Nala Turner:

Redefining Black

Femininity

Written by Stacey Filé

How long have you been practicing the medium of ceramics? Do you practice any other art forms?

 

I have been practicing ceramics for 12 years. While art has always been a part of my life, ceramics became the medium that “spoke” for me the best. Clay chose me. It came to me when I needed it. And truly acted as a vessel and mode to healing. It helped me facilitate my own path of working through the family unrest, personal stress, depression, and feelings of inadequacy that permeated within me during my preteen – young adult years.

 

I do practice other art forms. Those include: digital illustration, animation, printmaking, wood-work and fibers sculpture. Yet, the frequency of those are far less than ceramics. As a current teaching artist/ceramics instructor, I teach introduction to pottery. And I use clay as a medium within my creative arts therapy practice in connection with 3D animation at my position at The Animation Project.

Photographer: Eric Espino / Jumpsuit: Nanushka / Earrings: Third Crown 

The work you create surrounds femininity and strength and highlights negative tropes of the Black female such as masculinity, virility, and aggression.  Why do you think it is important to redefine how society views and understands the Black female?  How do you believe ceramics can reclaim the Black females body and experience?

Our society is filled with aggrandized practices of hegemony: the force that relegates Black women to the margins, that is, “oppressive boundaries” set by their race and gender. It is that evoking perception that permeates within all spaces and leaves Black women to continually be placed in the space of least importance. It’s important because we are important. Black women lead institutions. We struggle, we understand, reconstruct and transform. Without hesitation, Black women hold the important role of guiding the construction of social and cultural meaning. 

So redefinition of our identity is important not just so others (especially White others) can understand us. But because society does not truly thrive without Black women. There is a continued idea that society, particularly White society, persists uneasy with the strength of Black females; that Black women are distinctly characterized as less beautiful and viewed with little feminine regard. We are treated as invincibly armored, without regard to the possibility of being hurt or pained. But just because we learn to live with the pain, does not disregard its presence. 

Clay is both a natural material and a form in itself. It can be argued that the material is a type of vessel – holding the water, oils, and energies of its manipulator/the artist. Using clay to depict the female both inside and out, I see ceramics as a medium for creation of the physical body that is often exploited; and transformation of the Black females’ inner representation using the concept of “the vessel”, something that can hold, can pour, can be full, and can be empty. 

As we continue to highlight the many existences of racial inequity within our lives, a place I find far more important than performative “wokeness” amidst a reawakening of the BLM movement and further displays of amassed racism–– is that Black people (especially Black women) are demanding the space to define themselves on their own terms. Through ceramics, you are forced to engage with the form. Engage with the “body” of the vessel. It isn’t simply a piece on your wall, or one that exists on social media. But instead you are invited to participate in the representation or perception of the Black female. Through a portraiture mug, you place her image on your own lips and taste what it feels like to be misperceived. Through a rhetoric vessel, you are challenged to read aloud the absolute nonsense Black women are forced to absorb both in professional and social settings. And with a natural hair vessel you are given invitation to touch the “hair” and microcosms of Black female identity and energy that is tied to it. 

 

I expect my pieces to provoke strong feelings –– both comments of awe and/or criticism. But that’s the whole point – right? Like my identity, I am always battling against what is expected of me as a person at predominately white institutions, careers; as an artist, and as a Black female. Pulled by the expectation to make works that are simply beautiful or relatable to “all”, most people are made more comfortable, finding such works to be far more objective in subject matter and identifiable to their own lives. Yet, I find that the personal topic of my various series to be critical to the overarching goal of my works –– to redefine Black femininity. From a highly subjective standpoint, I strive to represent the “Black experience” in a way that can educate the viewer. The viewer isn’t meant to perceive, understand, and “know-all” right away, but instead, take the opportunity to analyze a concept and experience from a viewpoint different than their own.

How has your upbringing impacted the work you create today? 
 

I grew up in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mainly in South city, but went to school in a large white suburban community. I think growing up in Saint Louis, you are inherently aware of the deep-rooted segregation and sense of racism that comes with being from the Midwest. And to add to it, going to school in the white suburbs, you are frequently reminded of your race, your lack of privileges and all that makes you not white. All of those things together have largely influenced not just the subject matter of my work but also the choice to particularly represent myself as a Black artist with the goal of paving the way for other Black artists to have a voice. I was brought up to recognize the world around me and how I fit into it. But more so, I was taught to consider the ways in which I don’t –– to acknowledge the deeply entrenched racial and economic barriers that existed in my day-to-day, my neighborhood, and my relationships with others, both Black and White. 

 

People often look at circumstances, experiences, and “incidences” as simply history. Failing to recognize that in each of those, there is space to process and re-evaluate your place within that history. So, my work became that space. Both a momentary and continual, tactile space to dismantle the divide I lived growing up in St. Louis, the divide I felt in school as the only Black student in the top 10% of my class, the divide I feel in the professional workforce today, or even in the art world. 

