the body archive of naima brown

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Krista Franklin, Naima Brown, hair extensions, handmade paper

Last year, artist Krista Franklin graduated from the Book & Paper MFA program where I teach at Columbia College Chicago.  I had the honor of working with her as my advisee during her thesis project installed in spring 2013.  Recently, she’s received recognition for her work from such prestigious programs as Arts Incubator at the University of Chicago, and for good reason. Though we cringe at the concept of “originality” in today’s art world, the combination of hand papermaking, changelings and shapeshifters, spoken word, audio and installation come as close as you can get.

Her thesis, The Two Thousand & Thirteen Narrative(s) of Naima Brown brought to life a girl changeling on the precipice of young adulthood.  We built our knowledge of her through remnants she left behind as she moved on to other spaces.

Krista, you’ve created an utterly unique body of work with “The Two Thousand & Thirteen Narrative(s) of Naima Brown.” I have a lot of questions, but let’s start with who Naima is, a changeling.  Can you talk about what a changeling is, and how you interpreted the concept?

The traditional folklore definition of a changeling is a fairy or elf-like creature that kidnaps children and then masquerades as that child. I took the term and redefined it in my narrative to describe a human being who has the capacity to “change” or “shift” into various forms (other humans, animals, objects). Essentially, Naima Brown (in the portion of the narrative that I have written so far) is a young woman who discovers through her aunt that she is a shapeshifter, and the gift is a hereditary one. It’s something that she’s inherited from her matrilineal line. At the beginning of the narrative she’s approximately 13 or 14, and that age is a particularly crucial one in the lives of young people in general, but specifically young women. Even without the supernatural gift of shapeshifting, a lot of changes are happening in the lives of young women at that time (physically, emotionally, etc), so the term “changeling” seemed appropriate to me.

Why did you choose to focus on a young girl?  What do you think she has to say us?

I think it’s interesting that you read/hear her as a young girl. I really do think of the character in my imagination as a young woman. I think the things that the character experiences in the course of the narrative disable or rob her of the innocence that we attribute to “young girls.” From the outset she is dealing with a somewhat negligent mother who likes to party a lot. Often times girls who grow up in those types of environments are closer to being “women” than they are “girls,” because they are put in the position of having to care for themselves as well as the adults in their lives at a fairly early age. There’s no time to really be frivolous or child-like. You’ve got to buck up and be grown. Naima is a character that has perhaps seen and experienced a bit too much too soon, so her maturity level is ramped up. By the time her Aunt Coffey decides to clue her in on the shapeshifter skill, she’s already a little jaded and feels like she knows it all.

I decided to focus on a teenaged girl because, again, that’s the place in many young women’s lives where we’re experiencing an intense level of change in our bodies and emotions, and where we have the potential to transform into our best selves and/or our very worst selves. That’s the space and time where we are at the crossroads of doing some of the most good or being completely self-destructive. It’s a critical time. In the course of the narrative I would suggest that even some of Naima’s choices (when she decides to use her gift and the reasons why) are pretty dicey. They are not the most safe or thought-out. They may be for good reason (to get information about something bad that’s happened to her mother), but her judgment is a little skewed, a little reckless and dangerous. She’s sneaky about all of it.

I believe that there are a lot of things that the narrative has to say to us. Most of those things revolve around our ability to transform ourselves or to masquerade ourselves, and the reasons we choose to do those things. There’s also an underlying statement that I’m trying to make about the invisibility and the hyper-visibility of the black female body in particular with this project. There are several things that I’m working to say; some of them are obvious, and some of them require a little more work from the audience to “see.”

Can you talk about some of your main inspirations? I know Octavia Butler is one of them, I just recommended we read her brilliant book, Dawn in the feminist reading group, Tracers.  I know some other ones close to my heart are Trinidadian female folklore.

