Safe Spaces, Self-Care and the Significance of A Seat at the Table

I minored in Women’s Studies in university and made sure to take as many courses as I could that focused on the intersecting identities of women, particularly gender and race. My first few semesters of studying feminism were fantastic. I suddenly had all this new language to describe my experiences and feelings, along with the comforting realization that I was not alone. To say it saved my life in a period of self-doubt, anxiety and depression is not something I reveal easily. The knowledge was empowering. 

In my final year, I took a seminar on anti-racist and anti-colonial feminisms which was simultaneously the best and most exhausting course I have ever taken. Out of the sixteen students in the class, only a few of us were not white and only a couple of us were black. Every Wednesday, having read everyone from Said to Spivak to Fanon to Bhabha, we came prepared to discuss racism, its history and all its ugly manifestations. And every Wednesday, I went home feeling more weary than empowered.

"And do you belong? I do." (2016) by Ojo Agi; Watercolor, ink and pen on paper (23.375 in x 18.75 in)

"And do you belong? I do." (2016) by Ojo Agi; Watercolor, ink and pen on paper (23.375 in x 18.75 in)

I remember one class in particular when the professor spoke about animal rights activists petitioning to get human rights for apes as if it were something to be inspired by. The pain I felt on the bus ride home was inexplicable. It wasn’t too long ago that we had discussed the Chain of Being and how scientific racism had measured black people—and black women, specifically—as only one step above animals. And now, "logically", after black people have just barely gained rights and freedoms, it’s already time to extend them to animals as well. I was so uncomfortable during this discussion but nobody else in the class even seemed to register the irony, so I kept quiet.

I made up for the lack of blackness and belonging in the classroom by attending events outside of class hosted by black student organizations. But I still found that I was continuously addressing painful topics and heading home with the heavy reminder that the world thought so little of me, a black woman. Over the past couple years, I’ve voluntarily withdrawn myself from a lot of these “activist” spaces because they achieve little more than reminding me of black trauma and I have enough research papers that do the same. 

But as I’ve kept quiet, the conversation on racism grows louder. And with every name-turned-hashtag, the reality is harder to ignore. The problem isn’t going away. If anything, I feel like I’m losing the language I developed to discuss and critique these issues, yet still feeling the same exhaustion and weariness.

And so, Solange’s A Seat at the Table could not have come at a more appropriate time for me. As much as it is a social critique on the experiences of black people in America and beyond, it is also a safe space where I, as a black woman, can grieve, heal and celebrate. And most of all, with her album, she reminds me that I shouldn’t run from the feeling of weariness. Creating art that is honest and vulnerable can serve as a mechanism for self-care while also motivating social change and I'm wholly inspired for what comes next in my artistic journey.

On the Whiteness of Dark Fantasy and Moving Away from Tim Burton

You may not be able to tell at first glance, but one of the inspirations behind my artwork is Tim Burton. It’s easier to see once I show you my work from five or six years ago when all my characters had gaunt eyes and sallow cheeks. And although my present work has traded in the cartoonish style in favour of realism, the extra shading around the eyes and the cheekbones still persists. Burton’s stories were always dark, twisted and gothic—yet still quirky and beautiful. I enjoyed the contrast and took a lot of influence from that throughout my development as an artist.

I’ve never cared that Tim Burton’s films didn’t feature people of colour (POC). In fact, I hardly noticed, given that he tends to cast the same actors for all his projects. But when Burton was asked to explain why his newest film lacked racial diversity in a cast of over 20 actors (with the only black person cast as the villain), his answer was more than disappointing. It was offensive.

In an interview with Bustle, Burton says:

I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just... I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.

There are so many things wrong with this statement but I’ll just go over three. First, Burton outright says he was offended by the inclusion of POC characters among a white cast, as if the effort to diversify the cast somehow tainted the experience of the show. Second, blaxploitation films were made in response to black people’s exclusion from mainstream (ie. white) media and recognition, so Burton doesn’t get any cookies for not thinking to whitewash them. And lastly, POC are tired of seeing themselves in stereotypical roles—as villains, as mammies, as maids, as thugs, as slaves, etc. We’re ready to see ourselves in fantasy and sci-fi and quirky films. Why is that something to resent?

If he had never said any of this, I would have just kept watching his movies uncritically. But what I’ve learned from this interview is that his exclusion of POC is not by accident. It’s conscious and intentional. And at this point in my life, I’m no longer surprised to learn that some of the people I once admired harbour prejudices that would isolate me and a good chunk of their fanbase. I’m always disappointed but, ultimately, glad that I’ve learned where they stand so I can direct my admiration (and my dollars) toward films that make an effort at representing people like me.

So with that in mind, here are three beautifully directed dark fantasy films featuring Africans that I’ve really enjoyed:

This list was admittedly difficult to come up with, so if you know of any others I should check out (and not limited to just Africans, but featuring a diverse cast--and yes, that includes white people too), please leave a comment below!