As a Ph.D. candidate at Howard University’s African Studies Department with a background in international relations, I studied language, literature and the arts. Early on — midway through President Obama’s administration, at a time when the Ugandan anti-gay legislation act was in the news — I began thinking about how art and culture are significant to moving foreign policy forward, especially with regard to inclusion and diversity and human rights.
I had just started writing my dissertation, so I wasn’t in the thick of it yet — but in thinking about the power of the arts, I wanted to see these ideas I was thinking through. As an academic, I had looked at issues theoretically, but I wanted to see something tangible. So I did a couple of things in response.
I began to look at the work of visual artists focused on issues of inclusion and identity. And I applied to MICA’s Curatorial Studies program, successfully submitting my application based on the idea of curating my dissertation.
Here at MICA, I had people in my corner from the head of my program, José Ruiz, to peers and staff across campus — who gave me the space and opportunity to see my ideas through. I was given my own process, which was empowering. In my dissertation, I talk about historical and contemporary notions of being Black LGBTQ and free, but the visual forms in my thesis show are the proof. Artwork is the data.
One of the first artists I researched was Zanele Muholi, a South African artist and visual activist who has used her creative output to intervene in the historical narrative of that country, and to help others think through human rights and intersectional identity concerning gender and sexuality. When I opened her catalog, Faces and Phases 2006–2014, it was the first time I saw people in a fine arts capacity who reflected who I was. It was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my life — one hundred plus photographs of black lesbian women and transgender men.
This is who I am in the world — I’m a black trans-masculine person. Putting together a visual dissertation about artists like Zanele Muholi, and so many others who are not often cited in scholarly discourse, gave me the ability to think, “I’m not impossible. There is nothing that is impossible.” Throughout years of study, I had always been on the ground, but MICA gave me the ability to fly.
I am also a teacher in higher education, and I want to give my students the space that MICA allowed me. Some people are successful writing a 200-word essay, some can articulate themselves through poetry or through a piece of artwork — expressing the same ideas but with the opportunity to do so in ways that empower them. MICA gave me proof that it works. That the imagination and what that imagination produces are evidence that anything is possible.”