NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 18 Issue 1 - Winter 2018 - Page 106


Of Buried Memories and Other Stories

By Ijeoma Umebinyuo
How can you tell me to go back and touch what hurts me just to write about it ? How many ways can one die ?
Every word , every sentence bleeds ; that is the only way to describe the feeling . I had to write ; I needed to write . It is all I have known , since I was thirteen years old and did not speak for three months , after that horrible Wednesday night five months into my thirteenth year on earth . Then , I was frantically searching for ways to pull words out of my bones , out of my blood , out of my fingers — to write it all out in anger , knowing I had to save myself . Sometimes I was on my bed or on the couch in the loft I shared with three other girls . I needed to write . Before that , I lived alone for a few months , and the silence almost drove me insane . I wouldn ’ t sleep till the daylight came in .
I was convinced my neighbor was doing something scary . Some nights , he would move his furniture , and from my apartment downstairs , I could hear the screeching sound . I was desperately in need of someone to understand the agony and anguish I was holding inside . No one did . There was no name for it in our language , no name for it in our circles . So , the day a boy I adored said , “ See ! you have manic depression !” I looked it up and tried to understand it , understand the madness . He blurted it out on the telephone . I searched for articles on Google . I tried to look at what was wrong with me , to understand what he meant . Was this why he would never want me ? Was this why I was better as a friend ? Was this why he would eventually stop answering my calls and a year later be married to someone else ? Was this why ? I paused to think .
Nobody suffers from depression , at least no one I know of . Nobody knows what it is . It isn ’ t something we speak of , and I have never met anyone who was seeing a therapist . That was , as we would say , for white people . I was writing frantically , sharing it for my online friends to see . My friends called from a distance to see if I was okay . I lied and said that I was . I pretended I was . I pretended that the night before I had not been trying to count the amount of pills it would take to die , or that I had not been struggling to stop being disappointed at not living up to my exceptionalism and the expectations of my parents . I pretended that my bones and my blood were not moving in two separate directions . I had never been taught to ask for help . I had been beaten into understanding my pain was nothing more or less .
n Foad Satterfield Sticks and Stones Series. Icon, 1982 Oil on linen 36” by 48” mw: What about in college? What were your first real art classes like? Did you have any influential teachers or artists whom you admired? fs: I went to Southern University in Baton Rouge and declared art my major. They had a small department that had teachers who wanted their students to be serious. As far as artists outside of Southern, I looked up to Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, Romare Bearden, and others, and really respected their work. They were figurative painters, and although I was not that interested in figurative work initially, I concentrated on the figure in graduate school. mw: Did you go directly into your Master’s program after undergrad? What happened when you were drafted into the Vietnam War? fs: Yes, I went on to graduate school at LSU. LSU finally had integrated classes, and I was one of the first African American students. While I was in school, Paul Georges, the figure painter from New York, was a teacher at LSU. Around this time, I began to discern my place within this “art” thing. I decided what I did and didn’t want to do. I knew I wanted to be a serious practitioner. While my teachers were good, I didn’t know if they were telling the truth to me or not about my works. My mentor was too nice. How could I grow if I was never given constructive feedback? I knew I had to stay with Georges, because he would take no prisoners. He was a good teacher too, in that he taught his students how to make something well, especially a figure. He taught us how to maintain its integrity. I completed one year of grad school but then was drafted into the army. This interrupted my educational process but allowed me to be very focused upon my return. My time in Vietnam continued to form me even when I got back. It impacted my ideas of conflict as well as my questions around “what role does an artist play or not?” When I got back to school, I was all business. My thesis came into focus, while visiting and sitting for prolonged periods in a park next to the Baton Rouge zoo. My pieces had some figurative elements, some Rousseau: “body in nature: neutral or political?” Black bodies — how can they be safe?” aspects to them. This was me just exploring these concepts. I knew I didn’t want to be an overtly political artist, as many other students of color felt compelled to do. It was not who I was as a painter, even though I feel very strongly about it and often contemplate how the themes I do work with would be useful in order to form an expression of resistance. mw: How would you describe your own approach? fs: I have been more interested in self-inquiry/identity but not specifically focused on race, as such. I feel strong in my foundation of who I am as African American, but I always thought that, although significant, it was only a part of me. Who I am is much bigger than that. I’ve sought to engage my larger self — the one that transcends the individual. Given that, I’ve leaned toward metaphysics, philosophy, and spirituality. mw: You’ve talked a little about the metaphysics of painting, but could you say more about how those three things shape your work? fs: I have found that philosophy is useful in understanding rational thought, but can sometimes be sterile without a spiritual aspect. In addition to that, in college my roommate was Rosicrucian, and we used to talk about all things esoteric. My Aunt also had a friend who was an Eastern Star and, when I was little, she used to come over to our house and tell me about the ancient Egyptians. I was inspired by her stories and traveled twice to Egypt. In the works I produced from those trips, I really played with materiality — having to navigate the physical space in this earthly realm — in concert with what would be the beginnings of my spiritual evolution. Since that time, I have developed a meditation practice based on Eastern philosophical teachings. I do not consider myself a “joiner,” so I don’t belong to a particular religious group. I think the systemization of these teachings dilutes them; a contraction occurs. Once something is defined, it is easy to be limited to that particular container. Not being wedded to any specific philosophy but plumbing the depths of many frees me to identify and apply wisdom from each. Studying these great traditions also buoys me to do my work best. Meditation is a tool that helps me access that deep center of personal verification reflected in my work. It also heightens my perception and increases my capacity for quiet observation and study. It opens the inner door for me to go beyond the physical material of subject and object. mw: You use these skills in your most recent bodies of work revolving around nature. When did you start on this current path? fs: In the 2000s, I met Oliver Jackson, who had a profound influence on me and, therefore, also on my paintings. Oliver helped me to understand that a maker must totally and completely submit to the work, to understand the history of the craft, and to distinguish the extraordinary from the good. From that association I felt more confident in moving forward on developing my nature-themed paintings. It was also during this period that I visited Kauai for the first time. I became fascinated with the myriad visual aspects of water, like the interplay of light and color, and the infinite number of possible compositions I could use to make an effective body of work. These were my first water paintings, but I continued to investigate the theme during subsequent trips to Mexico. 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