IMAGE COURTESY  OF Renee Bracey Sherman

IMAGE COURTESY OF Renee Bracey Sherman

 

 The Beyoncé of Storytelling

2019 - which so far has given us more Lizzo than we deserve, Booksmart, and the glory that is Megan Rapinoe - has also been filled with serious challenges to abortion and reproductive freedom. More than 37 states have adopted new restrictions on abortions in 2019, the Alabama State Legislature passed a near-total abortion ban, and Planned Parenthood was forced to refuse Title X funding in order to continue providing abortion services. These new, and old, restrictions on access to abortion continue to place the heaviest burden on marginalized communities and women of color. While none of this is new, we’re seeing Republican-led state legislatures emboldened to challenge Roe.

While we hear a lot about the politics of abortion and the partisan fight over access - the voices of those who actually access abortions are rarely centered.

Honeybee decided to call up Renee Bracey Sherman, the self-described Beyoncé of abortion storytelling, to better understand why storytelling is essential in de-stigmatizing abortion, why reproductive justice needs to be the leading framework, and how sharing her abortion story has changed her life.

IMAGE COURTESY OF  Amnesty International

IMAGE COURTESY OF Amnesty International

ON HOW SHE GOT INTO ABORTION STORYTELLING

Gosh, how did I get into this? The short answer is I had an abortion. But the longer answer is that I feel like I was raised this way. When I was in college, I took this class on the Sociology of HIV and AIDS and it changed my life because my professor was HIV positive. He was an anti-racist white dude and he was the first person to teach me the word intersectionality, which gave me a word for what I had been feeling in my life as a biracial black woman who experienced privilege in some places but oppression in others. That class showed me how important structures are in deciding who gets access to care and information.

I had had an abortion a couple years earlier, but I didn't really talk to anyone about it. I knew my family would support an abortion but I just didn't want to be seen as a failure.

After college I moved to California and started working with LGBT youth doing lobby days and sharing their stories with legislators to really change the conversation. But I realized that I could not ask them to share their stories and bear their souls if I wasn't willing to do that myself. I finally started sharing my abortion story in 2010, and it really changed my life. It was quite amazing to be met with such love and kindness.

EVERYONE LOVES SOMEONE WHO'S HAD AN ABORTION

Everyone loves someone who's had an abortion. You may not know it because they haven't actually told you, but that might be because you are using terms or saying things that are extremely stigmatizing.

At the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) we fund abortion. We are not afraid of it. That is what we do. We want our tax dollars to fund abortion. We are very clear about what we do and why. We want to build the power of people who are having abortions. We need to make sure that people who have had abortions are the leaders in this movement, that they are centered, that their leadership is lifted up. I feel like that's something that I learned from the LGBT community because they would never let a straight person run a queer organization.

ON WHY IT'S ABOUT MORE THAN ABORTION

A lot of people think that reproductive justice is a synonym for abortion, and it is not. It is an entire framework created by black women to not only address the decision not to have a child, but also to have children, to be able to parent them with respect and with resources and all of those things. It's all human rights. If we cannot decide who we are, what our family size is, what do we have control over? It’s really scary. People seem to think that they're going to stop with abortion, which they are not. We need to have a larger conversation about what it means to be a community and what it means to be able to raise a family in our country. And people have wildly different views of what that looks like.

ON WHY IT'S NOT A "BOTH SIDES" ISSUE

“Someone would rather kill me than let me get healthcare.” - RBS

At the clinic, there’s a bullet-proof, bomb-proof door. When I got my abortion, it was quite terrifying to think, “Wow, they would rather bomb this clinic, and I'd be inside, and that would be a win for them.” There’s also the constant barrage of death threats that I get in my email and on social media all the time. From the moment I got my abortion, it really hasn't stopped.

My experience is nothing compared to providers and clinic staff who deal with it every single day. For a lot of people when they're having their abortion, they're not really thinking about the protest aspect of it or the, “Oh, this is my constitutional right aspect.” They're just like, “I need an abortion right now because I need to get out of this situation.”

