A fresh, new exhibit is on view at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture celebrating the 40th anniversary of Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking work for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. The show, i found god in myself, curated by Souleo, breathes new life into Shange’s classic choreopoem.
When for colored girls debuted as an off-Broadway play in 1973, it was the height of the Black Arts Movement. Shange set her work apart from the Black aesthetic of the time by creating a feminist aesthetic for women of color, as her work created space for dialogue about the important struggles they were facing. Women of color were called to the foreground out of silence and solitude to share their experiences with love, sexuality, racial identity, domestic violence, rape, abortion, sisterhood and self-love.
Souleo felt the 40th anniversary was a ripe time to reinterpret the work as a visual art presentation. “I began as a poet when I was coming of age at 13,” the curator/journalist asserts. “The work that Shange has produced is so powerful that it not only affected the lives of women of color, it has affected the LGBT community as well. I’ve been surrounded by strong Black women all my life. As an openly gay person, I connect to the stories of strength, identity and overcoming oppression as well.”
Twenty artists were commissioned for the Schomburg exhibit including Renée Cox, Rafia Santana, Margaret Rose Vendryes, Dianne Smith and Kimberly Mayhorn. Each of the interpretations is accompanied with a quote from the original poems providing a connection between Shange’s text and the art.
Artist Dianne Smith expounds on the theme of domestic violence in her artwork, documenting her personal experience including physical bruises and interviews with other women referencing Shange’s poem “Someone Almost Walked Off Wid Alla My Stuff.” Smith then recites the poem adding new lines in a video installation that complements the piece, a sprawling wall roots-grounded in strength.
Amber Robles-Gordon’s work, “My Rainbow Is Enuf,” represents unity, a place of happiness and sisterhood. It’s one of many ways the exhibition celebrates the journey of women of color.
“It still amazes and fascinates me that women of color have kept my work alive for these many generations,” says Ntozake Shange. “Sisterhood is important because we are all we have to stand on. We have to stand near and by each other, pray for one another and share the joys and the difficulties that women face in the world today. If we don’t talk about it among ourselves, then we are made silent by the patriarchy, and that serves us no purpose.”
The multimedia, multi-gallery exhibition also includes noncommissioned art works on display at two satellite locations, the Sol Studio and La Maison d’Art in Harlem. The work at these locations further expands the scope of the show, with art portraying women at various stages of life while digging deeply to encompass a contemporary perspective on issues such as class, body image, gender identity, immigration, politics and war.
As contemporary socio-political issues continue to push and pull at collective consciousness, among them Shange says more attention must be paid to the fight to raise the minimum wage and access to healthcare and contraceptives for women of color, particularly among the poor and working class. Shange asserts the longevity of for colored girls… “should be credited to the original audiences of the ’70s who kept the work alive for the rest of us.”
More than a thoughtful show worth seeing, i found god in myself is a heartwarming, emotional, politically charged experience, a profound exhibition that celebrates important historic, literary and visual treasures.
“Art gives us the opportunity to have clarity as well as hope that we might be able to survive a situation, or hope that we can find a way out of it without too much more injury to ourselves,” Shange says. “I think art is a healing force, and if we give in to the joy that can be found in art, then we are able to sustain ourselves in spite of ourselves.”
i found god in myself is on view now through January 3, 2015. The Schomburg will also host two exhibit-related public programs to further commemorate the 40th anniversary of for colored girls... For more information, visit schomburgcenter.org.
fayemi shakur is a writer and cultural worker based in Newark, New Jersey. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Nueva Luz photographic journal, HYCIDE magazine and The International Review of African-American Art.