What is Your Medicine: In Conversation with Sabrina Nelson”

Sabrina Nelson was born in the late 60’s during the riots in Detroit Michigan. She is a painter by degree from Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. She is on the staff for the College for Creative Studies where she works hard at motivating and preparing students to pursue an art degree in Detroit. Sabrina has lectured on the preservation of Black Feminism in Art at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. She is a guest curator at The Carr Center and for Music Hall Performing Arts Center. In addition she has judged art competitions for over 30 years as well as curated several art talks and exhibits. Sabrina often interviews guest artist for the City of Detroit’s Culture video channel MyDetroitCable. Her work has been exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Museum of Contemporary Arts in Detroit and the African American Art in Culture Complex in San Francisco CA. Sabrina’s work has also been exhibited in Florida, New York, Louisiana, Illinois and Ohio. Her work is in the collection at the Charles H Wright Museum of African American History and private collections in FL, NY, OH, GA,CA and MI. She has participated in the Miami Basel at Jakmel Gallery, American University in Paris.

How has teaching affected your practice?

It depends on what I’m teaching. I am more than anything coaching how to get into colleges of art and design. I teach installation art and impermanent artmaking. So how it affects my practice is that it reminds myself that even though I am the teacher I can still learn from my students as well. It helps me make sure I’m leaving myself open to be inspired by young artists, leaving myself open to being a student in everyday living, and also making sure I’m listening to what I’m teaching as well.

Did your artistic practice start with making installation work?

You know I think we all nest. We all have a way that we live, and I grew up in a house with my grandmother and my  great-grandmother in the house and I remember the way they put things together in the house, the way they had shadow boxes and curio cabinets, the way they had things that they collected and the way that they placed them and just watching them do that in the house became a part of a practice that I didn’t identify as installation art I just looked at it as, “this is how we live, this is what we do, this is what you’re supposed to do with the things that are precious to you, you put them on a shelf and you look at them and honor them and make sure people know that they mean something to you.” 

So for me installation art is more just about looking at the placement of things that we live with everyday, some of them are utilitarian objects, but a lot of them were put there because they were beautiful. So that segued to me going to art school years later and thinking about the way that my grandmother and great-grandmother set up the house and what that meant, what certain things meant that were on the table, what it meant if you had to put somebody in a prayer box or honor somebody who was no longer with us. They saved obituaries, they lit candles, they had little things on altars. Even in the churches in my family, it was always about installation, the installation of the church pulpit, where things had to go and why. It’s just the way black folks lived who were from the south. It was in every house and every church that I went to. If you didn’t have these things in your house you were different. And then as you get older and you become friends with people who are of different cultural backgrounds you found out that there are some similarities in the way that they keep their things and that we are all humans and we all have these odd practices. So thinking about the idea of art and what it means to have things in placement.

You mentioned ‘nesting’ and birds and nesting seem to be a real persistent metaphor in your work. How did that come to be?

I’m always thinking about birds and beings. We are all beings. Some of us might look at ourselves as celestial beings, some of us might look at ourselves as of the animal kingdom, I look at us as beings. We all breathe the air, and we all live, we all die, we mate, we have babies. I was trying to deal with the trauma of living in everyday city life. As I travel around the country and recruit students, I look at places that I’ve traveled and try to find similarities to my city. It’s really interesting how there’s parts of Tennessee and Kentucky and Inglewood, California and Seattle and Kansas City that are so much like my city, and then what it’s like to live in a community where people think of your community as a whole, and you’re from that community, “oh you’re from Detroit? Wow, isn’t it scary? Does anybody really live there? Look at all the deaths you have to deal with.” Like D.C. and Chicago and cities that have large populations of black and brown people, you know you survive. If you live to be 53 or old, I’m 53 I was born in ’67, then you have these stories and you’ve witnessed some things. You also lose people along the way. And everybody is going to die eventually but sometimes death is helped by violence. 

I wanted to stop thinking about the faces of the victims of violence, whether its police brutality or drug addiction, or gangs, or someone shooting you for your gym shoes. I started thinking of the faces of those victims, because we have a different grapevine now, we have our cellphones, our iPads, our laptops, we don’t have to wait for the news or Aunt Mary to call us to tell us that cousin Jake died, because we can see it on the internet. And so I wanted to no longer use the faces and hashtags of Black and brown bodies, so I started thinking of other black beings like black cats and black birds and how people avoided them because they were black. They thought of them as bad luck. So I looked at black birds, and thought about the names we give their groups: a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens or a conspiracy of ravens, and I thought, “wow that’s just like Black people.” They’re treated as less because of what they look like on the outside not because of what they can contribute to the world. These birds are incredibly intelligent, but the names that they have acquired is because they are black. I started thinking of using those birds as a metaphor for Black and brown bodies who had had been violently killed, but also thinking about what the animal kingdom deals with, do they deal with mourning and trauma and do they hold it in their hearts like we do. Like when I hear something I am incredibly sad. So it easier for me to use those animals to talk about hour human being bodies than it was for me to keep using faces like Mike Brown, or Trayvon Martin’s, like Aiyana Jones, I couldn’t use Philando Castile’s face or a hashtag any longer. I wanted to use something very poetic, something very central, and something very dark.

