Conceptual artist Natasha Marin’s Black Imagination creates a safe haven for Black folx during a time when it is needed more than ever. As Black communities continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, Black Imagination is not only a book but also a project: an invitation to acknowledge and extend beyond the limitations of our current reality by envisioning a future that centers our wishes, healing, and dreams.
Three years ago, the Black Embodiments Studio (a critical Black art writing residency run by Northwestern alumni Kemi Adeyemi) introduced me to Marin’s work. The residency encouraged its members to investigate explorations of Black aesthetics in Seattle while simultaneously rooting them within a tradition of Black radical thought. As a writer, emerging artist, and a Black girl raised in a sea of whiteness, I was (and still am) validated when I recognized that experiential exhibitions made for and by Black women could happen where I lived. They can happen and can amplify all of our voices, giving equal time to linger on each frequency, texture, and tone.
That night, I stood in line to enter the space and saw Natasha Marin. She asked, in an ancient language that only we know, How do you heal yourself? Now, I have had the pleasure of digitally connecting with Marin to discuss her curated book, her practice, and how Black folx can heal during times of uncertainty.
Mia Harrison: What is the Black Imagination?
Natasha Marin: My nine-year-old says it’s about freedom.
My typically salty teenager suggests that getting there is the hard part. She describes the Black Imagination as a metaphysical space one might have to “take a Matrix pill” to get to—except the other side you arrive at is actually inside yourself.
I would say that the Black Imagination begins beneath the skin that signifies and extends as far as we can cast ourselves across time and space. We always have to begin by unimagining though. We have to decenter the insidious delusion of whiteness to behold the totality of the Black Imagination.
How did the conceptual project come to be?
Picture it: Sicily, 1929. I jest.
Once upon a time there was a Black woman who was secretly a workaholic. That’s me. But since society sees nothing wrong with a Black woman working herself to death, it took this person of the global majority a significant amount of time to figure out how she could hack her own workaholic self-starter system to put energy back in and stave off severe adrenal fatigue. I know that’s not what you’re asking, exactly . . . but it’s still a true story.
My 2016 viral project, “Reparations,” left me emotionally bedraggled by 2018. I had opened myself up like a portal to myriad firsthand testimonies to income inequality based on race. I was called a n***** daily. My life was threatened. I was doxxed. My children were in danger. All this for using digital networking skills to kinesthetically teach “leveraging privilege”?! Never woulda thunk it. Naive to the max. Eighteen nonstop months of my soul opening like an eyeball to so much pain and apathy. My energetic well was bone dry. My body and my family felt like a neglected house. It was time for a change. I needed to replenish myself. I needed to restore myself.
How did that idea expand?
With support from other Black womxn, Amber Flame, Rachael Ferguson, and Imani Sims, I was able to host the first Black Imagination exhibit, “The States of Matter,” at the CORE Gallery in Seattle in January of 2018. Spending a month in the dark surrounded by the voices my collaborators and I collected gave me something back. Something I didn’t realize I needed like food, water, and shelter. That exhibition, where participants were blindfolded and led through a maze of voices by our blind-vocalist docent, Ayanna Hobbs, really jump-started my own imagination and so much has followed.
Black Imagination, the conceptual project, still continues. I’m collecting responses to several prompts from folks all over the world. But so far, Black Imagination has been exhibitions: “The States of Matter,” “The (g)Listening,” “Ritual Objects,” with a fourth (“Sites of Power”) scheduled to open at the Northwest African American Museum in the Spring of 2021; it has also become this beautiful book, which to me is also an exhibition of sorts, taking the form of a book, or perhaps an incantation or a book of spells.
When you hold this book with Vanessa German’s glorious altar cover entitled “I Will Not Suffer For You,” you are holding so many Black voices and intersectional perspectives in your hands and yes, they are sacred.
When did you decide this should transform into a text?
Kristina Kearns was working at McSweeney’s in 2018 and was also my Facebook friend for several years. Making sure my contract was signed was one of her last great acts and in one swoop, she Blackified McSweeney’s entire catalogue exponentially. I am extremely proud to fraternize with the kind of white women who already know how to leverage their privilege and don’t need me to show them the way with what’s left of my energy.
For the most part, what exists in book form never existed in any other form. But on a few occasions, I lovingly transcribed audio I had spent almost a year listening to over and over, so certain pieces could be included in the book. Quenton Baker and Robert Lashley’s pieces are examples—I can still hear their voices in my head when I reread their words today.
How did the contributors get involved in the work?
I have recently had the opportunity to witness again what a robust and resilient global network I have built on social media. This has everything to do with the personalization of my outreach to folks who “the mainstream” often deem peripheral—young people, LGBTQIA+ folx, incarcerated women, people with disabilities, neurodivergent folx, all Black and glorious. Using a handy-dandy web form, I invited folks to upload audio or text responses to three prompts: What is your origin story? How do you heal yourself? Describe or imagine a world where you are loved, safe, and valued.
How do you heal yourself?
Spending time as deep in the cut of my Black Imagination is very rejuvenating. Tomi Adeyemi, Nnedi Okorafor, and N.K. Jemisin have been excellent literary guides. I pick up books by these genius Black women and I scream aloud in my head: Goodbye, cruel world! And mentally leap into their books with abandon and pure glee.
In the introduction you say that these texts heal you. How often do you refer to these excerpts? Is there one that is speaking to you right now?
This book can be a ritual object—it is designed for everyday or regular use. You can flip Black Imagination open at random and find some offering you didn’t realize you needed. Today, I opened to page 135 and I felt Sharan Strange’s voice close to me, even from Decatur, Georgia. She whispered directly into my mind a reminder that several weeks into quarantine-mode, I desperately needed: “I remember that I have the ability to heal, that I can decide on wellness and seek it, that I am already the wholeness that I seek.”
What do you envision as a Black Imagined Future during this uncharted social landscape we are currently facing?
Black Imagination addresses isolation directly as a chorus of intersectional Black testimonies to our present-day survival. Each page is a living testimony to our resilience—we are never alone within the boundless Black Imagination. After my most recent trip to Tanzania, I only want one thing from my life. I want to inspire as many Indigenous African diasporic people (Black Folx) as possible to consider taking ourselves joyfully back to Africa to really build out our dreams while rooted in community.
Where do you plan to take Black Imagination next?
There are Black people everywhere on Earth . . . and I am hopelessly devoted to amplifying our joy, our wellness, and our voices. I would never want to limit myself or cauterize my own incredibly juicy imagination. Let’s do everything. Everywhere. We are wholly boundless, after all.
TL;DR? My friend and award-winning dramaturg, Jay O’Leary, and I are adapting Black Imagination for the stage because, why not? I’m living my best life! v