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Celebrating black women

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Femininity and freedom: Naimah Frith in front of her painting Whining Queen, which will be on display at the Bermuda National Gallery’s prestigious Biennial (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Naimah Frith’s biggest concern about Whining Queen: was it too vulgar? Early praise encouraged her to enter the fabric and chalk pastel in the Bermuda National Gallery’s “prestigious” Biennial, but she worried about public response.“Whining Queen is an examination and celebration of the black feminine body,” her artist statement reads. “Her body is a site of resistance, power and resilience. Her body is rude and vulgar in her willingness to perform femininity and freedom as an act of resistance to respectability politics. Whining Queen is a celebration of the women who fearlessly embody this rudeness in spaces not made for them.”Naimah was one of 21 artists chosen for the 2020 Bermuda Biennial; more than 50 people entered. When told that her work had been accepted, she was of two minds.“I was happy, but I was very nervous, not because it didn’t look OK, but the imagery ... was it too vulgar? I had to accept that it was and accepted that it was a good thing.”The 23-year-old has been interested in art for as long as she can remember. She watched her grandmother Wilma Frith with her needlepoint and her late great-aunt, Veronica Ross, as she knitted and crocheted. At West Pembroke Primary School she had “great art teachers” from a very young age, who inspired her.“I often visited museums and I hoped to be one of the artists, to have someone looking at my work.”Despite that, she mainly kept her art to herself. And then in 2018 a government scheme allowed her to work at Purvis Primary School while on a break from university and she shared some of what she had created with Krystal Paulino, an art teacher there.“She suggested I submit to Masterworks [Museum of Bermuda Art], to the Charman Prize, and I did. It was a print, a completely different medium [to Whining Queen].”She was pleased to have been accepted even though she did not win. She returned to Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax and focused on “working and studying”.“Submitting to shows was not on my mind,” she said.Last April, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and returned home with Whining Queen, which had already been nominated for an award in Canada. “I was shocked by that. I didn’t win but again, it was just the idea that someone thought it was good enough to be nominated. “When I graduated, I had to ship it in and my old professor, Michael Walsh at Bermuda College, helped me to restretch it and encouraged me to enter it in the Biennial. “This was scary for me. I previously wasn’t confident enough to enter — it’s a big deal — and so I will be eternally grateful to him. As artists, we are highly self-critical at times, so to have somebody say that it’s good enough, worthy to be seen or judged and then to have other international jurors back up that statement ... I think that’s what sets the Biennial apart.”Whining Queen measures 72 by 48 inches and took the artist about three months to complete.“The piece for me has many different layers,” Naimah said.“Carnival is the first thing you see; a woman dancing. When I was in school, I didn’t see a lot of black culture. My school wasn’t diverse and the models I had to paint were all white men and women.“Especially coming from Bermuda, a diverse culture, I was yearning to see myself in art. I was inspired by Bermuda Carnival and women in my family that were strong women.“We don’t see a lot of black people in art. Historically, in art, we’ve been in the background, fetishised, sexualised. This was my way of allowing us to take control and have fun while doing it.”Whining Queen goes on public display on Saturday. The paraeducator at Dellwood Middle School who is planning to pursue a master’s degree in September in hope of becoming an art teacher, remains nervous about showing her work.“I don’t know if I will be able to relax about it,” she said. “I’m still a self-critical artist. I guess my hope is that people wouldn’t see the vulgarity as a negative and will connect to it in whatever way they relate to it, whether it’s the fabric or the colours or seeing themselves as women, as men [or relating to] blackness.“In a way, I was shocked that people in a prestigious institution would want it on the walls. And I wondered what would my mother, my family, my colleagues say. But I’d vowed not to make boring art that you see every day about beautiful, pristine Bermuda.”The 2020 Bermuda Biennial runs until September in the Bermuda National Gallery

Whining Queen by Naimah Frith (Photograph supplied)
Naimah Frith (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)