The opening session of the 2022 Women’s Leadership Summit was an important discussion on how women of color can use the arts to tell their stories and work toward justice. Moderated by Abha Thakkar, the panel included spoken word artist Opal Tomashevska, visual artist Lilada Gee and musician Kimberly Lonetree.
All three panelists said their intersecting identities as women of color informed their work.
“As I look at identity, the thing that happens first to me is that I’m Black, and then I’m a woman,” said Gee, who is also founder of Lilada’s Living Room and Defend Black Girls, organizations that help support Black girls and women who’ve survived trauma. “I grew up here in Madison. I go to a doctor’s office, schools that I attended, Lapham, Lincoln, West High School, even on UW campus, not seeing images that reflected me, reflected folks like me … when you are establishing identity, part of that is getting a sense of what you look like to yourself, and what you look like to the world. And that is central to my art.”
She said much of her work employs yellow as a base color because it is bright and evokes joy.
“Black girls deserve to be girls,” she said. “They deserve to be innocent, they deserve to be joyous.”
Sometimes that’s a defiant joy, though, Gee said. She recounted the experience of being asked to create one of the murals on State Street during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, and being approached by white onlookers.
“I remember one person said, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re doing this, instead of just being angry,’” she said. “And I said, ‘You know, I am angry. That’s why I’m painting this big face of this black girl, because I want it all up in your face, okay?’ Anger can be expressed in many ways, and because it’s a paintbrush in my hand, doesn’t mean that what I’m doing is not warfare.”
Lonetree, a cellist who is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and also Korean-American, echoed that sentiment.
“There are different pathways for you to express your anger. Doing it through our art, or music, through anything that makes us happy,” she said. “I love that we have figured that out, that all of us have given ourselves that pathway to express ourselves and not bottle it up and not be quiet, not be silent.”
Tomashevska said her spoken word work and poetry come from her background in hip-hop, where she regularly competed in rap battles with the boys, which allows her to lean into her Black identity.
“(Hip-hop) is an art form that is birthed in Blackness,” she said. “I don’t have to whiten it up, there’s no whiteness in this, it is just what comes from being comes from my soul.”
Gee recounted her experience of being berated by an Overture Center employee while working on a mural for a Madison Museum of Contemporary Art installation, which Madison365 was first to report.
“Weeks after it happened, finally the Wisconsin State Journal covered the story. And it was the art and culture reporter that covered the story,” she said. “I said, ‘Well, why didn’t you have covered this before? Your whole focus is art and culture? How did the Wisconsin State Journal not see this as a valuable story to tell that a Black woman and Madison resident artists cannot get into, you know, the building to just paint.’ When we do begin to show up, when our light does begin to shine, there is a push back against that. And then there is an ignoring of what that all means, as well.”
The Women’s Leadership Summit continues today with a panel of executives hosted by “It’s Only 10 Minutes” podcast cohost Stephanie Díaz de León. It will include UW Health Vice President Shiva Bidar-Sielaff; Exact Sciences Chief Laboratory Officer Ana Hooker; One City Schools Director of Family and Community Initiatives Marilyn Ruffin; and Goodman Center CEO Letesha Nelson. Click here to join in!