Art is a visual language used to captivate an audience and tell stories. For intersectional artist Venise Lashon Keys, her art illustrates stories that aim to empower, elevate, and educate all feminine identifying individuals and the Black community.
Keys, an Illinois State University alumna and MFA graduate, introduced her new exhibit, “One with the Original Source: Divinely Feminine in All Your Glory,” displayed in Rachel Cooper Hall at ISU.
The exhibit consists of 50 multicolored, hand-cut, paper-made figures of feminine bodies to celebrate strength, beauty, and diversity.
The Chicago native said when making the figures, she wanted to be as inclusive as possible to all feminine-identifying individuals and encourage them to embrace their bodies unapologetically, even if that means making others uncomfortable.
“Appreciating our bodies in a way that takes back the sexual gaze because as a woman, we are marginalized,” Keys said. “So just uplifting us from a marginalized perspective and also visibility to feminine identifying bodies so women are not isolated into, ‘Are you born with a with a certain kind of body?’ Our idea of people and gender has (become) so expansive, so I want it to always change the statement in the title to fit the audience and the mood, but the visual symbols are always the same.”
Inspired by the paintings of Annie Lee that depicts the Black experience, Keys’ exhibit also displays vibrant gestures and Black women dancing. She said they are symbols that aim to keep aspects of Black culture such as African American folklore, African spirituality, herbalism, and oral traditions alive.
Herbalism is the use of herb plants for medicinal and therapeutic use. Keys said herbs are not only food, but are medicine to groom and honor the body. She said there is a psychological benefit to diet, exercise and movement, and having compassion for oneself that's connected to African spirituality.
“Thinking about the patterns of Black and brown communities in general, there tend to be food disparities,” Keys said. “There tends to be a conscientious attitude that doesn't promote social, emotional kind of awareness. So with African spirituality, it touches on how the food we consume is connected to ideas because when we eat living foods, things are alive. You feel more alive when you have everyday rituals or practices that connect to that.”
Keys said each color in the installation represents the different colors of the seven chakra spectrum that applies to the Orisha deities from the Yoruba group’s native religion in West Africa.
Reflecting her own life
She said her work is a reflection of her own life, from struggling with insecurities as an adolescent, fighting for her Blackness, validating her family dynamics, to becoming a storyteller, artist, and educator.
“I often go back to my childhood self and comfort her because she needed to feel affirmed and needed examples and doesn't know all those things,” Keys said. “I'm still healing that childhood beneath and that college beneath that has to go through the pains of learning the world. So I feel like this is just such a stepping stone for me to just have a simple physical practice that can embody all my complex experiences. I'm a storyteller first and foremost. So it is not like it’s one story, everything is connected.”
The art of Black female artists is becoming more prominent in a culture that minimally recognized Black artists as visual artists. Keys said it’s important to pay attention to more Black female artists so that people are aware of the beliefs, faith, traditions that makes the world diverse.
“Black women have had a huge influence on resistance. People often look to us as role models for resilience. (It’s) succinctly the magic, African spirituality. That magic that comes from us and our ancestors, we still carry it. And our mothers and grandmothers have been teaching us very subliminal rituals that we still do that have those magical ties, and it takes a person to mindfully study those things to really bring it out with intention.”
As an activist, Keys said in light of the racial injustice and the pandemic that has hit the Black community disproportionately, she hopes the community can find relief and comfort in her work.
“I am hoping that the Black community can find something that speaks to them because there are certain experiences that Black folks have no matter what class you're in, no matter what country, I've learned even through this remote experience that Black folks just have these common threads. And I'm hoping that they can find real intrinsic joy and find out who they are and what their purpose is because there's more to this life than just getting a job and paying bills and tricking off money. I hope that they see that there is such a bigger picture to this thing that we do call life.”
Keys’ said she is working on her latest installation that depicts the contraband camps that were refugees for escaped slaves during the American Civil War.
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