By Chris Murray
The Chris Murray Report
Rapper Chuck D. of Public Enemy once described Hip-Hop as the CNN of the Black community.The same could be said for the paintings of visual artist Sonia Elizabeth Barrett.
Based in Nuremburg, Germany, Barrett’s work can be best described as a panorama of color celebrating the joys and the pains of the African Disapora. She said she wants her paintings to express the debates and values of Black communities throughout the world.
“I have family all over the diaspora and it just kind of struck me how lots of the issues that people are facing in different places are very similar,” said Barrett, whose father is Jamaican and her mother is of German descent.
“I just wanted to start looking at those issues through my art to see what might the similarities be and what might the differences be. Are we actually on the same page, but reading different books in different places? Are we in the same kinds of stories? I just found that very interesting.”
Barrett, whose works have been displayed in local venues such as October Gallery, was in Philadelphia (June 9-13) particpating in “Art in the Open,” where artists composed their works outdoors at Fairmount Park near the Phildelphia Art Museum along the Schuykill River.
For her contribution to “Art in the Open”, Barrett sketched workers from the Bebashi Transition to Hope Center which provides services for victims of HIV/AIDs as well providing information to prevent the spread the disease. Some of the Bebashi workers brought food and fruit for Barrett to sketch as well. She then painted those sketches onto plastic tablecloths that she collected from family members and friends living here in the U.S and in places like Jamaica, Germany, England, and Canada.
Barrett said the table cloths, which have various patterns of flowers, fruits, trees and other scenes from nature, were always well-taken care of and always ready to use during family gatherings. As she sketched the Bebashi workers, Barrett engaged in conversation with them.
The discussion with the Bebashi workers focused on the day-to-day frustrations of dealing with the AIDs crisis in the African-American community. She said the significance of bringing the workers, some of whom have never ventured out to the park, was her way of bringing that discussion out into the open while also giving them a respite from the day-to-day struggles.
“As an artist, I don’t have to stand on a soap box and say, ‘rah, rah,’ I can do something like give these people a break. Most people from (Bebashi) didn’t know that this part of the park existed and I am coming from Germany to introduce them to this great space and so that is a major political thing for me,” Barrett said. “They would tell me their experiences and they are literally brought out here to the park and the issue as well is in the open.”
While sketching her subjects, Barrett talked about how families throughout the diaspora take care of their tablecloths as a source of pride. She said if the Black community throughout world can take care of one another in the midst of the AIDS crisis, the world might be a better place.
“The irony is that we protect all kinds of things in our community, but we don’t protect ourselves when we are having sex,” Barrett said.
During her visit to October Gallery in 2008, Barrett exhibited a series of paintings entitled, “Yes We Can,” that focused on the election of President Barack Obama. In each of those paintings, the words, “Yes, We Can” is painted in Spanish, French, Italian, English and German. She said Obama’s victory was inspiring the Black Europeans and she wanted to capture that feeling.
“It was shocking, it was awesome,” said Barrett, who has a degree in philosophy, literature and international relations from St. Andrews University in Scotland. “I just wanted to see what if we put these words, these really powerful words into the mouths of ordinary Black people living and working in Europe. What would that sound like, so I just translated it. It sounded so different.
In Germany it sounded so flat. I just wanted people to think about how those strong words might be re-contexualized and what they might mean to different communities.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of Barrett’s work is to depict the various Black communities in the way from their own point of view rather the viewpoint of those outside of those communities.
“I think it’s important to try understand these communities from their own frame of reference and try to look at them as being important within themselves,” Barrett said. “For example in Germany things are looked at from the frame of the white established community in Germany or some other larger immigrant group like the Turkish community it’s seen as something important.
“But when you take that out and compare with a (Black) community in France from their own reference, you get a different perspective.”
From her travels throughout the Diaspora, Barrett said the commonality that exists among all the Black communities she’s experienced is that there is spirit of joy and defiance.
“I think there is a kind of fighting spirit,” Barrett said. “It’s kind of between fighting and joie de vivre (joy of living). It’s these two things that are kind of mixed up. I’m always trying to pin down exactly what that is. I’m always looking into new insights as to what that might be.
“I find it interesting to meet people in one space and I feel like I could have met this person in London and that’s what happens. “
Barrett, who has a British accent, reflects the diversity she seeks to capture in her art and refuses to be associated with one country or the other. The 35-year-old artist and mother of one has lived in several countries including China, Cyprus and England. She said living in those place has helped her to understand the diversity of the places she would ultimately visit.
“Even in stupid small things, nothing has been fixed … there were lots of different ways of doing things all the time from the get-go and I think that influenced my work a lot,” Barrett said.