April Bey on Textiles, Afrobeat and being a Womanist
Interviewed by the Shoebox PR Team: Kristine Schomaker, Sheli Silverio and Diane Williams
Shoebox PR: We have always loved your Venus pieces and wanted to do a studio visit to see your work in progress, talk about your recent trip and see what your future plans are.
April Bey: Yea, I’m really excited about them. Especially since I came back from Ghana.
SB: Tell us about your trip. You went to Ghana on a residency?
AB: I submitted a proposal to Los Angeles based artist Todd Gray. He and his wife artist Kyungmi Shin have a residency and home in Akwidaa, Ghana called Sedabuda House. I wanted to go to Ghana and research textiles, wax fabric and the role black women play in transporting and disseminating the Chinese fabric throughout Ghana. I also wanted to interview and observe how the black female body is utilized in Ghana.
In Ghana, they still have tribes scattered about. You could see one tribe that’s completely matrilineal in nature and one professor I talked to even told me he came from such a tribe. The women run everything and have a chief that they instruct to go and do their bidding. This chief can’t do anything unless he gets the approval of all the women. Ironically, I interviewed a lot of men there that grew up in such a society and they don’t seem as grumpy as we do in the US in a patriarchy—but that’s my outsider’s perspective.
SB: In what ways is it different from the Caribbean?
AB: In the Bahamas women don’t have equal rights to men. They don’t carry the right of citizenship. Women not carrying the right of citizenship means women are not in control of how their family structure is or how they choose to have a family—simply being a Bahamian is not enough to ensure your child is also a citizen. In Ghana, women have those rights. The women are respected in a different way as well. The women run the wax fabric industry that everyone wears and everyone comes there for. They run the shea butter industry, which is extremely laborious. The women focus on the craft and quality of product while the men act as conduits in patriarchal business dealings. Raw materials are acquired by both men and women but women perfect them and combine them into a material worth value.
I traveled alone which is like an enigma there, for a woman to travel alone. I was safe the entire time because the very second I stepped out of my hotel the security guy would ask, ‘do you need a taxi, do you need a friend, what do you need?’ When people saw me by myself, they say ‘what do need? Do you need water? Do you need food? You need a friend!’
Ghana was the first African country to become independent, so they’re very fiercely independent. In the Bahamas we have independence too but we still drive on the left side of the road—a colonial attachment. We still have a lot of British tendencies in the Caribbean as well. In Ghana because they were a major center for the slave trade they say, ‘nope. We’re going to restructure the whole grid to drive on the right side because we want American cars. We want to have our own identity; we have our own oil; we have our own textile industry.’
It’s a good entry point. Especially for feminists exploring feminist issues.
SB: I know you went there to research the textiles. And I see you’re putting it in your art. Tell me about this. How did that come about? Why Ghana? There are many African countries that have textiles. Was it just because of Todd’s residency? Or was it because of the feminism? Or something else?
AB: Well, I put it out a year ago that I had to go to Ghana. It started because I participated in an extensive DNA study. I have a genetic condition and they wanted to know why this condition affects women of color. So I got a free work up of my DNA. A high percentage of Blacks that were sold into slavery came out of the Ghanaian ports — Ghana was the hub for the transatlantic slave trade and naturally the African genetic ties to Ghana were strong. So that started it. I needed to go to Ghana. I needed to find records and see if I could trace my ancestors. So I put it out there and a friend connected me to Todd Gray.
About the textiles…there’s a Dutch company called Vlisco, and that’s what you are going to typically see here. LA has a Vlisco store. London. Everywhere I went I found a Vlisco store. They sell ‘African textiles’, but they’re really Dutch. To their consumers they’re ‘African! Ethnic! Let’s wear it!’ and that’s what I was interested in. I started searching textiles and tracking origins, I found that they came from a Dutch corporation. I read that they don’t pay Ghanaian artists to come up with the designs, so that was depressing. But then I started researching Ghanaian textile companies because a lot of my U.S. friends were sending me links that said all the Chinese brands steal and appropriate. They wanted me to support the Ghanaian brands. But when I got there, the people in the markets told me the Ghanaian brands are not even owned by Ghana. They’re owned by the Dutch, the Chinese and other countries. And they’re priced so high that the average Ghanaian can’t afford to buy it anyway.
When I went to the market I interviewed women over several days. What I learned from them was that if foreigners and Ghanaians didn’t buy their fabric, they wouldn’t be able to afford fabric to make clothing and they wouldn’t be paying their bills. I bought this fabric from the entire west coast of Ghana. So I just went up the entire coast and went to each market. The narrative was the same – they smuggle it into the country in some cases because the government doesn’t want them selling it.
