During her senior year at Bowdoin, Amie Sillah ’20 created Black Lady Art Group: an art class and artist collective where she, Amani Hite ’20 and Destiny Kearney ’21 could focus entirely on creating a safe space for producing and exploring artistic practices as Black women.
“It’s something that I knew I needed, but I didn’t know how badly I needed it,” Kearney said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “To be able to create with other Black women who understood what how we were navigating the space and to be able to talk about things that you can’t really talk about at Bowdoin or even in the art classroom—I’ve never had that before.”
Among Sillah’s many involvements on campus, she realized during her time at Bowdoin that she wanted to make a career out of visual art—specifically, although not limited to, photography. While Bowdoin catalyzed her interest in pursuing visual art, it was Sillah’s time abroad at Studio Arts College International in Florence, Italy that reaffirmed her passion and desire to continue producing art at the professional level. Her time abroad also introduced her to the benefits of an artistic community.
“Being surrounded by artists who, for them, this is their livelihood and the only path they dream of, as well as professors who I’m able to see making a living and having a fulfilled life teaching art, was really the thing that solidified [for me] that not only can being an artist be something that fulfills me emotionally, but it can be something that sustains me in life,” Sillah said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Hite, who was also in her senior year, had just completed a year away from Bowdoin—at Spelman College during the fall semester, and at the University of Ghana during the spring semester. She spent the majority of her four years at Bowdoin as the only Black visual arts major, and she believed that the time away from a predominantly white artistic community was essential to her development as an artist.
“Having so many critiques, in the [Bowdoin] Visual Arts Department, and so many people explaining my art as ‘Black art’ … was something that was really frustrating for me,” Hite said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “Just being in a class with all Black women [at Spelman College] was an experience like no other because my art was simply art.”
Both the affirmation that Sillah felt while in Florence, as well as her desire to create a space that was absent of experiences like Hite’s, inspired her to found Black Lady Art Group.
Kearney, then a junior studying Africana Studies, art history and visual arts, had always looked to Hite as a role model and as representation of a Black woman studying art at Bowdoin, and she eagerly joined the Group.
“For me, I loved art and I was terrified, absolutely terrified to become a [visual arts] major, and Hite inspired me in so many ways,” Kearney said. “Seeing her do it, seeing her tackle it head-on—that inspired me in itself.”
When students were on campus, the Group met twice a week to brainstorm and create artwork that was meaningful to them and to the larger goals of the group. Hite used the classes as an opportunity to continue her exploration of abstract sculpture.
“I thought that this would be the space to try something new, where I would get really good constructive criticism from people I feel comfortable around,” Hite said. “That’s what I really needed during this time, so I decided to take this class as a more experimental period in my art career.”
The Group also explored literature, including bell hooks’ writing about the necessity of space for Black women.
“[hooks] talks about space and creating space for yourself, and how some spaces just aren’t meant for you and how you have to make space for yourself as a Black woman,” Hite said. “Our course was also about space and creating space.”
The Black Lady Art Group intended to hold a campus-wide exhibition last spring, with installations in buildings from Thorne to Edwards, but when students had to evacuate campus in March due to the surge of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, the group searched for ways to immortalize the work that they had already accomplished. They created an Instagram account, where they documented their creative processes as well as their latest artwork, but Sillah wanted to produce something material as well.
This Thursday, Sillah released the book “In, Not Of … Black Lady Art Group Collective,” which features artwork, artists’ profiles and personal essays. The Group will be donating half of all proceeds to The Laundromat Project, a New York City-based nonprofit that creates collaborative programming for artists of color. While circumstances cut the course short, all three artists are satisfied with its byproducts and hopeful for the future of artist collectives at Bowdoin.
“If you want something to happen when it comes to Bowdoin, if you want a class, just do it,” Hite said. “Figure it out. Make it happen.”