Esoteric Lore is a collective of female African American artists from across Atlanta who are focusing on rebuilding the image of black women in the United States. Members such as Taryn Lee Crenshaw, Corinne Stevie Francilus, Nikita Gale, Michelyah, Crystal E. Monds, Iman Person, Faatimah Stevens, and Elizah Turner are seeking ways to, as worded on the group’s blog, “counter the revisionist history behind the black female experience.”
That’s a powerful outlook for starting a new women’s collective. Media institutions like MTV, VH1, and BET consistently present negative images of African American women as “heffas,” “hos,” and rich scaliwags on a daily basis. The saddest part is that many young African American girls and women in the U.S. are constantly exposed to this media-ghettoized, hyper-sexualized female image. Esoteric Lore aims to dispel this monolithic stereotype through an investigation of arts, literature, and music.
When I first heard about them, I chose to attend the opening of their exhibition, Esoteric Lore: Visual Storytelling, in the Cary McPheeters Gallery at the historic Auburn Avenue Research Library. The opening was the beginning of a month of planned events including literary readings from local writers and poets, a community arts workshop, and a night devoted to local female musicians.
Upon entering the space, I was instantly captivated by Iman Person’s hanging installation. Her small, hanging sculptures reflect her belief that all life on Earth came from a generous mother, represented by a red, curvy, womb-like shape hanging at the top. Smaller “wombs” hang underneath the center, their tan bodies peppered with reds, blues, and grays. The work reminded me of how Eva Hesse’s sculptures used organic materials both as a way to compose and enhance the installation.
Elizah Turner’s short documentary is an intimate reflection on the significance of black hair, a constant theme in the art of African American women. The video displays her going through a normal hair routine mixed with a virtual potluck of scenes sampling the full diaspora, from the African woman to her American counterpart. After viewing for a while, you notice the contrast between the women with Americanized, straightened hair and the hairstyles of indigenous Africans. Meanwhile, the artist continues gazing into the mirror to manicure her large, coily afro.
Altogether, the young women of Esoteric Lore are examining the social and psychological complexities laced throughout black women’s history. By using their combined knowledge and the power of art and word, they open a space for healing, celebration, and self-exploration. Among the goals listed on their website, the group seeks partnerships with academic institutions for using the visual arts as a tool to engage students. With a desire to make art that is both visual and intellectual, Esoteric Lore explores a black womanhood that doesn’t perpetuate the media’s model of self-hatred, but one based on self-love and empowerment.
The exhibition, Esoteric Lore: Visual Storytelling, continues at the Auburn Avenue Research Library through April 30, 2011. For more info, please visit the Esoteric Lore blog.