Growing up Black in the USA, I did not celebrate Kwanzaa. A woman at my church held a Kwanzaa celebration, but not every year. It petered out after a while, and I never questioned why because I never cared for Kwanzaa. Children in my schools would talk about Kwanzaa. “It’s ridiculous!” “It’s hilarious!” “It’s a made-up holiday.” (As if other holidays weren’t also made-up!) And in talking about Kwanzaa, there was also a tinge of talking about Africa and Africans. I witnessed a classmate with a very African name and two African parents also talk about Kwanzaa in this way, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I participated in the mocking of Kwanzaa just to fit in. How tragic a commentary that a holiday created to help Black people in the United States be a tighter community and remember their African heritage has become the subject of such ridicule, especially amongst Black people!
But this status of Kwanzaa is a result of systemic racism – a type of racism that is not overtly nefarious, but contributes to maintaining the “inferior” status of anything that is not “typical American”. A good example of a comment that embodies this systemic racism is “I want my country back”, which is usually uttered by an older Republican woman who wants to return to a time when gay people, immigrants, and Black people didn’t have that much of a voice or a presence in the American political fabric, and you could knock on your neighbor’s door to borrow sugar. It wasn’t until Castle of our Skins started that I began to intimate the true spirit of being Black, and the diverse ways to celebrate and own this identity. With that in mind, I am proud to include Kwanzaa in this celebration. I do not have a kinara (the candle holder). I do not know Kwanzaa songs. I have not memorized all of the Swahili terms. However, the 7 principals that come from African harvest traditions are available for me to reflect upon in the context of reflecting upon my Black identity. Setting aside the end of the year to do this every year is symbolic for me; a way for me to look back upon my identity that particular year, and to remind me to always celebrate my identity in the coming year.
Habari gani? Umoja – Unity!
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I recently had the honor of engaging in this process. To reveal my inner state of being, Daniel asked me a series of questions about my life, my art, my processes, my family, my relationships, my approaches to certain issues, and more. What is unique about Daniel's process, though, is that this does not in any way feel like an interview, but rather a talk with a close friend, partner, mentor, or family member. As we discussed various aspects of life, he sketched my face and plans for my MassQ. I only quickly glanced at his sketches, but what I saw showed a level of technical mastery that rivals the great artists of our time.
During the actual MassQing, the discussion continued. While I couldn't physically see my face being altered under Daniel's capable talents, I did notice myself thinking more about the topics we discussed, especially about political issues and the love I have for my complex and supportive family. Daniel made impromptu alterations to his design during the process, and paid meticulous attention to detail. His announcement of completion wasn't grandiose. Rather, it felt like an organic, subtle ending - a culmination of various factors simultaneously competing against each other and working with each other.
The time came to look at my transformed, MassQed face in the mirror. My immediate reaction was a sense of wonder at the talent of the artist. Then it occurred to me that the person in the mirror was me!
A sudden sense of pride came over me, as well as a unique type of strength that I knew existed, but perhaps never knew how to reveal. The MassQ that Daniel created has elements of multidirectionality juxtaposed with a focal point, a multicolored palette that is focused and strategic, a design of lines and curves that bring out certain features of my face while creating an element of dance for the eyes, and a sense of partitioning that extends physical as well as personal/emotional features. Only a persona that is truly invested in his/her artistic practice can achieve such a combination of intuitive creation and flawless execution.
After the MassQing session, Daniel explained to me that the removal of the MassQ is also a part of the ritual. I spent the rest of my day with the MassQ, which included interactions with workers, a commute, walking and driving by hoards of teenagers in line for a concert, and doing karaoke. People were not shy to either ask me about the MassQ or give massive compliments. It did give me a sense of power and confidence, but a different type of a confidence. It is the type of confidence that comes from not being afraid to be who you are, in spite of how the world may look at you. While certain groups of people may experience being "viewed differently" for various reasons on a day-to-day basis, the MassQ forces the bearer to come to terms with this differentiation-through-transformation, and encourages to keep this feeling after the ritual has ended.
In March 2017, Castle of our Skins is planning on collaborating with Daniel Callahan on various events related to celebrating Black visual artists. Be on the lookout!!
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Writings, musings, photos, links, and videos about Black Artistry of ALL varieties! Feel free to drop a comment or suggestions for posts!