So I hung out with the market ladies and I bought their fabric. They told me what each color palette meant – they have about four to five colors in each one – and symbols. I’m bringing this fabric into my Venus work, because, like I said, women run the markets; they run the fabric; they smuggle the fabric; they sell the fabric; they disseminate the money from the fabric to their families. I wanted to have in all my pieces some type of laborious technique, because I do subscribe to the labor theory of value. And I had already been sewing before I left, I just wanted to sew into wood and see what it would look like to replace the strips that had imagery in them with just the flat texture and textiles from Ghana.
They’re all portrait pieces. They’re each going to have a name, each going to be a deity. One of them is a female politician who is running for a major position in government in the Bahamas. It’s like history and I really hope that she gets it because she was the first one to say, ‘hey maybe we should make marital rape illegal since rape is the number 1 crime in our country.’ And so, this series is going to have names of women chiefs and key figures in Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia, and other places that have outlawed child marriages and forced female circumcision. I’m using the fabric to design the paintings at this point. I’m sticking to those colors, but using the same imagery as the Venus, who’s faceless and without identity. Her body represents a lot of expectations that women are supposed to have – like good childbearing hips. When I showed my work to one of the Ghanaian men, he’s said ‘Oh! She could bear many children!’
So, that’s what I’m really interested in with the Venus figure. When I make my journeys, I’ve made a point to go to museums to see their collection of maternity figures.
The scrolls for The Bahamas are going to be amulets in an installation with fabrics thrown across each of them. This is key in the Bahamas because the vote to endow women’s rights just happened a month ago and the women there are still pissed the country voted “no”.
SB: Where do you show your work now? And do you show your work internationally?
AB: Anywhere, everywhere. I just recently started working with Mat Gleason here at Coagula Curatorial—still a favorite gallery of mine. Internationally I show in Nassau, Bahamas and hopefully Ghana soon. The art world in Nassau is small and critically stimulating. On my short list of favorite artists about 4 of them come from my home island Nassau. Any opportunity to show there I take.
SB: So being that your work is about feminism, do you think that your work is perceived differently in other countries where you show?
AB: Yeah. I like to say that I’m a ‘womanist’ as opposed to a feminist because Womanism opens it up globally. I’m much more interested in how women are treated and the issues regarding women globally. But, when I show in the Bahamas and I make work about what I make work about, the people in my clique — and I’m talking about those of us who left the island, went to art school, with MFAs and then came back, or highly educated people — they get it easily.
There was an article written in the paper when I had my solo show there. I went to the grocery store to get a copy and the ladies working there read in the piece that I used 35 pounds of hair relaxer. In the Bahamas hair relaxer is gold. And the women were asking me ‘why do you buy all this hair relaxer and waste it on the wall? Why you come and waste it?’ I had to defend myself against that. Because in our culture… It’s expensive, but it lays your edges. There, using non-traditional art supplies is not really understood at the civilian level but that’s changing very quickly.
In Ghana, when I was trying to explain to some women about what I’m interested in on a global scale, they were very quick to tell me ‘oh well honey, this is Ghana. You’re talking about Somalia, Ethiopia and the Muslim countries.’ Yeah, I get it. I’m going to be visiting those countries next year, depending… (right now Americans aren’t advised to go there)..but that attitude was a shock for me because I went there with all this baggage – eh I’m so oppressed! And they tell me that women eat first in some tribes here, and they actually run the government sometimes. I wouldn’t have known it. You can’t google search a lot about Ghana because it changes so quickly there. A lot of the hotels and restaurants I had written down to go to were closed when I got there. They had closed days before I had gotten there. And that’s just the way it is. That’s why travel is important.
SB: And our perceptions of safety are so different, you know, from their perception of safety. When you travel and you do see that there is maybe a better option or maybe a worse option you know that like you do see the differences.
AB: Oh yeah, definitely. When I was in London someone told me that the neighborhood I was staying in was a bit sketchy. I asked, sketchy as in ghetto? And they said, ‘Yea, a bit sketchy.’ When I was dropped off in the neighborhood I was staying in there was a Jerk restaurant and Caribbean store right there! So sketchy to them was a Caribbean population (mostly black). Very safe to me. I said good morning to people and they said ‘Oh you’re from the island?’ I heard the same concerns when I moved to Inglewood my friends were thinking Inglewood that’s ghetto and unsafe? They just built two Starbucks there, c’mon. In the Bahamas, sketchy is getting raped on the way to school.
