MASTERS: Safiyah Cheatam

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Safiyah Cheatam’s cadence is like that of a poet, soft yet powerful. A visit to her UMBC studio in February of 2020 confirms her engagement with poetry and the human condition. The walls display various texts, such as “If you were truly free, what would your future look like?” and her three-dimensional poetry surrounds me with the artist’s words.

I notice a series of round objects with mirrors creating silhouettes, remnants from a workshop Cheatam facilitated which allowed the participants to see themselves in worlds they imagined. A drawing table covered in brown paper reflects these desires, marked by participants writing their wishes for a perfect world, such as “FREE RENT” and “emotional safety and support.” Another wall features three spiderweb-shaped figures made of braids of synthetic hair, objects with loaded historical implications, especially for Black women.

Before I visited Cheatam’s studio, I had become enamored with her short film #WhenFutureSaid, a compilation of videos inspired by the rapper Future’s lyrics. Inverting the concept of the lyric video—usually a fan-made music video where words are at the forefront—Cheatam instead uses footage shot in response to the words in several Future songs. As an adamant listener of Future, I have struggled with his misogyny, and I was intrigued to see his verses interpreted through film by a Black Muslim woman. The clips show a woman in ordinary settings—drinking tea, applying makeup, and hanging with friends. It’s a compelling engagement with these raw phrases, mainly because I have never witnessed another Black woman’s engagement with rap lyrics in this way. 

Cheatam’s #AllRappersGoToHeaven is an amalgamation of red fibers, audio, photos of rappers, and various screenshots of tweets and texts that challenges the boundaries of traditional collage and sampling techniques. The artist describes the piece as an archival-based installation that began online and took on a life of its own through the creation of the hashtag. It is a unique commentary on social media’s ability to gain sentience and extend the lives, legacies, and narratives of those who are a part of it, highlighting the Black Muslim rappers within this project.

With an undergraduate degree in filmmaking, Cheatam initially found it challenging to convert her former film practice—primarily digital and completed on a laptop—into a studio practice with four walls and room for production of more three-dimensional art objects. A lot of her past studio work included mazes, labyrinths, synthetic hair, stamps, references to the self, world making, and Afrofuturism. An aesthetic movement that also serves as a liberatory framework, Afrofuturism traditionally includes narratives that use science fiction to build bridges from the past to the future, through various mediums including visual art, music, and literature. It is an artistic practice that allows Black people to dream and design future worlds and realities. 

Much of Cheatam’s practice embraces the imaginary, the radical, and the future. Like Afrofuturists before her, Cheatam carries on the legacy through her evolving studio practice, through her daily existence, and through elements that incorporate her training as a filmmaker, like her podcast OBSIDIAN, co-produced with Adetola Abdulkadir. (OBSIDIAN won a 2019 Ruby Artist Grant from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, a significant supporter of BmoreArt).

The piece in Cheatam’s studio that I found most impactful in person is a text-based work displayed on strips of paper stacked horizontally. Consisting of ten lines and printed with hand-carved stamps, it tells of a letter she wrote to her mother. This act of imprinting meaning and truths on a flat medium, with ink and with strength, was a beautiful symbol for the times when you are unable to speak, and then somehow find the strength to convey your message. The content of the letter comes from a daughter explaining a complex decision to a parent, something that resonates with me deeply, as a daughter who lives a life dramatically in contrast to her parent’s desires.

How many of us have texted or emailed or messaged words that we were unable to speak aloud? Through art, Cheatam was able to render the ineffable to a medium that could be interpreted by her mother. Across the studio wall, Cheatam’s words resound, individual characters humming gracefully until a viewer encounters them.

The following interview was conducted in Cheatam’s studio at UMBC on February 24, 2020, and has been edited for clarity.

Artist: Safiyah Cheatam
Instagram: @saphicles
Graduate Institution:
Intermedia and Digital Arts MFA at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)
Tuition: The cost of tuition is $672.00 per credit hour ($13,440 total per year) for Maryland residents. (IMDA Students receive 100% tuition remission through Research Assistantships. All graduate students typically receive half or full graduate research assistantships on a competitive basis.)

Teri Henderson: Where are you from? Where are your roots? Where are your people from?
Safiyah Cheatam: I’m from Newark, NJ! My mom always likes for us to say that proudly. I am very proud to come from a large, yet tight-knit Muslim community in Newark. I grew up going to communal homeschools until 4th grade, taught by amazing Black Muslim women and I wouldn’t want any other upbringing.

