Art Explores African Americans’ Past and Present

08 March, 2019

Artist Zsudayka Nzinga Terrell clearly remembers the day in high school when the teacher asked her to write about her family history.

She saw that it was impossible to answer the questions 'Who am I?' and 'Where did I come from?'

Nzinga Terrell told VOA about her childhood memories.

"So the white kids were able to get up and talk about hundreds of years of their background. And there was me and one other black kid in the class who could go back to a plantation in Virginia and that's it."

She talked about her family's history.

"My people were brought here on the bottom of a ship. And they were sold and they were re-named. My dad's side of the family took the last name of the job that they had, which is butlers. My mom's side of the family took the last name of the plantation that owned them."

Today, she and her husband, artist James Terrell, explore that identity in their work. Their new exhibit of paintings is called "Born at the Bottom of the Ship." The show recently opened at the Center for the Arts in Manassas, Virginia.

New culture, new tribe

Over the generations, Africans became African Americans with a new culture, and Nzinga Terrell includes different parts of that story in her art. There are things that look like African cloth and design and things that make you think of American culture and clothing.

An example is "Hope and Grace," a painting of two women wearing colorful clothes with traditional African patterns. Pointing to their hair, she says:

"They have these big afros so it could be 1960, it could be 2018."

James Terrell's style is more abstract. Mami Wata, the first painting visitors see in the new exhibit, shows a woman rising from the ocean. Terrell explains the painting.

"Mami Wata is a goddess of the sea.... There's no light going through; there's not a lot of color being seen, as opposed to the other ones. So, it's just showing the time of the slaves being brought to America."

But the artist says he also likes to play with color. Growing up, Terrell attended a church with colored glass in many windows. Because of that experience, he learned how light goes through the windows. He makes lines in his painting that look like the lines between pieces of colored glass in the church windows.

Terrell's works show how he sees himself as an African American.

He says he wants the people in his painting to look happy, hopeful and strong.

Visitors to the art exhibit say they see themselves and their family members in the works. They like the different kinds of people in the paintings because they know that many Americans come from other countries and cultures.

The artists hope to take their exhibit to other states and around the world.

I'm Jill Robbins.

Faiza Elmasry reported on this story for the Associated Press. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

kid – n. young person

plantation – n. a large area of land especially in a hot part of the world where crops (such as cotton) are grown

butler – n. the main male servant in the home of a wealthy person

afro – n a hairstyle of tight curls in a full evenly rounded shape

abstractn. expressing ideas and emotions by using elements such as colors and lines without attempting to create a realistic picture

slaven. someone held in servitude

symbolize – v. to represent

What do you think of the pictures made by the Terrells? Do they remind you of any art in your own culture? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.