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Baltimore art collective Balti Gurls tackles issues of race and gender head-on

Several Baltimore female minority artists noticed they weren't being heard. So they joined forces.

For more than three years, Jenné Afiya Matthews has crafted collages peppered with images from pop culture of women of color, brightened with prints and hues. But as she became rooted in the city's art scene, she noticed an absence: minority women.

The Baltimore art scene, "very male" and "very white" according to Matthews, meant that meeting other female artists of color was rare. Additionally, she said she has been harassed and touched inappropriately at exhibitions and concerts, where she felt the music scene was just as unwelcoming for minority women. Her female musician friends recounted stories about event managers at concert venues refusing to book them because they feared that artists of color would attract crowds "too hood" or "ghetto" to contain.

"It sort of kept crossing my mind ... what is this division about?" she said. But when confronting fellow artists and curators directly, Matthews said she was met with indifference.

"People thought that it was my responsibility. That let me know that, if you're not going to do it, then somebody had to," Matthews said.

In spring 2014, the 24-year-old mixed-media artist from Waverly founded Balti Gurls — an all-women-of-color art collective. The now 11-member-strong crew works together and separately, creating mixed-media artwork, images of black women meshed with original paintings and graphics, visual slide shows with hair grease and kiddie perm ads, prints tackling societal pressures such as mental-health stigmas and female friendly-tunes free from misogynistic lyrics.

But the group first started with a question: Were other female artists of color experiencing the same thing Matthews had?

Matthews scoured Facebook, searched within her friend groups and sent out messages to find out. She held the first meeting — a potluck at a friend's home — with around 15 women, which turned into a two-hour discussion about the personal experiences of being creative women of color. Soon, her call to arms resulted in the formation of a like-minded group of DJs, musicians, designers, videographers, photographers and performance artists. All were women of color from Baltimore, hence the name, Balti Gurls, or "BG" for short — an interchangeable acronym that stands for "black" and "brown" women, including trans women of color, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and other races and cultures.

It was an immediate melting pot of perspectives and creativity. Matthews recruited singer-songwriter Joy Postell, who released the song "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" during last April's unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray resulting from injuries sustained while in police custody. Also on board were Jessica Hyman, also known as DJ Trillnatured, who mixes Baltimore club music with sounds of R&B; visual artist N'Deye Diakhate, who tackles queer identity; and Alejandra Nuñez, also known as DJ Genie, who teeter-totters between her love of reggaeton and trap music, among others.

In one of their first collaborative projects, the artists pulled from memories of childhood, beauty rituals, love and frustration. They created a visual slide show with images of women with afros and cornrows, beauty products and photos from the artists' personal photo albums to show their interpretation of beauty culture.

"It's like a 'for us, by us' concept. When women of color are speaking to other women of color, the gaze is changed ... We're getting it from the source. We're not looking outside. We're looking inside to get our work, and I think that's very important," said Matthews.

In January 2015, Balti Gurls held its first event at downtown multi-use arts space EMP Collective, a screening of the short film "Ackee and Saltfish" by Jamaican-British filmmaker Cecile Emeke.

The Balti Gurls' follow-up event was the first to feature the collective's work, a music and art showcase party last November called "Edge Control," named after a hair product commonly used by black and brown women, and also held at EMP Collective.With the group's signature slide show serving as a backdrop, the event featured a lineup of minority female Baltimore artists and musicians. The group opened its doors with a warning that read "No touching without permission. No racism or homophobia." About 200 people attended.

Carly Bales, the artistic director of EMP Collective, said Balti Gurls has created a movement of empowerment.

"Primarily, what keeps coming back to me from artists and peers in the art community is the fresh energy and the positive and inviting space that [Balti Gurls] create ... and there's this excitement around the creating of space and creating a platform to disenfranchised voices," said Bales, 30.

Hyman said Balti Gurls is the community that she had always been looking for.

She said women can feel unsafe or pressured in spaces dominated by men, especially those in creative fields.

"A common belief is that in order to make your break into the music industry you should come in alongside a male and that you're connected with a male in some way," Hyman said. "And most people will assume it's sexual when really it's not."

Balti Gurls member Chanel Cruz, 22, a performance artist and senior fiber arts major at the Maryland Institute College of Art, said she knew Balti Gurls was gaining notice when they were recently invited to her school as visiting artists. She was surprised when she was recognized.

"It was a real moment for me because a couple of the people knew about us and they were excited that we were there," said Cruz. "The shock factor is starting to get to me, that people know I am a part of it before I can introduce myself."

According to Matthews, the collective has received recognition from strangers on the street, as well as at galleries and museums, like the Contemporary and the Penthouse Gallery, where Balti Gurls hosted a show in February celebrating black love.

"For a lot of people it had to just be brought to their attention and they weren't thinking about it," Matthews said of the exclusion of minority female artists.

Bales, agreed, noting that the lack of diversity in the Baltimore artsphere is often caused by people not looking beyond their social groups.

"What I've seen firsthand when running a space is that it's really a matter of sort of social divides that have their roots in structural racism and socioeconomic discrimination," Bales said. "For many years if I hosted an event with an African-American artist, typically [African-Americans] were the only people that would show up. I don't think it's necessarily a concerted effort on anyone's part."

The collective's emergence comes at a time of heightened racial tensions in America, fueled by the deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police around the country and renewed talks of lack of diversity in Hollywood. Hashtags like "#BlackLivesMatter," "#Oscarssowhite" and "#BlackGirlMagic" emerged on social media, then quickly moved to physical presences, aiming to confront and dismantle inequalities.

Sheri Parks, associate dean of University of Maryland, College Park's College of Arts and Humanities, said that women of color sequestering themselves in their art is often necessary in a world that has long been speaking for them instead.

"Women of color basically end up being subjects rather than participants in art, and the roles that are available to them and depicted are for the fantasy lives of someone else," she said. "There are few opportunities historically certainly for black and brown female artists to depict themselves as they see themselves."

Charles E. Bethea, head curator of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, said that though the art world is embracing more diversity, it's moving at a pace where a collective like Balti Gurls is still needed.

"What Balti Gurls is trying to do is to create awareness that they exist — women of color who create art and create aspects and objects distinguished in mainstream culture — and I think it's fabulous," he said. "People have the tendency to want to see themselves, and this includes museum exhibitions, television, and media, in a positive light, of course."

And the group has already expanded its reach by connecting with like minds, including Baltimore arts collective Dwelaa, Baltimore-based bimonthly zine True Laurels and photography collective Mambu Badu.

And though the arts collective does not have any plans to expand its membership Matthews said she prefers to keep the collective a tightknit foundation — Balti Gurls has a busy upcoming schedule.

The group will speak as a part of the "From URL to IRL" panel at the west downtown Platform Gallery on April 7, where they will display and discuss their work and their mission. They will co-host a meetup with Art Hoe Collective, an arts group dedicated to race, representation and identity, in May, and a reboot of Edge Control is planned for July.

And Matthews is dreaming up plans for a special gallery space for the group.

"For me, there never can be enough women, particularly women of color, getting together and talking about our experiences," Matthews said.

bbritto@baltsun.com

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