ARtist | Shanna Strauss
Creatrix Matrix: how have you been?
Shanna Strauss: well, it's been a little overwhelming since I've gotten back, but it's all good. I have a good friend who keeps telling me, 'Shanna, these are all GOOD problems'. Like you might feel overwhelmed and things might be stressful sometimes but these are all good problems and it's true that they are good problem to have.
Creatrix Matrix: well, I really I do appreciate you taking time to be my very first interview.
CM: I was looking at your bio, and when we talked before, you told me that you are Tanzanian~American, and that you're living in Montreal... could you say the name for Montreal that is on your website?
SS: You mean in terms of the native word for it? I would totally butcher it...I feel like I shouldn't (laughter) . It's something I've been doing very recently, just trying to engage more with what it means to be here. You know, as a "settler" on this land. It's kind of a way for me to start reflecting and engaging on what it means for me to be like a newcomer here, but I'm also in a way like an uninvited visitor you know what I mean?
CM: Yes, that's so important. You can't come and start naming things, things that already had names.
(In the modern Mohawk language, Montreal is called Tiohtià:ke. In Algonquin, it is called Moniang.)
SS: Right, right-- so that's why I'm being more mindful. Yeah, so Montreal is a colonial word, so to put it in my bio (the Indigenous name) is a way for me to acknowledge that.
CM: So what made you choose to live in Montreal?
SS: I came for school, actually, I went to McGill University. I pursued a Master's Degree in social work, and after I graduated I decided to stay. I did an internship as part of my degree at a community organization called Desta Black Youth Network and continued working there after I graduated. I just recently stopped working there this past year, December 2016. I've also established a network of friends and people that I have really gotten close to so that has kept me here.
CM: You came home.
SS. Yeah, exactly. I've moved around a lot. I was born in the U.S, then my family I moved back to Tanzania before I turned 2. Later I moved to New York, then Connecticut and California where I completed my undergraduate degree in Fine Art and then I moved back to Tanzania. I was in Tanzania for a few years before moving to Montreal. I live a transient life…not necessarily by choice, because I would like to settle down in one place eventually, but it just seemed to be that way most of my life.
CM: But you know, it's kind of good, I feel. I used to be much more nomadic than I am now and it feels good to just go places and get to know something of this world. To slide in there and just,-- I don't know,-- you get a feel for a place. I love it and I so understand, I understand that.
SS: I have come to accept that I belong to many places but also no one place. I’m not rooted in any particular place but rather live in-between many places and spaces. That is what much of my work focuses on, why I am interested in identity and belonging and the in-between nature of diaspora - Diaspora as a site where multiple histories, geographies, and identities exist.
CM: Your piece that you that you showed at The Black Woman Is God was your ancestor from Tanzania? Now is that your imagining of what she looked like or did you use a friend?
SS: She is someone I know that embodied the energy of what I imagined my warrior ancestor had. I've been using photo transfer on wood in my work for a while and I wanted to do a piece that incorporated that technique and I needed somebody that would represent her my ancestor. Her name is Ayaan and she has warrior woman spirit about her – a beautiful, peaceful strength. I thought she would be perfect to represent Leti, my ancestor.
CM: So she really embodied her.
SS: Um hum, I thought so.
CW:(At the Gallery when you first told me the back story) until you said this is my ancestor, and I started thinking about the many years that had gone by... At first I was thinking "this is from a photograph of that ancestor" then thought, "wait,--it probably isn't". (shared laughter)
SS: No, I don't think there was a lot photography happening in that part of that world back then.
CM: We are so centered on our own history. When did that revolution between the people of Tanzania and and Germany take place?
SS: Well, the thing is, I tried to look it up to see if there were any kind of historical records of that specific rebellion. I can't find any information anywhere. What I found is that there's a lot more written history of West Africa, compared to East Africa where oral tradition has been a way of recounting and preserving key historic events. History in that region was mostly written by colonizers but prior to that, Tanzanians maintained an oral tradition.
SS: When I was doing research for this piece I came across German photographs of these gourd dolls from the 1800s. These dolls looks exactly the same as the ones my grandmother still makes.
