The Ladder to Ownership and Freedom of Cultural Identity
Earlier this month I visited Donna Huanca’s “Obsidian Ladder” exhibit at the Marciano Museum in LA with my sis Liz and my good friend Carlita. The exhibition used painting, sculptures, scents, sounds, and performance to convey “a femme realm of reconciliation, creation and trust.” Pretty stellar considering the museum is a former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple built by and for men (bloop).
Every Saturday, femme models move through the Huanca’s structure without direction, a process Huanca has called “essential to the empowering process of reclaiming this space.” That’s what struck me the most - the idea of women honoring their space and taking ownership of their environment, especially during a time when a woman’s body is subjected to the decisions and actions of others in our government, specifically through the recent sweep of early-abortion bans in certain states.
Huanaca’s message sparked another thought regarding ownership or our sense of culture and identity in society. After Disney’s announcement of Halle Bailey playing the Ariel character in the live action remake of the Little Mermaid, a slew of racist and bigoted comments exploded across social media. The negative backlash derived from a sense of ownership of Disney’s originally animated film, which portrayed Ariel as white. But the origin of mermaids is diverse and spans across multiple cultures, often being found in folklore and as a theme in spirituality. Many of these mermaids were of African descent. Despite racial progression in popular culture, there still remains an unbalanced sense of ownership for ideas that people of color, in this context - Black women - are not allowed into certain spaces in our culture, and that’s a huge problem. A more elevated approach on Disney's part would be to tell the story of an African mermaid deity, such as Yemaya, an Orisha or “demi-god” who is widely worshipped in Santeria in Afro-Carribean culture. But the strides to take such a recognized character from the millennial childhood and challenge the white-washed characters of that time is still progressive.
There is other progression being made with changing how Black women can move freely in the world with their identity. On July 12th, New York became the second state after California to sign a bill that bars race discrimination based on natural hair or hairstyles. The bill is an amendment to the Dignity for All Students Act as well as a section of the Human Rights Law to clarify that race-based discrimination does, in fact, include "traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to hair texture and protective hairstyles,” and is in effect immediately.
The idea of ownership and moving free in our environment is poignantly highlighted here. In a recent study, it was found that a Black woman is 80% more likely to change her natural hair to meet social norms or expectations at work, and Black women are 50% more likely to be sent home or know of a Black woman sent home from the workplace because of her hair. The study is a harsh reminder that despite the Natural Hair Movement, fluidity and freedom of a Black woman’s identity is still criticized and controlled.
The bill won’t end discrimination completely, of course. Legislation doesn’t end hate. But the bill can now hold those accountable under law for such violations in New York and California. In our current political and cultural climate, it seems idealistic to believe that this bill could pass in all states, but we have to maintain hope.
For that reason, Huanca’s “Obsidian Ladder” exhibit is a strong and timely reminder of how important ownership of one’s space and identity is, especially for women of color.
Donna Huanca’s exhibit runs from June 28, 2019 to December 1, 2019 at the Marciano Museum in LA. For more information, visit their website.
Victoria Janelle Wright is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Beauty Anthropology. Follow more of her queries on her Instagram.