How a Brooklyn artist is making black women her focus
By Sandra E. García
The faces of the women in her portraits are often partly covered by a mask tied behind their heads, tugging at braids, low buns or tufts of curls. They are dressed in uniforms that show their essential jobs, but their style and charisma shine through their everyday armor.
They are Black women who work in jobs that the coronavirus pandemic quickly revealed as essential to the functioning of New York City. And they were all drawn by Aya Brown, 24, a Brooklyn artist. They are women who took care of Brown during a hospital or a supermarket visit. They include janitors, MTA workers, mail carriers and security guards.
The drawings — made with color pencils on brown paper — comprise Brown’s Essential Worker series, a collection drawn with an intimacy that makes the viewers feel as if they too know the subject. It’s not just their jobs that are depicted through the lines and colors, but their panache.
“My goal is to uplift Black women who look like me and inspire me — to give them a space to be seen and to bring awareness to them,” Brown said.
Women have been the heroes of the pandemic. They are in the emergency rooms, on the streets delivering packages, in nursing homes, on construction sites, and many are still teaching their students who have been attending school from home.
One in three of the jobs held by women is essential, according to a New York Times analysis of census data crossed with the federal government’s essential worker guidelines. Most of the women who have essential jobs are women of color.
“I guess when you think about essential workers, you don’t really think of yourself,” said Aja Brown, 26, Brown’s sister and a subject of one of her portraits.
Aja Brown is a paraprofessional educator, a role similar to a teacher’s aide, and works with fifth graders in Brooklyn. She has been working from home since the city closed schools in March. She never considered herself an essential worker until she saw her sister’s portrait of her on Instagram. The portrait made her cry, she said.
“I don’t know if I needed that space,” Aja said. “I just want my kids to get where they need to be emotionally and academically. I kind of don’t really think about myself.”
Aya Brown aims to change that thinking, to help Black women see themselves as essential by putting them at the center of her artwork and bringing the viewer into her universe.
“It’s very clear how close she is to her mainstream, how unfiltered her perspective is and how much she loves her people and her village,” said Tamara P. Carter, a writer and director of the upcoming TV show “Freshwater.”
After being furloughed by her employer, Gavin Brown Enterprises, where she organized events, Aya Brown has used her free time to delve into her art, which focuses on showing Black queer women fully: their sexuality, strength, style, bodies, joy and edge. Even the materials she uses are intentional: She draws on brown paper, she said, because “Black bodies do not need to start from white.”
Occasionally, she hosts parties that are meant to provide a safe space for Black lesbians, like herself. It is the kind of support Brown was entrenched in growing up in Brooklyn, and a foundation that was notably missing when she attended Cooper Union, a private college in Manhattan. She said her experience there was traumatic, that she did not feel as if her blackness was accepted. After three years, she dropped out in 2017.
“They made me feel like I didn’t deserve to be there,” Brown said.
She began her Essential Worker series in April, after a trip to the emergency room. There she noticed that her nurse, a Black, West Indian woman, took care of her while her doctor stopped by intermittently.
“I noticed that nurses in the ER are usually Black women,” Brown said. “I am thinking about these Black women on the front lines. It just bothered me because no one is noticing this.”
A few months later, out of work because of the pandemic and with not much to do, she began to develop her Essential Workers series.
Brittany Tabor, 29, one of Brown’s subjects, has been a store director at a Target in Brooklyn for six years.
“You never knew you were essential until COVID hit,” Tabor said, “and it’s like, I have to stand up for the community now. I didn’t realize all that we do.”
Like countless Black women around the country, Tabor had to be a counselor for her staff during the pandemic. When someone lost a family member or a neighbor, she tried to put them at ease.
“I needed them to know, ‘I am in it with you, and let’s get through this together,’” Tabor said. “But I was freaking out, too. I was human with everyone else. I was just able to put on a different hat.”
Black women are also underrepresented in the worlds of art and media, and Black queer women are nearly nonexistent in museums, according to Chaédria LaBouvier, the curator of “Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story,” at the Guggenheim Museum.
“It is disgusting in a really violent and indifferent way,” LaBouvier said. “There is no excuse, and even Black curators can be complicit in perpetuating that.”
LaBouvier said Brown’s work is not about being left out of the white, heterosexual, patriarchal art world, but about the Black working class saying, “I am already the center, and there is a lot of beauty here.”
Brown’s work “looks at what liberation actually could be,” LaBouvier said. “You’re in a moment where queer women are saying, ‘It is so much bigger than fitting into the system; let’s abolish the system.’”
According to Carter, when we look back on this moment in history and wonder who saved New York City from the coronavirus pandemic, Brown’s portraits will provide the answer.
“Who she’s making the art for seems to be just as important as the art itself,” Carter said. “Art made with that kind of love and rigor is self-evident and can’t be co-opted.”