – is the legacy of Black folks in this country. The Black Arts Movement, featuring artists from various disciplines, set the groundwork for art as a way of empowering and elevating the humanity of our community.

This all ties into why art can be self-care and a means of taking back our power by stepping into the role of creator. As a child, much of my artwork (which my grandma still keeps tucked away in her bedroom) was an attempt at running away from all the ugly things in my life.

It was one of the few moments I felt in control. And nothing else mattered but creating things that made me feel good. Price believes that’s the single most important aspect of art as a self-care practice, “In order for black people to incorporate art as self-care. They [have] to remove everybody else because self-care is self-first.”

There is safety in centering ourselves in the art we create. Or in my case, removing any notion of an audience. And while all these artists also get paid for their art, their relationship to the work is deeply personal.

Julia Mallory, an author and creative from Pennsylvania, touches on this when describing her artistic process.

“Sometimes I feel like my collage work is in conversation with entities beyond me, but I also have some collage work that I feel like is in conversation with the deepest parts of me. . . as far as what I’m feeling and tapping into my intuition. . . it is very soothing to me and is a form of grief work for me.”

Similarly, Wata describes her journey into collaging as something otherworldly.

“I didn’t feel like I had a home anywhere. . . through talking with my spirits, I was able to create, [within] these collages, places where I existed fully.”

For Black folks, especially those of us who are Queer, creating a place where we belong and can feel whole is that grief work Mallory spoke about and the worldbuilding that Price references with her work. Surrendering to our imagination – or as Wata mentions, your spirits – is self-care. It is meditative. And it is liberating.

When I am looking through books and magazines, cutting parts of and whole images that speak to me, and putting them on my cardboard canvas, all my troubles seem to fade. This too, I believe, is a reclamation of my ancestral traditions. Making a way out of no way. Creating beautiful and joyful art out of, or maybe despite, the pain our current world has handed us.

If you enjoyed this story, check out more from Black RE:SET.

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham (she/her), affectionately known as Dani Bee, is Reckon’s Black Joy Reporter, and a Chicago-born, Mississippi-raised writer based in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2021 Lambda Literary fellow, her work has been published in MadameNoire, Midnight & Indigo Literary Magazine, Raising Mothers, and elsewhere.

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