A Voice for the Voiceless: The Artwork of  Imo Nse Imeh

By Gina Beavers

Dr. Imo Nse Imeh is a study in contradictions; he is warm and affable but clearly operates from a place of power and purpose.  His art studio, in a converted mill in Holyoke, MA, is a study in dedication to craft but resists the stuffiness of an academic.  His manner is gentle but his words are hard and honest– after all, he operates from a place of purpose. 

Like the artist, Imeh’s work also embodies contradictions.  His exquisitely rendered black male and female figures are made of disarmingly lithe and modulating lines.  Subject and surrounding are woven together in a lyrical dance. Upon closer look, however, there is a noticeably apprehensive relationship between the two.  In some cases, they reveal the dreadful physical and psychological cost of being black in this world.

Forgotten Girl (2015, Ten Little Nigger Girls series)

Imeh’s oeuvre is documenting the social injustices waged against blacks throughout the African diaspora — the harm done to our black bodies and minds.  But he deftly and effectively juxtaposes beauty and trauma, helplessness and strength, silence and fury to breathe a unique and compelling life into his works.  

“My responsibility as an artist is to offer a voice to the voiceless, to the best of my abilities.  It is what I’ve been called to do,” he states. And Imeh’s “call” has clearly shaped the trajectory of his work.  With each project the voice of the voiceless has become clearer and more focused.  

Imeh is a Nigerian-American scholar of African Diaspora visual culture and aesthetics.  He is an alumnus of Columbia University and earned his Ph.D in Art History from the Yale University Graduate School.  He is currently an Associate Professor of Art and Art History at Westfield State University in Westfield, MA.

Imeh is also the author of  Daughters of Seclusion: the Revelation of the Ibibio ‘Fattened Bride’ as the Icon of Beauty and Power,  a practice he first heard about from his grandmother.

“I grew up in the Bronx, in a rich and thriving community of people from Ibibioland, the home of both of my parents,” Imeh states, and he credits his Nigerian culture with informing his view of the world.

The marriage of art and history is the underpinning of Imeh’s projects.  Through Ten Little Nigger Girls and Chibok Girls, Imeh unpacks the lives of black girls interrupted.  He does the same for black boys through his project Seventeen Years Boy

Dryad Study (2016, Chibok Girl series)

His work is the product of a keen investigative mind bent on illuminating the darkest corners of history.  As the guardian of the forgotten, Imeh sheds a beautifully unapologetic light on his journey to speak for his charges.  And the journey is a breathtakingly empathetic excursion into the sorrows and triumphs of blacks in the African Diaspora

Ten Little Nigger Girls is a stunning and heartbreaking series of drawings that embody the pain and anguish of black girls who are marginalized and victimized often with impunity..

Selfie Girl (2015, Ten Little Nigger Girls series

Imeh says this collection was inspired by the 1907 Nora Case children’s story, Ten Little Nigger Girls.  Most are more familiar with Ten Little Indians, a derivative tale that has become more palatable.  In either story ten children are eliminated one by one — sometimes quite violently.  

“My art features contemporary black girls in various states of danger, in the present-day, in the spirit of education and conversation, to examine the language, history, and realities of race in America, and the unsettling ways in which black children specifically have been imagined in the American social economy over the past century,” Imeh states.

 Imeh reimagines Case’s story and contemporizes it with works entitled “Puppet Girl,” “Syringe Girl,” and “Girl on Fire.”  By substituting contemporary girls in this web of historical violence, Imeh forces viewers to contemplate the on-going cost of inflicted violence. Violence that now often results in self-destructive behaviors including drug use, abuse, and suicide. 

Imeh’s project, Chibok Girls, a tribute to the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria that sparked the #Bringbackourgirls campaign in 2014, captures the very essence of loss and endurance.   Imeh describes the intent of this project: 

“The series, collectively, seeks to tell the story of these girls, but also the larger narrative of black girl subjectivity. Most importantly, this series shows the amazing beauty and resilience that these and so many other young women around the world demonstrate in times of great pain and challenge.”  

The most ambitious of Imeh’s projects, Seventeen Years Boy, was inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin.  Spurred by the senselessness of his death and indignities Martin suffered afterwards, Imeh says Martin’s murder “broke me, but woke me.”  Imeh dedicated a year to suss meaning to and purpose from Martin’s tragic death, and ultimately those of young black men throughout history who were killed without consequence, highlighting the issue of the subjugation of Black boys in America.

In 2018, Imeh staged a “unique time-based live painting and multimedia performance that revisited the controversial death of Trayvon Martin. Over a 17-hour period … Imeh painted a large-scale portrait of the teenager, which was then ceremoniously destroyed in the final hour of the performance—an allusion to Trayvon Martin’s 17 years of life, and untimely death. “

The project culminated in a showing of 17 new works of art, each one created with pieces of the original, destroyed canvas. 

“To me,” Imeh explaines  “this new body of work symboliz[ed] the challenging, yet beautiful, journey down the path of healing, to transform the horror of unspeakable tragedy into a renewed sense of life and celebration.” 

Image may contain: 1 personGina Beavers is a freelance writer and the former Editor of Arts and Culture at The Valley Advocate newspaper in Northampton, Massachusetts.  She also is a painter, a graphic designer, and a communications and marketing professional.  

Beavers received her M.A. and B.A. in American History at the Universities of Massachusetts Amherst and Pittsburgh respectively. She currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA. and is serving as the Interim Organizational Director of the Black Caucus American Library Association.

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