With Tenderness & Fierce Love: An Interview with Creator Shanel Edwards

With Tenderness & Fierce Love: An Interview with Creator Shanel Edwards

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Who are you as an artist? As a human? What do you do/make/create/breathe?
I am a tender, honest, passionate, artsy fartsy creator. My crafts of choice are dance, photography, poetry and hairstyling. I create work that centers Black queer folks in all their glory and my experiences as a First Gen Jamaican American Queer GNC person. It’s honestly what I breathe; everything tastes/looks/feels like art.

How would you describe your artistic journey?
It often begins when I am outside, and/or listening to music. Whether is a lyric or a fallen leaf or a boy staring into his ice cream cone walking by. I am in constant gaze of my surroundings. I am often locating texture in everything. It’s so so engaging, so beautiful. It does gets overwhelming at times and I find myself disassociating, but I look to dance and my friend group to ground me. Even in a funny tweet or strange dream they’ve had. It pulls me forward to the present. My mom has been a sustainable support system, by not doubting that all this art shit will lead to somewhere. And my friends have been a lifeline. At the moments where I start to prioritize self-doubt and imposter syndrome, my friends step in always to remind me of my worth and pull me back to myself. I LOVE THEM SO MUCH.

How do art, activism, healing, and wellness intersect and intertwine for you?
Hmmmm, this is a big question. I think my lifestyle is constantly in communication with the art that I create and the ways I am tender with myself. First and foremost, I try to stay hydrated. I also am constantly in a position of unlearning and relearning myself, my queerness, my fluidity. It is important to understand the fluidity that my body requires. I am also interested in learning the landscapes of oppression that lie outside of my personal identity. I want to employ myself with the knowledge of the world, the complex ways white supremacy/colonialism rob people globally. More specifically though my artwork centers my identity/community. Whether it is doing their hair, writing work about our experience or working with Black Queer femmes for a video project (which i did, shameless plug: “This is For Us” is a choreographed visual that centers Black Queer Femmes and our intimate friendship circles that are key to accessing joy and survival), being surrounded by my community in my work really tends to how difficult and tiring life can be. My undergrad degree is in African American Studies and Psychology and I try at every turn to use the knowledge in conversation and in creative/lifestyle practices.

How do you care for yourself and your people?
With others I care with tenderness, and fierce love. With honesty, laughter and hard conversations surrounding trauma, accountability, etc. With encouragement. One of my favorite mantras is, “you’re doing great.” I want to make sure my people know I see them. For myself, I’m having a hard time consistently caring for myself. But overall, I am practicing patience, slowing down, listening to my body cues, learning what to say no to and letting go of the guilt that comes with it, and not holding too much space for anyone, specifically white people, who comes to me for guidance. For me, that is a radical act that helps me to serve my community and other communities that experience paralleled trauma and injustice.

How does your art relate to current events?
I create work that center and uplifts the most marginalized communities, ie: black trans/queer/femme people. Being in the current political climate and the ways we have been historically oppressed and attempted to erase, that is how my work relates to current events. I want to create space for these communities that I am connected to.

Who inspires you?
My friends, my ancestors, the trees, and water. Definitely my cats. And my past self/future self.  

How are you growing as an artist and as a human?
I am taking time to unlearn toxic shit! Which is pivotal to growth for me. I am also in therapy currently unpacking past trauma, trying to reorient myself in my own body. I am also learning how to say no; I’m learning to gauge what yeses are more important to my overall goals. I can’t do everything; I can’t be everywhere.

What affirmations do you have for other creatives of color?
You can do whatever you dream of. Self-doubt will come and go but that still doesn’t take away your ability to achieve whatever success you dream. Those dreams are simply manifestations of your where your body and soul will end up. Go get that shit; it’s yours. What you dream of, dreams of you back. What art you crave and love, loves and craves you back. You deserve ultimate success.

more about the artist:
Shanel Edwards is a Black Queer Non-Binary Philadelphia based movement artist, photographer and poet. Their work centers Black Queer Femme-hood, intimacy as a tool for healing, and radical joy. Shanel is a world builder who does not rely on capitalist structures to imagine art that holds space for radical joy and magic to thrive. Shanel's poetry has been published/featured in Wusgood magazine, How to Take Space (2017) & "Vanishing Point" (2018). Shanel received an Art and Change grant through The Leeway Foundation (2018), to produce and direct a choreographed short film 'THIS IS FOR US' and the Small But Mighty Arts Bartol Micro Teaching Artist Grant (2018) to teach dance classes centering Black Queer individuals. They hold a BFA in African American Studies and Psychology from Temple University.

