Featured Artist: Aisha Cousins

Photo from “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Could not Understand.” Artist in dress made of Obama fabric collected from Mali, sewn by Abdoulaye Kebe. Cousins worked with several African immigrant tailors -specifically from countries like Senegal which have a tradition of printing political fabrics- to create the garments for her project.

Aisha Cousins is a Brooklyn based artist of Afro-American and Caribbean descent who writes performance art scores as a means of creating socially engaged art projects which explore the evolution of black American culture.

Her work has been performed independently on the streets of historically black neighborhoods from BedStuy (Brooklyn) to Brixton (London) as well as with institutions such as Houston’s Project Row Houses, Weeksville Heritage Center, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, the Brooklyn Museum, and MoMA PS1.

Recent awards include The Laundromat Project’s Create Change Public Artist in Residency, The Franklin Furnace Fund, The Rema Hort Mann Foundation’s ACE grant, and BRIC’s Fireworks Residency in collaboration with author Greg Tate and his band Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.

I write performance art scores (do-it-yourself instructions for live art projects). They’re my way of proposing new pieces of black culture. I use them to engage black audience from different backgrounds in exploring their varying aesthetic beliefs while processing their shared sociological shifts (changes in society). While these projects are written first and foremost for black audiences, they are useful for anyone looking to learn more about black history and popular culture. By engaging black audiences from different backgrounds in conversations about our personal histories and the changes taking place in our worlds, my work helps people of all backgrounds see just how diverse and beautiful black America’s stories are.

From 2009-2010, I did a 365 day performance art piece called “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Could Not Understand” (aka “The Obama Skirt Project”). It was inspired in part by the experience of traveling to Dakar, Senegal during an election year in the 1990’s. It was the first time I had ever seen a black president. I was struck by the contrast between how awesomely surreal it seemed to me and how mundane it seemed to my Senegalese counterparts. Each day from July 2009-June 2010, I used my personal clothing to inject the aesthetics of African political fabrics into predominantly black US neighborhoods as a way of processing the psychological shifts that accompany the election of one’s first black president.

As you can imagine, people are developing a deeper appreciation for the project now that our first black president has exited the White House. It’s hard to view the full depth of a moment’s psychological impact while it’s happening. Especially if that moment lasts for 8 years. There were days when conversations about the project would quickly devolve into a debate about Obama’s latest speech or Michelle latest fashion choices. Now that we’re closing the door on our first-black-president-moment, people are starting to have the distance they need to be able to engage in more complex conversations about how that moment changed us. The exhibition “The Presidential Library Project: Black Presidential Imaginary” features several artifacts from “From Here I Saw…” as well as sister a project called The Soulville Census which stems from it. The exhibition will open at the Hyde Park Art Center this March 26 through July 2, 2017. Curator Ross Jordan is putting the finishing touches on it now. It’s been terrific working with him to present the project to audiences in Obama’s hometown. I look forward to seeing how other curators and arts institutions will use “From Here I Saw…” and its sister projects to engage audiences in other parts of the country in thinking critically about the specific ways that both black America and mainstream America’s perspectives have shifted as a result of electing our first black president.

In the meantime, I’ve been expanding a series about the cultural significance of streets renamed for black historical figures. Last year, I worked with curator Petrushka Bazin-Larsen of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum to create a large scale installation that helps parents explore the project with youth ages 2-8. You can view it now through Feb 26th in the “Our City” exhibition located in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn at Industry City’s gallery.  Once that closes, I’ll be focused on bringing the project to predominantly black neighborhoods in other parts of NYC. You can help the project expand by taking a little piece of it home with this fundraiser poster.


See more of Aisha’s work at aishacousins.com.

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