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“I have learned to accept that acceptance is overrated,” says Roc, president and founder of the Black Girl Brown Girl Collective Inc. (BGBGC), an arts group based in South Phoenix, Arizona. She’s quoting a line from one of her poems, “Torn,” about what it’s like to be racially mixed while trying to fit into a world that doesn’t easily accept intersecting identities. It’s an apt metaphor for the struggle she and other women artists of color engage in to find a foothold in the art world.
Roc is African American and Chicana. “My nappy hair and my brown skin only get me so far. To them, I’m not up to par,” her poem continues. She launched BGBGC in April 2021 with an open mic night called Her Voice, featuring women performance artists and poets like her, alongside craft vendors. A poster for the event explained, “We aim to create spaces to celebrate women’s art in its various forms.”
“It was a really good vibe,” recalls Roc, who went on to organize a follow-up event solely for visual artists called Queens Rise: Art Walk. BGBGC now holds such events annually. Roc says her goal is “making sure the arts are accessible” to women of color.
Accessibility to arts-related opportunities is especially important in South Phoenix, where the majority of the population is Latino and Black, and where traditional indicators of institutional neglect are apparent: discriminatory housing practices, environmental racism, and lower-than-average incomes.
“South Phoenix has 18 food deserts,” says Roc. But it’s also an “art desert.” Although her goal is primarily to promote art, she wants to integrate it into the spectrum of community needs. And she understands that it costs money to make art, and that setting aside the time to make art requires some financial security. “That’s why we’re doing everything that’s free,” Roc explains. “Our programming is free.”
In addition to writing poetry, Roc makes and sells jewelry and T-shirts. “I’m a hustler,” she says, laughing. Like her, many of the artists who participate in BGBGC events pursue multiple art forms in order to survive financially.
Among them is Dominique Daye Hunter, an Afro Indigenous storyteller whose art practice includes “the written word, spoken word, and visual arts.” Hunter runs a streetwear brand, D Daye Hunter Designs, and has written and published a book of poetry and short stories called Seeds: Stories of Afro-Indigenous Resilience.
Hunter is neurodivergent and lives with chronic health conditions, including endometriosis and fibromyalgia. Because her disabilities make it more challenging to work within the confines of a 9-to-5 job, an art career offers her a flexible way to be financially sustainable. But art is also a means of expression and a source of healing. And for Hunter, art is a calling: “This is what I was put on the earth to do,” she says.
The Hustle of Art
It hasn’t been easy for Hunter to make ends meet by selling art. Although she graduated with a degree in nonprofit management from Arizona State University, she acknowledges that being an art entrepreneur can be challenging, especially because “the [business] knowledge that is accessible to some communities is not accessible to me.” She has leaned on other women artists who share resources and advice with one another in a group chat. “We’ve had to pull together,” she says.
“I had no startup money,” she recalls of the challenges she faced in launching her clothing line. “It’s basically been about survival.”
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Like Hunter, artist Diamin Nicole has also exhibited her work at BGBGC’s events. Nicole describes herself as “a Black artist who creates artwork that uplifts and empowers women through body positivity—being able to embrace the natural textures of our hair, the curves of our body, the complexions of our skin.”
Nicole’s paintings depict the faces and bodies of Black women nestled between flowers, honeycombs, and other natural elements. In addition to selling her original paintings, she offers prints, stickers, magnets, and keychains based on her art. For now, art is a “side gig,” but she hopes to be a full-time artist one day, because it brings her “so much peace and joy.”
What Nicole hopes for is the time to “create freely, and not think about a space where, oh, I have to make sure this bill is paid.” Ultimately, she hopes to have “that financial stability to create art for art’s sake.”
Roc is also hopeful that someday she can quit her job in higher education, where she is a manager of student advising. “I’m just thinking about [my] purpose,” she ponders. “Am I just supposed to be working like this?” For now, though, she plans to remain in her job, explaining that “I have a family, I need [health] insurance!”
Roc hopes the community of women artists she is creating at BGBGC not only provides a source of strength, but also ensures “that women have a space to be able to just express themselves and [be] in a comfortable space when they’re around like-minded women.”
Art in a White Male Supremacist World
Nicole believes “it’s harder for Black artists, for Brown artists, to get their art out there and sell it where people see the value within it.” Indeed, the art industry has long been dominated by white men. A large-scale 2019 study examining the racial diversity of artists at major art institutions found that “85% of artists are white and 87% are men.”
Another study, conducted by a behavioral economist, found that people assume art created by men is more valuable, and it comes with a higher price tag compared with art made by women.
These studies are consistent with Nicole’s experience, where she’s seen white artists often gain easy access to the validation of audiences, while artists of color have to navigate additional layers of bias. “I think it changes the game when you aren’t Black or Brown,” she says. When it comes to the work of white artists, “people are going to spend the money—they automatically see the value, you don’t have to press as hard to show the value behind your artwork.”
But Roc looks at it differently, noting the generations of struggle against white male supremacy that many Black and Brown women artists have emerged from. “Our best art comes from struggle,” she says.
Hunter agrees—and much of her art is reflective of her African American and Indigenous heritage. Her great-grandmother, for example, was an enslaved Black woman who survived sexual assault and died at an early age—after helping her family members escape the horrors of sharecropping in the 1930s. “It’s that intergenerational trauma, it does something to your body, to your genes, and to your mind,” says Hunter.
That struggle continues today as Black and Brown women remain near the bottom of socioeconomic and health indicators. “I’ve never taken a break,” says Roc, who has worked since she was 16 years old. “I have too many people depending on me. I have kids. I just can’t afford to fail. Women of color, that’s their mantra—we just gotta keep pushing.”
Envisioning an Artistic Future
“I started creating art as an outlet to express how I was feeling,” Nicole says, adding that “society doesn’t always shine the brightest lights over Black women. There’s something about being able to sit in front of the canvas and letting your ideas just flow.”
For Nicole, letting those ideas flow onto the canvas is a form of world-building. “I wanted something that I can look on and see the beauty within it … and just see how beautiful we truly can be as individuals and just human beings.”
For now, BGBGC continues to host free events for women artists of color. Ultimately, founder Roc’s goal is to acquire a facility dedicated to the arts and run by the organization. She envisions “a one-story building where we do arts programming—kids can come in after school, women can come after school, you can bring family—a multi-generational facility.” She also hopes to organize an art conference.
“I just want a space for community to come in and be able to do arts,” she summarizes. “I want to quit my job, and that’s what I want to do.”
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com