Artist Elizabeth Montague interviewed with Digital America about her artistic process and her piece, Cyber Black Girl. As a black female artist, Montague’s current artistic focus is on the construction of race and how it has produced the cultural phenomenon of blackness. More than anything, she aims at making her work accessible, which ultimately lead to Cyber Black Girl inhabiting the internet. DigA spoke with her about her about her narrative, her inspiration, and her penchant for GIFs.
View Cyber Black Girl here.
DigA: In several of the images in Cyber Black Girl (i.e. “twist out”), faces are omitted. Can you describe the intentionality behind this and how the viewer is supposed to be impacted by this erasure?
EM: I was very intentional about the images in this project. Illustrators have a lot of power and I don’t take that for-granted or lightly by any means. This project is about black women/black female identifying people and as a black woman I know how hard it is. Eurocentric beauty standards are too real, Western society, even within the black community itself – less now then in the past, or maybe it’s just because I’ve grown up – the European idea of beauty is forced onto black women and women of color and it’s so destructive. I’ve been an athlete my whole life and I remember being in high school and literally hiding under an umbrella outside at practice on sunny days because I didn’t want my skin to get any darker. At my high school light-skin girls were considered the most beautiful and I surely wasn’t light-skin and wasn’t about to let myself get any darker. You would’ve thought I was the Wicked Witch of the West the way I dodged rain, pools, sweat – any type of moisture ever – because I didn’t want my straightened hair to get curly.
All of this and so much more was on my mind while I was creating this work – and this is still fresh stuff for me, I didn’t even really start scratching the surface of sorting this stuff out for myself until recently in the last few years. So knowing what I know – what I’ve lived, what friends have lived – taking on the task of drawing this was huge. I was overwhelmed by of all the creative decisions I had to make in regards to appearance. What shade of skin do I give them? What body type? What texture of hair? How long or short do I make the hair? What facial features do I give them? What age do I make them? How symmetrical should their faces be? What flaws should I give them? Do I give them flaws? What do I consider flaws? I had to really check my baggage at the door when I started drawing Cyber Black Girl and it was a really cathartic experience actually. This project was a huge design challenge because I wanted to be as relatable and inclusive as possible while fully aware that there are an infinite number of ways to look and be a beautiful black woman. For a while I was too scared to even start sketching – in order to start I had to gave myself permission to omit things – faces, bodies, hair, etc. With the visuals I wanted to give as little information as possible. I want them to function as a prompt for the viewer – just a place to start.
DigA: Your piece explores complex nuances of navigating language that adheres to “whitespeak” (i.e. “the bill collector’s voice”) and language that is specifically non white (i.e. “sim simma …who got the keys to my bimma”). Can you speak to this subversion of otherness?
EM: I’ll be real, it took me nearly 15 minutes to figure out what this question meant and I Googled the definition of “subversion of otherness”, just putting that out there so anyone else who did it doesn’t feel bad. “Otherness” is such a difficult term because it entirely depends on perspective. Code switching is something that is so second nature to me, and I’m sure it is for a lot of black people and other people of color but I don’t want to speak on behalf of everyone so I’ll just talk about me, but yeah it’s pretty much second nature at this point. I grew up in white suburbia and learned really early on how to adapt and function in that space. I assimilated to the dominant culture around me, which is what we as humans are programmed to do. A few thousand years ago if you stood out and were different you would’ve been left alone to be eaten by a mammoth or something – there’s no weakness or shame in trying to fit in, especially as a kid. But I guess all of this is to say that “whitespeak” wasn’t and isn’t other to me. For me it was just speaking until another black person told me I “talked white”. It’s all about perspective, I’m an expert on my own experience of what it means to be black but my experience is not everyone’s experience. Language is racial because we’re not talking about just language. How someone speaks – the words they use, even their mannerisms – is the result of education, class, environment, and so many other things which are all very racial. With this project I wanted to acknowledge the spaces that black people simultaneously navigate on a regular basis. How I read “the bill collector voice” versus how I read “sim summa who got the keys to my bimma” are entirely different voices, different personas, that I’m separating and accessing without even being aware of it. It’s something that’s so hard to communicate unless you live it.