Even when I was going to Ghana, a lot of my friends here met with me and they said, don’t do this and make sure you do that. I said was going to keep an open mind. I get it. I get it, it’s Africa. But when I got there it is exactly like the Bahamas. We have open trenches, we have the same stuff. A lot of the Ghanaians were shocked that I would do things and eat out of certain things. They said Oburoni don’t usually do these things—won’t eat our food. I didn’t go to Ghana to have beans with eggs.
SB: What did they call you?
AB: ‘ Oburoni ‘ (Abroney) It means white person. They call black people Oburoni too. Basically, it just means you’re not from Ghana. They scream that at you everywhere you go. The kids scream and sing it, but to them it’s because you’re a fascinating creature. It’s a unicorn! Be our friend!’ When I first got there I thought I was in a country where people are calling me white. But the taxi driver said it means foreigner. So I wasn’t special after all.
SB: Would you move there?
I wasn’t white in Ghana, but they noticed I was foreign. They lifted up the fact that I was mixed. Like a lot of the men would, after they proposed to me, they would rationalize and say, but you don’t understand – if we have children they will still be black but not as black! I think, oh my god, the self-hatred.
They would always say ‘you have too much Ghana in you.’ When I went to get my hair done, all the women came up and they were touching my hair and they were like ‘Oh so soft. But you have too much Ghana in you.’ I laughed at first until I texted my friend and he said that they were saying I have too much black in me. They were saying, ‘if you were a little bit whiter you would be fine. Your hair would be better.’
But, you can’t react to stuff like that. You have to understand this is their culture… for now.
SB: That’s the same way, where I’m from. My skin is considered second class if you have darker skin, but if you have Spanish — and a lot of people from the Philippines have Spanish origins — you’re the mastisos, the epitome of beauty and white, being rich, you know.
AB: I did an outstanding five-day academic conference called Global Ghana and I have to admit after the first day I couldn’t deal with anymore -isations, -isms. I get it. The British really conquered. They took that very seriously and there’s leftover everywhere, but it’s the worst in Africa. If Africa really wanted to they could be as big as the US if they incorporated. But because each individual country has variations of super corrupt governments that are more interested in selling to foreigners, nothing ever trickles down.
Look at Ghana, they have their own oil. That’s why they’re one of the most industrialized African countries right now. But, you don’t see it in all of the villages. You just don’t see it. It’s starting to get better. The government is actively improving welfare programs that help with education, nutrition, but it’s still not trickling down fast enough.
I can see on the roads in Ghana cars from the 80s and then a huge Ford Escalade – not even from 2016 anymore, a 2017 Escalade. That’s a big difference. There’s a small middle class. It’s the same in the Bahamas. The divide is so drastic.
SB: You did the panels for the feminist show last year. When you create work, is it normally for a specific show or surrounding an event or is something in the media? Where do your ideas come from?
AB: I work on multiple bodies at the same time because I get morbidly burnt out and bored. When I was in school my mentor told me that working on multiple things would alleviate the unfinished work that I kept building up because I would get angry or burnt out and just not come back to it.
I do installation work for shows that I get invited to. I have tons of sketchbooks filled with installation ideas. They just stay there until I get the space. This is like a year now I’ve been waiting to do this (The Venus Scrolls for the Bahamas). But then I do work for me. Like the small prints I do to test out the larger ones. So the smaller colored sewing prints are the small maquettes to these, and I’ve changed a few things but before I spend a lot of money to make them big, I always do them small. I just do different bodies. Like I have the caulking body of work. That happens when it needs to happen.
AB: So another reason why I went to Ghana was because I was obsessed over a year now with viral hashtag Afrobeat dance challenges. They call it hip life music. It’s like a combination of dance hall Jamaican, Caribbean dance hall, with African beats and they merge it. The most recent public merge was with Drake. He did a collaboration with Nigerian artist Whizkid. The “One Dance” song? You know the beat that’s in that song? That whole song is Afrobeat. If you go on Vine there’s a whole bunch of Vines of people being like ‘I hate that song’ and then it comes on and they can’t stop dancing. In Ghana, they believe Afrobeat is something no one can avoid. If I played it for you right now you would not be able to sit still because it has this beat that matches the rhythm of your heart and everyone just has to dance to it. For a year I collected viral Afrobeat hashtag dances. Where thousands of people all over the world, on vacation in Thailand, in the Philippines, China, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Iceland, all of Africa, all of the US, people doing these 15 second dances matching the exact same hashtag. I’m working on a video that puts all of them together. This work spans the gap between gender and race in a way I think is effectively positive for people around the world and in the Africa Diaspora.
