The Feministing Five: crystal am nelson

crystal am nelson

crystal am nelson

crystal am nelson debuted her most recent exhibit “Dark Desires: The Erotic Lives of Black Women” this Friday at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. The exhibition brings together art, literature, and historical materials to provide a framework on how black women have created, imagined, and self-represented sexual positivity. crystal am nelson collaborated with around ten artists to join her on this examination of black women’s sexuality, and together they have created an incredible exhibit that shows the myriad ways desire extends from sexuality to political and social spheres.

crystal am nelson is both an artist and a scholar. As “Dark Desires” demonstrates, her work combines intensive archival research, collaborative creativity, and thoughtful intention. The exhibit runs at San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture through November 16th. Be sure to check out these upcoming events connected to the exhibition if you are in town:

Dark Desires: The Erotic Lives of Black Women
October 1, 2014–November 16, 2014
Film Screening, Saturday, October 11, 7–9 pm A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy, plus Q&A with Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier
Cheryl Dunye & crystal am nelson, Sunday, November 16, 7 pm, Emerging Scholars Program – Queer Cultural Center event.

The Center for Sex & Culture is located in San Francisco at 1349 Mission St. between 9th and 10th.

Dark Desires features  artwork by Michaela Pilar Brown, Rashayla Marie Brown, Ajuan Mance, Shilo McCabe, Megan Morgan, Nanci Nwamaka Ikejimba Muraoka, Numa Perrier, Keisha Scarville, Cascade Wilheim, and Suné Woods.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with crystal am nelson!

Image from Dark Desires

Michaela Pilar Brown, Blonde Ambition

Suzanna Bobadilla: As its curator, what are you most excited about for “Dark Desires: The Erotic Lives of Black Women”? 

crystal am nelson: I’m excited for the opportunity to show, not just visual art, but also show some books and magazines that are related to the theme of the exhibition. I’m excited to show the work in this particular fine art context because sexuality isn’t something that is often explored within visual world.

The issue of black women’s sexuality, desire, and eroticism is highly contentious because of the history of enslavement, where black female bodies were used and labeled as hyper-sexual or deviantly sexual. Sexuality is often something that is shied away from. I really want to flip the script of that discussion and show that it is very important to recognize and acknowledge black women’s sexuality as healthy. It is a formidable aspect of our subjectivity.

I’m also really excited to be hosting this exhibit at the Center for Sex and Culture because of its status within the community here in San Francisco and the way they support and go after controversial but really substantive issues within sexuality discourse.

Additionally, I’m looking forward to showing the work of these artists. The majority are women that I have known over the years as an artist and a curator. I have had with them a number of discussions about what we desire in all areas of our lives, so to be able to bring them together in this space around this conversation is really exciting.

Curating the show is a honor and a pleasure for me. There are many thing to be excited about!

SB: You are a curator, scholar, and artist. Do you view your themes differently depending on your disciplinary perspectives? 

crystal am nelson: One of my agendas as an artist, curator, and scholar is to actually debunk some of the myths that you can only be one of the things at a time, and that you have to use different part of your brains. Within this art world, I started off as an artist, but I was always deeply engaged in research. I think all artists are in their own ways deeply engaged in research.

I don’t think you can use a different part of your brain for making art as you do for scholarship because it is all analytical, problem solving, and thinking critically. When I’m curating or when I’m writing about visual culture, I’m using the same kind of methodologies when I am making my work. I’m thinking about how the audience is a person of work, what kinds of tools and information they might be bringing with them, what kinds of tools and information they might need to interact with the work. That’s exactly what I do as an artist, scholar, and a curator.

Every show that I curate I see it as one big installation. I want to make sure that people are having an artful experience and an education experience, not just look at the work but learn something intellectually and see how their bodies are interacting to the work.

I see it all as one thing. Artists are like curators when they are thinking about what they want to put into their work, scholars are thinking about very similar things. Of course, I also see writing as visual as well. It’s all one tree with several little twigs.

