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Tiffany Ward Aims to Connect Artists Across the African Diaspora

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In the book Religion and the Digital Arts, Dr. J. Sage Elwell writes that at this moment in history, “[it] no longer makes sense to talk about any substantive distinction between life online and life offline.” Because of the proliferation and prevalence of technology in our mobile devices, computers, TVs, and Apple watches, the digital and the analog have become “two spheres inextricably entwined and practicably indistinguishable.” Our lives online mirror and extend our lives offline. 

I took a class in undergrad which Elwell taught called Digital Religion, and as part of the class, we created digital avatars on Facebook, entities with no basis in human reality or corporal form. This was before Instagram became so popular, and Elwell wanted us to think about our avatars and to consider the phantoms that we would leave behind. Will the internet outlive us? When we die, will these parts of ourselves—our status updates, photos, tweets, and expressions—become our legacies and our histories? 

For Elwell, “Identity is avatar and avatar is identity. Community is network and network is community. The sets of terms are interchangeable.” I could not help but think of Elwell’s writing when I was thinking about the work of curators who create online spaces for art viewing that are both aesthetically pleasing and approachable without the presence of physical space. 

In her practice as a creative director, curator, and writer, Tiffany Auttrianna Ward asks questions about archives, storytelling, endurance, and existence in both physical and digital space, exploring themes of migration, identity, Blackness, and womanhood. Ward’s most recent curatorial endeavor, Digital Legacies 2.0, which launched as a website designed by Hayden Wright in May 2021, was an appropriately titled show: “Digital” as in the literal online extension of the coded binary, the artificial reality that we spend entirely too much time on, and then inversely digital as the primitive, ancestral, ingrained, and inherent power that extends from our appendages. Typing this essay on my computer, I’m melding both of these mediums to convey this message. That title embodies Elwell’s idea about our digital and analog lives, those “inextricably entwined” spheres.

Ward graduated from MICA’s Curatorial Practice program in 2020, and her roots spread across this country. Born and raised in San Francisco, she moved to New York at 18 and has lived on the East Coast for her undergrad and graduate school degrees since 2007. She moved to Baltimore in 2016 but left right before COVID-19 hit. “I would still be there now if it wasn’t for COVID,” she says. Ward currently works between Baltimore and New York City.

 

When I initially spoke with Ward in May, she had just visited Frieze in New York. “I met so many people. It was just so busy and I think there was so much energy in the air ‘cause we haven’t seen each other in so long,” Ward says. “It was really nice to be able to be at parties and dinner and to eat good food. It just felt really good. It felt like homecoming.”

In 2019, Ward started the Mare Residency, a program that grew out of Mare Projects, a writing collective/curatorial platform which she had co-founded that same year with researcher/curator Tatiane Schilaro Santa Rosa and writer/researcher Nohora Fernandez. The name Mare, which means “sea” in Latin, is also an acronym for media, art, residency, and education. Through the residency, Ward intends to unite people of the African diaspora, primarily in the Americas and the Caribbean, through these creative means. 

The 2019 pilot season of the Mare Residency brought together Baltimore painter Jerrell Gibbs and Dominican painter Raelis Vasquez in a West Baltimore studio space run by mTkalla Keaton. The 2020 artists in residence were Brooklyn-based Jazmine Hayes, Baltimore-based Asha Holmes, and Recife-based Bia Rodrigues who goes by the “avataronym” biarritzzz. The third iteration of Mare’s residency, will be held in Loíza, Puerto Rico this August, in partnership with Corredor Afro, featuring artists Luis Vasquez La Roche from Trinidad & Tobago, Yelaine Rodriguez from the Bronx, and Julio Amill from Guayama, Puerto Rico. “This year it was invitation-only, but in the future we’ll host the residency several times a year,” Ward says.

 

Nastassja Swift, The Sanctuary - African Burial Ground, still photo from Remembering Her Homecoming, From the North Atlantic to Leigh Street, 2018, short film. Photography by Marlon Turner. In Collaboration with Torian Ugworji, Kyara Massenburg, Cameron Hopkins, Marlon Turner, Sanchel Brown, Alicia Phillips, Raven Wilkes, Jourdan James, Kennijah Waller, Kyata Johnson, IdaLease Cummings, Christina Irby, Kristin Davis, Rob Gibsun, Free Bangura, Barbara Jones

Much of Ward’s work focuses on the effects of colonization and migration on Black folks. “That’s the root of all of my work,” she says. “It’s just educating ourselves about ourselves.” This exploration led her to learn Portuguese as an undergraduate at Manhattanville College, from which she earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 2011. “When I went to undergrad and I started learning about Caribbean culture and about the transatlantic slave trade, they didn’t just go from Nigeria to Mississippi,” Ward says. “So then I started seeing where the most Black people were sent—and it was Brazil. I thought, my life is so American, and all I know is the United States. I wonder what would my life have been like if my ancestors had been dropped off from a different ship? And the ship that they most likely would have gone to, because that’s where most people were enslaved, was in Brazil.” 

Ward studied abroad at the Catholic University of Salvador and took two semesters of Portuguese, but also picked it up from the people she hung out with. While in Salvador, she started reflecting on the multitude of Black diasporic cultures in New York, connecting it with her interest in the effects of colonization and migration, and thought about facilitating cross-cultural exchanges.

