If one were applying for a ‘Black woman’s card,’ familiarity with Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf,” would surely be a prerequisite. After debuting on Broadway in 1976, the play which consists of a series of monologues performed by Black women that explores topics such as rape and domestic violence, celebrated its 40-year anniversary. For the celebration, 20 artists were selected to participate in a group show at the Schomburg in New York. Among them was Harlem-based artist Dianne Smith. For her, creating an art piece that interpreted her favorite poem from the play, “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,” was truly an honor.
To execute her vision, Smith began by using brown butcher paper, a material that she uses often because of its symbolic value. “It’s resilient and strong, but at the same time, fragile and soft,” says Smith. “It also represents the way African-Americans were regarded as cargo and shipped throughout the Middle passage.” To give life to The Lady In Green who recites her poem in the play, Smith incorporated sisal rope and West African textile with dominant green tones. Together these components were crumpled, draped, and stapled to the walls of the Schomburg to create a visual, metaphoric representation of the stuff that one might have stolen.
At that point, Smith’s piece might have been complete had it not been for a twist of ‘life imitating art,’ when she found herself the victim of domestic violence. At 50 years old, it was the first time that anything like that had ever happened to her and she knew she had an important decision to make.
“The night of my assault, I called a dear friend over who supported me. I came to the realization that my abuser wasn’t going to walk away with my dignity, my womanhood…my stuff,” Smith reflected. She ended the relationship right then and began taking photographs of the bruises on her face everyday as it healed.
It was around the same time that NFL player Ray Rice was heavily in the news for assaulting his then-fiancée Janay when Smith noticed a very negative view, even by some of her friends, of the victim. “There’s this idea of what a victim of domestic violence looks like, and it wasn’t me,” explains Smith. So she began showing the pictures of her face to friends as a way to start conversation and ultimately decided to incorporate the footage into her art piece. “I knew that in order for me to truly represent Ntozake Shange’s work I had to be authentic,” she said.
But it didn’t end there. In keeping with the spirit of inclusiveness that has made “for colored girls” such a powerful voice for women of color throughout the diaspora, Smith invited six of her dearest friends to share their experiences as well. With the help of Spike Lee cinematographer Kerwin Devonish, women from diverse backgrounds reflected on the poem and began telling stories of stuff they’d lost, had stolen, or given away. An Afro-Latina woman from Honduras shared how she had given away her identity as a child by allowing people to shorten her name, and another woman recalled being told as a kid that it was inappropriate for little girls to whistle and the feeling of joy that was stripped away. And yet, it came back a few days later when her mom explained to her that it wasn’t true. The fact that it was possible to regain something that was taken became one of her biggest life lessons.
Consequently, viewers have had strong reactions.
A woman in her 70s realized while watching the videos that she had been raped over 50 years ago by a man who would end up becoming her boyfriend. “It wasn’t articulated then,” says Smith, “but it was the first time that someone had taken her stuff.” Even men who were reluctant to come to the show because they assumed it would be male bashing have been moved to tears while listening to the women tell their stories.
So how does Smith feel about the impact that her art piece is having on people?
“To be able to articulate someone else’s words through art, and have that touch a large range of people is an honor and privilege that I don’t take lightly,” shares Smith. “And to have Ntozake Shange herself be appreciative of my work was almost overwhelming…what I realized for myself is that things happen in life, but it doesn’t have to have power over me.”
Dianne Smith’s art installation is currently being viewed as part of a group show called ‘i found god in myself’ at the Houston Museum of African American Culture. For more about her, visit DianneSmithArt.com