My Body, My Canvas
I am an artist.
Multidisciplinary in nature, I work in performance, new media, visual art, writing and the body arts. Let me explain the latter. For me body arts are tattooing, piercing and makeup, wearable designs, nail art, hair—any art practice where the canvas is my body.
My art practice is daily. I love laying out my tools, planning the design and priming the canvas. My art is inspired by images of galaxies, lilies and post apocalyptic superhero fantasies—the purple, blue and midnight black lips. Blending out eyeshadow is much like working with pastels and yields endless possible combinations that I test across palettes, and my hands and my arms when I run out of space. I affix jewels to my face and nails, drape myself in thrifted finds, add pastel blues to my thick curls and gold to my crown. Each day is an opportunity to express emotions, to apply armor. When I am trying to keep away unwanted attention, a menacing smokey eye and a putrid green lip does the trick more effectively than the most vocal ‘no.’ I love it all. I love introducing folks to it, particularly people who have experienced corporate constructed exclusion at the hands of mass media. I love introducing women with the richest blue black skin to lines that meet their needs or demonstrating a dramatic cat eye to my genderqueer family or commiserating with folks of color about the lack of pigmented options for just about everything.
I wasn’t always this way. Particularly when I was starting The People Project, the community of ‘progressive’ people I was around were incredibly judgmental about body arts. There was a very clear line of what was considered radical, and that mostly consisted of ironic hipster tattoos and the occasional eyeliner. And inside I had this burning desire for a cake face. I wanted my skin covered in gold powder, with feather lashes rocking everything from faux leather jumpsuits to pink tutus and fluorescent orange highlights. I couldn’t understand how so many people who purported to be so open could dismiss my artistic desires as simply collusion with the ‘man.’ It was disheartening, but being policed about what and how I created art on my body did not begin or end here.
As a little, Black, and cash-poor immigrant daughter of a single mother, all these fantastic adornments were so far out of reach. I would never have a ‘reason’ to adorn myself in these ways. These were things that were saved for important privileged people with places to go and people to see.
Also, my mother’s boyfriend was an incredibly abusive and moralistic man. He told me makeup was for ‘whores’ and that there was no place in heaven for girls like that. When I dared to wear baby blue nail polish after being gifted with it for my 14th birthday, I was met with corporeal punishment and lectured on the inherent shame of women. From then on, I swore to erase my desire to exude color. Throughout my teenage years and young adulthood, I knew my ‘place.’ I was told my body was not like those of the waify, white counterparts around me, it was sinful and meant to be covered. I wore no makeup and made sure to wear things that obscured my curves. And even with these strict guidelines I adhered to, I still wasn’t safe. I was blamed even when covered ‘head to toe’ for any attention or abuse I experienced. And painfully, I still had to bear witness to the judgment levied on all the hood femmes I grew up around. I heard my sisters called ghetto and hoodrats while white girls with pink hair and tattoos were edgy and awesome. We see this in mainstream culture when Lady Gaga is applauded for doing what Grace Jones or Rihanna are thrown shade for.
I was so over it. These girls who celebrate and see me when I am having a rough day, who have helped me open doors and carry bags when I am walking home, how could I choose ideas of ‘respectability’ over actions of solidarity? I was spending all this time trying to ‘pass as middle class’; trading in lycra for linen and gold for silver, trying so hard to fit in and make myself invisible. We are so often told that assimilation is the key to liberation, but from someone who tried it, I found that not only did it not work, it also isolated me from the people that I loved most. When we advocate that there is only one way that a ‘respectable woman’ dresses, we are effectively inviting others to disrespect anyone who doesn’t fit into that limited idea. I love us as we are, with color oozing out of every pore, and if you won’t have us as we are, then we don’t want you either.
There is a particular brand of feminist who while fighting for our apparent freedom, polices our desires and our bodies if they don’t fall into a constructed idea. My feminism is so fundamentally different, it has always been grounded in Indigenous resistance, women in intricately woven skirts with tattoos on their faces, sex workers and strippers, hood ass femmes with acrylics and gold doorknocker earrings. These are women hustling day and night to take care of themselves even when the rest of the world decries that their bodies are not valuable or even beautiful. The double standard that exists that glorifies the creativity of some white girls for wearing things that we as women of color are punished for.
My healing really began when I actively sought out my kin. I found other femmes who expressed their creativity, their resistance through body art. Femmes who smashed through any ideas of normativity, who talked with me about the prison industrial complex while they did my nails; I felt remade in their gaze. I stopped looking at media that didn’t represent me, and filled in the gaps with Tumblr blogs and instagrams of Trans* women, Women Of Color and Femmes of different abilities and sizes. Most recently femmes like Amiyah Scott, Cherno Biko, Eddie Ndopu, Kiley May or Charm Torres who literally glow and pull together inspiration from Marsha P. Johnson (the original flower girl), Filipino textiles and Black revolutionaries. These femmes have literally rewrote creation myths and placed us squarely in the center. We are reimagined as essential and gorgeous.
It is one of the symptoms of a society that collectively designates adornment as feminine and femininity as superficial at best and toxic at worst. We all deserve more credit.
I would never disagree with the fact that there is a corporate makeup industry that thrives on pitching themselves as the solution for the low self-esteem that they deeply contribute to. However that culture is not my ‘mainstream.’ I strive to consciously inspire to a collective of cultural experiences that predate any makeup company. Additionally, men and masculine people are not publicly shamed for their interest in tools (many of which are produced with massive environmental footprints), bowties or electronics. They are seen as practical pursuits, elevated above the vapid pursuits of femininity and that is so patently biased. We all need to critically reflect on our levels of consumption and subsequent environmental destruction, human rights and animal abuses. The system of capitalism employs all of these things in all industries. From migrant workers who are harvesting all the vegetables that vegans are eating to invasive mining and the military presence across the Congo used to harvest the minerals used in our cell phones. We need to dismantle the many systems that evaluate individuals on the basis of their appearance. We must change these systems of production and the enormous levels of extraction across the board. We also need to support producers who are working with a conscience, and this is just a true for Jordans and paintbrushes as it is for my eyeliner. We all make decisions from empowered places and disempowered places. My goal in my activism is to increase our choices and eliminate barriers, not to shame people for their desires.
And so, armed with these many layered thoughts and experiences do I try to buy makeup. I am consistently disappointed by lines with spokesmodels of color like Janelle Monae or Lupita who usually don’t even carry the color range that either of those beautiful women could wear.; and companies who continue to test on animals or fill their products with a whole host of cancer-causing chemicals like parabens and sulfates makes it not an easy search. I try as best as I can to adhere to my values by striving to reduce my consumption, DIY, buying ethically and wearing as much rich color as possible.
And in the end for me the time researching and testing different combinations is worth it. In a world where access to money is often a privilege and the Global South is disproportionately impacted by the choices made in the north, we all have a responsibility to think and act carefully about everything we buy whether it’s a lipgloss or a paintbrush. I believe that we can create systems of trade where creativity and art is intrinsically a part of fairness and justice.