by Josie Pickens
Damask, a word derived from the city Damascus, is a particular kind of intricate weaving initially introduced to the French through Islamic traders and settlers. It is also, lucky for us, the title and foundation for a collection of new works on view by painter, print maker and sculptor, Lovie Olivia at Art League Houston. The title “Damask” describes the layers Olivia uses to create the images in the portraits- not only the layers in the painting aspects of them, but also in the complex carvings that are present in the faces of each subject- and again in the layers represented by her subjects (who are all Black women that are both feminine and masculine presenting). Another layer showcased in the work is the double-entendre of the title “Damask’ itself- Da (meaning the) Mask.
The works were created by Olivia to orchestrate a conversation about Black women, our layers, our masks, what we try to hide, but what we never can. And ultimately, the artist seeks to have a colloquy about Black women and mental illness. The world may be more welcoming to a talk on how mental illness is hurting and killing Black women if it is presented more gently and beautifully through the expert brush strokes and carvings of an artist who is all too familiar with the subject. Olivia is still, in many ways, reeling with sadness after losing her beloved sister Veronica McNeal in March of 2013 at the hands of another Black woman who was battling her own mental illness. Veronica had left her family to begin a new life with her children after overcoming, in many ways, her own personal bouts with depression. A way to make sense of what appears to be layers and layers of senselessness is to push its meaning out through art.
Lovie Olivia asked me to be one of the models for her collection of portraits. Perhaps it was because we have collaborated before on creative projects, or perhaps it was because the artist knows that I, myself, have struggled greatly with depression. In fact, the most popular article I’ve ever published, and one that is still being widely read, shared and commented on even a year after its publication, discusses Black women, depression, and the masks that we wear to hide our pain. In “Depression and the Black Superwoman Syndrome” I discuss the suicide of For Brown Girls creator Karyn Washington, my own thoughts of suicide, and the lack of space in our communities for Black women to be vulnerable, to be frail, to ache and to ask for healing. My reflections when discussing Karyn and my own experiences as a Black woman battling mental illness are these:
“I honestly believe we’re so accustomed to delivering the strong Black woman speech to ourselves and everyone else that we lose our ability to connect to our humanness, and thus our frailty. We become afraid to admit that we are hurting and struggling, because we fear that we will be seen as weak. And we can’t be weak. We’ve spent our lives witnessing our mothers and their mothers be strong and sturdy, like rocks. We want to be rocks.”
I wear the mask every single day—the mask of the superwoman, the mask of the rock. I present to the world a polished, knowing, confident and strong woman. My photoshoot with Lovie, as she prepared to choose stills to begin her portrait process, were full of warrior woman, vixen, everyday-I-wake-up-and-kick-ass snapshots. But somewhere, in the outtakes, during a quiet moment of reflection, Lovie captured a more authentic me, and this is the photograph she chose to paint and layer. For every layer of paint that the artist added to her canvas, she pulled back a layer of my skin, my mask, the superwoman I present to the world. What she created was indeed so genuine that a fellow artist told me Lovie’s portrait of me looked more like me than he’s ever seen me—even with seeing me often in the flesh. This is the magic that Lovie Olivia created with this series of portraits. Representations of her subjects that were so authentic that they became more than life like.
We live in a time when, as Barbara Smith and her co-editors once wrote, “all the women are White and all the Blacks are men.” Black women are in constant battle to be recognized. We too want our voices heard and our stories recorded as all women fight for liberation and equality. We too want our names read as the nation chants #blacklivesmatter. And, more than anything, we want to be able to unmask, to pull back our layers, to be soft, supple and fragile. We want to be…
Lovie Olivia’s presentation of Black women in her portrait series “Damask” screams these desires strikingly, audaciously, and without apology.
A great African Proverb reminds us that until the lions have their own storytellers, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Josie Pickens’ life work is to help the lions of the world tell their stories. Pickens is an activist, culture critic, scribe, educator and soldier of love. She utilizes all of her various talents and passions to uplift and translate the narratives of women and people of color through the lenses of creative writing, journalism, performance and professorship. As a columnist for Ebony Digital, Jo explores love and relationships in a manner that focuses on our humanity and self-love foremost, and specifically comments on topics associated with race and feminism. She also offers insightful and authentic cultural critique on subjects ranging from pop culture to politics for various publications including Ebony.com, The Root, and The Guardian, and serves as a composition instructor and mentor for students at Texas Southern University.