 

Growing up in spaces where others defined who I was, what I did, and whether it was “good-enough”, the subject matter of my work as an artist naturally unfolded as a visual representation of my resistance, resilience, and redefinition of what both being Black and being a Black female meant. So, I made works that moved away from appearances and expectations about “strong Black women” from a euro-normative standard, to what Black women can say for and about themselves instead.

"All of those things together have largely influenced not just the subject matter of my work but also the choice to particularly represent myself as a Black artist with the goal of paving the way for other Black artists to have a voice."

You created The Town Hall’s Inaugural Lena Horne Prize for Artists Creating Social Impact Award given to Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter and visual artist Solange Knowles.  What inspiration did you draw from to design and create the award?
 

I had the opportunity to collaboratively design the award with my creative partner and painter, Imani-Shanklin Roberts. Together, we wanted to represent Horne’s multifaceted legacy as a woman, mother, activist, singer, and actress. In an abstracted figure, we responded to Lena Horne’s confidence and poise which she brought to everything from her career in film and music, to that of her leadership in the civil rights movement.

 

In sculpting the award, it became important to me that strength acted as a foundation to the piece. Held together by triads within its base, the piece would move up into a fluid form that both embraced and instigated the frequent conversation exploring the dichotomy between femininity and strength. As the form came together, the color choice seemed without question. Black. Black is beauty. Again allowing space to hold and highlight the rhetoric of Black pride, womanhood and the elegance of our “toughness”. 

 

Much of the inspiration for the form came from our own experiences of being Black women. We embody strength. Grace. Artistry. And as Lena Horne would say, we continue to transubstantiate that “seat at the table”.

Favorite Solange song?


It definitely is a tie between Don’t Touch My Hair and Cranes in the Sky. 

Both were transformative for me when they first were released; and I, to this day, still feel myself shiver when I hear them. I mean, a song that truly takes the words out of your mouth; the feeling out of your body ––and perfectly reflects them––is hard to come by. I think being a Black female, we spend so much time caring for others or having to defend ourselves. It is rare, that we have time or space to reflect on what was, what is, and even what can be. We build and build, push and push –– essentially evading all that is in front of us. I think both of those songs speak to my journey with Blackness, identity, femininity, and the constant need to achieve or “prove myself” as a means of worth. Yet taking time to process, as I do in ceramics, I see the “ugly”. I see what I often avoid. And I see the strength in vulnerability and voicing some of my pain. Just as Solange sings.

 

You were the first Black woman to create this award.  How does it feel being the first?  What is the importance of being the first during a time of racial unrest and those (finally) championing diversity and inclusion?

 

I think the concept of being “a first” is interesting. Because at the core, am I a first? Perhaps I am a first in the sense of being noticed, listened to, or acknowledge by a White normative system. But Black people, Black women have always been there doing insurmountable things. I suppose being able to be “a first” for those who look up and into the very fields I engage in, is really the most important. It’s disheartening that there has never been a major award named after a Black woman. I mean, have you seen black women?! 

 

But for those younger than me, and perhaps even those older –– it’s important that we see that. There is power in being able to see something happen. To visually imagine yourself in a space where you are celebrated for not just your belongings, money, or physical beauty. But for the kingship of Black identity. This award and me creating it might be the first. But the work of those before me ––my ancestors, my neighbors –– that truly is what is being celebrated by way of my creations. Continued messages of empowerment, redefinition and whatever artistry I have within me, has always been in advocacy of Black people to love and to be loved. My hope is that we continue to transubstantiate the cultural representation of Black people by way of White norms, tell Black youth that they do matter, and engage more creative spaces that celebrate the ingenuity of Black people.

"When you can create something and then transform it, you can feel the self-authorization. And that’s power."

Currently, you conduct art therapy for individuals suffering from trauma. How does the process of ceramics making help heal people?

 

As a creative art therapist, my work mainly consists of any and all artforms accessible to my clients as we are remote and working within virtual platforms. While I have an interest in working primarily within trauma-informed frameworks, how trauma is displayed or reveals itself is different for everyone. Truly, we all have trauma. And it is exactly its universality that makes the use of art therapy suitable. Like trauma, art is ubiquitous.

 

In particular, clay as a material is an ideal medium for sensing into someone’s experience and capturing it in a seeable, touchable, concrete form. It helps someone express the inexpressible, make the intangible, tangible; bring knowingness to the unknowable, helps us see what seems invisible, and bring apprehensibility to what may display inapprehensible. Our trauma experiences start with and live inside the body. So engaging the body in the process of healing (that is, using clay within the therapeutic process), helps reengage the body into the restoration. The body doesn’t have to just be tied to the pain, the shock, the upheaval. Instead, you can use it to powerfully reauthor your experiences and restore balance. 