What was the reason that you wanted to make that switch?

Because I didn’t think I had the right to use the faces or the names of these family members because the media has done enough. The media isn’t always compassionate with the family members. If I see one more howling mother on camera while she is mourning the death of her child— like come on, get the camera out of her fucking face it’s not cool. Don’t do that, you need to mourn with your group privately.

Emmet Till’s mother did it publicly because she wanted the world to see how Black people were treated. She chose that. Not every mother chooses that.

So that is something that you are very cognizant of with your work, that there are social and political responsibilities with what images you choose to use and what subject matter you choose to deal with.

Nina Simone says, “it is the artist’s duty to reflect the times that they live in.” James Baldwin said, “I live in this country and I love this country and it is because I love this country that I have the right to criticize her the way that I do.” So just thinking about those amazing people and the way that they worked, and what they shared with us through their art form—if it’s your superpower and you have that platform and you can have that conversation, with Nina Simone it was “Mississippi God Damn” and with James Baldwin it was If Beale Street Could Talk, it’s just using your voice to talk about the things that disturb or excite you. In my case I’m incredibly angry and sad that we are having racial pandemonium during a pandemic, or that people are dying out here by murder as opposed to a viral infection—first of all stay your asses in the house, don’t touch shit, don’t touch each other, don’t touch a gun and don’t shoot nobody. Like really, you’re out here tazing and shooting people and it’s a pandemic? 

I just think that sometimes life is really stupid and people are really, really stupid. I just want people to look at the idea that we are all the same beings, there is no such thing as race, we have different ethnicities and cultures, but we are all part of the race of being on this planet and we should take care to take care cause these are the only homes and bodies we will have. And it does make sense to have compassion and be kind and live your life without so much trauma. Death is going to happen anyway, we don’t have to help it.

What do you see as the social role for your art, what do you hope that it does?

For me I’m posting things on my Instagram all the time, and I’m posting questions for people to ask, “what is your medicine?” You have a right to pick your medicine, don’t just go with what’s prescribed to you. If your medicine is listening to Marvin Gaye or Hugh Masekela in the morning, or reading a book by Toni Morrison or listening to a poem by Jessica Care Moore, it’s about picking what your medicine is. So for me as a person who can write their own prescription,  the visual arts is my language and medicine that I’m giving out. And sometimes that medicine needs to wake you up so you know you’re even sick. There’s people with diabetes and depression who don’t even know they’re sick. But if you take the right medicine and treat yourself right then you can heal yourself. Sometimes what you take in your body can heal you. I was listening to this poet and musician that I found about my friend Jessica Care Moore, he’s an artist who talks about being mindful of what you take in. What you listen to, what you smell, what you hear, how are all of the senses being fed. That can heal you or allow you to stay in the same place you’ve been in. So my medicine is the visual arts. I can keep giving you medicine and you can choose to let that come in your eyes and soak for a moment, and if you feel that you need that then you can take what you need.

I like to see things in college halls and public spaces with “looking for a space to rent” and there’s a phone number tab to pull, in my case here’s some medicine for your eyes and your soul. Take what you need.

What have you been working on lately?

I just took down a show at Galerie Camille, called Blackbird & Pomona Negra: the Mothers, and that show was specifically about Black and brown death in our communities and how people deal with that in mourning, when we never see those people return to those spaces again. Right now I’m drawing every day for October, there’s a thing called Inktober, I call it Sabrinatober or Blacktober, where I’m drawing something every day to work the muscle of how I see objects based on a word, and I’ve given myself a list of thirty-one words for every day in October. I’m drawing every day to strengthen that muscle and make the desire for painting stronger as well.

I’m starting a linoleum print of my father’s shoes, he died of COVID in April. We had an online memorial service, and one of his friends who was a sign painter dropped off this really great board of pictures of my father, he was a sign painter, and I found the shoes he had on in that photograph. I want to do a portrait of him without using his face and just using objects that belonged to him.

I also just recently finished a mural of Grace Lee Boggs at 1441 Holden. She is a hero for me, and she is definitely one could talk about being mindful about what medicine you take and what you’re exposed to, and being truthful about how the world is. I just don’t think there are enough women that we activate walls with in Detroit. We’ve got a lot of murals, but there aren’t a lot of people who have made changes. Sydney James just finished one, The Girl With the D Earring, of Halima Cassels and it’s really beautiful. Halima is an activist in the North End, and I’d just love to see more of that than the decorative things that we have. I don’t mind them both, but I want to see more women on walls. 

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