Image from Dark Desires

Rashayla Marie Brown, Gaze

SB: What are you hoping visitors will learn from “Dark Desires”?

crystal am nelson: I hope they learn that there is such thing as a healthy black female sexuality. When I’m talking about women, I’m talking about cis, trans, and female-identified women. Black women have desires, not just from a sexual desire but political and social desires. It’s filtered through all aspects of their lives. It’s not just about the politics of race, though of course it is an aspect of it, but it is who they are as individuals.

I want people to take away that it is okay to think of black women as sexual beings and it’s not just a racist thing to say that “this black woman is sexual.” I want our audience to get to know these artists. The majority of the women in the show are black women, there are a few artists who are not black. We have two white artists and one artist who I am not sure how she racially identifies. If you are not a black person but you are making images of black people, it’s not just about the power dynamics of the gaze but there is a relationship between the subject who is a black woman and the artist who is not. There is agency when a black woman subject posing for someone who is not the same race or the same sex identity. I want people to trouble their viewpoint on that.

The dominant discourse on image making of black bodies is that if it isn’t a black person making an image, they are making a negative image, but that’s not necessarily true. Even if someone is attempting to make a negative image, there still is agency on part of the subject, they are choosing to stand in front of the camera or the painter.

These artists are incredible artists and many of them have been talking about thinking through sexuality. In the fine art world, sexuality is taboo. A lot of this work is hard to be seen in traditional venues, like galleries and museums. I really want the audience to be introduced to this aspect of these artists’ work and to be inspired to continue follow what they are doing.

I’m also excited for people to see the venue, the Center for Sex and Culture, which is a small space in the Mission and has a tremendous reputation. Even though it’s San Francisco, the dynamics here are changing. A little while ago, they tried to pass a law to try to prohibit public nudity which used to be really acceptable here. I want people to be aware of this space and for people to know that sex is positive and healthy. We should be able to have as many substantive conversations about it as we do about the Google buses or the cost of rent or the water crisis. It’s not a secret thing that we have to discuss behind closed doors. The Center for Sex and Culture is really an anchor in the city for that, and I want as many people to come and be aware of the resources they have there.

SB: What was something that you learned or discovered while putting together “Dark Desires”? 

crystal am nelson: I’ve lived in San Francisco for about five years from 2006 to 2011. It is mostly known for its gay male community in the Castro, and there isn’t really a large lesbian presence in the city. When I was digging through the archives, I found this magazine called “On Our Backs,” and it’s basically the history of San Francisco Bay Area lesbian community here that has largely disappeared. This magazine regularly featured lesbians of color, which is something that you don’t normally see around here. That was exciting to frame the conversation around the different kinds of sexual identities that can exist in the black community and among black women.

They also had a lot of literature around kink communities of color, men and women who were engaged in the leather scene and the fetish scene. I had no idea! Bondage and discipline, of course, people would assume it was very taboo for the black community and to see the literature that really highlights the role of black women in the bondage scene was really fascinating. We have a little library section with some of these texts for folks to thumb through.

Those two things really help to anchor the exhibit because we have one of the non-black artists in the show who was involved in the Bay Area Women of Color Photo Project. It works with women of color who are professional dominatrices or submissives in the kink scene. There are some queer aspects and queer images in the show as well.

The space is small but there is a little bit more than 40 works total in the exhibition, but I would have filled several galleries with more historical information and work.

SB: You are stranded on a dessert island and you get to take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick? 

crystal am nelson: For food, I’ve to say a food group. I’d take fruits and vegetables. For drink, I’d bring water. For feminist, I’d take Audre Lorde, the feminist who inspired my thinking and who I wrote about in our catalogue for the show.

Her essay “The Uses of the Erotic, the Erotic of Power” really informed my thinking for the show. In my estimate, it is the first black feminist theory on desire and the erotic that was put out there. Most of her essays that people look at focus specifically on power dynamics between the sexes, genders, and races. This essay takes seriously the role of desire in women’s lives and how desire is as political as it is personal. She puts further ideas about how it is a particular women or female centric power that is as much about sensation and how we choose to navigate our lives.

Suzanna Bobadilla is the Feministing interviews contributor. 

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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