By Sasha Charlemagne, Staff Reporter
Refinery29’s 29Rooms tour has been bringing interactive art experiences to cities across the country for ten years now. The tour not only brings innovative, multi-platform artistic experiences to these cities, but also allows for artists from each stop along the tour to contribute to the creation of something entirely unique for their city. This year 29Rooms has selected Jamea Richmond-Edwards, a Howard University alumna, to contribute to the Washington D.C 29Rooms experience. I got to speak with Richmond-Edwards about her work, which focuses heavily on representing young Black women.
Sasha: You’re a double HBCU grad, having attended both Howard University and Jackson State University. Could you tell me a bit about your HBCU experience and how that informs your work?
Jamea: I went to Howard for graduate school which was of course much different from my experience at JSU as an undergrad. Jackson State was my first experience with this sense of nationalism and unity in Blackness. It was an amazing experience, and I feel that having that HBCU experience gave me a sense of both comfort and confidence that I felt I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I speak with a certain agency because of this; how I live and navigate in non-Black spaces now… it’s like I’m bulletproof.
S: I know that you’ve cited your hometown of Detroit, specifically the 1990s Detroit, as a major influence of yours. What draws you to pull from this era?
J: The aesthetics, the colors. By the time I entered high school, it was all about Cash Money, No Limit, Bad Boys and Lil Kim. These flamboyant aesthetics. When I look at old photo albums full of Coogi sweaters, I can incorporate that in my work. I was in education for 13 years and you become more conservative as you assimilate into the workforce. I would return to Detroit and feel like “Gosh, it’s so colorful here.” That color and that rhythm you find there was really lacking in my life and in my work. After that, I’ve kept going back and tapping into that. My girls [in my work] are wearing Coogi and Cross Colors… My girls are really intense. I feel that it’s really important as a storyteller to convey the things that I’ve seen. I feel really privileged and honored to be able to share this story and experience with the world. With something like Refinery29 and 29Rooms, it’s even greater. For me to be able to bring some of that Black girl magic from Howard, from JSU to a larger audience is really exciting.
S: Are the girls in your artwork inspired by your family?
J: The girls, I draw them arbitrarily but oftentimes they’ll look like me or women in my family. When I’m walking around Howard or anywhere in America, I see my girls. They’re somewhat autobiographical but then again I see that energy everywhere. I say that the magic, power and flamboyance we have is part of those pieces. When people see my work they say “I see myself” or “I see family members” and that’s really powerful.
S: Your most recent exhibit before 29Rooms focused in on high school proms, specifically the Black prom experience. What is it that interested you about exploring prom?
J: I remember my sister was the most beautiful girl in the world, and the dress was gorgeous. My sister was stood up by this super whack dude and I remember her just crying. It was devastating. My mother, being who she is, told her to get up and not cry over this dude. It was almost like a fairytale. My mother and aunts physically lifted her up and got her together. They got her a car and flowers and sent her off. The only picture we got was her crying when my cousin came in his tux to surprise her. She thought she wasn’t going.
My favorite prom pictures, it may be a young person in what looks like what we would call the hood and they get flamboyant and fancy and go all out. In spite of poverty, we create our own paradises. The social and political landscape affects us but we still create joy and peace. You have all the finger-wagging about “should they spend this much money on prom?” but we don’t do that for other cultural events like quinces or bat mitzvahs. For me, it’s never really contextualized by those who live these experiences. It’s important to illustrate these coming of age moments.
S: The girls in your work are all drawn in this greyscale, muted color palette. Why do you make this choice when drawing them?
J: To be completely honest, in the beginning, it was an aesthetic decision but as I look at it, when you look at the spectrum of black people we come in all shades and tints. The greyscale is a way to keep them neutral and away from the isms we have within our own community.
You can view Jamea Richmond-Edwards’ work at Refinery29’s 29Rooms exhibit, coming to The Armory on Oct. 18.