Aisha Cousins: Capricorn from the Sun to the Moon.
In 1990’s Fort Greene, amid a flourishing poetry scene at his Brooklyn Moon Cafe, proprietor Mike Thompson began showcasing the works of visual artists in his popular venue. I became the curator of those exhibitions and was introduced to the joyful Aisha Cousins, then studying Studio Art with a concentration in Black Studies and Sociology at Oberlin College. We presented her first solo show, (of works on paper) at the café and I’ve been glad to bear witness to her evolution as an artist.
Born in Boston, she was raised in South End and Mattapan, Cambridge and eventually Brooklyn by her scholarly mother, Dr. Olivia Cousins who holds a Master’s in Black Studies and a doctorate in Medical Sociology. “I think I inherited my curiosity about human behavior and my love of black studies from her,” Aisha says. The works she creates today reflect these themes.
Oddly enough, the genesis of her path as an artist was in was seeing the animated visage of Mr. T when she was in the second grade. “Yes Mr. T of the A Team once had his own cartoon. I liked it so much, I decided I wanted be an artist so I could make more Saturday morning cartoons with characters in them who looked like me.”
Early inspiration, “Mister T.”
The graduate of Fiorello LaGuardia High School nearly failed Advanced Placement Art History in her senior year. An A/B student since 1st grade, she faltered when incensed by the meager coverage of African art in her class, she mentally checked out. “I had been waiting and waiting for us to get to the chapters on the things I had seen in my mom’s art collection. I wanted to understand their history and the aesthetic beliefs of the artists who made them. When we finally got to that part of the book, all this art I had grown up with and been inspired by was lumped into this itsy- bitsy section called Arts of Africa and Oceania. I was so vehemently offended, I spent every class afterwards tuning the lessons out and fuming mentally. My grades plummeted.” Her teacher, Ms. Goldberg, though in agreement about the paucity of information on artists of color, was unable to alter the curriculum. “So she got me into a docent training program for the massive Guggenheim exhibition, Africa the Art of the Continent. I got paid to research African aesthetics. I don’t think my grades got much better, but I was in heaven. Suddenly aesthetics became a living breathing thing to me, not just an idea in a book. And the people around me became textbooks that I could study and get answers from, with or without a written textbook to make their beliefs official.”
“I’ve done contour drawings in some form or fashion for most of my life. First on paper, then as part of public murals. I thought I would do them forever, but I decided to experiment with other ways of making art. I made sculptures and collages inspired by the many teaching artist gigs I was doing at the time. She found herself at a crossroads: “As much as collectors liked the work I was making, it didn’t live up to my internal standards. I spent a year or two trying to figure out my philosophy as an artist. Then one day I just came up with this piece called Diva Dutch, sort of organically... it was my way of exploring the aesthetics of the black women around me. Everyone was getting extensions.” She gave it a try and discovered that “the length and consistent thickness of synthetic hair allows black women to make these living works of art that are impossible to create with real hair.” So she got “a 15-foot braid and jumped rope with it on her stoop.” That simple act has grown into Diva Dutch, its scores (performance art scripted instruction) performed at MoCADA, the Brooklyn Museum, Houston’s Project Row Houses, Tennessee State University’s Hiram Van Gordon Gallery and historically black neighborhoods ranging from Bedford-Stuyvesant (Brooklyn), to Brixton (London) to Barbès–Rochechouart (Paris.)
Ironically, the Diva can’t Dutch: “I can’t jump it. I turn ‘double handed.’ If you can’t turn, you can’t earn a jump. I was banned from playing double dutch back in 4th grade.” Photo: Alexis Peskine.
“I’ve been hooked on performance art ever since,” she says. “And now that I’ve seen the philosophy lived up to, I am getting better and better about making it happen again and again.”
And happen again it has. Taking inspiration from sartorial campaign tactics (voters proudly wearing garments emblazoned with their candidates’ portraits) she observed on a trip to Senegal 15 years ago, she set out the commemorate America’s first Black president with the Obama Skirt Project (OSP). Embraced by Africans throughout the continent, Barack Obama’s image has been printed on fabrics with the fervor typically reserved for regional politicians. Aisha’s daily wardrobe from July 2009 – July 2010 would include a skirt or dress, bearing the 44th president’s likeness in fabrics gathered from Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa. She invited others to join in on the celebration/exploration, and now the project moves into its latest phase with a month-long display at Harlem Textile Works and this weekend’s OSP Black President’s Day festivities in collaboration with printmaker Shani Peters and designer Hekima Hapa of Harriet’s Alter Ego. Advance registration required.
The Black President’s Day promotion. To learn more about the project visit http://aishacousins.com/.
