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Bronze Women: Notes on a Womanist Praxis

Shameekia Shantel Johnson

Simone Leigh creating Sentinel IV in her studio, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth  

This piece was sparked by Simone Leigh. I’ve admired her for ages because of how she shows respect to the Black sisterhood: honoring her foremothers, building with her sisters, mothers, and aunties, nurturing the young ones who will later join the ranks. I sought to study, understand, and ultimately join that legacy of Black women creating Black women in our own image. So while I was an intern at The Studio Museum in Harlem, I was also a studio apprentice at the Modern Art Foundry in Astoria, Queens where I learned to cast bronze sculptures using the lost wax method. For eight weeks, I experienced an intimate connection to bronze-making by casting my own hands step-by-step. However, it wasn’t until I was carefully carving into a wax mold of my hand that it finally crystallized: I was creating myself. Though the flesh of my skin and the flesh depicted in bronze held significant differences beyond materiality, I saw many similarities in the two types of (Black female) being. That realization moved me to speculate on what bronze-making is like from a Black female perspective, and to listen, view, and read the sculptures made by other Black women on a deeper level. 

Inspired by the many layers that make up the skin: the epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis—I structured this poetic response to mimic the layers that go into bronze-making—the God complex, the outer layer, and the inner layer—to honor Black women who contributed a great deal to each layer.  

This piece is for women like Augusta Savage, who, unbeknownst to many, were working in the tradition of bronze-making despite lack of access to the material because when there is no way, we make one. This piece is for the daughters of the dust, for women whose labor has been part sacrifice and part allegiance. 
 

Consciousness, the God complex: 

To love thyself is to create thyself—constantly—in the physical and the immaterial.  

Who taught us, Black women, how to mold ourselves? To take every bit of clay, wax, plaster, and molten metal to create a dense and indestructible skin like bronze. A material so thick and solid, yet so smooth.  

Can this be our new skin?  

This molding of the self starts from within and spreads like wildfire. Like water rushing back to the land it was born to, remembering where it used to be and forever trying to get back to where it was.1 Creators are the same.  

When crafting in bronze, we consider the flexibilities and opacity of the rubber and wax molds in which we start our base. We repeatedly retouch imperfections on the molds for the outcome we request and prepare

When crafting in bronze, we work with emotional memory. We work with vesselhood. We work in the tradition of the sublime—working to represent where we came from. As a meditation, Lucille Clifton’s seven-part poem “far memory” expands upon this canon of creation as she had written: 

 “Someone inside me remembers: that my knees must be hidden away / that my hair must be shorn / so that vanity will not test me / that my fingers are places of prayer / and are holy that my body is promised / to something more certain / than myself.”2 

We are promised to something more certain than ourselves. Tethered to the legacy of our ancestors and the future of our successors, we become unmalleable by shaping our bodies and our dreams into bronze.  

We come from a long line of women who work in language, with oral history, with the archive. Those of which have helped us start our journey of selfhood by creating spaces for our stories to be held.  

These great women are: 

Sonia Sanchez / Toni—Morrison and Cade Bambara / Ntozake Shange / Alice Walker / June Jordan / Audre Lorde / Gwendolyn Brooks / Octavia Butler / Saidiya Hartman / Tina Campt Zora Neale Hurston / Lucille Clifton / Lorraine Hansberry / Kathleen Collins / Cauleen Smith / Julie Dash / Hortense Spillers / Harmony Holiday 

The list goes on... 

Bronze, the outer layer: 

My skin is black / 

My skin is yellow / 

My skin is tan / 

My skin is brown.3  

Two bronze cast hands
Shameekia Shantel Johnson, I&I, 2020

 

Descending from Benin bronzes depicting stylistic kings in poses of pride and power, bronze is an emblem of our noble origins.  

Bronze, an alloy metal of copper and tin. A medium that many proclaimed masters used to define the men and stories of their time. From Donatello’s promiscuous David to Tony Smith’s minimalist forms to Thomas J. Price’s take on everyday Black men. Bronze has been a definitive medium for memorializing people and ideals for legacy-building. As a brown or black biomorphic or amorphous form, bronze is a dense and stern material that holds a range of appearances.  

Bronze is brown. Bronze is green. Bronze is red. Bronze is black. Bronze is any of these colors when the right patina is applied. Fire combined with ferric nitrate or liver of sulphur changes the color of the metal, defining the material with a creative brilliance that is the final look of skin. This reaction brings about the same resonance to the multiple complexions of our brown/black skin: honey, toffee, mocha, plum-black, blue-black, and more. The transfer of color and its luscious pigmentation is inherent to the transfer of aliveness.  

Aliveness is of and in the one who is alive.4 Aliveness is about enhancing every aspect of life through the acts of love, spreading that love outward, and bringing it back to the self. Alice Walker defines womanism from the same tradition of aliveness. A woman, or rather, a femme body as a person who “loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggles. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.”5 These declarations of aliveness are anything but ordinary. It is the act of embracing the godly by the root and not settling for anything less than. It’s the spark of energy a creator chooses to transfer over into the non-object, bringing it to life.  

Holding the finished bronze casting of my hands, I realized that I and my recreation shared the same weight, the same spirit. What I put into making the sculpture was replicated back towards me.  

My exteriority, our exteriority, is a transmolecular component of being (and in connection to) the multiplicities of our humanity. Through transportation, “we’re sent to one another. . . We’re sent by one another to one another until one and another don’t signify anymore.”