You can keep up with Shanel’s radiance on Instagram and Facebook.

Vulnerability is Strength: Eight Questions with Mugabi Byenkya

Who are you?

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I am the identities given to me, the ones I have chosen, the ones I have rejected and the ones I have grown into. I am Mugabi Augustine Ateenyi Olatokumbo Mba Byenkya. I am incredibly proud of the fact that every single one of my names is from the African continent and that they do a surprisingly apt job of reflecting my artistry/humanity.

Mugabi is Luganda for ‘The Giver’, predispositioning me to generosity.

Augustine is the Libyan saint and sinner known for his vulnerability and for being as I like to say, the second most famous man to release his confessions after Usher.

Ateenyi is Runyoro for ‘resourceful, cunning and wily’ also the name of a mythical sea serpent.

Olatokumbo is Yoruba for ‘wealth and happiness from a foreign land’ reflective of my birth on foreign soil and perpetual status as a foreigner in different lands.

Mba is Igbo for ‘Death defies admonition’ foreshadowing the intricacies of my intimate relationship with death.

Byenkya is Runyoro for ‘God/Goddess/Ancestors are with us’ and leaning on others strength is the ontly way I get through the day sometimes.

How would you describe your artistic journey?

My artistic journey was born out of curiosity and curiosity continues to sustain it. I remember being a child and wanting to play with my siblings but they were all busy, curled up on the couch reading. Dumbfounded at how reading could be better than playing, I begged my mother to teach me how to read and nothing was the same. I fell in love with storytelling, worldbuilding and listening/absorbing in all forms.

My main challenges in my artistic journey have been: being pushed towards a more ‘practical’ career in the sciences, a lack of knowledge of methods to financially sustain an artistic practice and ill health. My spectacular family (blood and chosen) have and continue to nourish and sustain my artistic practice and for this privilege and blessing, I will forever be grateful <3

What role does healing have in your art?

My artistic practice has been diametrically opposed to my healing for a while. I suffer from multiple disabilities which manifest through chronic fatigue, chronic pain and seizures, amongst other manifestations. Too much or too little exertion makes my disabilities worse and for a long time something as little as 15 minutes of writing would induce a 3 hour long excruciating seizure, migraine, pain flare combo that made me heavily suicidal. I often wondered if creating art was worth the toll it put me through and I honestly don’t think it was. However, art is simultaneously incredibly healing for me, both receiving and creating art. I had to modify the way I view artistic practice and shift from a productivity mindset to one of abundance and acknowledgement of my disabilities and what they tell me, no matter how depressing the news may be. I owe a lot of the modification of my healing practice to my dear friend Naphtalie, who I’m forever grateful to. <3    

How do art, activism, and wellness intersect and intertwine for you?

My art, activism and wellness are intertwined through the new body that I wake up in every day. Every day and several moments within the same day, my limitations and abilities change with little rhyme or reason. This is infuriating to manage but leads to me always thinking through personal modifications/accommodations I can use for accessibility which is important! After all, it is not my marginalizations that truly limit me, more so trying to thrive within a marginalized body in a world not designed for me.

How do you care for yourself and your people?

I try my best to care for myself and my people in the ways that they want/need. Tenderly, lovingly with vulnerability, trust and validation. I want me and my people to be seen, heard and felt. To be celebrated, held consensually in heartspace/whichever space everyone agrees upon all within healthy boundaries. {try being the key word}.

What art of color are you excited about lately?

Fatimah Asghar! Her debut book of poems ‘If They Come For Us’ just came out and I’m VERY excited to buy/read it!! I’m a huge fan of her writing having stumbled across her via an internship. The ‘coming out’ scene in the web-series she co-created/wrote ‘Brown Girls’ was SO spot on to the qtpoc experience and the first time I’d seen that done in the largely whitewashed queer film world. She’s an incredibly powerful, nuanced storyteller whose work I revisit time & time again. It would be an honour to work with her as she seems to be two steps ahead of me in highlighting everything I want to in my work, before I do. Can’t wait to see what she creates next!

@turnjurrel !! The scenes he paints of people of colour doing the most mundane activities with so much tenderness deserve AWL the love and recognition. Can’t wait till I can afford one of his paintings for my space!

My homie Jacque of @adornedbychi has a graphic novel coming out following the adventures of magical black girls steeped in Igbo mythology that I’m SUPER excited to delve into as I respect and am always inspired by her writing.

