Imagine Otherwise: Jillian Hernandez on the Politics of Confidence and Creativity

by | Nov 11, 2020

Jillian Hernandez on the Politics of Confidence and Creativity

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 122

About the episode

Women and girls are constantly bombarded with messages to be more confident, whether it’s about demanding what we’re worth in salary negotiations or just moving through the world with “the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

Although such advice might be useful for some, it doesn’t account for how race and class shape the politics of confidence to begin with, much less center the perspectives of women, girls, and femmes of color in determining the goals of such confidence.

In episode 122 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews curator, community arts educator, and professor Jillian Hernandez, whose interdisciplinary research examines how Black and Latinx women and girls negotiate gender, sexuality, race, and class through cultural production and bodily presentation. 

In the conversation, Jillian and Cathy discuss the racialized, gendered, and classed politics of confidence, how women and girls of color are challenging the art world’s social hierarchies, what collective creative support looks like during COVID-19, and why building a world where girls, women, femmes, and mothers of color can rest and resist is how Jillian imagines otherwise.

Guest: Jillian Hernandez

Jillian Hernandez is a scholar, community arts educator, curator, creative, and assistant professor of gender, sexualities, and women’s studies at the University of Florida.

Her interdisciplinary research examines how Black and Latinx women and girls negotiate gender, sexuality, race, and class through cultural production and body presentation.

Her book Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment (Duke University Press, 2020), examines how the bodies of women and girls of color are racialized through cultural valuing that marks them as sexual “others.” 

Jillian is the founder of Women on the Rise!, an insurgent collective of women of color artists who worked with Black and Latina girls in Miami, Florida. Over the course of a decade, the collective engaged thousands of girls in art making and critical dialogues about gender and society through feminist art.

Episode themes

  • The racially gendered politics of confidence
  • Black and Latinx feminist art from the perspective of girls and femmes
  • How art and community are changing under COVID-19
  • Centering mothers, girls, and femmes in social justice movements

“I want a world that’s organized around the imaginations of women and girls of color.”

— Jillian Hernandez, Imagine Otherwise

Transcript

 Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach [00:23]:

Women and girls are constantly bombarded with messages that we should be more confident, whether it’s advice about demanding what we’re worth in salary negotiations, or memes that suggest we start moving through the world with the “confidence of a mediocre white man.”

Although such advice might be useful for some contexts, it doesn’t account for how race and class shape the politics of confidence to begin with—much less center the perspectives of girls, women, and femmes of color in determining the goals of such confidence.

Cathy Hannabach [00:51]:

My guest today is curator, community arts educator, and professor Jillian Hernandez, whose interdisciplinary research examines how Black and Latinx women and girls negotiate gender, sexuality, race, and class through cultural production and bodily presentation.

In our conversation, Jillian and I discuss the racialized, gendered, and classed politics of confidence; how women and girls of color are challenging the social hierarchies of the art world; what collective creative support looks like in the age of COVID-19; and why building a world where girls, women, femmes, and mothers of color can rest and resist is how Jillian imagines otherwise.

Cathy Hannabach [01:31]:

Thank you so much for being with us today, Jillian.

Jillian Hernandez [01:34]:

Thank you, Cathy. This is so exciting.

Cathy Hannabach [01:37]:

You are the author of an amazing new book called Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment. To start off our conversation today, what is that book about and what got you excited about writing it?

Jillian Hernandez [01:51]:

The book is about how Black and Latina women and girls negotiate power relations in the US through their body practices. So, practices of dressing up and presenting themselves to the world but also artistic practices through making art, through making sculptures using their own bodies.

A lot of this work stemmed out of community arts work that I was doing in Miami, Florida, through a collective called Women on the Rise! It was a project that I founded in 2004. It was myself and a rotating group of amazing women of color artists who would work with girls in the community in Miami.

We would use feminist art to engage the girls in conversations around race, around gender, and around sexuality. The interactions that I was so privileged to engage in with the girls through art taught me so much about the power of art and aesthetics to really transform how we think about gender, race, and sexuality but also the enormous potential of the creative as a tool for connecting with each other and as a tool for making ourselves in the world.