AB: With all of their “tag me, follow me, like me.” All of that, “share share share.” But that’s how these tiny Nigerian, Ugandan etc. musicians are getting signed. And Drake’s finding them. Alicia Keys recently worked with one of them as well.
It’s interesting because I was working for artworxla when I first discovered dance hall for Afrobeat. I was working at Downey, and this was the school I was warned about. The artist that had it before came and found me and said, we need to talk….
SB: Oh no..
AB: The first day I came in one of them was standing in the chair. The teacher’s yelling ‘get down now!’ I thought ‘oh my god.’ Then two students came from the back smelling like pot. I thought, “this was going to be fun…”
One day I was trying to teach them something tedious like image transfers. My coordinator artist Rochelle Botello was exhausted after having to get them to collectively focus repeatedly. They kept asking me to let them watch this rap video. I can’t even remember what it was. The rapper is in jail now. It’s awful. I said, ok, I will project this rap video for you if you listen to one of my songs.
At the time I had just discovered Eddie Kenzo who was a Ugandan dance hall artist. I discovered him through a viral video. They’re called Ghetto Kids, that’s the name of their dance group, Ghetto Kids. You guys might have seen this in the video of them dancing in the yard to this song, and they’re dancing really well. This video went viral. That’s how I had discovered him.
I had been listening to it in the car for a week and I wanted to share him with the class. So I let them play their horrible rap song -ho’s and bitches. Then I played Eddie Kenzo. His music video is with these kids dancing. And so, all these 14 to 18 year old black males were sitting there and asking, ‘Miss, miss where is this miss? This Africa? Why, why aren’t their belly’s swollen miss? This ain’t Africa. Where the worms? Why are they dancing? Why are they so happy?’ I told them that this is their music. Africa how you’ve seen it presented here is not what it’s like there.
I had to look at more artists to give them more. That’s when I stumbled into the viral hashtag videos on Instagram and YouTube. And that’s when I knew I had to go to Africa. Because this subculture has started infiltrating black hip hop culture. So, my students who were talking about this bitch is so fine and I’m going to do this and that – at twelve years old – all of the sudden we’re starting to talk about the dance moves. They got up and they started emulating moves. If you look at the comments on these videos, it’s the same thing. It’s not people talking about what’s she wearing or commenting that she’s so fine, look at her ass. They’re saying, ‘did you see at 1:02 where she got that beat perfectly? Did you see that? I could do this. That’s called the Shaki-shaki.’
AB: They’re analyzing the dance. Not the person. They’re analyzing how this person kept up with the beat. And that’s interesting to me. Spreading this idea through this culture isn’t going to change anytime soon, even though it’s spillover from slavery, but it’s the first time where I’ve seen something going viral that isn’t objectifying women and isn’t ghetto. It’s just ‘hey, this is Africa. This is where you’re from. It’s connecting these ideas that Africa isn’t swollen bellies and tapeworms. It’s people that love and that have social media.
When Eric Minh Swenson was filming me for the documentary Ovaries of Steel I made him promise to use Jojo Abot’s work because she’s a Ghanaian/American artist and she’s so hip. You know when you see someone and you want to be friends with them? That’s her, she’s cool. She’s making music in Ghana singing in Ewe and she’s singing about women’s rights and not wanting to be married off and she’s donating her music. This is the best album of the year for me.
So, social media, the internet, hashtags; these are things that are getting Africa out, but it’s also getting African American blacks in.
*Images taken from Cape Coast Ghana at the slave castles
April grew up in the Caribbean (Nassau, Bahamas) and now resides and works in Los Angeles, CA.
Bey’s work is interdisciplinary and varies based on its content. The work is an introspective and social critique of American and Bahamian popular culture, immigration, contemporary pop culture feminism and race. Racial ambiguity, ghetto culture, self-identity issues and social media communication and subcultures are also themes seen in her work.
She received her BFA in drawing in 2009 from Ball State University in Muncie Indiana studying closely with award winning professor and artist John P. Gee. She received her MFA in painting in 2014 at California State University, Northridge in Los Angeles mentored by award winning and accomplished painter and professor Samantha Fields.
Bey is currently a professor of art at Glendale Community College.
April is giving a detailed presentation of her artist residency to Ghana at Glendale Community College.