I've clinic escorted and I remember one woman was terrified to come down the block to the clinic. She said, “Are they going to kill me? Oh my God, are they going to kill me?” So I ran her in the back door and assured her that they were not. But that doesn't change the fact that it's quite terrifying. Now I'm at the point where people tell me they're going to kill me, and I'm just like, “Okay, cool.” The violence is so normalized in our situation that it doesn’t really stay with me anymore.

People are violent outside of clinics and it's still looked at as a “both sides” issue. The fact that news outlets constantly interview the providers and the patients and then go out to the protesters who are threatening their lives and show them as equal in documentaries drives me up the wall, because those are not equal.

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ON CALLING BULLSHIT

None of these restrictions are based in any sort of science or medical evidence. Abortion is one of the safest procedures and there is no medical justification for any of these bans. And an abortion ban is an abortion ban whether it's a six-week or a 24-week ban. It is a ban because that means someone is not able to get it.

One of the things people misunderstand is justifying the need for an abortion based on exception cases like fetal anomalies, rape, and incest. It doesn't actually help the cause. All of us deserve to have an abortion, and people shouldn't have to bear their reason to you. If someone does not want to be pregnant, or they do not want to continue the pregnancy, they have that right to have an abortion.

ON WHY SHIT-TALKING THE SOUTH IS SERIOUSLY UNHELPFUL

I'll hear people talking about how backwards the South is, and it’s so disrespectful. There are advocates on the ground who are fighting tooth and nail to make sure that abortion is safe and that it is accessible and that people are supported and they really don't need to hear this. They already know how hard it is, they live there. We need people who are ready to get down in the dirt and help. The South is also gerrymandered to all hell, and states across the country are going on 10 years of minority rule. This anti-abortion extremism is not what the general population believes. So not only are they fighting to make sure that abortion stays legal and accessible, they're also fighting for their right to vote and making sure they don't get shot in the face by police. And conservatives are not going to stop with the south, that's just where it's starting. And if you are not going to recognize the resistance that's in the south then you actually have no business in the organizing.

ON BEING VULNERABLE WITH YOURSELF AND YOUR STORY

I'm going to tell you a secret that I only tell people when I am prepping them for abortion storytelling: I actually don't tell my entire abortion story. No one is entitled to your abortion story. You can tell them as much or as little as you want. It’s more than enough just to say, “I had an abortion.” And you don't even have to do that. There are a number of things about my abortion that I keep to myself, and that is really important for me.

People don't really think about how much labor and emotion goes into sharing an abortion story because it can be quite exhausting. You're delving into sometimes a really difficult part of or moment in your life, maybe not because of the abortion but maybe because of a relationship you're in or a place you were living in or a place where you are mentally, so it's all of those things.

I do not care what people who haven't had abortions think about me, to be quite honest. That is not the goal of my work. I do not debate my humanity with anti-abortion advocates. I'm a black woman and I'm also not going to debate my humanity and my existence with a white supremacist. Oddly enough, those are the exact same people.

Any time I'm speaking, my goal and my audience is making sure that people who've had abortions are the ones who are hearing me. If you're out there and reading this, you're not alone. I love you. I'm here for you. I'm unapologetically here for people who've had abortions.

ON THE SPECTRUM OF RAGE

There's so many moments.

It's complicated because sometimes there is a moment that I am enraged but it just looks like me putting my head down and saying,“Okay, what do I need to do?” One of those moments was when Alejandra Pablo, one of our abortion storytellers, was detained by ICE. I was enraged and upset at this country. She was being detained because of a piece of paper. But the way my rage showed up was, “Okay, how do we sound the alarm? How do we get past this? How do we get people talking about this?” So there's that version. And then there is the rage that shows up that's probably really unhelpful, like when I was in a hearing with former Representative Trent Frank.

