On the night of February 3, Michael S. Williams, founder of the Black on Black Project, and artist Alexandria Clay discussed the concept of safe spaces. Clay’s series ‘I Carry Them On My Back, Of Course!,’ which is on view in Meredith College’s Weems Gallery, is about searching for shelter from the trauma of experiencing marginalized spaces.
“For me, I think a space that is safe is one where I feel considered. My identity feels considered, and it’s one where I feel welcomed, and it’s one where I feel protected,” said Clay.
Through multimedia collages and portraiture, Clay portrays the Black matriarchs who have been a significant part of creating safe spaces for her and her community.
Williams and Clay began to discuss the feeling of being thrown against a “sharp white background.” A sense first described by author Zora Neil Hurston which Clay can relate to, and has become a source of inspiration for her art.
Throughout her life, Clay explained she has often felt as if she was the one spot of color in a sharp white background, but she had always had her family and friends for support. However, her move to art school took her away from her safe space.
“Being so far away, being on Rhode Island, it was that sharp white background. And I didn’t feel like I had anywhere to retreat to. So it was just all the time. Like in the spaces that were supposed to be comfortable, like in my dorm or, you know, wherever, it was still kind of following me,” said Clay.
Clay said it is most likely impossible to guarantee any given space is safe for anyone to enter, especially when most institutional spaces prioritize profit over the protection of the populations they serve.
Because of this, most of the time, the changes made are surface level, with no concrete action or commitment to change.
“I think sometimes we get tunnel vision with our own problems and our own difficulties, and that makes it hard to look to your neighbors and see that we could work together on issues,” she said. “I think having the space where we can safely come together and talk about things is sometimes the most impactful.”
Williams and Clay continued the conversation of safe spaces and how Black matriarchs have crafted and preserved these places of refuge throughout history and now.
“Black women have had to create these spaces that are safe out of necessity, and being subject to racial and gendered violence is motivation enough to create spaces where you and the people you care for can seek refuge,” said Clay.
Clay said Black women are instrumental in activism spaces because of the hope that they can preserve the livelihood of their family, their children, and their future.
Williams and Clay discussed how Black women are not given the recognition they deserve for their roles in activism. The memories of their accomplishments are often through word of mouth and could eventually be lost to future generations.
Clay said she hopes the love and care she put into preserving the memory of the Black matriarchs in her life will keep them from being lost to history.
Wrapping up the conversation, Williams asked Clay to tell the audience why they should come to Meredith and see the exhibition.
“ For one it’s an opportunity for you to have a conversation that you haven’t had before. Whether it’s with me or someone else is in the gallery, or it ends up being with someone in your home because you are inspired to learn more about their experience. [It is also a way] to support Black artists in the Triangle. I think that’s something we can always do,” said Clay.
‘I Carry Them On My Back, Of Course!’ is on view in the Frankie G. Weems Gallery until March 11th. The closing reception is held on March 3. To register for the reception, please visit the Meredith Art Galleries webpage, gallery.meredith.edu.