What are you working on right now?
All of my work deals with collective experiences and individual reflection, but then they break into subsections, two of which include my exploration of different forms of Afrofuturism, including “mundane afrofuturism” taken from artist Martine Syms. So I’ve piloted a community-based facilitation called Envisioning Black Livelihoods: Filling a Void with Things Imagined in which I try to foster a safe space for expression and a hub for Black imagination. In this space I ask, “If you were truly free, what would your future look like?” and “Unlimited and unbound, how do you imagine your ideal future?” prompting discussion and memorializing with participants writing or drawing onto halo-silhouetted cut vinyl mirrors.

Another project I’m in non-stop production of is OBSIDIAN, an anthology speculative fiction podcast based in Afrofuturism, with my co-producer Adetola Abdulkadir. We write Afrofuturist stories, cast, record, and release episodes once a month. Lastly, this project falls outside of Afrofuturism, but I’m also interested in relationships with dynamics of power or hierarchy, whether that be with an individual, an institution, or a social construct. My current project in this field has to do with emotional and physical boundaries, parental figures, and navigating that space. That project has taken on many forms through different iterations and I’m still figuring that one out… literally and figuratively.

What is your primary medium and how do specific materials and practices influence your ideas? 
I like to believe I’m developing a social practice. My undergrad career was solely digital (in film and design). It took me a while to become comfortable in a practice that used materials, but through it all I’ve always been inclined towards collaboration. So I’m a visual artist who uses a variety of mediums—whatever feels right for the project—and also a storyteller using creative writing and digital technologies to broadcast the voices of my community. 

Why did you choose to come to UMBC for graduate school? 
There are a few reasons, with the biggest being financial. UMBC offers really great financial aid for its MFA program specifically. I wanted to stay local, to not accrue a whole slew of bills by staying at home (though that has changed), and connected to the arts community I was establishing myself within Baltimore. I also liked that UMBC’s MFA is studio-based practice. I was interested in the opportunities that would arise by having a physical space and being supported by an institution with a social network greater than my own and by the possibility of being able to teach at the university level with an MFA.

Where did you go to undergrad?
I got a BS from Towson University in Electronic Media and Film.

Would you be able to make the work that you’re making without having gone to graduate school?
I think graduate school gave me the push to really consider myself as an artist which then led to me creating the work I do now. I left undergrad with a whole heap of imposter syndrome, really having a hard time considering myself an artist. Having a studio also made it possible for me to expand my practice. I think if I had not joined this program, my artistry would still be heavily and likely solely digital.

Why are you an artist?
I really don’t think I’d enjoy anything else, and I don’t want to live a life where I’m unhappy because I didn’t pursue something that gave me joy. I’m an artist because I want to keep thinking in new and creative ways. I want to keep evolving in my practice and as a person and to never stop learning. I’m an artist because I want to struggle through an idea, then finally feel the eureka moment and relief of figuring it out. I’m an artist because I want to share these ideas in ways that make people feel differently about a thing they may already be familiar with and be a part of that lasting impact with a person. 

If you could go back in time would you do anything differently, maybe attend another institution?
I would’ve tried to meet more faculty and other students who’ve gone through the program. Being a studio-based program, it is very critique-heavy and you have to know who your audience (arts faculty) will be for the next three years. I might’ve looked more into institutions with faculty artists whose work I’m more drawn to and whose ideologies or experiences reflect my own. 

What place in Baltimore inspires you the most?
Honestly, there’s no particular place, but I’m inspired when small artist communities are able to organize their own shows, find their own venues, across the many artist-run Baltimore venues.

What is your favorite color?
Olive green.

What are three items you would take with you on a desert island? 
A pocket knife, a water purifier, and a waterproof tent and blanket. Clearly I’m very practical; #2 was a sketchbook, but survival first! I can draw in the sand.

What has been your greatest struggle in this program? What has been your greatest triumph? 
It’s a bit of a struggle presenting work to a demographic who isn’t always my target demographic and then seeing them respond differently to work that may relate more to and critique that differently. Sometimes it affects what I feel the worth of those other projects may be. My greatest triumph has been following through with presenting my work to broader audiences. Last year I presented a new artwork in my first gallery exhibition, then presented it at a national conference. I received a grant for a passion project still in conception, which was my first time grant-writing really. I never expected those things to happen so soon for me. 

