By Sabrina Greig

In Search of Black Fantastic I. Photo: Reginald Eldridge, Jr.

The graceful twists and turns of African American braided hair come to life in the collection of work featured in Quest for The Marvelous, a solo exhibition by poet and visual artist Krista Franklin. Franklin’s interweaving of unconventional mediums, such as tightly coiled synthetic hair, and more traditional processes like paper-making and collage, have the effect of elevating signifiers of Black femininity. The survey of work in Quest for The Marvelous, a show that ended this past month at the Chicago Cultural Center, allowed for the Black female experience to become a vehicle to locate the marvelous within the mundane.

Image from the City of Chicago Website.

Quest for The Marvelous took the viewer on a journey through repurposed materials that evoked the bodies of women of color within local, global, and otherworldly spaces. Franklin, an African American creative whose work has been featured on popular shows such as 20th Century Fox’s Empire, humbly explained her artistic process.

“I interpret the political narratives that have been transcribed and inscribed on our body, not just in America, but globally—in the Caribbean, Europe, and South America,” said Franklin.

Her photo collages in the exhibit successfully negated common tropes associated with the Black female form, most overtly hyper-sexuality. The layering of pigment, texture and materiality, resulted in imagery that conversely increased the visual complexity of narratives defining women of color. As she expressed, her work re-imagines the lives of women of color in a manner not commonly found in historical or contemporary visual culture, physically and metaphorically.

We Wear the Mask VII. Photo: Reginald Eldridge, Jr.

Franklin’s aesthetic in the show primarily consisted of images of self-assured women entrenched in unearthly realms that were at times utopic, and at other times dystopic. We Wear the Mask VII, for example, showcases a woman facing the viewer, engrossed by flaming lava and a cosmic background with orbiting planets. The image, evidently cut out from an outdated magazine, placed the scantily dressed woman in a new context. Franklin’s reconstruction of the composition actively displaces the male gaze to give the figure agency over her body in a supernatural setting away from the patriarchal notions of planet earth.

Unlike We Wear the Mask VII, however, another piece in the show I’ve Seen This Face Before featuring a magazine clipping of Grace Jones, is conversely overpowered by its surroundings. The thick consistency of the handmade papermaking it is placed on, engulfs the minimal fragments of imagery that suggest the bodily make-up of the pop icon. The lack of presence that this particular character inhabits on the page is perhaps symbolic of the way women of color can be made invisible, and literally whitewashed, by Eurocentric standards of beauty.

I’ve Seen This Face Before. Photo: Reginald Eldridge, Jr.

“I was playing around with masking—how our identities can be taken over by people’s ideas about Black women. The We Wear the Mask series has a lot of resonance for me in exploring the grotesque nature of a Black woman. The faces of some of these figures are obscured and overtaken, yet protected at the same time.”

What Lies Beneath. Photo: Reginald Eldridge, Jr.

The intricacy involved within Franklin’s artistic process, mainly the layering of organic and synthetic materials, successfully encompassed all facets of the Black female experience into one collective consciousness.

The pieces From the Two Thousand and Thirteen Narratives of Naima Brown, a piece that Franklin has fleshed out through several mediums, and What Lies Beneath both mix found materials that are not authentically introduced into the paper-making process. While the ancient practice of paper-making invites the introduction of alternate materials, from dye to other natural materials like cotton, Franklin instead disrupted the fibers of the paper with synthetic hair. The innovative gesture of adding strands of African American hair allowed the fibers of the paper to beautifully mold to the creases of the braids, illuminating the alluring patterns that Black hair can create. The paper’s ability to freeze the movement of each braid, added an elegance to synthetic hair that is not often afforded to Black hair in Western beauty standards. At the same time, however, the fibers of the paper consumed the hair, causing each strand to be cloaked beneath the paper.

From the Two Thousand and Thirteen Narratives of Naima Brown. Photo: Reginald Eldridge, Jr.

“I wanted to use something that was proliferate in my world around me, something that was commonplace, but also rather extraordinary—[the hair represented is] what I call ‘tumbleweaves in the streets of Chicago,’ hair flowing around in the streets. I thought about [Black hair] as a material and how I could bring it into my art practice.” Her manipulation of different African American hair textures in these pieces let Franklin visually demonstrate just how prominently the consistency of Black hair dictates the way women of color understand their self-worth. “Black hair is something that’s very culturally tied into Black women’s realities. We have a lot of preoccupations around our hair-from the time that we’re children, to when we grow up,” said Franklin.

Her collages, and the wide range of materials she added to handmade papermaking, can be seen as a literal attempt to piece together and re-conceptualize a politicized narrative tailored to women of color. She stated, “The deconstruction of the image—breaking things down in order to make the image anew—has become a political act of disassembling a colonized narrative for me. It comes from me grappling with a deeper understanding of politicized dynamics concerning our experience as women of color. The truly dynamic nature of our lives—such as how we live and breathe in this world—and the strategies we implore to survive.”

Installation view of Quest for The Marvelous. Photo: Reginald Eldridge, Jr.

Franklin’s quest to construct and reconstruct the intersection of ethnicity and gender, is exemplary of Franklin’s interest in the process of assembling the multifaceted modes of women of color. According to Franklin, the works in Quest for The Marvelous are just the beginning of a new artistic venture.

“The collage work marks the era that I’m in currently. The pieces in Quest for The Marvelous demarcate a new aesthetic that I’ve been thinking for the past four years that engages with minimal. I’m excited about the continuity of those pieces in terms of their relationship with one another. Most importantly, I’m interested in some of the questions that they awaken about our eye, our gaze, and what we think about Black and brown women.”