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Studio Check In with Danielle Mason

Studio Museum

Studio Check In was born out of a desire to tell the stories of the people who work behind the scenes at different arts and cultural institutions. Institutions are defined by the people who work within them, but they are also defined by the community members, artists, and audiences that intersect with and support the work and mission—different audiences and participants help make the story more full, more human, and more alive.  

In this Studio Check In, Ilk Yasha speaks with Danielle Mason, a cultural preservationist, writer, and educator. Her work explores anthropology and art through the lens of folklore and African spiritual concepts. She participated in the 2022 Museum Education Practicum program at The Studio Museum in Harlem.  

 

Danielle, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I always begin with a simple question to introduce our interviewee to our readers. Can you tell the readers a little about yourself?   

I am an emerging arts writer, cultural preservationist, and educator from Houston, Texas. I am the founder of Ancient Mother’s Wisdom, an educational nonprofit geared toward providing a rites of passage curriculum framework for adolescent Black girls, fusing the knowledge of Indigenous arts and craft practices with the tenants of holistic sexuality. Ancient Mother's Wisdom honors the coming of age of adolescent Black girls by granting them opportunities to learn trade skills in ancestral arts practices, including traditional African hair braiding, sewing, quilting, basketweaving, African dance, and more.  
 
I am currently preparing for a teaching assignment at a historic inner city high school in the Houston area, where I will be teaching photography, which is exciting because I’ll have a chance to implement the knowledge gained from the Studio Museum Education Practicum in a traditional classroom setting. Being a part of the 2022 Studio Museum Education cohort fortified me with skills in inquiry-based learning. I look forward to fostering an environment where my students are encouraged to explore their curiosities about the world around them. 

I believe in the power of naming and identify myself as "she has many names," an extension of the ideology that I can’t be reduced to a singular expression of myself. My pronouns are she/her/y’all to represent the folks that walk with me. 

I love that you mentioned you are “she has many names.” I also love the name of your website—diasporicdaughter. Can you share a bit more about your choice to pick this name as opposed to your name?  

Diasporic Daughter is where all aspects of my identity and curiosity meet, and that allows me to connect the dots of my multi-hyphenated art, literary, and educational career. I’ve always seen myself as fragmented as if parts of my personality contradicted themselves. As a Gemini and a child of Esu—the man at the crossroads in the Yoruba Pantheon of spirituality—I recognize that my sensibility to living is dual-natured. Diasporic Daughter represents the ability to merge these paradoxical constraints into a coherent whole. 

The name originated as my social media handle and I decided to use it for my website to brand myself under an overarching theme rather than through my independent identity alone. The diaspora represents people who have left their homelands and I took that to signify a personal quest to connect with the broadness of African culture.  

Being born Black on American soil often feels like there is a rupture in my identity as a descendant of African culture. Not knowing my mother tongue or having had the opportunity to step foot on the continent creates a sense of dysphoria regarding my origin story. However, being bred in the South allows me to engage with geography as a portal to reclaiming the inherited memory of folks who have carried these traditions forward. I get to pair my Southern roots with a generous curiosity to reclaim aspects of identity, language, and the history of Black people across time. As an extension of my shapeshifting nature, being a daughter of the diaspora also represents a prismatic understanding of what it means to be Black to me—blackness as a rainbow.  

Your work explores memory and personal narratives. What is a formative memory that impacted your experience choosing to be a writer? Was there a moment that catalyzed your passion to write? 

It is more of a throughline rather than a specific memory. I grew up in a household of many silences, forced to go within rather than express my truth outwardly. I never felt comfortable harboring those ideas and emotions alone, yet knew that my inclination to resist by abrasive means would only create more issues with my father. At the age of eight, I wrote as a means of truth-telling and later acknowledged that vulnerability was my superpower. I hid in my older sister’s closet and wrote letters to my dad after one of his many lectures where I was forced to sit in silence. I found writing allowed me to make sense of my thoughts and actions and allowed me to air out my dirty laundry or come to terms with my perspectives without having to carry the burden of other people’s perceptions of me.  

I find intimacy on the blank page. There, I can be whatever I want to be. I produce works that blur the line between reality and imagination, confronting a belief in worlds that exist beyond the human eye. I believe writing is an extension of my sovereignty and ability to express something pure and true. I have a bachelor’s degree in English and taught at the high school level for a few years, before deciding to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing in 2019. Moving to the Bay Area for grad school provided an opportunity for me to morph into my wildest career dreams. I saw myself publishing my personal reflections on life and writing narratives that would encourage other people to share their own and find power through subversive means. I was tired of hiding my passion for writing in a personal archive and grew confident from the feedback of my peers and collaborators that my words had power and that people would listen.  

You are currently working with fiber artists with the Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund. Can you tell me more about your involvement and work with them?  

The Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund is a nonprofit that merges art and political advocacy to mitigate the impacts of Black land loss among legacy farmers in the Black Belt South. As an extension of this goal, Acres of Ancestry has created an endowment for Black fiber artists to commission new textile artworks for the perpetual expansion of their permanent collection. The primary focus of the acquisitions are quilts—both heritage and story quilts. However, the broader category features fiber art created by ceramicists, blacksmiths, printmakers, and other types of artists whose work is rooted in preserving Black material culture.  