“People don’t always know exactly how to put their beliefs into words. But they know what they think is beautiful. So now, I ask the people whose aesthetics I want to study to help me make things. The process of creating leads to a dialogue, both verbal and visual, about their beliefs. I get to learn what I always wanted to study. And hopefully someday a future generation of artists will be able to look at my work just like they would a textbook and learn about black women’s aesthetic beliefs, just like they would anyone else’s.
As she prepares to acknowledge the first “Black President’s Day” on the anniversary of Nina Simone’s birth, she took time to share with The Trove her favorites. Fitting that the first is a celebratory memento.
1. Champagne cork. “One of my heroines, Kara Walker, gave it to me. She opened an artist-run exhibition space called 6-8 months and agreed to let me hold a mini exhibit and artist talk there to mark the end of my one-year performance art piece. I was overjoyed just to have a black-woman-owned contemporary art space in which to hold this particular event, as the score was very much about exploring black women’s aesthetics and experiences.”
Ms.Walker surprised Aisha by attending the show bearing a congratulatory bottle of champagne.
2. Shani Peters Battle for the Hearts and Minds. “I’ve told any and everyone about Shani’s videos ever since I saw them. There’s one where she merges the casts from Good Times and the Cosby Show into a single family. Their neighbors, who just happen to be famous Black Panthers stop by each day to teach them life lessons. It’s funny, it’s thought-provoking, and it has a seamless blend of pop culture, black history, and common sense wisdom.”
From Shani’s Vimeo channel. For more information, visit her website.
3. Paris Subways. “The subways are so graceful. I still don’t understand why there’s a latch on the doors inside of the car, but I absolutely love the look of it.”
The Paris Métro in all its Art Nouveau glory.
4. Tom Otterness’ Life Underground. A multi-sculpture installation in NYC’s 14th Street subway station, “they’re all over the place, from the A train to the L line, up the steps and along the platforms. They’re comical, completely touchable, and just a size or two away from being Lilliputian. There may even be some underlying ‘moral of the story’ in their actions. All of which appeals to the urban fairy tale lover in me.”
An MTA video highlighting Life Underground and sculptor Tom Otterness.
5. Steve Harvey’s Morning Show. “I know, I know he has his issues. So many. But I love when people call in from a little town and say ‘Steve I’m from — , you’ve probably never heard of it.’ And Steve says ‘Yes I have. It’s right off of route —‘ and then proceeds to break down where to get the best BBQ in town and how he made friends with the owner. He’s probably one of the few people who has seen every little nook and cranny of black America and knows it like the back of his hand. The sociologist in me would absolutely love to have his knowledge.”
The well-traveled radio host.
6. Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine. “For the uninitiated: two Afro-American sisters travel the country in the mid 1970’s documenting their family history via recipes. The stories they gather to accompany these recipes double as fun and engaging black history lessons. Plus there’s a whole chapter on things to make with sweet potatoes: sweet potato bread, sweet potato casserole, sweet potato pancakes.”
Former model Norma Jean Darden and her sister Carole grace the cover of a well-loved copy of their cookbook.
7. Injera. “I’m addicted, but it’s full of vitamins and trace minerals, so I don’t feel bad.”
The spongy flatbread of Ethiopia is a favorite.
8. The Chicago Obama Skirters. “The fabric for Ni’ja’s dress, called a kanga, came as a set of two. Women in Tanzania often wear them in pairs and give them as gifts to other women. I made two dresses and shipped one to a female friend as a way of re-mixing them into American culture. Ashley volunteered to do the Obama skirt score and decided she was going to try to do it for a whole year, like I did. She does wear it on key dates and sends me photos. Having two women doing this particular score on Obama’s home turf is one of my favorite aspects of the project. I’m always inspired to know that they thought enough of my work to make that happen.”
Aisha’s “kanga twin,” Ni’ja (on the El) wore her dress from 2009-2010.
9. Ben Vautier’s Don’t Follow Instructions. “Ever since switching over to performance art scores, my biggest challenge has been finding effective ways to visually document my work. I came across an old film by Ben Vautier not long ago and completely fell in love with both the form and content of it.”
“Last month, I somehow got invited to be in a fluxus concert (a series of short performance art scores) with him at MoMA. This is one of the performance art scores from the concert.”
10. Nikki Giovanni’s “Thug Life” Tattoo. “It challenges me. I banned Tupac from my record collection when he released Keep Your Head Up and I Get Around back to back. At age 15, I didn’t appreciate the sentiment. Or the way I saw it mirrored back in the behavior of the boys around me. I’m still not a Tupac fan. But I saw her speak about her tattoo after she got it and it challenged me. I like the fact the she challenges me now, in the present just as much as her poems challenged my view of black history when I was a child. It’s one of my favorite ‘everyday’ performance art pieces.”
The esteemed poet, inked in commemoration of the life of the slain Tupac Shakur, whom she claimed as her “literary son,” wanted to demonstrate to the “hip-hop generation” that they did not mourn alone.