When my sister was born, my grandmother made her a doll. It’s a gourd shaker doll made out of a gourd that has hair made with beads and cowries shells, and a little waist band of beads around its middle. The doll is both a toy and an instrument. I remember when we were young my grandmother would shake it and sing us songs in Kinyaturu. All this is to say that, there are artifacts that were collected during the 1800s from Singida, where my grandmother and Leti are from, so I wonder if there are German records of that rebellion.
Everything that I learned about Leti and the rebellion she organized, was told to me by my grandmother, mother, and older sister. There are stories and songs passed on from generation to generation in her honor.
CM: Like a game of telephone. But honestly, when you tell somebody a story and it's a historical story. You do your very best to be accurate, to keep it intact, you really don't embellish it. Unless you're trying to entertain, which usually you know when it's a family story, you're trying to keep it intact so that history remains intact. So, I am more willing to believe stories that are taught or told than written down. Because honestly, when you try to write down your account of something. Have you ever, (tried writing) something as simple as your whole conversation that you had with someone from memory? From your head to your hand sometimes you'll lose something. In the mechanics of writing, it'll lose something. But when it's just kind of coming through your mind to your mouth, it seems to remain more intact. It's almost as though the person's spirit is there with you kind of guiding your words, if they are no longer there.
SS: Exactly. It's interesting that when my mother tells it, it is a little bit different than say when my grandmother tells it. The thing about storytelling in Tanzania that I find beautiful is that everyone has their own unique way of telling a story and a slightly different interpretation but the essence of what is important is never lost. When it comes to Leti, my ancestor, the essence is her strength and her courage, how she was able to bring people together and how she was fearless. It's a way for us to remember where we come from as women in my family. We come from strong, fierce women and the stories and songs of Leti remind us of that. Her legacy also lives on through naming. On my mother’s side of the family many women are named after her. My sister’s middle name is Leti, so the tradition of naming a child in her honor continues till this day.
CM: That is so interesting... That was your matrilinieage?
SS: Yes, on my mother's side. I should clarify. It wasn't a revolution, it was a rebellion. The way the story was told to me is that she organized a rebellion in her village in Singida region in Tanzania. It's not a big village and so I imagine even back then it wasn’t a big rebellion. But it's hard to know for sure how large or small it was because there is no written documentation of it. .
CM: So yeah, that's just really a powerful thing to have in your lineage, especially as a woman, you know, because it's always, HIStory.
CM: You were saying that you went to school for social work. So I see from talking to you,(previously) that a lot of your art has to do with social justice and doesn't seem to be simply Art For Art's Sake. Am I correct in assuming that, or no?
SS: Yes. That’s become more of the case over time, though. Earlier, during the time when I was in art school and the years after, a lot of the work that I did was very introspective. I focused on my own experiences and what was happening within me in terms of my identity and struggles with belonging. I was doing a lot of work that centered on memory and nostalgia. Both memory and nostalgia were a means of finding home, feeling grounded and rooted in place. When I moved to the U.S after spending my childhood and teenage years in Tanzania, I felt unsettled from having moved from place to place, but also unsettled in my own identity – being mixed, coming from two very different countries and cultures. I didn’t feel that I fully belonged or was fully accepted by one specific place or culture. In the U.S specifically, I felt this profound feeling of not belonging.
Later, I became more politicized, and began to see how many of the things I was experiencing internally, feeling that I did not belonging wasn't coming from myself but rather external factors - other people, the culture and broader society I lived in. So, my work shifted from a place of introspection to a more outward gaze. My work has become about celebrating the African diaspora, the in-between-ness of diaspora, of identity and belonging as it relates to people of the diaspora. There is so much beauty and wonder and magic. So much innovation and creation has and continues to occur in diasporic cultures.
CM: It often does start with the personal. And then you start to realize that your personal things, or your issues are not coming from you. They're coming from society's expectation of you. Specifically, I imagine, the idea that you have to choose your identity. You have to choose one. Are you are you Black, are you White? Are you African, are you American? When in all fairness, you are all of those things. Equally. It makes me kind of angry, this whole idea that we have to choose our identity to make someone else comfortable. So that when they say, ' what are you? ' we have an answer.
SS: Uh humm, and also what I found happens a lot, is people who will tell you what you are. So rather than asking you what you are, they will tell you. It's like, 'no you are American because you sound American', or ' you're American because you have an American passport'. And that's what defines you as American. But if I live the majority of my life in Tanzania, then how does that make me not Tanzanian. For example, all my family, the majority of my family lives there. Both my parents are still there, I grew up there, I speak the language. Does that make me equally Tanzanian? And so on. People like to project their own assumptions on what you should be.
CM: They do, they do... I mean, I guess we are so caught up in being able to classify something in order to try to understand it. Rather than taking things on an individual basis and just taking the time to know the individual person. We all have our own issues with that. (laughter)
CM: But I was going to ask you... how did how did you come to to know about The Black Woman Is God? I saw that you had done something in 2015 here in Oakland: Re-membering?
SS: Oh, Re-membering: A Sister Project. That was a collaborative project I did with my sister that centered on healing, spirituality and ancestry. We received a grant from the Akonadi Foundation and created 7 pieces that combined her beaded gourds with my mixed media works on wood. Her gourd work is influenced by my grandmother and the Nyaturu dolls I told you about earlier. We created all of the pieces together and it was a really beautiful process. Prior to starting the project, she had gone through a very difficult time, so for us to come together, to create, grow and heal together as sisters, was a very powerful experience. When creating the pieces, we felt that the work was not just for us, or about us, but more broadly, women of color. –- How we can come together to find alternative ways to heal, how it is so necessary to start making healing visible because so often we experience suffering alone, and how important it is for family or community to show up for us and be a part of our healing process. It still remains, I would say, one of the most powerful bodies of work I created. It was such a incredible experience to create with her.
CM: I would love to see any images you have from that if you wanted to share them. It's so interesting that you say that, because in our conversation that I had with your sister when we ran into each other on (this past )Saturday, we were talking specifically about honoring the artists at this current exhibit and how there were no nameplates. (subsequent to our conversation, some were added) And we were talking about that and I was saying 'these women are working artists' and she was saying 'yes, my sister is a working artist'. We were talking about it and she never said 'I am a working artist'. So even internalizing, ' if I have never exhibited, am I a legitimate artist?'.
SS: Mm, hmm--
CM: I, myself, struggle with that, so I understand the struggle of, ' if I haven't shown it to anyone, am I an artist?' Anyone who creates is an artist. That's my whole thing with Creatrix Matrix, when I explain it to people, it's not just for Fine Arts, it's not just for Performing Arts. It's anybody who makes anything, who creates. Whether they are a Social Justice worker, working in the community. Whether they create things with their hands, whether they're a dancer, whether there's spoken word (as their form of expression), whether they make jam, or you know, whatever.
SS: Yes, yes. If you are interested she ( Shanna's sister, Serian Strauss) can be pretty shy about it, but I would encourage you to go and see the gourds that she makes. She doesn't document them, I'm always saying, take pictures of them and share them with the world! They need to be shared with the world. She creates incredible work that just blows me away.
CM: Wow, wow--that's so interesting to know that she carries on with the tradition of your family and telling your story in that way.
SS: You were asking how I found out about The Black Woman Is God. Earlier this year I was in Oakland visiting my sister and I went to Kelly Pascual Hunter's gallery. I showed her some of my work, and she encouraged me to apply for the show and put me in touch with Karen (Seneferu), one of the co-curators. So it was really through that connection that I ended up applying and exhibiting my work. I am always so thankful when I meet people like Kelly who love my work, believe in what I do, and go out of their way to help me share my work with the world.
CM: I think it's so wonderful when we can support each other.
CM: Did you want to speak a little bit more about your mentor?
SS: About Keba? Apart from the fact that I met him for the first time this month,(July 2017)? When I was in Oakland for The Black Woman Is God was the first time I actually met him, and he came to the show.
