In Conversation with Kosi Nnebe by Stephanye Watts
In May, I traveled to Montreal looking to connect with Black creatives in one of my favorite cities This was a test trip for future projects to be completed by the Brooklyn-based collective, The Coleman-Henson Society, I started with friends. Our goal is to spotlight Black talent across the diaspora. Our time in Montreal surpassed all expectations. On our final day, attended a picnic in Mont Royal hosted by visual artist Kosi Nnebe. Besides being blown away by her work, I was taken by Kosi’s self-assuredness as a young Black woman. After months of sister-to-sister chats via e-mail, we finally sat down in person to talk about Black Montreal, womanhood, and producing art as a form of self-care.
Stephanye: In my quest to track down Black artists based in Montreal for my trip, your name kept popping up. As a Black millennial and woman, how do you think your voice has impacted the community in your adopted city?
Kosi: It's a hard question to answer. I feel as though Montreal has impacted me much more than I could ever impact it. I don’t want to speak to how I’m perceived by the community (I can only hope for the best), but I can talk about the kind of effects I’d like my work to have on the city. My voice, my art and my work, more generally, are rooted in and deeply influenced by my positionality as a Black woman and millennial. They colour the questions I ask, the initiatives I take on and the narrative that I’ve been trying to create over the last 2 years. My Blackness bleeds into every single aspect of my life, and as such is inextricable from my work – it is my muse and my motivator. If anything, I hope that this desire to hold on to my Blackness, to embrace my Blackness, to place my Blackness on podiums in spaces that would not usually accept it, to hang my Blackness from ceilings in museums and galleries full of white walls, white bodies and white art will inspire others to embrace their Blackness in their work.
My main goal has always been to spark a conversation --and here, I believe, is where my identity as a millennial comes into play. I have used social media as best I can to create a platform for my work. My instagram account will never be as well curated as Solange’s (#goals), but there is something to be said about creating an aesthetic for oneself that makes your work more accessible. Social media is, more than anything, a platform that has enabled many, including myself, to create new and alternative narratives around identity, race and gender.
S: How did you find your voice? Did you always know that you'd become an artist?
K: To be honest, I was a really weird kid in high school -- I like to tell myself that it comes with being an artist. I didn't fit in, nor did I care -- I developed my own sense of style, watched hours and hours of anime and pored over manga, wrote fanfiction and started a mini business venture selling commissioned portraits of my friends. In grade 11, I watched the “Great Debaters” for the first time and soon found myself going through Youtube videos of Malcolm X speeches, listening to the Last Poets and gushing over Langston Hughes' poems. The same year, I created a chapbook consisting of a series of short stories and poems and portraits of my favorite influential African-Americans for a school project. I had originally called it 'La Negresse', but after noticing the awkward response of my teachers and friends, I re-titled it 'I too dream in colour and in rhyme' (kudos to anyone who can guess what Kanye West song this is from).
This moment of my life is now my template -- I'm trying to reconnect with that ambitious, creative and totally carefree little Black girl, who was so proud of her Blackness that it became her creative muse. That’s what pushed me to take up art more seriously and use it as a vehicle to explore race in particular.
S: "M(other)nity" was the first piece of yours I saw. In it, you capture the many ways in which Black women exist and it made me think about one of my favorite songs by Kindred The Family Soul called "Woman First". With lyrics like, "so much pressure to be my best/ tried to juggle it all without a sign of stress/ but the look in your eyes let's me know i can be myself with you" and "when you're a daughter, a sister, as wife, and a mother/ everybody needs you more than the other/ it's so very easy to lose you/ when there are so many other things to do", it's a pretty weighty song. How do the three components (installation, essay, video) of the project speak to this?
K:The first part consisted of layered paintings on plexiglass that showed different performances of Black/African femininity. I wanted to visually depict modernity as a safe space that is created individually and encompasses separate elements that can be seen separately or as a whole. In this part, the idea of a safe-space was especially important to me -- I was attempting to catalogue -the numerous ways in which I -- or any Black woman -- could perform my identity, each one as valid as the other. I used the installation to create my own narrative, and in doing so invited other women to do the same.
The essay, on the other hand, speaks to the manner in which a lack of diversity in the narratives perpetuated in the media can negatively affect the self-perception of Black women and their interactions with one another. It explored the "pressure" highlighted in the song lyrics - the constant need to hide one's body, and to perform only within the boundaries of respectability.
Finally, the video speaks to the multiple and sometimes contradictory ways in which the Black women are understood. It is this aspect of the project that speaks most to the verse "when you're a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother/everybody needs you more than the other". For the video, I interviewed about 7 people, asking them to describe the modern Black woman using one-word answers. The answers that resulted were at times contradictory, other times humorous, but all served to paint the image of multifaceted and complex woman. As a Black woman, it made me realize the extent to which my body can be interpreted in so many different ways by friends, family, strangers. -- how expectations can be heaped upon me from so many different angles.
S: In an interview with IAMAfrica, you said "Through my art and academic work, I want to move beyond binary ways of thinking that limit the ways in which we can view, think and talk about blackness. Rather than anchoring the concept of blackness to that of whiteness, it is important to embrace and explore the complexity of blackness without essentializing it." I totally agree and believe that the definitions of Blackness and whiteness have been lazily reduced on the antithesis of each other, to the detriment of us all. Could you expound on your thoughts further?