He is a creep, but also he's Steve King. He began by narrating an ultrasound and he was just going on and on about how precious this little fetus was. And I was like, “Well, is he going to have healthcare?” Trent Frank turned to me and he was like, “Well if he can make it to live.” That whole scene enraged me - this fetish that they have with a fetus instead of the real people who are in front of them, instead of the actual babies that are out there that need help, that need food. And they literally put an ultrasound on the chair to the point that women didn't actually have seats. It was so ridiculous.

Those are the moments that enrage me the most. Seeing the disdain that they have for black people, in particular black women, in real life, and then how much they just glorify this fetus, this idea of a person. I think their obsession with this fetus is simply because it is a black person that does not speak back to them. It is a black person who does not challenge them on their hypocrisy, does not ask anything of them, does not ask them to do their job, does not ask them for the right to vote, does not ask them for healthcare.

IMAGE COURTESY OF  Renee Bracey Sherman

IMAGE COURTESY OF Renee Bracey Sherman

 

ON WHAT'S NEXT

The tough part about all of this is that what is happening right now has been happening for years. It was the logical next step. Abortion has never really been accessible, ever since the Hyde Amendment which bans any sort of federal funding to pay for abortions.

But that's also where abortion funds come from. Abortion funds came out of necessity and abortion funds will always be there because there will always be some sort of financial or logistical barrier to an abortion - whether it's your health insurance, not having the money, or you simply just don't have a ride or need somebody to watch your kids. Even with no restrictions that's always going to be there.

My hope is that with all of the attacks that are happening, people are going to wake up to the alarm that's been sounded for more than 20 years and start getting involved. That means donating to their local abortion fund, volunteering at their local clinic, doing clinic escorting, or doing practical support with their local abortion providers. Because it's about to get rough.

Also, a shout out to all the providers who are doing amazing work. I had my abortion at an independent provider and I think it's really important to lift them up right now because all of the clinics in states that have only one or a handful of clinics left are independent clinics. They don't have the infrastructure or the legal support, so it's really important that we lift them up.

SOME GOOD ADVICE

“Do it again.” If you do it again you're learning.

ADVICE TO RUN AWAY FROM

The worst advice is what they told us in our yearbooks. They would write, “Never change,” and, “Stay the same.” That is the worst advice anyone could ever give, because if you never change that means you are never trying to learn, never trying to do better, never trying to grow.

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WHAT'S ON HER BOOKSHELF

An American Marriageby Tayari Jones
The Untellingby Tayari Jones
We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhoodby Dani McClain
Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Libertyby Dorothy Roberts
Comics for Choice
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister
I Might Regret This by Abbi Jacobson

SHE'S OBSESSED WITH …

Dorothy Roberts. She’s the author of Killing the Black Body, and she is a brilliant mind and speaks to all the things we’re dealing with right now when it comes to reproduction and the way in which bodies are treated.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I’ve been crushing on her because I recently found out that she learned Swedish to translate Sweden’s law code.
Beyoncé: Beyoncé is always the Queen.
Meghan Markle: I'm obsessed with Meghan Markle to the point that one of my friends was like, “Are you a Royalist?” And I was like, “Maybe, I don’t know.”
Marsha P. Johnson: I have a picture on my wall and the P stands for “pay it no mind.”

 
 
IMAGE CREDIT   Pamela Hanson

IMAGE CREDIT Pamela Hanson

 

Curating Art, Creating Community

In Hannah Gadsby’s acclaimed comedy special Nanette (yes, we’re obsessed, and Douglas was quite the follow up!) she remarked, “Art history taught me that, historically, women didn’t have time to think thoughts - too busy napping naked alone in the forest.” Sigh. Yes, art throughout history has long reinforced damaging tropes about gender, race, and class. At the same time, it’s clear that art and artists have challenged this ugliness, and given us new ways of looking at the world and ourselves. Often, curators are our window into this world. There’s an inherent power and gatekeeper role in curation. Curators make key decisions about which artists and messages gets seen, and which don’t. And in some cases they have the power to subtly steer the cultural conversation.