DigA: How do you use and/or dismiss pop-culture in your work?
EM: It wouldn’t be possible for me to make a project about black people and dismiss pop-culture because black people are pop-culture. Blackness – minus all of the bad stuff like systematic oppression, police brutality, Eurocentric beauty standards – all the fall out from slavery basically – is a commodity that is bought and sold. I see it in advertisements, reality TV, fashion trends, makeup counters, music, everywhere. With Cyber Black Girl I wanted to explore race as a social and cultural construct – not in a way that dismisses it because of that but that proves the validity of social constructs. First and foremost this project is me describing what it’s like to be black to myself. Blackness is an umbrella term that I felt like I had never really sat down and even tried to explain, it was an assigned label that I loved but never even thought to question. Like why do people have to be black in the first place, when did this start? Because a bunch of Africans – I’m not going to say the individual countries because those weren’t the countries back then, those borders didn’t exist – were enslaved and put onto a boat and when they got off they were black. The same way a bunch of Europeans got on a boat and when they got off they were white. I wanted to fully understand why race was created in the first place and forcing myself to organize and communicate my experience of it felt like a good place to start the conversation.
There are so many conflicts and dualities that I experience as a black woman that pop-culture ignores. In the video work I’m creating for my upcoming exhibition I really dig into this conflict more. What does it mean that I’m the decedent of slaves and I knowingly wear clothes made in sweatshops by slaves on a regular basis? Zara, Nike, H&M, my iPhone – slave labor plays a role in all of that and so much more. What’re the connections between consumerism and slavery – because slavery never really went away, it was just outsourced – and what’s my role in it? How aware am I of how messed up it is and do I use or dismiss it? I guess I use pop-culture in this project but I wanted to go deeper than that and really put myself out there. I knew this project was going to be a lot of public self examination because with questions this hard and loaded… if I asked them to anyone else the conversation would stop before it started. It’s difficult but it’s necessary.
The project as a whole also functions as pop culture in a way because social media is the popular thing right now and this project is meant to be accessed and shared. Before the smart-phone and Instagram era the accessibility and information exchange we have right now would not have been possible.
DigA: What is the intentionality behind your use of GIFs? What about GIFs do you think is so potent?
EM: My background is in animation and I really wanted to incorporate that into the project somehow, GIFs were ideal. GIFs are basically micro stories that play on a loop – a wink, blood dripping, eyes rolling – certain things just needed the extra space to exist.
I think they’re so potent because of how I present them to the viewer. The viewer has to go on a journey to get to the image – they have to make choices, choose a path – they’re automatically engaging in a conversation about race and identity just by having to make a choice. I put them through this journey, have them exactly in the mind-frame I want, and then deliver the image in exactly the context I want. As artists we can’t control how people interpret or understand our work, my belief is once it’s out there it’s out there – I can’t tell anybody what to think. But with this project I’m able to deliver the visual imagery with a lot more control of the context the viewer is seeing them in which I think is why the project is so impactful and potent. With a lot of contemporary art I usually have no idea what’s going on and I can’t appreciate the work fully because I’m just so lost. Later, once I have time to research it – research the artist, get more background information and context, I’m like “oooohhhhhhhh so that’s what that meant!”, and it all clicks. With Cyber Black Girl I wanted the user to have all the background information and context they needed before they even reached the image and I wanted them to have to get it for themselves.
DigA: As an emerging female artist of color, do you prepare yourself to navigate the whiteness and patriarchy that often pervades the art world, and the system it works within?
EM: Honestly, yes and no.
Yes, I prepared for it in the sense that I specifically made this project the way it is so it could function outside of the “system”. Museums and galleries are not nearly as accessible as they should be, especially to people of color, so when I started conceptualizing this project I knew priority number one was access. Anyone who is able to get on the internet is able to interact with Cyber Black Girl the same way and get the full experience. I think the fine art world is still navigating how digital and cyber art function within the system but I’m really excited to see where things are heading.
But also at the same time, I didn’t prepare specifically for navigating the whiteness and patriarchy of the art world. I mean I’m a black woman in America – for the past 22 years I’ve been preparing to navigate the whiteness and patriarchy of the whole world.
You can view Cyber Black Girl here.