On Scholarship and Creative Process
Recently I was asked to craft a response to El Anatsui's exhibition currently on display at Mount Holyoke College. I am grateful for that opportunity, but mostly I am grateful that they were open to creative responses to Anatsui's creative work. I don't know that I would have brought myself to crafting anything if this aspect of the call wasn't made clear because as I've continued to develop my own scholarship and writing, I am increasingly convinced in creative processes as particularly useful and complex processes of knowledge production. To put it plain, I am certain that art thinks hard. Every creative project on which I have embarked has taken loads of research, drafts, and tinkering with analytical frameworks (media).
In developing a response to Anatsui's massive and awe-inducing sculptures my senses as both a feminist thinker and an artist (are they separate?) were ignited. Particularly, when I encountered his Tiled Flower Garden, I could not help but think of another garden in womanist thought. I thought about the intricate nature of his sculptures. How they are often compared to textiles because of the intricacy and labor involved in tying thousands of bottle caps together by copper wire. How that process, with the workers he employs, is reminiscent of a quilting bee, how diasporic arts, arts of colonized peoples is often a process of gathering, repurposing and making new. While I am looking at this master of sculpture, I could not help but think of women's work in that tiled flower garden of Anatsui's creation.
Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens talks about the dangers of stifling creative spirit. It talks about how women artists, Black women artists specifically (as she is talking back to Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own") must find space in their lives for creativity. How this is a constant struggle because of the constraints of class, racism and sexism on Black women's lives. How the consequences of not expressing creative genius within are dire. Even to the point of losing one's sense of self.
So, I'd gone to the Mount Holyoke Art Museum, thinking of the life I'd chosen. Quite on the margins of creativity and scholarship. Sometimes arguing for continued ambiguity between the two. Often feeling a tension, spoken or implied between what it means to create art and critique it, what it means to research and produce. I decided to weave together my own garden. Between Anatsui and Walker, and the ground on which I stand as visiting faculty at a small liberal arts college.
It felt better to respond in a way that was doing what we do so often as scholars, moving theory around, building concepts to frame a new thing within new research but visually. Because, as a Black woman in academia, who has chosen this life but who never, ever, decided to give up on art there was no better way to respond to an artist at this moment in my career than with the sparks of imagination that would bring me to the page. Even if this moment in my career is fraught with fear of academic credibility, disciplinary and even interdisciplinary skepticism, those problems present themselves whether or not I choose to present research on the history of gynecology in a book of poems, or in a journal article. (I chose the former.) I have a PhD in the Humanities (Women's Studies no less). I'm a woman scholar who has always demanded a room of her own. I am a good daughter, I know my mothers' names and have watched them tend to their gardens.
Excerpts from Alice Walker's essay, "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens" found in In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose.