June 14, 2024

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Artist Jamilla Okubo Is Revealing What Home Means for Black Women

Artist Jamilla Okubo Is Revealing What Home Means for Black Women

Black homes are laced with nuance, and so are their interiors. In bell hooks’s 1995 article titled, “An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional in the Object of Labour,” the late author ponders the house of her grandmother, Baba, with “rooms full of objects, crowded with things.” She writes: “Remembering the houses of my childhood, I see how deeply my concern with aesthetics was shaped by Black women who were fashioning an aesthetic of being, struggling to create an oppositional worldview for their children, working with space to make it livable.” 

Peacock chairs, china cabinets, and plastic-covered sofas—for people like hooks and myself, who were raised in Black homes of older generations, these are examples of decor elements that are common, but not ubiquitous, in those “rooms full of objects, crowded with things.” Artist Jamilla Okubo agrees. She recalls a thread on Black Twitter that read: How many of y’alls grandmothers had a china closet? “Everyone would upload images of their grandmother’s china closet. It was like, ‘I’m here and I’m Black,’” she says. “This is what I think of when I think of Black women in their homes.”  

Artist Jamilla Okubo’s third solo art exhibition, An Aesthetic of Blackness: The Sacred and The Profound, is on view at Washington, D.C.’s Mehari Sequar Gallery through December 19.

Artist Jamilla Okubo’s third solo art exhibition, An Aesthetic of Blackness: The Sacred and The Profound, is on view at Washington, D.C.’s Mehari Sequar Gallery through December 19.

Okubo, whose third solo art exhibition is on view at Washington, D.C.’s Mehari Sequar Gallery through December 19, nods to hooks’s article in the show’s title, An Aesthetic of Blackness: The Sacred and The Profound. The subject matter also explores a similar topic. Okubo uses muted pastels, florals, and collage-type textures to paint Michele Price, a Baltimore-based content creator and military member, in her 1,600-square-foot loft. The bold paintings depict Price’s silhouette in her living space—watering plants, lounging on the sofa, and checking out her reflection in a full-length mirror. “I don’t want [the subject] to necessarily be someone that you recognize because it could be you,” Okubo says. “What if you want to manifest yourself in that space—or you do have a space like that? It’s a blank canvas, but it’s also a mirror.”  

For her artwork, the Parson School of Design graduate culls from her American, Kenyan, and Trinidadian roots, using a combination of painting, textile design, fashion, and storytelling to recall the the homes she’s known—her grandmother’s houses in D.C. and North Carolina (where she spent her childhood) and visits to her father’s home in Kenya—and invites other Black women to ruminate on the same. In my D.C. apartment, Okubo and I discussed her latest show and reflected on her perspective on home as “the most significant site of intimacy and Black femininity.”

In the exhibit, Okubo’s paintings depict Michele Price, a Baltimore-based content creator and military member, in her 1,600-square-foot loft.

In the exhibit, Okubo’s paintings depict Michele Price, a Baltimore-based content creator and military member, in her 1,600-square-foot loft.

Priscilla Ward: Thank you so much for coming over.

Jamilla Okubo: I’m sitting in your home and everyone’s home is an extension of themselves.  

PW: This is my first time living alone. I started going to therapy here, had friends over for dinners, and developed rituals as well as my sense of style here.   

JO: A lot of times our depictions of home are ones of older Black women in our families, and not enough younger Black women. [Growing up,] older Black women were the ones that handled the interior decorating, unless your father or your grandfather had an eye for design.  

PW: This is very true. What did home look like for you growing up?  

JO: My grandmother styled the house because it was just her, my mom, and my uncle. I grew up in my grandmother’s home in D.C., and as a kid I would travel with her to North Carolina during the summer, and sometimes for Easter, to celebrate with our relatives down South. I have such beautiful memories from both homes—she had the typical china closet with all the different teapots and wine glasses that we never touched unless it was a holiday or a special occasion. It felt vintage, very reminiscent of southern Black homes. Her home in North Carolina was similar to a shotgun-style house where everything was on one floor and went back. She had the old-school [rotary] telephone where you use your finger to dial. The colors were very reminiscent of the ’50s and ’60s, very pastel, but muted—like sage green and pumpkin orange mixed with browns. Her home in D.C. had a lot of influence from that; the wallpaper and ’70s-inspired paisley. 

