The Daily Heller: “Soul Food of the Print World”

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Claire Oliver Gallery’s current exhibition, A Contemporary Black Matriarchal Lineage in Printmaking, features 21 works by nine printmakers. The exhibition, curated by two artists—Tanekeya Word, founder of Black Women of Print (an African diaspora centered platform; a digital homeplace for independent, mid-career and established Black women printmakers), and Delita Martin—explores the depth and breadth of printmaking through the lens of Black women and their myriad narratives.

The show features work by Martin, Ann Johnson, LaToya M. Hobbs, Lisa Hunt, Paula Wilson, Karen J. Revis, Chloe Alexander, Sam Vernon, Stephanie Santana and Word, who describes her work as “the soul food of the print world.” Here I speak with the curators and creators about the implications of their artistic reckoning.

Delita Martin: My Mother’s Bowl (self-portrait). Acrylic, charcoal, etching, gold leaf, hand-stitching.

PRINT is a magazine with an 80-year legacy that addresses graphic design, illustration and typography, but it is called PRINT—so while not the focus, printmaking and printmakers have been covered. Why have Black women printmakers’ work been so underrepresented in this field, profession and community?
Tanekeya Word: As an American, I can speak on my lived experiences and research in the field of art in the U.S., which includes art education and the art world. The field is steeped in the same Western European ideologies as our overall society—where systemic oppression originated and resides. So, if Black women are positioned as last within this U.S. system, then every discipline and field tends to also carry this oppressive ideology at its core, where Western European culture is centered.

As a profession, printmaking in comparison to many artforms such as painting is seen as very quotidian—something readily accessible and mundane. Although I have an affinity for the everyday, I have found both assumptions about the discipline of printmaking untrue. It is costly to become a printmaker and to stay in the profession. The education, equipment, materials and membership fees to community studios keep people who cannot access the resources from exploring printmaking as a profession, not to mention the lack of race, ethnic, class and gender representation. So no, not everyone can do it.

A community is a group of people with a shared belief; Black Women of Print understands that it will take more than just our shared experience and dedication to the discipline of printmaking to be in community within the field and discipline—ideologies also matter. The art and printmaking profession will become a community embracing of Black women when the shared belief of equity is realized.

Tanekeya Word: Tender a sisterhood anthem (Bside); linocut, relief ink, hand quilting on 280 gsm BFK Rives.

Martin: Black women have historically been in a battle to be seen in the art world in general. Whether it be representation or opportunities as artists. When you combine this with a medium that is misunderstood and often considered a lesser form of art, then add in the costly nature of the process and we are all but invisible.

Stephanie Santana: Reclamation; screenprint, monotype, cotton textile and batting, machine quilting.

This is an exhibit of explicit solidarity and implicit criticism. What glue holds it together?
Word: The glue is our understanding that the world we live in is pluralistic; we can simultaneously unite as a community while critiquing and celebrating diverse modes of being.

Martin: Our bond as women and our commitment to document our own lives, culture and history through a shared love of printmaking is what holds us and this exhibition together.

Stephanie Santana: A Watchful Eye (top) and detail.

I am quite taken by many pieces, but above all, I’d like to know more about Stephanie Santana’s work, and especially “color.” There is such power in the technique and word. Can you say how it feels to you?
Santana: Color is visceral—in the same way that scent can trigger a memory, color can move us through a range of emotions and ways of seeing. In working with archival imagery, the intuitive use of color and form allows me to expand the story of the photographic image beyond what is readily apparent. 

Ann Johnson, Octoroon (Constance), intaglio, found objects.

I could focus on every piece, but space does not allow, and I hope readers will visit the show. But please tell me more about the backstory of Ann Johnsons work.
Johnson: “Octoroon” and “Chattel” are a part of the “Auction Block” series, which originated from an exhibition I did in 2019 titled “Harvest with Kaneem Smith” at Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC). 

Ann Johnson: Chattel, from the auction block series. Intaglio, found objects.

The “Auction Block” series examines the truths and consequences of slavery, incorporated with a futuristic approach to the subject. Chattel, meaning property, explores “being owned,” while “Octoroon” of course is a result of sexual exploits on the plantation. I print on raw cotton and infuse an assimilation of found objects and use contemporary images. This creates a dynamic of becoming everything their enslaved ancestors couldn’t conceive they would become, while fearing what might become of them. The work questions humanity and sparks conversation. 

What do you hope and/or envision will be the takeaway from this exhibition?
Word: I envision that the viewers will experience what it feels and looks like when Black women and our thoughts are at the center. This exhibition is who we are: what we are experiencing, witnessing and imagining daily despite disparities, it is created in our own voice and with our own hands.  

Martin: It is my hope that museums, institutions and art collectors will take more tangible efforts to recognize the important works that are being created by Black women printmakers. That viewers will understand the importance of seeing and defining yourself using your own voice, which is what we have done in this exhibition and continue to do in our work.