With this in mind, we sat down with independent art curator Lolita Cros to dig deeper into the relationship between art and power, curator and artist. Cros is well-known for her commitment to exhibitions featuring emerging and established artists alongside one another - upending the traditional hierarchy and democratizing access and consideration. You may know her as the curator for women’s coworking space The Wing where she debuted The Salon at The Wing with an exciting cohort of artists.

ON GETTING STARTED

I started curating when I was in college. I was interested in the art I was learning about and realized pretty quickly there must be a similar range of artists out there today. So I did one-on-one studio visits with the artists at school, wondering if one day they would become the artists people study in college.

I started with a group show in an empty apartment and loved the experience and I realized that I wanted to keep doing it. Before I graduated, I did a show in New York and wanted a weird location for it. So I curated a show at a Chinese restaurant in New York. That's when I started working with more established artists. My goal was always to show emerging and established artists alongside one another and present them on the same pedestal, and that way offer audiences the opportunity to fall in love with the work regardless of who made it.

'CAN I ACTUALLY DO THIS?' FROM SIDE HUSTLE TO THE REAL-DEAL

After that, I just kept doing it. Eventually, in 2015, I quit my job and went fully into curating. I started to do more solo shows because I wanted to try the experience of working one-on-one with an artist and help develop their career. Then in 2016 I started working on The Wing Soho.

ON CURATING A FEMALE-IDENTIFYING SHOW AT THE WING

It was a learning curve. Before I worked with The Wing I worked with a lot of female-identifying artists - not really on purpose, but every time I did a group show it was like 50/50 female-to-male. With my first show with The Wing I didn't know I was going to keep working with them, so I engaged all the artists I’d worked with before, not really thinking about gender.

But as The Wing kept growing, I needed to represent more women, different ages, different ethnicities, different cultures, different generations. It's about inclusivity. I'm not a curator of gender, and as much as I'm still learning and I want to learn more about it, it's important for me to just kind of stay in my lane - which is to show emerging and established artists together, no matter how they identify.

ON SHOWING EMERGING AND ESTABLISHED ARTISTS TOGETHER

When I go to an artist's studio and they're emerging and they're so interesting, so smart, I’ll look at them and know - that artist is for sure going to become big someday, for sure. There's just no doubt about it. And yet no one knows about them. You have to learn them, they're so important. I have something there that other people don't have - I have a good gut feeling, so I trust it and show them the way I show established artists.

ON FOCUSING ON THE ART, NOT THE ARTIST

The reason I don't have names next to each of the art works at The Wing is I don't want people to first look at the name and then look at the work. I want them to treat it the same way they'd treat museum-level work by museum-level artists. And the beauty of the audience there is that most people don't even know the bigger names, so they truly will like something that they just like.

IMAGE CREDIT   Lolita Cros   Lolita at The Wing in front of a photograph by artist and filmmaker,  Alex Prager

IMAGE CREDIT Lolita Cros

Lolita at The Wing in front of a photograph by artist and filmmaker, Alex Prager

 

ON OPENING ART UP TO EVERYONE

I've been around artists my whole life - whether they were musicians, or visual artists, or worked in the movie industry. I was always kind of jealous how some people sort of got it - how some people could go to a concert and just enjoy it, and people go to the movies and just enjoy it, read their book and just enjoy it, but when it came to an art show it was always, "Oooh I'm going to an art show, I'm so fancy." And I'm like - why? Why does it have to be fancy? Why can't it just be as fun as going to a concert? That always made me cringe a little bit.

So my question is - how did I fall in love with art? How did I get introduced to art in a way that wasn't exclusive, that wasn't an ordeal? It was a really good art history teacher who didn't use complicated words. He was very straightforward, made it feel very lively when he was talking about dead artists. And so I wanted to keep doing that with exhibitions.