 

Cathy Hannabach [03:22]:

One of what I think is the greatest contributions that this book makes (and there are many) is it puts the voices, bodies, and worldviews of girls of color at the very center of discussions of cultural capital and aesthetics. This is something that a lot of these conversations don’t do, instead privileging other voices and worldviews.

I’m struck by your methodology in this book and the way that you approach these kinds of questions of cultural capital, aesthetics, race, gender, and embodiment through how you engage with your interview subjects. What made you want to approach aesthetics in this way, through this kind of methodology?

Jillian Hernandez [04:04]: 

I think it actually was the other way around, in a way. I started from the community arts work. I think for me, the methods in the book very much mirror the methods that we used in Women on the Rise! in many ways in that we used artwork.

What we would do is we would visit the girls in different places, so it would be an after-school program at a high school, it would be at the juvenile detention center, it would be at a residential drug treatment center. We would spend about ninety minutes to two hours with the girls. Each time we went, it would be a standalone workshop where we would introduce them to the work of a woman artist, so it would be Lorna Simpson or Ana Mendieta. The girls weren’t expected to know anything about art or be trained at all in art history or art, and really, it was about producing dialogue.

Jillian Hernandez [05:06]:

In the book, I use the format of interviews, of group interviews instead of one-on-one interviews, because we did work with the girls as a group, to really try to share with the reader how rich the conversations are and how the girls’ own theorizations…Oh my god, it’s so early in the morning. The ways the girls were theorizing racialization, sexuality, they were theorizing around representations in popular culture.

So for me, the book really came from wanting to share these insights of the girls with the scholarly community and beyond, in gender and women’s studies, in ethnic studies, and art history and visual culture studies because I think that these are spaces that, as you mentioned, don’t really center even adult people of color, let alone young, working-class, Black and Latina women and girls.

Jillian Hernandez [06:10]:

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that Women on the Rise! was operating through the Museum of Contemporary Art that is in North Miami. In many ways, the institutional power dynamics of the museum very much restricted what we could do with the girls and how the work we were doing with the girls was represented.

For me, the project became one about telling the story of how working-class girls, contemporary art, and art institutions are intimately related, even though we want to think about them as these discrete social and cultural spaces.

Through Women on the Rise!, myself and other artists in the collective were traversing these spaces of the elite art institution and these poor and working-class areas in Miami and what does it mean to move through that, and what did it mean for our bodies, which also signify.

Even though we were a collective of women of color, our bodies also signified in different ways, different forms of class privilege too. So, what did it mean for us to go into these spaces and work with girls. 

Jillian Hernandez [07:26]:

It was really about telling that story. Now the art world is experiencing quite a reckoning as it concerns issues of race and difference and institutional power. In my book, this story is being told from the perspective of Black and Latina girls.

Cathy Hannabach [07:46]:

Given your long history in the curatorial world, in the community arts world, I would love to talk a little bit about how that work for you has shifted recently. You mentioned the reckoning that the art world more broadly is facing and has been facing for quite some time at this point, and I agree, I think it’s coming to a head in terms of public conversations much more intensely.

But also, we have the enormous shifts that the arts world—and it’s really arts worlds, the different spaces in which art is created—is facing due to COVID. So, I’m curious, how has your approach to curatorial work or community arts work shifted in the face of COVID-19?

Jillian Hernandez [08:29]:

I’ve just sort of had to have this moment of pausing and really rethinking how to proceed. It was so sad because one of the things that I was working on organizing with my students at the University of Florida around March 28th, was a perreo. Perreo is an African-diasporic dance. Many folks became familiar with perreo through the Verano Intenso in Puerto Rico in 2019, where a lot of folks, a lot of queer and trans folks, were using the dance as a form of protest, denouncing Ricardo Rosselló.

Jillian Hernandez [09:19]:

We were planning, myself and my students were planning, on having a perreo here in Gainesville and a panel on perreo as queer feminist resistance. We felt like we still needed to have the space to dance together and be together. And to have to cancel it was just so devastating because it was something that was getting us through the semester at that point, knowing that the perreo was coming.

Cathy Hannabach [09:45]: 

Oh no.