“I was thinking about how cool it would be to bring an Afro-Brazilian artist to a place that had African-American Southern or Northeastern culture,” she says “When I got into MICA’s curatorial practice program, I started thinking about ways that it could be bigger, not just Baltimore and not just Afro-Brazilian artists. So I started thinking about what sort of mashups could we do?”

 

Collage by Amira Green

The first Digital Legacies show was curated with Diamon Ariel Fisher at the Black Woman’s Museum, a mobile project led by Imani Haynes, featuring work by Aliana Grace Bailey, Amira Green, Asha Holmes, biarritzzz, Diamon Fisher, and Jazmine Hayes. Digital Legacies was inspired partially by Mare’s second residency session. “Jasmine was working with weaving and Asha and Bia were working with coding,” Ward says. “I was thinking about what are the different ways that Black and indigenous women were creating these codes and these maps? They could be codes of braids or codes of culture.”

Digital Legacies was about Black women as the creators of our own legacies, and it played on the “digital” relating to “the hand” and to tech. “I love new media video work,” Ward says. “Being able to put fabric makers and tapestry with tech, I was just so happy to be able to do that. I wanted the Digital Legacies 2.0 to be a virtual experience too.” 

Shifts in both form and content for Digital Legacies 2.0 were necessary in part due to COVID restrictions preventing people from gathering in physical space. Viewing the exhibition, I thought about how the works chosen were perfectly ripe for being displayed on a cell phone through social media platforms. The Black femme subjects were encased in their digital vitrines, figures outlined, confined, and expressed through the phone screen. 

Qualeasha Wood, Woke Olympics, 2018, Jacquard weave and lasercut wood
Diamon Ariel Fisher, Hot Comb Madness, 2020, digital collage

In Qualeasha Wood’s woven tapestry, “Woke Olympics,” Black emoji angels are the background pattern for the text “black women died for your sins so you could be woke on the internet?” Like the show title’s double entendre, this text holds a multivalent meaning, speaking to Black women’s exhaustion in digital spaces because of white racism, which can also be read as “black women died for your sins so you can be [____] on the internet.” Without Black women and Black content creators, can you imagine the barren and banal wasteland that the internet would be? See Black TikTok-ers recent strike for just how unimaginative these spaces become without their labor. Black content creators are often uncredited and uncompensated, their intellectual property and creativity erased and commodified and distilled and repurposed for predominantly white audiences.  

In Diamon Ariel Fisher’s digital collage “Hot Comb Madness,” a central figure is present with her head turned away from the viewer. Her crown of coiffed pressed waves falls down her scalp and grazes her neck. She exists against a backdrop of painted daisies. On her right, the ripped page that could have been taken from one of my mom’s old Black Hair magazines, anchors the piece. 

When I saw Fisher’s work, I felt the heat of those seemingly endless Saturdays I spent with my mom getting her hair done. I can still smell the relaxer that she and I would get, and feel the burn of her running a hot comb or curling iron through my hair. The older I get and the more I travel, I marvel how these experiences of Black girlhood are universally shared and cherished. 

 

I cannot think about the digital without thinking of the future and of the past. The work in Digital Legacies 2.0 existed as a virtual space built by Black women and for Black women and femmes. Like any analog exhibition, but unlike most online encounters, Digital Legacies 2.0 was ephemeral in that it can no longer be accessed in its original form. A google search leads you to a website that is accessible only by a password. An Instagram video scroll-through exists, offering you a quick cursory glance, but without pausing anywhere long enough for you to savor and relish the magic and skill of the creators. 

In the same way that internet platforms encourage our minds to wander, Ward’s projects make me remember when Solange Knowles teased her 2019 album When I Get Home and had us dial 281-330-8004. Her voice distantly echoed through the cell phone, and later when her album dropped, those sounds reverberated through my computer screen. This was a moment in time created by a Black woman to express herself, to breathe, to exist, to love, to mourn, to cycle through the seasons, and to make work that will outlive us. Viewing Digital Legacies 2.0 twice, I was impressed by its beauty, elegance, and simplicity. It was like stepping into a gallery while sitting in my living room, an experience many of us have been trying to recreate during the pandemic. Even just the act of copying and pasting the URL, scrolling through, and clicking on the artwork to magnify it reminded me of the feeling that I had when Knowles released her Afro-futuristic project. Ward had created a moment of time, a space that allowed me to transverse my present to view art in an alternate present simultaneous reality. 

*****

To support the 2021 residency program, Mare Residency joined with the Komuna Foundation to raise funds through an art sale featuring work by Alanna Fields, Anthony Akinbola, Bony Ramirez, Celia Rakotondrainy, Jerrell Gibbs, Kelli Ryan, Lakela Brown, and Raelis Vasquez. 

Featured image, clockwise starting at top left: Anthony Akinbola, CAMOUFLAGE #037 (Cobalt), 2021, durag on wood panel; Jerrell Gibbs, Views of Spring, 2021, acrylic on canvas; Raelis Vasquez, El Cielo, 2021, acrylic on paper; Lakela Brown, Small Doorknocker Earrings Composition with Four Golds Recesses and Five Embedded, 2021, plaster and acrylic; Alanna Fields, Memory Band, 2021, pigment print and wax on panel

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