By Rukhsar Ali, November 28 2020 —
“Look at the work these womxn have done. There has to be a way to celebrate them.”
Keshia Holloman-Dawson, President of the University of Calgary Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA), and University of Calgary graduate and artist, writer and poet Alia Aluma began conceptualizing NAFASI, an intersectional renaissance-inspired portrait collection, when discussing the lack of support for local womxn’s efforts and advocacy for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The gallery will virtually open on Saturday, Nov. 28, showcasing portraits of the influential womxn of colour who have made significant contributions to the Black Lives Matter movement in Calgary. The event will also include a brief artist talk and collection introduction, as well as a Zoom panel discussion.
“We have not sexualized these womxn, we have not made them into objects — we have made them into monuments,” says Aluma. “They are people who are representing something massive. We’ve photographed them to emphasize their importance.”
Aluma draws on her background in art history to rewrite the Renaissance in “a new era of enlightenment as we expose these systemic constructs that have been in place for so long, that haven’t been renegotiated, that haven’t been addressed.”
Aluma continues, “I wanted to challenge preexisting notions and renegotiate the idea of identity and representation. We really wanted to showcase the womxn that were involved but do it in a way that was just beautiful… We wanted to create something that did not exist.”
Her and Holloman-Dawson discuss the misrepresentation of Black womxn and people of colour in media, and the reduction of Black womxn to “edible and consumable characteristics,” as motivation to rewrite a different narrative which asks “Why can’t womxn of colour, Black womxn, be beautiful, powerful, but also peaceful at the same time?” In its artistic interpretation of strong womxn, NAFASI showcases representation that pushes back against long-standing harmful stereotypes about Black womxn and womxn of colour.
In addition, Aluma notes that the portraits “lead by example” through the way they photograph “dark skin, in dark environments” which is a task many have historically failed or refused to do. Most notably, Vogue was criticized this past summer for not elevating or correctly representing enough Black models, photographers and creatives in their magazines.
NAFASI, meaning “space or potential” in Swahili, reflects the exhibit’s purpose according to Aluma, who says, “It shows the potential that we have created and this is the space we have established to do so.” Holloman-Dawson says that the exhibit “goes to show how important it is for womxn to support womxn and how great it turns out when we do.”