And my internet cuz Aisha of @fathairjewelry just put out a new line of jewellery for locs and non-locd folk like myself that I just bought a choker off of and can’t wait to rock!

What are you looking forward to?

The 3rd leg of my book tour! I’ve been touring in support of my debut novel Dear Philomena, for the past year and thus far have done 42 shows across 25 cities in North America/East Africa! I have another 20 shows lined up across 15 cities and some potential West Africa dates that I’m super excited for! It’s been a struggle touring while disabled, with plenty cancelled shows due to seizures and recovery days spent laid up in bed partially paralyzed but it’s worth it for: the amazing people I have met, stories shared and memories made! Also, a massive blessing and privilege that I couldn’t do without my amazing family (both chosen and blood) support systems <3   

What affirmations do you have for creatives of color?

Vulnerability is strength

It’s ok not to be ok

Recovery is not linear

Take ownership of the hurt you’ve inflicted on others

Hit me up if you ever wanna chat!

bonus message #fortheculture:

I’m touring through North America/East Africa for the remainder of the year and would love for y’all to come to my shows if the cities sync or hit me up to hang.

more about the artist:

Mugabi Byenkya is a writer, poet and occasional rapper. He was born in Nigeria, to Ugandan parents and is currently based between Kampala and Toronto.

Mugabi was longlisted for the Babishai Niwe Poetry Award in 2015. His essays, articles and poetry have been featured on The Good Men Project, African Writer, Arts and Africa and The Kalahari Review, amongst numerous other publications. He has been interviewed on Voice of America - VOANTV Uganda91.3 CAPITAL FM and Brittle Paper, amongst numerous other media outlets.

Mugabi's writing is used to teach international high school English reading comprehension. His debut novel, ‘Dear Philomena,’ was published in 2017 and he recently concluded a 30 city North America/East Africa tour in support of this. He is currently on a second tour aptly titled, "Is That A World Tour or Your Girls Tour?" which will take him across an additional 25 cities. In 2018, Mugabi was named one of 56 writers who has contributed to his native Uganda’s literary heritage since independence by Writivism. 

An advocate for the intersection of arts, chronic illness, social justice, and literacy, Mugabi leads workshops in effective writing, poetry, performance, vulnerability, mental and chronic illness for youth and adults.

Mugabi wants to be Jaden Smith when he grows up. 

You can buy Mugabi’s book here! You can follow Mugabi via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, their blog, and their website. All purchases go toward funding the tour and making sure they eat so it would be much appreciated!

Spirit, Self-Love, and Starting Again: Melissa Benbow on Art & Healing

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about her artsy self: 
I am a spirit, and my goal is to use my art to get in touch with my spirit. My art is like a journal. I make poems, prose, essays, paintings, sculptures.

on her artistic journey:
I started back in elementary school. Art was my favorite class. I took art classes through grade 12. I wanted to apply to art school, but I was part afraid and part discouraged.  After that, I stopped doing art for a long time. I wish I had continued during those four years because it may have helped with my anxiety. I knew I wanted to get back into making again, but it was my best friend and business partner, Alim, who supported me to really get started again.  Sometimes I just need to draw. It’s something that my hands naturally want to do.

on healing & her creative practice:
Healing has everything to do with it. Art really calms me down; when I am drawing my brain literally cannot think of anything else. It’s harder to get distracted while drawing or making as compared to all of the other things I do. I also draw ideas, patterns, and using colors that heal me. In a way, my creativity is self-centered. I don't think too much about what people would want because I know that someone will always be able to relate to my experience. I remind myself that I'm not much different than anyone else and it helps me to express fully and without worrying about whether people will like it or not.

on exciting art of color:
Well, my business partner Alim (his artist name is Yesterdaynite) so him of course. I also like Jessi Jumanji, and Harmonia Rosales as of late. There are so many amazing artists of color out there right now. 

what she’s looking forward to:
I look forward to being a curator and promoting the art I love. I also look forward to teaching about art as a practice of self love. Of course, I really want to be a writer, so I look forward to being consistent in blogging and sharing more about my journey. I'm very excited to explore and free myself as an artist as well. Although I do art for myself, there is a part of me who is still apprehensive about sharing it with the world because I don't want to be judged. I know that contradicts what I’ve said about making art for myself, but in doing this I make myself very vulnerable. I look forward to my creative process being the center of my life as opposed to being on the side. Or, even if it is on the side, I would like it to be something that I have more time for. On the technical end, I want to be able to draw photo-realistic portraits while also doing more abstract, symbolic art. Overall, I think I would like to be known as a sculptor.

her wishes for budding creatives of color: 
My wish for all of the budding creatives out there to express themselves freely, because art is supposed to be a safe space. I would say to be diligent about making time for your art, especially if you already have to dedicate a lot of time to a job, kids, etc.

bonus message #fortheculture:
Love yourself, encourage yourself, nurture yourself, really just take time to love on you. No one can love you like you can! And that's for real.