PW: And then your Dad is from Kenya. What was it like visiting him?  

JO: I’ve been to Kenya twice to visit and during my trips I learned a lot about close family traditions. The culture revolves around gathering together and seeking your elders for advice in different areas of your life. 

The food was slightly different, but obviously similar [to traditional African American dishes]. I think that’s what excited me the most. I grew up eating collard greens, grits, and vegetables like corn and okra. When I went to Kenya I had ugali for the first time which is like molded grits—not mold as in the nasty mold, but kinda molded into this ball—and sukuma wiki, which is basically shredded collard greens. I got to see the relationship Kenyans have to nature and animals. Also, I love the slow pace of life there versus here. We are always hustling and bustling.  

“It dawned on me that interior spaces are an extension of someone. I was like, what does that look like for Black women?

PW: That sounds amazing. Kenya is definitely on my bucket list. I know you live in a studio here in D.C.—how has your home aided you in feeling like you can be yourself?  

JO: I feel like I can hone my self-care rituals. My morning ritual is a key part of me just delving deeper into myself. When I wake up, I burn incense, sit at my altar, meditate, and pray. I’ll have a glass of water, take my vitamins, and put on my morning playlist depending on how I’m feeling—usually jazz. I also like playing Jill Scott and Erykah Badu.  

The first few months I was stagnant with using up all of my space. I would just be in my bed or in the kitchen because I was so used to being in my room when I lived with my family, so now utilizing the full apartment is different.

Okubo uses muted pastels, florals, and collage-type textures to portray her subjects. 

Okubo uses muted pastels, florals, and collage-type textures to portray her subjects. 

PW: Day in and day out, Black women are often forced to go above and beyond. Home is a landing pad to come undone and be ourselves. What prompted you to explore home through this lens?  

JO: It dawned on me that interior spaces are an extension of someone. I was like, what does that look like for Black women? I was also thinking about my experience; how I had just moved into my place and had no idea where to start with creating a sense of self throughout my space. I went to Instagram, Pinterest, and Apartment Therapy and looked at people’s homes for inspiration and thought, how did they get to that point with the risk they’ve taken? I was intrigued and interested in being able to depict different Black women in their homes.  

I was drawn to Michele because I loved the way she expressed herself. She shared vulnerable parts of herself that you really couldn’t take apart or figure out. Everything was intentional about Michele’s home, from the Lenny Kravitz–designed credenza to the Chris Ofili tea napkins hung on the wall. Michele is a representation of the women I want to represent; women who are self-aware, who know themselves, and who express themselves in different ways. I originally met Michele through Instagram and then reached out to her to be my muse for the project. You assume that when you see someone expressing themselves creatively they are automatically a “creative,” but creativity and art are for everyone.  

PW: The works have titles like, My greatest luxuries are stillness, peace, and simplicity and Cause you see the parts of me, no other heart can see. Tell me about how you came up with these.   

JO: It was inspired by several conversations I had with Michele where she talked about how people don’t know what it has taken for her to get to this point of feeling full, loving herself, and expressing herself wholeheartedly without fear. I wanted to represent and tie the works together with the titles in a way that shows we are going through these individual journeys, but it’s also collectively that we are going through journeys of teaching ourselves we are worthy.

I also wanted to bless the works, so when they travel into a new home it’s like, this is Artist Jamilla Okubo Is Revealing What Home Means for Black Women, and then you are affirming yourself and your home. I did that for Black women, but the affirmations are for everyone. Whoever owns the piece should be able to affirm themselves and feel good about wherever they are.  

Top photo courtesy of Mehari Sequar Gallery.

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