I think art should always have some kind of familiarity so that people can be intrigued by it, but it's a learning curve. My parents didn't know anything about art when they started seeing my exhibitions, they probably got a little bit scared at first. They were like, “Woah I don't get any of this art, it's super conceptual,” and then the second they read about it or I talk to them about it, they understand it, they get it.


EVERYTHING STARTS WITH A CONVERSATION

Everything has to start from a conversation. I don't think I could ever curate a show without having spoken to the artist and read every single thing about them beforehand. Because, everything is about context. Without context you could look at a Rothko and be like, "Oh, he's a serial killer and loves blood and that's why all his pieces are in red." You really need the context behind it to be interested in an artwork, but also to understand it.

Working with an artist is kind of like meeting a friend. The reason you become friends with someone is because something clicked, something happened, and you got stimulated by them and want to learn about them and you want to see more of them. It's kind of like that with art.


ON SPACE

I think first about the space in terms of context. What is associated with that space? So for instance, if tomorrow I did an exhibition in an old bank that closed after 2008, that'd be a very heavy context. I have to think about that more than the color of the walls. I have to think about what a city means and how to incorporate the artist from that city into that space because they are a part of the building of this community. When I was younger, it was more about the novelty of the space, like the Chinese restaurant. I can't say that I considered the context of it. I thought more about the aesthetic because it was a really over the top, kitschy restaurant, with fake gold everywhere.

I think I would probably curate it differently if it was today because I'd do more research on that aesthetic and what it means to the Chinese culture. I think about the context more than the space itself.


ON VULNERABILITY - WHEN IT'S NOT ABOUT HER

It's hard because my role is to highlight an artist's work. It's not about me. So vulnerability is weird because I have to put it on hold when it comes to me, but at the same time it is hard when you're talking about an artist's work when they're standing right next to you. So I don't know - you just have to do it.

The reason I'm so in awe of artists and intrigued by them is because they have insane courage. They basically put all their subconscious onto a canvas, onto a sculpture, onto anything - and then have other people look at it, and sometimes even judge it. And sometimes they really fail, but will come back with a series that's so much stronger than the last one. The courage that they have is just incredible.

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ON PROVING HERSELF WRONG

I don't really get off on anger. I get off on proving someone wrong. And most of the time it's proving myself wrong.

WHY THE ART WORLD IS SO EXCITING RIGHT NOW

The amount of undiscovered talent is incredible. I feel like I have an insane superpower. I feel like I know the future. You know? I feel like I'm holding the keys to so many great art works. I always think about my future children, or nieces or nephews, about how they’ll come visit me and see all the amazing artists I’ve worked with and that I've known from the start.

"NO ONE CARES" - AND WHY IT'S LIBERATING

One piece of advice that applies to life in general is that no one cares.

Advice I’ve been giving a lot recently is - take everybody's advice with a grain of salt. Some people may seem like they know a lot, and especially when you're a young woman - you'll get a lot of unsolicited advice. Don't always take it.They might not really know better than you.

WHAT SHE'S READING

Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabrielle.

SHE'S OBSESSED WITH ...

Marian Goodman. I have a huge amount of respect for her - she’s stayed incredibly strong through different artists leaving her or going through different phases of their careers. She also has one of the best rosters, all her artists are incredible.

IMAGE COURTESY OF  Gabriella Sanchez and Charlie James Gallery

IMAGE COURTESY OF
Gabriella Sanchez and Charlie James Gallery

WHAT'S NEXT?

The thing I love is pretty wide. I'm definitely going to keep doing what I do. The model might change here or there. Now that I've curated art by emerging and established artists, I'm getting more focused on selling art in bigger collections. I want to keep working with different types of clients on different types of projects, and always accompanying exhibitions with education, or studio visits open that are open to the public, these kinds of things. Creating connections through different communities and different levels of artists is always interesting to me.

WHO TO KEEP YOUR EYE ON ...

A lot of them are in Chicago and LA. Gabriella Sanchez is
incredible. She's in LA, she has a solo show at Charlie James Gallery.