Editor Gabrielle Boyer talks to Gherdai Hassell about her first solo show, I AM Because You Are, her journey as an artist and what’s next for her.
In your Artist Talk with the Bermuda National Gallery, you mentioned that when you were younger you didn’t see it as possible to be a working artist as an adult. Why was that and do you think kids today face the same struggle in envisioning a future for themselves?
I didn’t see it possible to be an artist, because I didn’t know any. There were no artists available for me to see or talk to, so I didn’t know that it was a viable career option. Kids build upon ideas of possibility, when seeds are planted. I think the real problem is accessibility. Making viable career options accessible to kids. The world has changed, jobs and career paths that didn’t exist 20 years ago, 10 years ago even, are now available to step into. Kids and teens need to know that there are creative avenues to make a living rather than just traditional jobs we’ve held as a standard for so long.
You took a hiatus from art and went to the University of North Carolina and then law school. How did you find your way back to creating?
I didn’t paint for 5 years while in university. I mentioned to my friend that I could paint and that I actually love to. She asked me why she hadn’t seen me paint. So a few weeks later she surprised me with art supplies. I’ve been making artwork ever since. That simple, thoughtful gesture changed my life. I am grateful for her.
How hard was it for you to take a leap of faith and go after your dream?
It was the hardest decision I ever made. But it was the best decision I have ever made, because I made the choice for me. And it was made out of necessity. I felt like my spirit needed the change.
You spent a year teaching art to children in China. What was it like being a black woman in China?
Extremely challenging. There were things I experienced, I could have never fathomed going through. But I survived, and while doing so, I was able to thrive. When you find yourself out of context, you get introduced to a different part of yourself. I developed a deep sense of self and resiliency. In China, I became Gherdai. It allowed me the time and space to be alone with myself, figure out what I truly wanted to do with my life. I knew that if I could survive in China, as a black woman, I could do anything.
At that time you started to create your “alibiis” as you call them as a form of therapy. How did your artwork help you through that time?
I began making the alibiis when I was in China. It was a therapeutic exercise against the alienation and overbearing otherness I experienced whilst living in the city of Guiyang. Living in that city felt very isolating. It was hard for me as one of the few black people in the city. I would step outside of my apartment and people would stare, point, take photos of me, and follow me. I grew a heightened awareness of myself as a black person. I’ve always been connected to my blackness but never felt so black, until I moved to China. I also at this time began experimenting with Chinese calligraphy inks on different kinds of watercolor and traditional Chinese rice paper. I used the materials of the culture in which I was in, and added a contemporary twist on to the ways in which they were used. Because my skin in China was always a point for inquiry to Chinese people, it figured it could awesome to investigate within myself what it means to walk in the world in a black body. I loved the way the way inks allowed me to explore what it means to have black skin. I employed the inks to create skin which acted like a membrane between the outside and inner worlds. This in turn created humanoid figures, which claimed their own characterization. I chose to entitle them alibii, because to alibi means to cover or to shield or protect. I turned to making these to make sense of what I was experiencing in the outward world. I added the extra “I” on the end of the word to give reference to the double consciousness that I as a black person have to experience. The “I” that other people see me as and the “I” that I, I am. The ii also points to my own gaze (the black female gaze), and highlights that only my viewpoint is important when determining self-worth. The layering acts as security and comfort from the outside world. The shadow pandemic of violence against women has highlighted how safe spaces are needed for us. We need to hold spaces for reverence.
I AM Because You Are is your first solo exhibition. It blends art with Bermuda’s history in a way that has never been done before. What is the significance of the title: I AM Because You Are?
The title of the exhibition, I Am Because You Are, is a reference to the African proverb, “Ubuntu” The saying, which speaks to our shared humanity, is taken from the Zulu phrase, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which directly translates as: “A person is a person through other people.”
I AM Because You Are was inspired by the family tree you found at an aunts house. With many black Bermudians not having access to familial records or ancestral trees, how meaningful was it for you to find?
Finding it changed my life, the trajectory of my career and the subject matter of my work. Beyond that though, it is the inspiration for my own family tree that inspired me to create this experience for Bermuda, something I think we desperately needed within our community.