You can follow Melissa on Instagram @honeysunset_ and Facebook at Afrocereal and Honey Sunset.

more about the artist:
Melissa Benbow is a writer, visual artist, event planner, and teacher. By day, she works with high school students in a college readiness program, and by night she is a maker and yoga enthusiast. She loves eating vegan foods, reading, and thinking of new, afrofuturistic ideas. She will be starting her Ph.D. in English at University of Delaware in the fall of 2018, and is excited to continue to work on her visual art and co-manage Afrocereal Studio & Gallery, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  

Poetry, Authenticity, and Sustainability: An Exchange with Jackie Torres

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Tell us about your artsy self. 
I am a poet, a performer (I struggle with the label of "actor," although I do act), a writer, and a theater maker. All of my work tends to live somewhere at these intersections.

Tell us about your artistic journey. 
I started taking my art seriously from the first time I began performing in theater. I also wrote when I was a young teenager, mostly for myself, but found my voice suppressed by the conditions I was surrounded by and told myself I wasn't good at it. I gave it up for a long time. My love affair with theater, which also began when I was a very young teenager, got warped by the toxic culture surrounding the performing arts and after particularly traumatizing high school and college experiences, I very seriously considered giving up acting and theater altogether. Coming back to writing, ironically for a theater company that ended up being equally traumatizing, reminded me of the work I needed to be doing and allowed me to rediscover my voice, as well as collaborate with folks who were interested in saying and doing the same things. My community of artists and my family, both chosen and of blood, have sustained me through navigating and bucking against the white supremacist, cishetereopatriarchal institution of theater as it currently exists.

What role does healing have in your artistic practice? 
All of my work is about healing. My purest, earliest experiences of theater and spoken word were religious to me. I maintain that all experiences need to achieve that religious essence, which is why authenticity is always a priority, and why I would prefer something to be truthful rather than "good." Art has healed me, little by little, and my philosophy is that if I am honest about my struggles, it will resonate with someone else who will, in turn, be healed by it. 

What art of color are you excited about?
There are so many things I'm excited by! First person who comes to mind is Amber Iman (@afrodeity), an incredible black visual artist who I had the honor of meeting when she did a live painting at an event my collective curated. Spoken word poet Elizabeth Acevedo and her debut novel, The Poet X, gave me every ounce of life when I read it earlier this month. I do think there is a character in the novel who could have been written much better with some applied queer theory, but the novel fed my need for Afro Latinx representation and recreated many of my teenage experiences with an unmatched authenticity. It is an astonishing, gorgeous debut work. One of the BEST new plays I've seen in a long time is Is God Is, which is currently playing at Soho Rep in Manhattan. Aleshea Harris writes us into the world of two twin sisters tasked with enacting revenge against their father, who nearly two decades previously attempted to murder them and their mother (referred to as God). The sisters travel from the South to California to find and kill him; and along the way encounter a mosaic of characters including their father's new family. Laced with beautiful sardonic humor, the show tackles misogynoir, vengeance, and justice through a spaghetti western-style adventure. A violent, cathartic thrill ride and I lived for every minute. 

What are you looking forward to in the coming months, years, decades artistically?
I am very excited to continue my spoken word work, and get more involved in competing! I am also so excited to be one of the book writers for a new musical, The Legacy Project, which tackles black ancestry, identity, and future. I am also super excited to be working on a new play called Desarrollo by Juliany Taveras about Latinx queer babies, the Bronx, and memory.

What wishes, affirmations, and advice do you have for other creatives of color?
If something feels at odds with your artistic vision, trust that instinct. That's not to say you shouldn't exit your comfort zone; but rather, to develop a keen awareness of who is trying to subvert your vision and who is there to support it. School is not the only avenue towards creative work. In fact, formal training often lacks the lens to properly train black and brown bodies, as well as tell black and brown stories. The best training you could ever have is life experience. So live it, in whatever way that makes sense to you. Don't overextend yourself; don't do things that feel like you are being pushed to a breaking point. 

To keep up with Jackie’s radiance and rants, follow her on Instagram @jackieines or on Facebook!