Imani Love is an 19 year old artist working towards her BFAW at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Through poetry and song she reflects on her experiences as a black woman as well as societal disparities in order to incite imperative conversations to create change. We spoke to Imani about her work as an artist and Cunjuh Magazine. Check out her work at thoughtsandkeys.com!
Black Girls Create: What do you create?
I am a poet first, but I also do creative direction for photos, and performance art. Primarily performance art through words and creative direction for images.
BGC: What drew you to that specifically?
I’ve always been a writer since i was a kid. I appreciate writing as a medium because it allows you to really tap into people’s emotions. Their emotions are in your hands and you can make people feel what you need them to in order to have important conversations, which is the reason why I write. So I try to use my writing as a means to have conversations about change, what’s happening in my life, and the identities and communities I’m reflected in.
Photography is a dope medium because it’s similar to writing in that you can create whatever kind of world you want to. As far as performance art goes, it’s something new I’ve been doing within the past two semesters at school. With performance art it’s the intersection between visuals and writing. Usually with performance art it’s not a lot about spoken word like actually speaking, but how can you invoke emotion and thoughts in people by going through what you already do. And I also like it because it also gives me a chance to be black and do what i normally do and elevate it to this artistic level which is not commonly accepted but already exists.
BGC: Who or what inspires you to do what you do?
Something that I always return to for inspiration is this one Nina Simone quote where she says that “The artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” You can either run from the truth or you can reflect and create it. The way I use art is kind of self-centered because it’s me thinking through things that bother me. It’s a thought process. So whatever is happening in the world that I’m affected by is going to inspire me to write. In addition, I write a lot for my mom, and matriarchs in my family in general because I feel like a lot of wisdom and magic is really passed down through the matriarchy in my family. So I definitely write a lot for my mom and my grandmothers.
BGC: How do you balance creating with the rest of your life?
Luckily, I do go to art school so a large part of my responsibilities are creating, but that doesn’t always mean that it’s my personal projects or what I want to do because it’s still school work. It’s really hard, honestly, am I balancing it? Something I try to do is to surround myself with people who are aspiring to do the same things I’m doing. Having a group of artists around me who always striving for their own personal success and success of their communities is something that really helps me to discipline myself. Because you become fans with people you’re around, and so you want to create work that at the same caliber of that, I guess. Sometimes it’s weird though because I find myself not being diligent about my own creation, but it’s also out of necessity. If I don’t, I’ll suffer as a person, as an emotionally, mentally stable person. It’s definitely a necessity to have people around me who keep me in check.
BGC: Why did you decide to start Cunjuh Magazine?
Cunjuh was presented to me by a fellow student that went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Everyone who’s on Cunjuh went to SAIC, but at this point it’s just me and my other collaborator Wayne who currently go there. It was presented because my school is a predominantly white space, and is very explicit in the ways that it’s not really open to people of color. So it was created out of an urgent need to have a space that reflects you in spite of everything. So I’m really excited about it.
In the midst of everything that’s always happening to people of color in the world, it’s really important to have an explicitly-named space for and by people of color. It’s this cycle of venting, and healing, and creation, and thoughts being shared. I hope that it creates a community that’s not physical space, but still a community of people that can help and continue to uplift. It’s not even that it only has to be positive things, but it’s important to have that space that’s only for you.
BGC: Why is magic the theme for the first issue?
So Cunjuh originated from Gullah and Geechee people off the coast of Georgia during slavery times. These are both enslaved and not enslaved African, now black, people who in some way they end up in America and they still have ties to the religion they had in Africa. Cunjuh for them was that spirituality, meaning to conjure. It’s the remnants of spirituality that transferred with them through this ridiculous system.
We chose magic because it’s the basis of Cunjuh in the first place. And also to remind ourselves that it’s what we harness naturally, it already exists within us. To think about coming to America after being taken from Africa and this spirituality resurfacing and still being latent within you. We thought it was really important to represent that, to pay homage to the origins of Cunjuh itself and to just continue to uplift us and remind ourselves how actually magic we are in spite of a lot of darkness that happens in the world.
BGC: Do you already have thoughts about the theme for the next one?
Yeah, the origin of word can never be forgotten, so that’ll always remain, so there will always be some kind of mystical or magical background. But, with that, we still want to have other themes. I am so in love with the water, so we were thinking about a water theme. We want them to be very loose so people can submit whatever they want to and so they don’t feel too constricted by it, but they’re guiding themes. We also want to think about rebirth, or family, or resilience.