In 2021, I was contracted to interview and write bios for the artists featured in the Griots of Cotton, Indigo, and Clay fiber arts exhibit. I traveled down to Charleston, South Carolina to interview three elder quiltmakers who are preserving something rare through their art. I had the opportunity to experience the complicated beauty of the Lowcountry, a territory acknowledged for its involvement in the slave trade and celebrated for its lush terrain and scenic landscapes. I grew a deeper appreciation for the cultural technologies that survived the terror of Black life in America. This work is extremely important to me because it carries out the traditions of Black maternal figures whose sustenance was rooted in the creative power to work with what they had on hand to create beautiful and timeless works of art. And that providing a physical and spiritual covering for their families could also be deemed as fine art.  

Acres of Ancestry has introduced me to the depths of research surrounding existing pantheons of scholarship surrounding quilt culture, which has informed my personal lens of art criticism. I can see myself becoming a quilt historian over time because there's a stronghold of the cultural and artistic significance of quilting in my life. The support I receive from Acres of Ancestry fuels me with the skillsets of an entry-level arts position, with the opportunity to weigh in on decisions surrounding acquisitions and stages of development in the organization.  

Acres of Ancestry recognizes it is not enough to just collect the art or to acknowledge the significance of Black material culture alone. It is imperative that arts agencies change the conditions under which art is created and that the process of acquiring art be stewarded by stakeholders of the communities under which it serves. 

You bring up agrarian work and quilting, both of which I would say require quite a bit of time and patience. What are your thoughts on slowing down to ground oneself with pace, with land and environment? Why is that important?  

In centering agrarian pathways of living that incorporate art, survival, and stewardship of the earth, I believe slowing down must be mandated. One must learn to look and listen to the sights and sounds of nature to truly understand what the earth is saying. In order for this to happen, we must also resist the need to occupy our time with perpetual labor. Most folks are wasting time replacing time and even when a day’s work is done will find something else to ruminate over. What room do we leave for nature to communicate with us? 

I think folks in rural communities or landscapes that afford more space to cultivate a sense of connection to one’s environment find this much easier, and you’ll find that the art created in those communities reflects these standards as well. For example, indigo-dyeing finds its roots in the agrarian lifestyle. The artist harvests the dyes from the earth, as opposed to synthetic dyes that could cause harm to the environment. The key here is when you know better, you do better, and a lot of wisdom can be found in giving nature time and space to run its course. 

I grew up hearing people from the South were slow, as if that was a bad thing. We were made to feel like starting an art career or trying to compete in any form of industry was impossible in the South, because people only came here when they wanted to retire. Since the pandemic started, some folks are asking themselves what matters, and they’re giving more priority to slowing time down. We’ve realized so much of our time has been spent climbing the social ladder and that we have forgotten how to truly be. Peering back into the lifestyles of Black Americans in the antebellum South, especially artists who only had the mediums of nature to use as materials, can provide a blueprint to be present in each moment afforded to us. Nature does not hurry, things simply unfold, and there is something to be said about altering our perceptions of time to embrace the idea that embodying the now is the only real way to go forward.  

I love it! You’ve made many points! Speaking of the rich traditions of the South, folklore can take the shape of customs, beliefs, or stories. What is a piece of folklore you’ve inherited that has resonated with you through the years?  

Folklore drives my commitment to unearthing narratives of resistance in my life and artistic practice. I find the most compelling stories are ones that demonstrate how fear is not the final determination of success. An old Russian folktale, "Vasilisa the Beautiful," resonates with me for its witty way of capturing a lesson in fostering one’s intuition as a form of initiation. A mother lies on her deathbed and gives her daughter a doll to provide comfort and insight during her absence. Just before breathing her last breath into the doll, the mother told her daughter to ask the doll for help should she not know what to do. Later in the story, the girl journeys through the woods and is confronted by evil forces. Each time the doll provides her guidance that wards away catastrophe and misfortune. Clarissa Pinkola-Estés, the author of Women Who Run with the Wolves, describes the communion between the girl and the doll not as an extension of her mother’s voice, but as the daughter’s private intuition.  

This story makes me think about how often we give our power away to things or people outside of ourselves for courage and insight, while we already have the tools we need to navigate our experiences in the wild. I relate to Vasilisa, oftentimes feeling like I am out in the wilderness of the art world, having to chart my own path. Luckily, I lean heavily into my intuition and dance with the unknown. I might not have a doll to call on for help, but if I ask the right questions, I will be led to the place of knowing that gives me the confidence to continue along the path.  

I love the end of summer because it really feels like the world slows down. Schools are out and the heat is intense—ambition becomes a momentary chase—can I get out of bed? Can I make it outside today—you know? The time is anti-ambitious. Tell us about your ideal lazy day.  

On an ideal lazy day, I would be at home enjoying the sounds of a thunderstorm outside. Nothing beats the sound of thunder rumbling through the sky and raindrops pouring down on my rooftop. Sometimes I dance in the rain and other times I will stand in the doorway and marvel at the beauty of nature. When time moves slowly, I gaze and wonder. I look and listen. Typically, this works best when I am spending time outside. I notice what insects and animals cross my path and then research them to learn more about their significance. Being curious about things outside of me, outside of my body, and a list of things to do brings me closer to experiencing the divine.