Natasha Siyumbwa '17, Curator of Black Women/Black Lives

Name: Natasha Siyumbwa

Class Year: Senior, 2017

Hometown: Lusaka, Zambia

Major/minor: Political Science Major, History Minor

Campus Involvement: President of the African Student’s Association, Gund Gallery Associate Curatorial Leader of Research, Senior Admissions Fellow, Alumni Leader of Tomorrow

 

Hi, Natasha! You were recently involved with the Gund Gallery as one of the three curators for the “Black Women/Black Lives” exhibit. What inspired this exhibit?

It all began when we got some gifts from David Horvitz, who gave us five of the pieces of the exhibit. At the time, Jodi Kovach, the Curator of Academic Programs, had been interacting with the Interference Archive, an archive in New York City, for a different show. She saw they had a lot of political and feminine pieces that related to Black women and social movement, and so she came up with this idea. She thought it was cool to have it be a student project at Kenyon, and we went from there. Jenna and Rose were already curators, and Jodi approached me the first week of school to ask me whether I would be interested in a promotion to be a lead student curator of the exhibit. Of course, I said yes!

 

What was the process of curating this exhibit? I heard you and the other curators (Rose Bishop ‘17, Jenna Wendler ‘17) went to New York City for a few days!

I had to learn pretty quick how to do this curatorial work—Jenna and Rose already had experience, but it was a learning process for me. It was a slow beginning—the first three weeks were just focused on travel plans to New York. When we arrived, we were there for less than a full weekend—about 36 hours.

Being in the Interference Archive was really interesting. They had so many t-shirts, pins, posters, newspapers, and ephemera all from various social justice movements all around the world. It was wonderful to go through all of that and see what would be relevant for the show. At the time, we didn’t have all of the themes, but we ended up coming up with those three broad ideas that became our core.

When I was thinking about the themes, I really wanted there to be a pan-African or International element to it, while Rose looked more at the importance of the family, and Jenna looked at Black feminism and LGBTQIA+ elements.

This whole experience, especially November and December, was crazy. We all led our individual teams so we had to make sure each team did the research they needed on the pieces and had some general background. We all worked continuously online throughout Winter break and it was a lot of work. Thankfully, Decatur let us come back a full week early to work on the show and be able to open up early, on Martin Luther King Jr. day. It was intense, but worth it.

 

 

Your team had to make some difficult decisions during the process of choosing which pieces to bring to Kenyon. Did you have to leave any piece out that was especially interesting or significant?

We got most of the things we wanted from the Interference Archives. There were some Black Panther posters that we wanted, but couldn’t use. What we were really sad about, however, is that the limited space in the gallery didn’t allow us to bring more modern, millennial artists. The walls we have are already full, so we couldn’t get additional things.

A lot of alums have begun donating pieces relating to this exhibit, though, so it keeps growing and we will have a lot to work with from here at Kenyon in future years. So, that’s really exciting.

 

You were the main curator for the “Beauty, Politics, and Femininity” part of the exhibit. As a Black woman, is there anything that was particularly important to you when choosing pieces representing Black femininity?

The Wanda Ewing pieces—"Wallflowers"—are definitely my favorite. We got them from Ohio Wesleyan. I feel like those images summarize a lot of what I wanted to say with the theme—the women are just so unapologetic in their confidence and in their sexuality, and in their natural bodies. One has natural hair, all of them flaunt their curves. Ultimately, I think it’s important to show that Black women are beautiful. I also really liked the wallpaper background, which alludes to the domestic sphere. Black women were historically put in a submissive position in the White domestic sphere, so having those women carve out a space for themselves in that domestic sphere is really important and cool, in my opinion.

I also really like Simpson’s piece showcasing Black women’s lips, which critique measurements on Black women’s bodies. It’s a cool comment on how physiologists used to use measurements of different body parts to say Whites were superior to people of color, so I like that she uses their same methods to counter that and critique race in American society.

 

 

It is especially important to celebrate POC and WOC lives, now, in the wake of Mr. Trump’s presidency. Do you feel like any of these pieces speak to what is going on in America today?

Yes! There’s one photograph, especially, of a Black woman being held back by the police while peacefully protesting. It’s funny because it reminds me a lot of what people have been saying about last week’s Women’s March on Washington. Yes, the March was peaceful and there were no arrests—but that’s because it was mostly White women. White women are prioritized and put on a pedestal, so the police will not attack them. But if it had been mostly Black women, there would have been heavily armed police officers to make sure nothing would get too crazy.

 

How do you think this exhibit would be received in Zambia?

It would be great! Museums have often been seen as a tourist thing, it’s not often that we go to museums, unless it’s for a class. But I think a lot of my friends would be so happy to see themselves in art, especially in Western art. It’s also usually Whitewashed, or sometimes African-American but still incredibly misogynistic. I think they would love to see international contributions to the celebration of Black lives.

 

How can we learn from this exhibit and work it into our everyday lives—as people of color or otherwise?

People should be aware of the other types of feminism that exist, and the reasons behind why they exist. The dominant Western feminism is almost anti-motherhood and anti-family, because family was seen as a patriarchal structure. But that’s not the case with Black women, where family was—and is—seen as a strength. One of the reasons why women are so wonderful and powerful is because they can do both, it’s a beautiful and powerful thing.

There’s one piece in particular that’s important to this—it’s the image of the Black woman with a baby strapped to her back, carrying a rifle. That image shows that you can be a mother and still fight for what you believe in. You can be a wife and still stand up for yourself, especially when you have a child and you want them to stand up for the same things you did. I think we need to find power in family and power in the beauty of the female body.

It’s important for people to realize that Black women didn’t have the same unity in family that White women had—they were sterilized, forced to feed other women’s babies; family is something black women had to fight for. Ultimately, to me, femininity should be inclusive, not exclusive. We should have a choice, and it should be our choice.

In terms of beauty standards, I would like people to think about their own beauty and their own opinions. We need to think about what we find beautiful, and why we do enforce the Whitewashed beauty? We’re bringing back hips and curves and lips, but it’s still on the faces of White models. We need to check ourselves and love ourselves and not put other people down.

 

Thank you for meeting with me, Natasha! If you are interested in viewing the Black Women/Black Lives exhibit, it is on display at the Gund Gallery until February 5th, 2017.

 

Image credits: Emma Conover-Crockett