Jillian Hernandez [09:47]:

I know. It was really quite terrible. It’s just been so painful because I think for many of us, those forms of connection are so crucial. Those spaces of connection, those spaces of cultural exchange are really so important just for our everyday survival, in addition to being tools of activism.

I’m starting to think about programming on Zoom but I think everyone is so exhausted. It’s also this feeling of wanting to organize things but also really trying to be intentional about what I do and how. I don’t think I’ve quite figured it out yet. So, to be honest, I haven’t really done much because I think I’m just still trying to get my footing in this new context that we’re in.

Cathy Hannabach [10:42]:

From folks that I’ve talked to, that’s a really shared experience. I think your point about these kinds of communal, often bodily spaces as tools of survival and community-making and learning and cultural exchange, part of what I’m noticing a lot of folks having difficulty with shifting to an online version is that that online version is also where we’re doing our work.

Jillian Hernandez [11:08]:

Exactly.

Cathy Hannabach [11:08]: 

It’s often where kids are taking their school or whatever, it’s where everything else is already living, so it’s hard to summon the desire to add yet another Zoom meeting, right?

Jillian Hernandez [11:24]:

Absolutely, absolutely. I think I have been really inspired by the Verzuz battles, of course, as many of us have been, and I think some folks are doing this right.

I am a huge fan of Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown’s project Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truths, otherwise known as SOLHOT. SOLHOT had a series of Instagram Live conversations. Their work really centers Black girlhood as an organizing principle, as an aesthetic, as a space. So they had a series of Instagram Lives. What I loved about that was that I didn’t have to be in front of my computer, I didn’t have to type a Zoom meeting date into my calendar, it had nothing to do with my email. If I was available and scrolling on my phone, I could just watch the Live. That is something I think I’m going to try out with some programming ideas that I’m working on, because I do like this idea that folks can just sort of jump in, jump out, and it’s not so much a space of work, so much. So, we’ll see.

Cathy Hannabach [12:40]:

This month at Ideas on Fire, we’re talking quite a lot about confidence and the way that it manifests or doesn’t manifest across our various projects in ways that are deeply racialized, classed, and gendered. How are you seeing the politics of confidence play out in the work that you’ve been doing recently?

Jillian Hernandez [12:59]:

I love this question because tomorrow I’m actually going to be talking about the chapter of the book that’s on the aesthetics of masculinity. A lot of my research participants talked a lot about how their forms of masculine embodiment allowed them to perform confidence.

In thinking about confidence, I think that word often is so embroiled in these marketing logics, and these gendered marketing logics, and these neoliberal logics of how to feel good. But what I point to in the chapter of the book is how confidence is narrated by the artists in Women on the Rise!, the young women artists in Women on the Rise! It was really about possessing power, like a feeling of possessing power rather than a commodity, rather than something that’s being sold to you. 

Jillian Hernandez [14:03]:

For me, that confidence is so important to not only facing this world as a gendered and racialized subject but also in providing yourself the space to engage with the imagination. 

In Women on the Rise!, one thing that we would sometimes have a challenge with was engaging girls in an art project and just having them be so reluctant to make marks on a white page, you know? And I think many of us understand what that feels like.

Cathy Hannabach [14:40]: 

The terror of the white page, yeah.

Jillian Hernandez [14:43]: 

Right? For sure, for sure. And I think that kind of feeling of…well, it’s really a feeling of vulnerability. No matter how much we work to make it a space that embraced that vulnerability, that was supportive, that was open about risk-taking, that was not invested in respectability politics, I think the girls understood that even if, as Women on the Rise! instructors, we were not going to negatively judge them, they understood that we were only there for like two hours and were going to leave.

It really made us aware of just how entrenched the policing of Black and Latina girls’ expressions—bodily, verbal, artistic—in multiple registers are policed.

Confidence, if we think about it as a possession of power, then I think it’s something that we definitely want to cultivate in various different arenas, particularly through cultural means, aesthetic means. I think the more that we provide resources and help to make possible the expression and the cultivation of this confidence among our Black and Latinx youth, I think it’s only going to change the world for the better.

Cathy Hannabach [16:22]:

You mentioned judgment, and I think that certainly is at the root of a lot of our anxieties over claiming confidence, particularly for people from marginalized communities and marginalized populations. A lot of that judgment feels very lonely. It feels like we are the only one who is in this situation of feeling judged: Surely everyone else is perfectly fine and feels super confident all the time, it’s just me, right?

