Maurice Evans and Grace Kisa Bring Nu Africans to Hammonds House Museum
By Shantay Robinson
Historically black women in the United States have been degraded based in many systems of oppression. Controlling images depict black women as angry, promiscuous, and domineering. These images have appeared for centuries and they limit the extent to which black women can exist in this country. But Nu Africans, a new body of work by Maurice Evans and Grace Kisa spin this long-lasting narrative on its head with images of black women as creator, warrior, and queen. The powerful body of work, a collaborative effort by Evans and Kisa, currently on view at the Hammonds House in Atlanta, Georgia is treading unprecedented territory as it opens in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But the artists, along with the staff at Hammonds House are making do with what they have. On Friday, May 15 the exhibition opened virtually to the public through the Hammond House’s virtual portal. Leatrice Ellzy, Executive Director of the Hammonds House sat down for a brief talk that introduced the work while DJ Salah Ananse spun Afro Beat as they transitioned from talking to viewing. The works stood out as confident and impressive, as Evans and Kisa commented on the origins of most of the artworks.
Nu Africans is a concept over twenty-five years in the making. Evans and Kisa attended the Art Institute of Atlanta together when the conversation between them started. They talked about the differences between African and African Diasporic cultures, as Evans is African American and Kisa is Kenyan. Evans was curious as to why Africans on the continent don’t refer to themselves as black and why black people throughout the diaspora would deny their linkage to Africa. Evans explains this disjuncture as a playground affair where kids start “beef” with hearsay, but in the case of African peoples, it is the white man who is in the middle of misrepresenting Africans on the continent as uncivilized and African Americans as lazy. These misrepresentations cloud our understanding of the similarities we have and highlight the differences between us creating a rift in our acceptance of one another. The goal for the Nu Africans is to start a conversation among African Diasporic peoples, so that we may come to understanding our differences as well as our similarities. Evans offers, “I think once we are cool with ourselves and the way we identify ourselves, I think it will only benefit us and Africans at the same time.”
The exhibition not only presents a different view of black women, it presents a concept that is intended to bring people together. According to Evans, Nu Africans as Kisa tells it, are the population of people who travelled to Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean through the Transatlantic Slave Trade, who have essentially developed their own ethnic groups and traditions. And speaking of Africans on the continent, Kisa adds, “And our part of it is we’re still family, extended family. Of course, you know that we came for the same place. The differences allow you to expand the conversation.” This idea of the Nu African allows people from the diaspora to forge connections with one another and even those on the continent. In order to do this, Evans and Kisa photographed images of women garbed in wearable art Kisa created to depict them as regal and strong. While Nu Africans are not solely women, they decided to start off with women because as Evans puts it, “If you want to heal a nation, you heal the women first because we all come through her and she’s the first one who teaches us things and I wanted to really get women to see their power.”
Because black women especially are often not depicted as the standard of beauty by dominant cultural terms, and within the black community there is also a standard that many women do not fit, Evans chose models for this body of work that came in all shapes and sizes. Evans notes, “I understood that one of the things that happens to us is that we create this one standard of beauty, and it’s not just white people doing it to us, we do it to ourselves.” So, when he looked for models for this body of work, he looked for women who wouldn’t typically be considered beautiful by the standards placed on them. He says, “There were a couple of women that I wanted to be a part of this project and they were like you know I’m not a small woman.” And he said, “That’s exactly what I want because I think you’re perfect the way you are.” This was a truly collaborative effort between Evans and Kisa. Kisa styled the models’ hair and did their makeup and Evans worked on the body, photography, and canvases. Evans sought out the women who would be featured in the series. And then the models would send pictures of themselves beforehand, so Kisa knew what she was working with. And the results of their collaboration are strong and confident images made to counter the dominant narrative. Although, Evans initially started this project on his own in 2006, he jokes that Kisa felt sorry for this initial styling of the models. He states Kisa said, “These are cool, but I think I can do costuming better than you. So, she started doing the costuming and I was like these are dope. Let me step back.” In the collaboration, Evans would have an idea for the costuming and sketch it out and Kisa would make it happen.
According to Evans, the models and their energy were an important part of the process of this series. He was not looking for them to be pretty or sexy or cute. He wanted to depict strong women and were able to get the best out of them by telling them a story or playing particular kinds of music that would evoke certain kinds of energy. Kisa offers, “When the costuming is done, and they see themselves, because they have never seen themselves that way, they are able to animate what we’re talking about because they’re outside of the way they wear their makeup. And their changed by the costuming. When they see themselves in the mirror, they don’t recognize themselves. And then it’s easy to access and animate a warrior pose or power poses for the regal queen.” Evans and Kisa were adamant about not just dressing up a subject to put in front of a backdrop, they wanted to collaborate with the models to create art. The images they created are a depiction of the capabilities of black women. Bot Evans and Kisa want to conjure the spirit of black women who for centuries led rebellions and nations. Evans mentions, “When you start really digging you start seeing how important women are in our history.” “People always talk about Harriet, but she’s not the only one.” Kisa adds, “It’s the system of patriarchy where women are written out of.” She notes that African women fought in many wars alongside men including the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya and the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. She also mentions the many Candaces of generations in Egypt, warrior queens who led nations, warrior queen Amina in Ghana, and Nzinga of the Mbundu People. But the black women leaders of the past who led wars are not the only black women that Evans and Kisa are referring to. Evans, who was raised by a single mother, sees the strength in her, as she did whatever she had to do to make a life for herself and her son. And he notes that so many of us see this same example.
Some of the images in this body of work feature the models with blue black tone painted on their bodies. “As far as the skin tone is concerned a lot of them were darkened and changed to a blue or almost purplish tone because I wanted that to represent the blackness of the people…I wanted it to be sure you understood I was talking about black people.” The body paint and the lighting give the work an Afrofuturistic aesthetic. Kisa notes, “This tactic was a way for the images to claim space in the future…in that space in the future they’ve created a space of their own. As warriors, they’re protecting a space against combat enemies, as well as the elements that might be hostile. They’re explorers. They’re nurturers. And then of course I wanted them to be queens as well.” Placing this work in context to the larger art historical canon, we can see that Nu Africans is depicting women in a way that is unprecedented. There are rarely images made of women conveying the strength of their character in the way that Evans and Kisa have.
Although the exhibition is currently hung at the Hammonds House, the galleries are not open to the public just yet. The staff is considering options for safe protocols for visiting the gallery during the coronavirus pandemic. But if attending the gallery is not possible, Evans and Kisa plan to publish a coffee table book. And you can also view the works on NuAfrican.com.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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