SS: It was really wonderful to have him there. What was so great, too, I guess I have more to share, which is that he was extremely generous in terms of sharing the process with me. I contacted him two years ago, when I was first trying out, (the process of photo transfer to wood), and really struggling with working in a large format. Because I was doing much larger photo transfers. And the bigger you do it, the more difficult to it get. And so, I contacted him on Facebook and he walked me through it. He said, 'these are the tips, these are the things to consider, these are the do's and the don’ts', and he was extremely, extremely generous with the information. AndI know how some artist can get very protective over their process and their technique. Because, you know, it's sort of their secrets, so to speak, because don't want other people other people copying their style, but Keba was extremely generous with the information, and I feel really grateful to him for for sharing all that.
CM: Oh, I was assuming if you had a mentor, and he taught you the method, that he was there next to you. It's so interesting that in this digital age they don't have to be. It can be a video, it can be a series of emails.
SS: Right, it's interesting that you say that, because I actually, you know, speaking of grants and all this other administrator work I did. I actually applied for a grant, where I would go to Oakland and work under his guidance, basically, where he would be my mentor. I would be there and he would show me how to work with the (technique)... I didn't end up getting the grant, unfortunately. But that was my plan a few years ago, for me to go to Oakland and to learn from him. But, as I have learned with these grants, you apply for a lot and you don't get very many, so that was one of those that I didn't get.
CM: It could be disappointing, but who knows what direction you may not have taken, that is is uniquely you, had you been here.
CM: That's one way of looking at it, my way, as an outsider, of seeing that. Because I believe nothing happens on accident.
CM: I wanted to get more into your medium and why you've chosen what you've chosen. So would you walk me through maybe what a project would look like from its conception to its completion, a particular piece?
SS: Alright well, so I'm right now I'm mainly working with photo transfer on wood and this is a technique that I have been really inspired by through a Bay Area artist by the name of Keba Konte, (Oakland artist and Red Bay Coffee founder). His was the first time I ever saw photo transfer on wood and that was when I was in university in Oakland and San Francisco California College of Arts. He actually inspired me many years later.
What I do is I collect wood on the streets of Montreal and I bring it back to my studio. (Then) I select an image, a photograph, and in the past I've used mostly photographs that I've taken myself or I work in collaboration with other people. I have an ongoing project right now called Change Makers where we're featuring Black women in Montreal that have contributed towards positive change. I'm working together, (on the Change Makers project), with another artist. He's a photographer, so I'm using the photographs that he's taken to do the photo transfer on wood process, but I've also done, you know, my own photographs and then used them. So it’s this technique where you take an image and basically glue the image onto the the wood surface, and it's very time-consuming because it takes about a day to dry. And then you have to rub away the paper in order to leave the ink of the image. A lot of people think, 'do you pass it through some kind of photocopier or machine where the image gets printed?' No, you actually,-- it's almost like it's a gluing process, where you glue the photo onto the wood.
CM: So, when you take your photos do you do use an analog camera with film or do you use like a phone, or you know, digital camera?
SS: I've only used digital. It's varied from a high end camera, which I borrow, or I've also used photographs taken on my phone and blown them up and transferred those.
CM: So you just put the paper to the wood.
SS: I'm actually,-- I'm not a photographer, and I'm not a very good photographer...( laughter)
CM: Can't do everything--
SS: It's interesting, because I'm using photo transfer, but I don't consider myself to be a particularly good photographer. And so that's why sometimes I collaborate with other people, because I really love their photographs.
CM: That's wise, you delegate the things where you have less strength...So once it's dry...
SS: Once it's dry then I start to incorporate other techniques. So, I've used traditional Tanzanian techniques like wood carving and wood burning. You'll see a lot of wood carving and wood burning on gourds, and on other types of wood surfaces in Tanzania. I also incorporate beading into my work, as well. That's a really time-consuming process because the way I do it is I burn, individually, a hole into the wood and then I glue the bead in the hole. So I create these patterns out of beads, but it takes many, many, many, hours.
CM: Yes, of course, because you have to burn the wood.
SS: Yes. So these are the techniques I use, and then I also incorporate some painting, as well. Yeah, and then now, I've been adding other elements, like honeycomb. The last piece I did was using honeycomb, and I'm really interested in, and starting to include, more things.
