“Everythings For Real” by Grace Wales Bonner (2015)
Seeking authenticity in the art I consume carries many challenges for me. To relate deeply with another person’s message in art is to believe their message deserves to be given life the way the artist has chosen. Achieving the wholeness that connection requires is what is most difficult for me. I’ve come to find that connecting to someone else’s work—beyond a superficial understanding—requires an alignment of personal taste and known experience. To truly identify with a message intimately drawn from art is to experience the art so viscerally, it’s as if the artist is speaking directly to you. I really never understood that until I encountered Grace Wales Bonner’s debut fashion collection and corresponding zine.
A south London-native born to Jamaican and British parents in the early 90s, Wales Bonner graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2014. She released her first menswear collection as a presentation for Fashion East during A/W 2015, along with the three-part zine “Everythings For Real” for reference. Recognizing her heritage is integral to understanding how Wales Bonner has created a cross-continental and cultural zine on what she titles “Reflections on Black Rhythm.” The clothes and zine demonstrate a deep influence of Indian, Jamaican, and West African fashion and culture. The zine, however, ties the project together through poetry, prose, and photography in a way that evokes greater meaning and detail. Having grown up in a similar setting, I consider this book to be one of the greatest depictions of Black identity in high fashion to date. I too am the daughter of Jamaican parents, navigating the art world in a Black female body. Her work for this collection shows thorough representation, with its focus on images of Black people around the world—in war, in embrace, at leisure, and at work. Visually, it brings about a sense that there is a personal calling from the artist to her cultural identity, which I share and feel. The pages are adorned with collages of bodies and landscapes, harmonious in colour and shape. Methodically, she tells a story through combined imagery and text that shines upon the African diaspora, West Indian identity, and a vast well of Black art.
Wales Bonner also features selected works by James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Aimé Césaire, Amiri Baraka, and other Black thinkers and writers. By combining the words of these authors in their respective mother tongues and placing them alongside her collages, she gathers a unified sense of pride and energy from each voice she borrows, piecing them together in abstract conversation. In establishing a connected and interactive experience through clothing and print, Wales Bonner’s “Everythings For Real” demonstrates a sense of self-awareness absent from many works I’ve seen and admired in the past. It shares a range of feelings and memories that, by no coincidence, remind me of my own. — Tamia Thompson
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi (2013)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah is a love story about identity and culture, told through the experiences of two young lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they leave their home in Lagos and emigrate abroad. When Ifemelu is accepted into America to attend Princeton, Obinze’s visa is denied and she leaves without him. Her experiences with racism as an African immigrant in America cause her to alienate Obinze as she builds a life around new rules and issues. After Obinze is denied entrance into America, he moves to London where he eventually overstays his visa and struggles as an undocumented immigrant. Despite the systemic barriers that both of them face, they manage to make space for themselves in their chosen paths and eventually find their way back to each other.
Americanah is the first book I read that asked me to think critically about feminism, race, privilege and power. Ifemelu recounts her experiences with an outsider’s perspective as an African immigrant experiencing new systems of oppression and racism that she hadn’t encountered in Lagos. This is illustrated by her struggle to find work to pay for her college tuition, and the imbalance of power she feels in her workplace. Ifemelu’s position as a nanny for a rich young white couple who identify as liberal and volunteer in Africa was particularly jarring. The couple makes casual comments based on stereotypes and generalizations about Africa and Africans, and when Ifemelu responds to these comments, she’s the one who often ends up blunting her words and apologizing to not upset them. Later in the book, Ifemelu states that “she advises not to be bitter when talking about racism to white liberals, or they won’t be sympathetic.”
These scenes helped me start to understand how black folks are expected to sugar-coat injustices for white comfort. Another passage from the book that stuck with me was Ifemelu’s employer apologizing for the racist comments uttered by her sister: “Ifemelu finds these apologies ‘self-indulgent,’ as if she could fix everything wrong with the world just by saying sorry.” This emphasized how the act of apologizing often only serves to soothe white egos.
Despite Americanah being a social commentary on the power dynamics of race in America, it made me look at racialization in Canada critically and examine how I benefit from white privilege. I am white in Canada, a white woman, and was born here. Ifemelu’s oppression is also threefold: She’s black in America, a black woman, and a black immigrant woman. Her experiences in Americanah taught me how the post-racial North America is a myth built on the erasure of race and culture. — Megan Amato
The Valkyries by Paulo Coelho (1992)
Every person, Paulo Coelho writes, creates a space. There’s a fifteen-foot-radius of attention around them, enclosing all objects, things, people and the way they change. But if you lift your eyes to the horizon, this space gets better: you feel bigger.
On the red sands spanning the Mojave Desert in the southern U.S., soul-tortured philosopher/writer Coelho rides to find (if only to prove the myth reality) the Valkyries: a tribe of leather-clad, elusive but magnetic warrior women riding steel stallions into the desert’s horizons.
Coelho retells an episode from his own life: a time when he realizes that as soon as he begins an artistic pursuit, he loses inspiration and quits, only to find something else to occupy his passions before quitting again. Wanting resolution to this fateful cycle and his failing marriage, Coelho takes a hiatus from writing and travels with his wife to find the Valkyries. Along his journey he meets mystics, strangers, and angels, who help him reform his own capricious thinking patterns.
The story incorporates elements of magic, spirituality, religion, but in essence, Coelho writes about an experience that feels universal to all artists: losing your fervour and succumbing to the anxiety that comes from this loss.
I’m going to Joshua Tree National Park, adjacent to Mojave Desert. The searing heat scorches skin and asphalt. We take a hike during the cool, late hours of the day, and I bring The Valkyries with me. I’m not quite out of my own world. Unresolved problems at home and uncertainty of the future shadow my steps, making me fearful and uncreative. I look out at the horizon. I notice the immovable mountains, the way the evening drapes its stillness over life. These mountains have existed long before I was born, and they will survive me. These things don’t change. This horizon is bigger than whatever is in front of me. My vision expands, a sense of peace sets in. A thought comes in: I can be bigger than what’s in front of me. I see myself differently, I feel bigger. I read the book but it lives alongside me, like a helpful stranger accompanying me on my own journey. — Lena Orlova
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
When I first read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, “Lolita”, I was fourteen and absolutely mesmerized. I read it over the course of a month, taking the prose in small sips to appreciate every nuance of detail. I was endeared with the aesthetics of it: the flowery language, a road trip across America, a man who loves a girl so much that he would die for her—that he would write an entire book to defend his affections.
I didn’t initially grasp the reality behind Nabokov’s mask of beautifully convoluted language: the story is about Humbert Humbert, a man who kidnaps and assaults twelve-year-old Dolores Haze over the course of a year. Because the novel is from Humbert’s point-of-view, the reader never gets insight into Dolores’ perspective.
I was a young girl just like Dolores when I first read Lolita. Like Dolores, I was charmed into believing that Humbert’s words were truth. I trusted his authority because he wrote with eloquence. When I reread the novel at twenty, I became aware of the imbalance in power dynamics between Humbert and Dolores that Nabokov had created.
I realized that what I held in my hands wasn’t a love story. Obsession isn’t love. Abuse isn’t love.
My reading of the novel has changed in the six years since I first picked up the book. I see now that Humbert manipulates and overshadows the truth, but Dolores’ life and strength bleeds between the lines, waiting for recognition, if only we search for her. — Andie Bjornsfelt