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  • LaShonda Cooks

Pursuit of Womanhood

I glanced around my studio early this year and sighed. From when I first picked up a paintbrush again in 2010, I’ve always like painting myself so to speak: women who looked like me, whose traits, whether external or internal I found inspiring. I painted a ferocious and stunning Serena after reading nasty comments about her on Twitter during a match that referred to her as a baboon or ape moving slowly. Hmph. I’ll show them, I thought. I painted Lupita and her gravity-defying hair after she floated past paparazzi to the MET Gala on TV. I painted Jill Scott grinning broadly beneath a halo of kinky curls to remind myself of the power of owning one’s existence. I painted each celebrity because I saw a piece of myself or my idealized self in each image.

That’s really how the idea for Pursuit of Womanhood came about. I thought influencers both famous and local, from family members I grew up watching to the people that inspire me today and wanted to capture that spectrum in an exhibit. From the villains I love to hate to the damsels and divas I wish I could save and everything in between.

Behind each painting lies a collage of mixed media images and words. From newspaper articles highlighting the shift in policies and politics and its effect on women in my hometown of Dallas, state of Texas, country and world, to advertisements urging women to remove unwanted hair and wrinkles, to thought pieces on women in various industries, the layered background represents the many layers of womanhood and underlying stratifications that sometimes emerge due to race, age, class and weight.

It’s a lot to process by design. The chaos between the paintings and the underlying magazine and newspaper clippings and the varying sizes of the paintings from as small as 2 x 2 inches to 30 x 40 inches is created to mimic the overwhelming amount of data and noise we must dig through daily. The idea for the immense collage was inspired by similarly massive exhibits by artist Ellen Harvey. I was reading a group of essays by working artists in “Living and Sustaining a Creative Life” when I stumbled across her beautiful work. I’m a little more than a month away from seeing it all come together in Boston. Fingers crossed. I'm so nervous and excited.

Questions

What women do you admire? Revere? Loathe? And why.

Serena and Venus are both my spirit animals. I love Serena’s competitive nature, her confidence, her intensity. As a big sister, I love Venus’ protective nature. I love how both ladies balance strength with softness and grunts with grins.

How did you first learn what was expected of a woman? Taboos? Unspoken rules?

My mom is really modest. As a kid, she was concerned with me and my little sister wearing anything too conformed to our figures. She loved buying us slips and undergarments to conceal whatever little hips or curves I had. I have never seen her in a pair of pants or makeup. I taught myself how to apply eyeliner, foundation, etc. in college with a little help from a Mary Kay party. I had to move back to Dallas with my parents to truly admire her strength of character and her beauty inside and out. I’ve only recently started going being comfortable going without makeup or with just lipstick. Growth.

What is womanhood?

Womanhood is the act of being a woman. It’s performance art for many of us. I didn’t realize this until one of my coworkers transitioned from man to woman. Everybody was chatting about the change, but when I saw her, I was at ease because she seemed so at peace. I did wonder little things like how did she learn to apply foundation, where she gets her nails done (they are always flawless) and who she looked at when styling herself. But then I realized it was the same way when I'm was deciding how to present myself to the world. I first decided to grow locs in college. But long before actually growing them, long before I actually allowed my hair to remain in its naturally kinky state, I remember seeing some beautiful, regal sisters with locs and falling in love with their self-assurance and confidence. That’s what I wanted.

"Pursuit of Womanhood" is part of a dual exhibit with Jamaal Eversley entitled "A Coming of Age." It will be on display at Babson College's Hollister Gallery September 15 through October 26.


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