Nia Alexander is pursuing her BFA in Painting and Printmaking and minor in Art History from VCU and will graduate in 2018. She spoke with Amendment about the processes and inspirations for the works in this collection. *
My artwork centers around identity and the circumstances that influence it. History, culture, and family bloodlines are factors that can shape someone’s sense of self. My fascination with identity often couples with my passion for storytelling. When merged together, my artwork becomes an exploration into how stories—fictitious, historical, and contemporary—express a sense of identity in both individuals and communities.
Art and storytelling have accompanied me through life, first as the daughter of a visual artist and a musician, and later as I began to encounter the vivid history associated with Virginia. With Richmond as my hometown, stories of colonizers, slaves, and indigenous peoples filled me with a curiosity that only expanded as I learned more about the world. As I began travelling to other countries like Morocco, Greece, Qatar, and Turkey, I observed how others view their own history—their own stories—and how this contributes to their collective identity.
Witnessing the relationship other communities have with their stories and sense of identity, I began considering my own. I am a woman of both African and Chickahominy Native American heritage. However, I know very little about my ancestors and the stories they carried with them. Due to America’s tumultuous history with Native Americans and people of African descent, much of my peoples’ history and storytelling traditions are lost to me, and I realized that not knowing their history impacts my identity.
Many of the historical narratives I learned pertaining to people of color in the U.S. were almost exclusively steeped in violence or overgeneralized to the point of dehumanization. The circumstances that have affected my people in the past continue to affect us in the present, and though it contributes to our identities as a community, I have also come to realize that it limits the way we see ourselves. As I search more into my heritage, I encounter the many stories of my ancestors, the histories and legends they identified with, and create a more positive and well-rounded image of who they were. The stories humanize them. I am inspired to share the narratives I encounter, hoping to frame them in a way that will have my audience consider what aspects of life, legend, history, and contemporary society inform their own identities.
I see collage as a way of piecing together a variety of materials to express one cohesive idea, to tell one cohesive story. This process parallels my efforts as I piece together the histories and identities of both my ancestors and my ethnic communities.
The piece Teach Me (Assignment 6) considers the inaccurate and glorified way European colonization during the “Age of Discovery” has been taught to students. The children who are taught this misconstrued narrative carry it with them as they age and in turn create a pattern of miseducation with each generation. Among many other side effects, this type of misteaching limits the way people of color see themselves in the cannon of history. I seek for my audience to consider what other effects the miseducation of history can have on people over generations.
Squeeze Harder considers the violent effects of the transatlantic slave trade in contrast to the simplified narrative of slavery many of us are taught. In the 300 years of transatlantic slavery, millions of people—people with lives, stories, and identities—were forcibly relocated, losing much of their identifiers over time. Languages, names, families, and histories were squeezed out of them, along with the myriad aspects of life that contribute to identity .
Wastebasket Diagnosis and Moonstruck Lunatic are part of a series about mental health in the black community. For hundreds of years the socioeconomic adversities of blacks in America—including slavery, racism, and limited access to quality healthcare and education—has forced issues of mental health to settle on the backburner in black communities. This in tandem with the taboo associated with mental health issues has made it easier for it to be dismissed, ignored, or misunderstood. My hope for these pieces is that they increase awareness not only of mental health issues, but of the particular way mental health exists within the black community.
This series specifically addresses violence to black bodies. For centuries, blacks in the U.S. have been dehumanized. This dehumanization has resulted in mistreatment and an uncomfortable detachment regarding the value of their lives. For this series, I used stained fabric, thread, and found objects. These materials retain a decorative quality, akin to jewelry or clothing, which represents the way black bodies have been objectified and seen as property. The processes I put the fabric through included staining, ripping, heating, boiling, and stitching, which signifies a long history of physical abuse. This is furthered by the mutilated silhouettes of the figures, which reference disfigurement, sexual abuse, and gunshot wounds; the abuses that were and are taken out on the black community.
America the Beautiful, named after the American patriotic song, is the first painting in a series commenting on what it means to be American. An “American” is often portrayed as white, young, able-bodied, English-speaking, and middle-class. Though this is the social norm marketed to us, the reality is that there is no uniform definition of “American,” aside from simply anyone who is a citizen of the country. Despite this truth, divisions continue to plague the U.S., forcing people who do not fit the skewed definition of American to be marginalized, discriminated against, and under-represented.
This piece specifically challenges the idea of a black woman being considered just as American as those who fit the social norm. She wears the colors of the American flag in the form of clothing associated with her identity, an identity just as legitimate as her American identity.
Alongside challenging the definition of American, I felt it was necessary to portray my subject in a medium that has a weighted history. She is depicted in oils because portraits painted in this medium historically have an association with importance, permanence, and status, qualities that I felt were relevant to the theme of the painting.
To see more from Nia, visit her website niaalexanderart.com and her Instagram @niaalexanderart. Her show “The African-American Allegory” will be at VCU’s Anderson Gallery December 5th-12th, 2018.*