CM: Yes, I had a question about the honeycomb. Leti (the subject of the piece Shanna did for TBWIG) had a honeycomb in her heart. And so, that's what you're referring to?
SS: Right,-- so the honeycomb represents a few things. But for one, the bee is like a symbol of a goddess symbol. For example, Oshun, you think of the example in Ifa, or the Orishas. She, Oshun is represented by honey and the bee and so on . (And in) other spiritual practices, as well, honey and the bee are considered a sacred thing. But in addition to that, my grandmother is a beekeeper and I have beekeeping.-- The women in my family, in my matrilineage, are beekeepers. And so it was really to reference that, as well.
CM: I see, I see,-- each little element seems to have some very deep significance there's nothing incidental.
SS:(Chuckles softly) I think so, generally I like to be mindful about what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. Especially, -- some things come up sometime where I'm just inspired to do something, and then later it becomes clear why I did it, and seems to have a pretty strong meaning. So all of this is to say, that not every single thing is always carefully planned out ahead of time. But I do find that often I'm pretty amazed to see how things start to reveal themselves afterwards, and seem to have a very significant and symbolic meaning to me.
CM: So in your process of making a piece: you've taken the photograph, you've found the wood in Montreal,--I've never been to Montreal, so is there open space where you can just go and just pick up fallen wood, or do you have like a secret source?-- (laughter)
SS: No, I mean, you be surprised... I would just, you know, as a fun thing to do, a fun activity... I would just encourage you to kind of pay attention when you're walking around in the next day or driving around to see how much wood is actually around. You know people discard furniture all the time, people discard building materials all the time. I just walk around, and I literally pick up wood from the streets.
CM: So...it can be processed wood... I'm just realizing you did use, basically a 2 x 4, not a 2x4, but I like, what's that called... plywood?
CM: Oh yeah, I'm right there with you with the scavenging...Pretty much half of the stuff in my house is found things. (lowers voice) I've never bought a couch... wait, once from the Salvation Army, but otherwise, it's like found objects. And wood, --if you were here, I could show you all these little pieces of bark that fall at Mills college, (and I have them) on my altar. So yeah, I asked that question, but then I'm realizing that any city, even though it's a city across the continent would have those same characteristics.
SS: I mean on the one-hand, it's great to be reusing and recycling, but also it becomes symbolic for me, as well. As a way of reclaiming ourselves, making ourselves known, or taking up space, so to speak. So the wood that is on the streets becomes representative for me, at least, of the city in which I live. Imprinting these images and the people, I'm sort of reclaiming space here for the people themselves, and for myself. Because our stories as people of the Diaspora, as black folks, is often not acknowledged there, not commonly known. And so, it's a way to make,-- to sort of imprint that onto the city.
SS: Literally, exactly.
CM: Ok, so you've gotten the wood, you've taken the photograph, you’ve imprinted it on the wood, you've burned your holes, you perhaps beaded, perhaps incorporated some honeycomb into it. Then what would you do next?
SS: The way that I'm working now, is creating puzzle pieces.
So before, I would just take pieces of wood and then create rectangular or square pieces, more of a traditional format like a canvas. But the difference now is that I create more like a collage. So, if they're really large, I have to disassemble them sometimes, to work with. Once the transfer his been made I'll disassemble the pieces and start working on the individual pieces with the beading or the carving. Because I can't be working on a six-foot piece,-- it's hard to get in there, you know, in the middle, the inside and smaller pieces that are hard to reach. Then after I'm done I have to reassemble the piece and then it's ready to view.
CM: Yeah,-- I saw a picture of you, and you work horizontally. And so either you're crawling on a piece, or you have to take it apart to get it completed.
Do you have a space there where you live, that you work (in) or do you have a studio? Where do you work?
SS: I have a studio in the basement of my apartment. I was very fortunate to find the apartment that I live in, and turn the basement into my studio. That's where I work. It's a pretty large space that allows me to be able to work pretty big, and to collect wood and store it. I really love my studio.