The bronze body mirrors our own. It's a reflective yet stylized version of our natural skin—a body abstracted, unmarked from the daily signifiers of our human form. In bronze, our skin is neutral; it’s filled with immense movement and immense stillness. It’s being and nothingness.  

In our pursuit of aliveness, Black gets blurred, becoming energetic and elastic. Black aliveness is a force of and in being akin to the mode of existence: “a form of creative energy generated by the self and the self ’s relationship to sacred forces.”7 What is it that we do with all of this aliveness? We give and give and give until we are no more. We offer life and personify an object without a pulse. We turn it into a vessel before we turn into dust.  

Who are we? We are: 

Selma Burke / Barbara Chase-Riboud / Artis Lane Allison Saar Wangechi Mutu / Simone Leigh  

The list goes on... 

The vessel, the inner:  

Vessel: (noun) a ship or large boat; a hollow container.  

The hollow replications of my hands expose the areas of emptiness. I allowed myself to see the inside of my bronze sculpture and remembered that all bronze is hollow on the inside. Hollow things allow for sound to travel with ease; a shout, a song, a rhyme will echo throughout its enclosure.  

The bronze container interacts with sound and frequency on a similar wavelength as the human body. When we create and listen to sound, we become open and receptive to many sonic forms at play. From this relationship to the sonic, we learn to attune our bodies and gather the proper connection to the divine. 

Sound and frequency live within the body. When either is out of touch or out of sync, the body will make the necessary adjustments to retain what it needs. Our hollowness is where we can play the space to shift the echo of agony into a rapture of freedom. One must respect the response of their honest heart, their honest body. It can not be controlled by statehood and community taboos, or else it will not know what pure freedom means.8 Yet, here we are unbound and in the pursuit of pure freedom by creating a sound of devotion. One source embodied in our bronze vessel and another extended from our lungs, from our fingertips.  

Improvisation relies on muscle memory, retained transcription, repetition from the subconscious to the conscious. Improvisation is also a break from the emanate group we are emotionally, genetically tied to—it’s our solo moment. Whether or not our bodies work together or separately—we need each other to extend our interior and transform it into a magnetic discourse. Our interiors must be attuned for us to recognize each other through the sonic so that we may pass down our sound.  

The sonic is: 

Billie Holiday / Nina Simone / Dionne Warwick / Tina Turner / Anita Baker / Chaka Khan / Whitney Houston / Alice “Turiyasangitananda” Coltrane / Alice Smith / Janet Jackson / Erykah Badu / Jill Scott / Sade / Solange / Sister Nancy / Sister Carol / Phyllis Dillon / Mary J. Blige / Kelela / Kelsey Lu 

The list goes on… 

As we bear witness to the higher frequencies that come together in the name of attunement, we cannot forget about a relative of sound: quiet. Quiet(ness) operates at a lower frequency. It is wide-spanning wisdom appointed to those who are Black and woman. Those who have not just sound but presence. Marita Bonner’s poetic stance on quietness notions to such wisdom, as she had written: 

“So—being a woman—you can wait...But quiet; quiet. Like Buddha—who brown like I am—sat entirely at ease, entirely sure of himself; motionless and knowing, a thousand years before the white man knew there was so very much difference between feet and hands. Motionless on the outside. But on the inside? 

Silent. Still… ‘Perhaps Buddha is a woman.’ 

So you too. Still; quiet; with a smile, ever so slight, at the eyes so that Life will flow into you and not by you.”9 

Quiet(ness) is a means to an end. The interior of quiet is a reflection of a broader scope of an inner being.10 It’s how we stay sane. When loudness is not enough or too much, the quiet allows for internal introspection. In the quiet, we are left with ourselves to face every aspect of our being and return knowing more than we did before. Like the Buddha, we are mindful. We sit with ourselves and let life flow through us.  

Quietness relates to bronze because it reveals beyond the outer layer. There is so much noise implied with creating familiar subjects, and neither of us can remove ourselves from reading into what becomes part of the public. Quiet relates to bronze because it’s all that happens inside; without echo, there is calm, there is quiet.  

I gathered everything I’d learn from these women I admire profoundly and created (and continue to create) myself. By rendering my human form— in bronze and through words— I became Godly, God-like, God, herself. 

Shameekia Johnson was a spring 2021 Public Programs & Community Engagement intern

Endnotes:  

[1] Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, 2d ed. William Zinsser (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 83 - 102. 

[2] Lucille Clifton, “far memory.” Book of Light, (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), 63.  

[3] Nina Simone, “Four Women,” Wild is the Wind, 1966, Vinyl.  

[4] Kevin Everod Quashie, Black Aliveness, Or the Poetics of Being, (Duke University Press, 2021), pp. 20 

[5] Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose, (Harcourt Publishing), xii.   

[6] Adam Fitzgerald, “An Interview with Fred Moten, Part 1,” Literary Hub, August 2015, https://lithub.com/an-interview-with-fred-moten-pt-i/ 

[7] Ibid, Quashie. Black Aliveness, Or the Poetics of Being, 16-17.  

[8] June Jordan, Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays, (Basic Books, 2003) 

[9] Marita Bonner, On Being Young—a Woman— and Colored, (1925) 

[10] Kevin Everod Quashie, “The Trouble with Publicness: Toward a Theory of Black Quiet.” African American Review, Vol. 43, No. ⅔, (Summer/Fall 2009), pp. 329-343.