What is the work of art you’re most proud of?
As Ritual, As Liminal (2018); a site-specific, time-based installation I made my first semester of grad school. It was motivated by theory I’d just learned and became my first conceptual artwork using new materials. It went on to be exhibited at the Peale Center (my first gallery group exhibition curated by Rebel Lens Bmore) and presented at New Media Caucus’s symposium at the University of Michigan. 

Is teaching a part of the curriculum at your school? If so, do you get compensated? 
Teaching is an optional elective. We take a Teaching Practicum for an undergraduate Foundations course that you can then teach after TA-ing the class. Once teaching the class on your own, it is compensated as a Research Assistantship and you’re paid through the aid that the MFA program provides.

Can you list the most commonly used supplies in your practice, and where you get them?
Well, that’s tricky because I wouldn’t say I use any particular thing consistently besides recording and editing equipment for OBSIDIAN. Other than that I could be using fabric from Joann’s, Vinyl from Oracle (ashamedly, Walmart or Amazon), or homemade stamps made with carving tools and rubber from Plaza.

If you could give a single piece of advice to an incoming UMBC MFA student what would it be? 
Make an effort to meet people already in or who’ve graduated from the program! Learn the atmosphere of the environment and what’s expected of you. Remember everyone on the admissions committee is just a person; don’t be daunted by the thought that you’re being assessed by this anonymous institutional board. Write clearly! Don’t try to use big words and jargon to sound complex and complicated. And of course, always have someone review your application. 🙂

What is the name of the building where your studio is located?
The Lion Brothers Building. It used to be a textile factory for patch-making so it still has lots of nice exposed brick, large windows, and textured flooring.

What does a typical day at school look like for you?
Every semester is different. Right now, I have a nurse’s schedule with three very long days and a four-day weekend (in which I still do work, of course). So I’m only really doing “school school” once a week. I attend a seminar critique class then go to campus to TA a large lecture class. The other two days, I’m on site at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture as a research assistant for an upcoming exhibition on Afrofuturism.

How have you built a community in Baltimore?
I feel like I’m a little late to the game; this community has been here way before I came, but I’d definitely say showing up for people. Baltimore is a city with very intimate pockets of artist communities that can sometimes be hard to truly be a part of, but genuinely showing up to people’s events, establishing myself within that community, and building those relationships has never failed me.

How do you take care of yourself? 
It’s really hard to be intentional about self care, but I’ve been trying to be intentional about separating work from home. I allow myself to enjoy time hanging out with friends. Maintaining relationships has always been really important to me, so remembering to check in, go out, and wind down with friends is how I don’t spiral into mania.

Who are the artists that you have trained under that you are most proud of? What connections are you most proud of? Did these opportunities come from school or from you hustling on your own? 
Tahir Temphill is a cool one. A UMBC professor told me about his work so I did some research and he happened to be giving a talk at MICA in the following weeks. I emailed him, but of course he’s a very busy man and I heard no response. I went to the event and met him afterwards. I ended up working for him over the summer as a Community Communications Manager for his Rap Research Lab and Hip-Hop Word Count database, which was super cool because I have a digital-archival based project called #AllRappersGoToHeaven. I’m very grateful I was able to make that kind of right-place-right-time opportunity happen by putting myself in the position to receive it. 

What are your post-graduation plans? 
I’m still trying to figure out how I can do everything I want to do in some capacity. I want to curate and do exhibition design for museums and/or galleries. I want to always be a storyteller, whether that’s in the form of a podcast or another medium. And I want to be a youth educator, whether that’s through a small nonprofit or as a museum docent. But I also have to remind myself that I don’t have to do everything at once.

How has COVID affected your art practice within your MFA program? [Ed. note: Added after COVID restrictions were announced] 
Quarantining in my studio apartment and being without my Lion Brothers art studio has made me realize that it would do me good to home in on a particular medium to focus some of my time and practice into. I had felt for weeks that there was little I could do in this confined space. I recently decided to take relief printmaking back up and thankfully already have several new image ideas. These ideas will be based on texts I’ve come across during my ongoing research into Afrofuturism and African American studies.

My thesis committee has been very kind, patient, and resourceful in this situation, which I am quite grateful for considering some of the horror stories I’ve heard from other programs and institutions. They’re recognizing the drastic change and letting us adjust as individuals rather than art-making machines. I think it’ll be important for prospective students to know how institutions (and specific professors/mentors) handled this pandemic for those students to make an informed decision.

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