CM: That's really good to be able to have it in the space where you live, so your life isn't compartmentalized.
SS: I know that some people like to leave the house and go somewhere, so that it doesn't feel like their life is consumed by their art. But I do love the fact that I work and live in the same place, and it is separated because I just have to walk downstairs.
CM: (laughs) It is separate, so you're not eating breakfast on your pieces...
CM: So walk us through a day in the life of you.--
SS: Wooo... it depends on the day because I'm transitioning. I had mentioned that I was working as a community worker until December of last year (2016), so this transition into being a full-time artist is relatively new.
One of the things that I'm finding, is that I have to figure out how much time I spend doing administrative work and how much time I spend in my studio.
SS: I think in my mind I had envisioned that I would be waking up in the morning after breakfast, going downstairs and being in my studio and that's where I was going to be for the majority of my time. You know, say, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. The normal work schedule, but I would be spending that time in the studio.
That is actually not the case.
I'm spending significantly less time than I had imagined in my studio and more time doing administrative work, like responding to emails. But even more so than that, writing grant applications, proposals for exhibitions, applying for calls to submissions. That's taking so much time. Also things like updating my website which I haven't done in a while. I haven't updated my CV on my website, even just updating the projects that I'm working on.
So, The Black Woman Is God,-- I don't have Leti on my website, which would be really great to be able to share with other people. But I need to carve out time in my days and be sure that I spend time on all these other things. It's surprising to me, I didn't really think that this was going to be the way it was.
CM: Well your disclosure is very good. (It's) very helpful for anyone who wants to do what you've done, (to hear someone say), 'okay, you know, this is your vision of it, and this is more like the reality of it, so don't be surprised'.
SS: Right, and the funding part of it is really important because there are different ways that artists make a living. Some people produce a lot of work and they have a lot of sales. Others are not really very able to sustain themselves through this way. A lot of projects that I've done are not,-- I don't create them necessarily to sell, so they're really almost like passion projects, so to speak, where I'm really doing it from the heart. What that then requires for me is to figure out ways that I can get funding for them. So, I write grants. I apply for government grants and other types are grants, as well, to see if somebody would support me in creating projects that I that I work on. So, that does take a pretty big chunk of time. It really depends on the type of artist you want to be, as well, and where you want to draw your income from.
CM: I think both ways have their merits, you know, creating for say, a client. And also creating from your heart and just saying, if you're doing what you love and what moves you, the buyers,--the projects will come to you. Going and doing the business end of it, it's not romantic. (laughter) You know, going in there and telling people about yourself, which is sometimes hard. And then, what's the word… Your work is very valid to you, but trying to find the words to show that validity to someone who has the money, the purse strings.
SS: Right, right, absolutely. And I cannot criticize, or I have no judgment against people who are really focused on the sales and they create work to sell. I recognize that that's the reality that as artists we have to live with. Before, I was never doing commissions, and now I'm really seriously considering working on commissions. As a way to sustain myself, in addition to grants and other ways of making money. So, being able to do a little bit of everything, is the way to get by.
CM: The hope would be that once people see what it is that you do, where your work comes from, and the type of art that you make.-- They see that and say, 'that would work for what we want to do, she's the perfect person for this '. Rather than, 'Oh, I like the color she uses, let's have her go do this thing for us that she has no connection to'. And then, you're struggling.
I think, often people who hire artists,-- I know that my husband has seen this with his music,--where they’re like, 'oh,those guys seem cool, let's have them play for our event that has nothing to do with Latin American music,' (which is what he plays).
CM: So I hope for you, doing this with me, that I can reach people, and they can tell friends (and so on) and then all of the sudden, you know it's like, 'oh, does she do commissions? We have a project for her and we want to pay her richly to do it' (laughter)
CM: This has been really wonderful.
SS: Wonderful, thank you so much for your interest, it really does mean a lot.
This interview took place in July 2017, just after the opening of The Black Woman Is God installation at SOMArts in San Francisco California. I wish to thank Shanna Strauss for her time and contribution to this space. For more information on Shanna go to: https://www.shannastrauss.co/