Having access to my family tree inspired me to look more into the Bermuda Archives and I went there looking for more information about my family. In Bermuda, there’s a disconnect between living descendants of slaves and what people experienced. We see the effects of slavery everywhere on island, from the class system, the wealth disparity and white supremacy built into the institutions of the country. Much of the truth about the history of Bermuda’s hand in slavery is rarely discussed. But now I think people are waking up to the reality of why things are the way they are. The Artiffacts project is about piecing together histories of the past, present and future. I’ve been thinking about how recalling the lives of the people who endured such horrors, can erect a monument of memory to pay homage and honor those who have otherwise been forgotten or intentionally left out of history. By doing this, we look at history as a view of the past, its consequences are occurring now. How we correct our past errors determines our future realities. This inspired the thought for me that the past, present and future are occurring simultaneously.
In your Artist Talk with the Bermuda National Gallery, you stated that the only reason slave registries exist is because enslaved people were viewed as property and itemizing each person was how the British Government accounted for their value. How did that inspire you to give life to enslaved individuals and humanize them now 184 years later?
I chose to use the I AM, in front of the African names I’ve assigned each person. To decolonize the archive, to reclaim their humanity. The reason I chose to hand write the names is call up the human spirit. My exhibition is about piecing together histories of the past, present and future. I’ve been thinking about how recalling the lives of the people who endured such horrors, can erect a monument of memory to pay homage and honor those who have otherwise been forgotten or intentionally left out of history. By doing this, we look at history as a view of the past, its consequences are occurring now. How we correct our past errors determines our future realities. This inspired the thought for me that the past, present and future are occurring simultaneously.
And thus began your journey to pair faces with names, which you did so digitally, piecing together eyes, noses, mouths, from different individuals to create physical identities from your own vision. As a collage-based artist, what is the significance of that?
Collage is about piecing together seemingly unrelated things, and bringing them together to create a new image. So I used pieces of found imagery to create a new imagined face. None of the people are real, but when you walk into the space, they feel like it. The face has been split into 3 parts, the eyes, the nose and the mouth, representing 3 tenses of time, past present and future. But more than just the collage on my paintings, And the photo based installation, the entire exhibition is one in collage. I found many different things from research from many different sources. For example, I used my research in the archives, my own family tree, African names from a slave ship, the slave registry book, my own human spirit and poetry and weaved all of this together. This is collage. It is expanding something to be more than just a given image, it is about collaging a bigger idea.
Can you tell us about the red thumbprint that is present throughout the exhibition?
The red thumbprint is my own fingerprint. I wanted to put something that could represent my own DNA. I also think about how the fingerprint has been used to criminalize black people within the justice system. So the red represents the blood of lineage and of a collective history of a black people of the diaspora.
Also present throughout the artworks is the black and white border on each piece. Can you explain the significance of that small detail?
The black and white is sort of my signature. I use a lot of black and white in my work. But here in this exhibition, the black and white is on the borders of the 7 paintings, casting a shadow, which speaks to the shadow that exists in the peripherals of Bermudian history. How this history of slavery has dictated the ways in which we experience two Bermudas today. A black Bermuda and a white one. Two different realities.
You’ve received a tremendous reaction to this exhibition, what has that been like for you?
I have been overwhelmed by the reaction to this work. When you’re alone in the studio making the work, it’s hard to imagine how it will be received in public space. I am humbled it resonates with people and has inspired people to look into their family history. The response has been more than I could have ever dreamed of for it. I am truly humbled.
What do you hope that people take away from I AM Because You Are?
I want people to take away whatever they need. It is food for the soul. It is an exhibition that pulls at your heart strings. Spend time with the work, and respond in the way you need to. It was made with the intention to pay homage, so I hope that it brings peace.
Tell us, what’s next for you.
Next I’ll be doing an installation at the National Museum, which I’m super excited about and a fair with Black Pony Gallery. I’ll be writing my thesis dissertation, finishing up graduate school and continuing to make art work in my studio.
Tell our readers how long they have to take in I AM Because You Are and where else they can follow you and your work.
The exhibition is on view at Bermuda National Gallery until September. And it’s available to view online at www.bermudanationalgallery.com but of course if you can, check out the work in-person as you can have a real experience with it.