What are some of your favorite techniques, either from your own life or that you’ve seen in the workshops that you mentioned, for building collective support systems to help manifest that confidence through supportive and collective means?

Jillian Hernandez [17:02]:

The funny thing about judgment is that even though you are totally right, sometimes it does feel very lonely and like you’re only being targeted, one thing that I noticed a lot was that in Women on the Rise!, the judgment also happened collectively too.

I’m not trying to reiterate the same kind of mean-girl rhetoric that was really popular in the early 2000s—all of this work that was around relational aggression. A lot of this work was centered on middle-class white girls and this idea that they might not get into fistfights, but they hurt each other with their words and they’re mean to each other. I’m not trying to reiterate that narrative.

But among the girls that we worked with, we did witness many dynamics where girls would engage in collective judgment of each other. 

Jillian Hernandez [17:57]:

I theorize in the book that it’s almost become the only acceptable way to engage with one another, for women and femmes to engage with one another. As a young person who is racialized and understands that in the wider context of white supremacy, you are viewed as less than. Rather than just simply bemoaning that—it’s important to note it—I think the antidote to that and what I saw happen in Women on the Rise! is that then you… 

If the judgment is happening collectively among the girls judging each other, either for what they thought were modes of body presentation that they felt were too sexual or modes of body presentation that they felt were not fashionable, then collectively as a unit in Women on the Rise! we were going to engage in this alternative collective practice of celebrating women, of centering women, of really engaging with images of the grotesque.

Jillian Hernandez [19:06]:

I think that is really where a lot of the richest conversations emerged. So, talking about the work of Wangechi Mutu, talking about the work of Shoshanna Weinberger, who creates these wild, grotesque images of Black women’s bodies. It was precisely through engaging with the most abject representations of women’s bodies that I felt like we were doing the most work in really getting to the nitty-gritty of why do we judge each other. Why do we engage in these dynamics, and how can we lift each other up and make each other feel more powerful?

Jillian Hernandez [19:46]:

The art projects that we did there were really interesting because the girls were instructed to paint grotesque bodies. They were kind of into that, but then one of our instructor artists, Crystal Pearl Molinary, came up with this idea of, “Well, let’s do a 3D version of having them make a grotesque.” We brought these big, soft sculptures. We went to these stores in Miami that folks use to buy really cheap clothing to send to Cuba, so you can get, like, bras and panties for a dollar. We brought all these bras, all these panties, and we told the girls, “Okay, we’re going to make a grotesque body using all of these materials.”

Jillian Hernandez [20:29]:

Well, instead of using the dummy, they started to put all of these bras and panties and batting on themselves and making themselves into grotesques. They had to do it collectively, and it was just amazing to see them manipulate these materials, like create an enormous ass, create a body with six or ten breasts, laugh, take pictures of each other with their cell phones.

Through engaging with the abject—and this is an argument that scholars like Leticia Alvarado make as well—through engaging with the abject, engaging with those things that both as a society we shun and also, I think, individually we’re afraid of our own vulnerability and abjection—by facing that together as a collective in Women on the Rise!, I felt like those were the moments that just felt the most exhilarating.

Cathy Hannabach [21:31]:

This brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to talk with folks about, that really gets at the heart of why you do the work that you do in the world. That’s that version of a better world that you’re working toward when you organize these workshops, when you write your books, when you teach your classes. So I’ll ask you this giant question that I love summing up each episode with: What is the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want. 

Jillian Hernandez [21:58]:

I want a world where my family and my friends, many of whom are mothers and caregivers, where they can rest and where they can do more than rest—where they can go about doing the work of changing this world. 

I want a world that’s organized around the imaginations of women and girls of color. Many of my friends and family already do this worldmaking but in engaging in the labor of making our lives possible and better, their own lives are being depleted. I want to see a world where that’s not the cost of that.

Cathy Hannabach [22:45]:

Thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Jillian Hernandez [22:52]:

Thank you so much, Cathy. I really appreciate it.

Cathy Hannabach [23:00]:

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions.

You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guests and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

 

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