 

This process is often used within my own work.  For example, within my Rhetoric Series, I use the vessel as a means of “holding”, “filling”, and repurpose it to reflect the trauma of microaggressions I experience daily. 

When you can create something and then transform it, you can feel the self-authorization. And that’s power. How often do we really get to feel part of, or in control of our healing? Clay can be a tool to help give you that. Understanding how, when, why trauma is so powerful for Black people is what informs my creative process and finish products. The mis•perception of the Black female is about that. How is it that one’s ill perception can greatly influence a Black person’s personal opinion and perception of their self. It’s work like this that is important. Because if we understand the trauma, we can get closer to the healing. 

 

How have you been able to continue creating during the pandemic?


The remarkable thing about clay is that it is a natural material. It could be shaped and molded almost anywhere. You can build, construct, deconstruct, and rebuild even within the confines of your home. As we navigate being remote, less physically connected in spaces such as communal studios, I’ve had the ability to make works within my bedroom. Of course they needed to be fired and completed with a kiln (that which I don’t have in my apartment), but most of the conceptualization, creativity, and assemblage could be done even during a pandemic. Truly, experiencing the pandemic has bolstered the creativity –– the need to process and form visualizations of both inner and outer experiences. So I continued to throw pottery, hand build forms, paint, draw and sketch; and take finish products to the Brooklyn studio I work at part time, to fire and glaze my works.

 

I’d be lying if I said the pandemic didn’t at some point stunt my creativity. Yet, I think that is the work. My art is a reflection of my experiences, my life, my journey. So whether my art is blossoming or feeling stagnant, it informs the Black adventure I speak of so often. It’s not always perfect and it’s definitely not without struggles.

You are currently working on a sculptural series focusing on the Black male and safety.  The series will focus on their safety borne out of their relationships with Black women and where else they can find it.  Can you elaborate on what inspired this series, what kind of pieces will be created, and when will the series be available to the public?


This new series is largely guided by my work as a therapist and my relationships with Black men throughout my life (familial and friendships). I became interested in what it would mean to create a space where Black men are given permission to be “vulnerable”. In therapy, it is hard to come by, and often is where I spend a lot of my time with a client or individual. Allowing vulnerability and space for safety within mental and emotional health is rare for Black people. And even more so, it is a limited space for Black men. I am interested in learning more about where those spaces of safety lie. And if they even exist for some. I think it’s a unique stance to stand outside of myself and step into another’s experience. So, as I often challenge my White viewers to step into the lived experiences of a Black woman. Why shouldn’t I engage in the space of stepping into the journey of the Black male?

 

The series is born out of photography, then denatured in sculptural hand-forming ceramic techniques and will be something I hope to work on for a while. Knowing me, it will transform. 

 

I have no means or reason for rushing it, as it exists in my experience of it. When people ask what I am working on next, I tell people all the time –– “I have to live it first.”

 

What advice, if any, would you give someone who wants to study ceramics?

 

Don’t allow yourself to be consumed by what is “usually done”, “commonly taught”, or “universally valued artistically”. Of course gain as much knowledge from those who have studied traditional ceramics. Not because they are right, but because they have a knowledge base that another artist may not. But don’t forget that art is meant to be expressive and transformative. And if we were all doing the same thing, we wouldn’t have movement. 

Secondly, don’t be afraid to scare people. To make people uncomfortable. To make people feel something other than contentment or happiness. 

And for Black ceramicists/artists, allow White people to be uncomfortable for once, and yourself to be heard.

Where can people purchase your art?
The main space to purchase my work is on my online shop –– www.carlynneceramics.com/shop. I will be having a shop update soon, as most of my stuff has been sold out.

I also have some works within a couple shows currently that are also being streamed virtually and are available for purchase:

 
Charlie Cummings Gallery

 

Show  • Cup: The Intimate Object UVI 
Works • Portraiture Mugs

 
Good Earth Pottery 

Show  •  Annual Invitational Cup Show
(Opens Jan 1st)
Works • Portraiture Cups (Limited Edition)

Credits

Photographer: Eric Espino
E: eric@ericespino.com
T: @EricEspinoPhoto
IG: @_ericespino_

 

Stylist: Bridgette Denise
E: bridgettedstylist@gmail.com
T: @bridgettedenise
IG: @bridgettedenise

 

Stylist: Deja Turner
E: dejamturner@gmail.com
IG: @dejaturner

Hair/MUA: Tiffany Nicole
E: tiffdoesmakeup@gmail.com
IG: @tiffdoesmakeup

 

PA: Sean Kawamoto
E: sean@kawamotion.com
IG: @kawamotophoto

 

PA: Myles Jackson
E: jacksonmyles81@yahoo.com
IG: @myles.per.hr

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