I have several inspirations, but those specifically related to this project are, as you mentioned, the novels of Octavia E. Butler (Wild Seed in particular), the filmography of Pam Grier (specifically Foxy Brown, Coffy, Sheba, Baby and Jackie Brown), the novels and short stories of Nalo Hopkinson, the 80’s movies Cat People and Thunderheart, the novel Passing by Nella Larsen and Caucasia by Danzy Senna. All of those movies, books and stories have been sitting in my brain for years just waiting to coalesce into this project. I also had a long obsession with Freak Show culture and comic book narratives for many years, and that’s probably where the genetic aspects of the Naima Brown Narrative came from (“…the glitch in the proverbial matrix of her complex cellular structure…”). Science fiction, folklore, mythology, and some of my own experiences as a black woman trying to navigate the (sometimes hostile) world I live in, and using whatever wits I have to get over. Those were a few of the direct inspirations for this project.

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Krista Franklin, Naima Portrait, handmade paper, vanity, wallpaper (Krista sits at vanity)

The use of handmade paper as a corporeal signifier for transformation and shedding of a changeling is so interesting—I don’t think anyone has ever done it in quite the same way. Can you talk about your aesthetic choices, and what you wanted them to accomplish with the narrative?

Yes. The use of handmade paper in this project is two-fold. One is definitely that which you already mentioned – a signifier for the corporeal, the remains of a missing body or several bodies. The other is a signifier of a place of the written or (in)scribed. As a writer and a visual artist, paper is a material that is indispensable and integral to my work. In the installation handmade paper is definitely the substitute for Naima’s body post-transformation – it’s skin, it’s body detritus; it’s evidence that something happened though we may not know what that something was. Hair is also a big signifier in the installation, and the hybrid handmade paper/hair sculptures came to be a signature of this piece.

I really wanted to push the grotesque and the attraction/repulsion emotional response in the audience. Handmade paper is also very shapeshifter-esque (yes, I just made that word up). It can be very beautiful and it can also be pushed (accidentally or purposefully) into the ugly zone – much like humans. It came to be the perfect material for this project for all of those reasons. I loved that it was malleable, but only to a point, and I loved that I was never quite certain what was going to come from my time in the paper studio. I also continue to be artistically seduced by how much water there is in the papermaking process. That, for me, is also connected to the human body and to nature and to the mystical and the magical that much of my work centers around.

What would you like to see transformed through this work?  In your practice, and in the larger art world?

That’s a great question. It’s funny. I created a narrative, both written and visual, about the idea of transformation, but never really considered what kinds of transformations I wanted to come from it. To be quite honest the major transformations of this work have happened within me. I set out to create something that I’d never created before, to blend my writer-self and artist-self, to push the materiality of paper in my own work. I certainly developed what’s sure to be a life-long relationship with hand papermaking, and I’m looking forward to challenging myself, and my work, through that practice. I suppose that like Naima I realized that I could be a lot of different kinds of “makers” at one time. As far as the larger art world, we will just have to wait and see what comes of all of that.

Tell us a little about your recent successes.  We are so proud of you, and really eager to see how these opportunities move the work into new arenas of recognition.

I was recently awarded an Artist-in-Residence through the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life/Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and had work included in two group exhibitions, “Recess,” curated by Tempestt Hazel, and “On Paper,” curated by Ayanah Moor. One of the exhibitions is here in Chicago and the other exhibition is in Pittsburgh. I was also a part of two separate collaborative applications for the Propeller Fund, and was awarded grants for both of those collaborative projects. One of them is “The (Con)-Solidarity Project” with Alexandria Eregbu, Rashayla Marie Brown and Hannah Rodriguez, and the other is “Ekphest: A Festival of Art + Word” with Fo Wilson. 

The residency at the Arts Incubator at U of C will provide me with the time and support needed to develop the next iterations of the Naima Brown Narratives, but also to create some other work that’s knocking around in my head. I’m actually just looking forward to getting back to work. I’m happiest when I’m in my weird little paper-filled world.

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Krista Franklin, Masks, handmade paper molded over traditional African masks

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