K: At the time of the interview, I had been reading a lot of bell hooks' work. I was particularly interested in her concept of a Black radical subjectivity, which she argues represents a new alternate imaginary. More precisely, it represents a movement away from the discourse of “good v. bad” representations which fix Blackness in relation to whiteness (and the manner in which it is perceived by whiteness), towards a discourse that pushes for transgressive and challenging images of Blackness.
But what's key is that at the same time, bell hooks also asks that we love Blackness. And I think that these two things are very intricately related: to move beyond binaries and embrace a radical new reality, we need to love Blackness. We need to explore Blackness, question Blackness and embrace Blackness in a way that requires no comparisons, no starting points, but rather a totally blank state. There is a difference between this notion of radical subjectivity and resistance. As I've grown in my artistic practice, I've grown tired of creating positive images of Blackness as a response to the negative images I see on a daily basis. Instead, my focus now is on creating new narratives around notions of race and gender, and more specifically, creating my own identity as a Black woman. This desire first requires that I ask: what does it mean to be Black? We work under so many assumptions, deriving from this anchoring of Blackness to whiteness, that it becomes difficult to explain Blackness in the absence of whiteness. That's how Blackness becomes essentialized and loses its nuances and complexity. Of course, all of this is a lot easier said than done, but I'm trying.
S: Historians have done a bang up job archiving and spreading the history of Black artists in Montreal. Canada only seems to reveal itself in Black history as a place of escape for slaves and the story oddly stops there. Who are some of the shoulders you stand on as a Canadian artist. Who are you standing shoulder to shoulder with?
K: The fact that I had such a hard time coming up with a list of Black Canadian artists on whose shoulders I stand is emblematic of the phenomenon you just highlighted. As I became more interested in the evolution of Black aesthetics and in critical race theory, my gaze shifted more and more towards the United States where so much has already been theorized and catalogued by individuals from bell hooks to Henry Louis Gates Jr. For me, this was in total opposition to the unbearable whiteness of Canadian art, as I had been taught it throughout primary school and high school.
But despite this erasure of Black Canadian art in school books and history books, the art is still there and the artists are still revolutionary. Martine Chartrand is definitely one of artists on whose shoulders I stand. I remember watching her film "Black Soul" a couple years of ago and being enthralled not only by her story telling, but by her craft (her animation is done by painting on glass). Another Black Canadian artist who has inspired me is Deanna Brown, a Toronto-based video installation artist who uses her work to map African diasporic movement.
In the last couple of years I've had the opportunity to meet so many different artists who never cease to amaze me with their talent, their sheer love for their craft and their raw power. As such, the list of artists with whom I feel humbled to stand shoulder to shoulder with is long and constantly expanding. Montreal-based artist Maliciouz -- an artist I've had the pleasure of exhibiting with multiple times -- always inspires me with her dedication and hard work. Back in Ottawa, two of my favourite artists, Kalkidan Assefa and Allan Andre, are constantly bridging the gap between art and activism, creating murals that bring the community together.
S: Could you talk a bit about the creation of Coloured Conversations and what you are seeking to do with the project?
K: I first came up with the idea of Coloured Conversations two summers ago. I had already been working on my artwork on an eponymous platform, but I felt as though there was so much more that I could do. Coloured Conversations was initially meant to be a collaborative platform for racialized artists to come together and create work that stemmed from and made reference to racialized, gendered and generally other-ed perspectives. Coloured Conversations is a play on words; “coloured” references at once people of colour and the visuality of creation, while “conversations” makes reference to the more collaborative aspect of the project.
With time, the vision of the project transformed into one more concerned with bridging the gap between visual arts practice and critical race theory. Inspired by the work of countless Black feminist intellectuals and artists, ranging from bell hooks to Lorraine O’Grady, the project’s vision is to inspire others to challenge, reinterpret and redefine notions of race, gender and class within society. Coloured Conversations is based on the belief that art has the power to facilitate a process of self-determination and self-actualization. Through it, I want to create work that questions certain notions of Blackness and femininity –the gaze of the oppressor and the oppressed, the struggle for Black female subjectivity, etc – and aims to move beyond the dualism of good/bad representations.
S: You are still very young in age and your craft. What mark do you want to leave through your work?
K: At the end of the day, what others make of my work is up to them -- my work has always been very personal and was intended not necessarily to leave a mark on others, but rather as a message to younger versions of myself. For those dealing with the scars from internalized racism, the process of unlearning can be arduous and debilitating. Art has become my primary vehicle for unlearning -- it is at once my preferred form of therapy and communication.
That being said, I hope that people will see themselves in my work and in my journey. Through my work, I'm creating my own narrative and re-interpreting Blackness in a way that is unique to me - I just hope that others are inspired to the same.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
NYC’s biggest fan in the form of the coolest black girl alive, Stephanye’s quest to discover everything dope, cheap, and black+ excellent below 14th Street is chronicled on her site iso14below.com. Stephanye is also the woman behind NYC’s only R&B trivia night, #JAMPARDY. Follow her on Twitter at @so14below.
Learn more about Kosi's work here.