BGC: Last year you came out with Erosion, and I remember we were talking about the reaction people were having to it - and also people biting off of it. At BGC, we think a lot about ownership of art, especially when it’s presented in public space. So what did the process of creating Erosion teach you about creating, and then what did the reaction to it teach you about creating?
Erosion is a photo project that came out in February of 2015 and from a place of, again, being in this predominantly white art space and seeing how much spaces like that take things from people of color, and in my experience, more specifically from black women, and then they get blown up. Then it’s art, then it’s creative, and not ghetto or ratchet. Then it’s innovative. So that’s something I was thinking about a lot. And also how a black woman’s body is lustily appropriated all through society.
But after, I think the reasons why I get so offended or hurt when it’s miscredited as the photographer’s project, or when people redo it, is because that’s erasure that already happens to black women, that’s something that I was talking about in the piece. So then to have the actual project be taken from me in the way of me not being credited for it is another slap in the face. Like I made this project to talk about how we aren’t credited for the things that we do, and then you don’t credit me for the project. But then it’s also been a really humbling experience because as people say “there’s nothing new under the sun.” I talked about it with my grandma, after seeing people do what I thought were recreations of the project, but she was saying, “you know, you can’t take ownership of an idea.” At the end of the day, the goal of Erosion -- and all of my art -- is for people to start a conversation. And if people are starting a conversation, and not only are starting the conversation but they’re creating their own version of it, I guess in some wild way that’s successful. It’s difficult, but then at the same time it’s like what am I going to do, you know? It’s flattering and I’m trying to take it now as more flattering than offensive, but I just want to protect black women at all costs, so when that erasure is continued it hits personally.
BGC: Why is it important as a black person to create?
I mean, it’s innate. I feel like a part of being a black person is creativity. So even if I wasn’t an artist there would already be creativity in my life, in some way. That can be cooking, like black people are so bomb anyways, so it would happen in some shape or form. But I feel like it’s important for us to create because it affirms our place in history, which is something that has continuously been discredited. Like if you think about it, the generation before our grandparents didn’t know much about the history that happened before them, which is really interesting because from my upbringing, that’s mostly what we know about. But that’s also because there’s been such a dedication to making that history known, but on the wide scale it isn’t, so why not solidify your place in history by creating art, because that’s going to be there at the end of the day and that marks the time. It would be a waste not to be creative as a black person, you know, there’s just so much there. I mean I don’t know, how could I not create? May be just me, coming from an artistic family, but I don’t see how it couldn’t happen.
BGC: Who is your audience? Does that change depending on the piece?
I definitely think that my audience is always changing. Like I said, I want to create art in order to create change, which means I’m speaking to people who don’t have that information, or aren’t doing anything, which actually isn’t a lot of people that I know. Which is weird, because then it’s like why do I feel a responsibility to engage with people who aren’t engaged with me? But I think my audience is people who know what’s going on, and know that there needs to be a change, but are too comfortable to do anything about it. So I hope to rile them up, shake them up with my art, so that they feel like change in undeniable, that there’s no other option but to do something about what’s happening.
I just did a performance piece that was talking about American identity and what that even means as a black woman when you have all these other intersections. I feel like there’s a dissonance there, being an American is always in opposition with so many other identities. I have all these privileges that come with being an American, but at the same time I don’t, and it’s not for me. So what does it mean to take it back and to say that it is mine? So for that performance, I don’t know who it was for, I’m still trying to figure it out. But generally, my art for people who are right on the cusp of understanding, who just need a little push to take it upon themselves to go out and educate themselves more and decide how they need to get involved.
BGC: Do you have any advice for young creators or ones who are just starting?
I would say to never create thinking about the presentation of your art. So if you’re writing a poem, don’t think about performing it, because then you’re not creating for yourself and if you’re not creating for yourself then what’s the point? If it’s not something you want to do and that you’re not doing independently of other people’s ideas, then there’s no point in doing it. It’ll ruin it. It happens still for me. Sometimes I’ll be like “I’m gonna write this poem, it’s gonna get so many snaps,” and then it’s so bad.
BGC: Any future projects you’re working on?
I have this performance that I just did about American identity called “All For One” that should be coming out really soon. I’m so excited for Cunjuh. Submissions are still open*, so everybody should still submit! And we’ve extended the deadline a bit for those who are time challenged.
I’m looking forward to the day when I stop being scared of myself and do some music, that’ll happen one day, we’ll see.
*Submissions for Cunjuh Magazine can be sent to cunjuhmag [at] gmail [dot] com.