The Conversation: Shawana Brooks

Arts and Culture Developer, Jax Makerspace at the Main Library
Conversation with and photograph by Tiffany Manning

My first experience with you was when you started Muisance Artists Alliance as a way to highlight and advocate on behalf of the talent of people of color within our community. Since then, you have taken on the role of arts and culture developer of the Jax Makerspace located in the Jacksonville Public Library’s Main Library. There you continue the important work of inclusivity in a city where it has been notably absent. Was this always a mission of yours and do you feel a shift has happened as a result of your work?
This work is what I hope to be my legacy. It’s not only a mission but it’s an extreme passion that exalted me to my purpose. I started Muisance Artists Alliance three years ago after I had a personal experience of not being allowed into a room where a meeting about an important art exhibit was being held. I was with my husband – a participant – but not permitted to come in to observe. At first I was highly offended, but I didn’t want to force the issue. As I was leaving the room, I was greeted by several of our friends. The museum administrators looked puzzled as to why I was being greeted so enthusiastically. In the moment I understood the problem: I was unknown. My epiphany resulted in me gaining my current position and was the inspiration for the first major show we exhibited at the Jax Makerspace Gallery. It was the first all black women artists show in Jacksonville. Being the first is fantastic but also upsetting. There is a famous quote by past presidential nominee Shirley Chisholm that I take as a commandment for my life: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Had I not set out to do this art exhibit it might have never happened. My ego would like to think I have shifted the arts focus to be more equitable – I am the first black person to win the the Robert Arleigh White Award for Advocacy from the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville – but only art historians will tell if that was the case.

The Jax Makerspace at JPL has become one of the best places to experience a thought-provoking art show in our city. Currently, you program four per year; each built upon a theme. The artwork does the important work of cultural storytelling from the unique perspectives of a cross section of our creative community. There is great power in the public aspect of your shows. What are the most profound takeaways you have witnessed from attendees?
Creating exhibits in a public gallery has been incredibly rewarding and quite challenging, but I LOVE it. Most days I am running all around the city having meetings and attending various events. During an installation is when I get the most interaction with the public. The way our gallery is shaped, it doesn’t allow me to cut myself off. I get reactions about the artwork in real time. I hear oooh’s from children as they pass by. Or comments from young adults as they walk to the teen room. We have regulars and they often come to give me their critiques. This is the audience I am curating for. Often these individuals have no interest in art or cannot afford to go to our more prestigious art institutions. I wanted to create a contemporary art gallery that focuses on Jacksonville … its issues and its artists. Two years ago, putting up work for KESHA: A Black Female Experience of Identity and Race, I remember two young black girls passing by and the youngest squealed loudly, “Her lips look like mine.” I shed a tear because I was a grown person before I saw that kind of representation. And who would have thought the library would have a chance to exhibit a piece by the famous, yet anonymous, English street artist, Banksy? Our gallery was recently a nominee for best art gallery. We didn’t win, but it felt gratifying to just be nominated. Hopefully, there is always next year.

You are a style icon in our community. It doesn’t matter where you are, or what you’re doing … your sense of style is always a highlight. Why is fashion important to you?
Wow! Style icon is the dream. Coco Chanel has many awesome quotes on fashion. I like one by Grace Jones that says, “I’m not fashion. I’m style.” Creativity makes me want to keep going. I adore dressing up. As a child, Halloween was my favorite holiday. Fashion to me is the most public art medium. Everyone participates whether they are engaged or not. We are required for most occasions to put on clothes. Fashion is also very subjective. Everyday, especially as a woman, you are on display. I have to go into a lot of rooms and I want people to remember me the next time we encounter one another. I was born in ’79 and the extreme fashions of the seventies and eighties definitely have influenced my choices, as did growing up watching television. I liked Jem and the Holograms, Samantha from “Bewitched,” Willona Woods from “Good Times” and all the women of “A Different World.” I like to mix patterns and style elements. Style is totally different from fashion. It’s personal. It’s evolutionary. When people do it well, it can be perceived as art. Like it or not, clothes tell a story about you. I’m a storyteller.

At your core, you are a writer. If people follow you on Facebook, then they are already acquainted with your Musings posts but for those who are not privy, tell us what a Musing is and why you use this platform in such an open and honest way to communicate your deepest thoughts.
I received the nickname Muisance (muse + nuisance) from a good artist friend of mine. It felt accurate to the way I interact with and advocate for artists. I have an affinity for what all art mediums do to affect and effect one another. On the road to helping and loving artists – I am in love with and married to a visual artist, Roosevelt Watson, III – I wanted to make sure not to lose my own art for the sake of others, including my husband. I thought it best to create my own outlet. To give affection to my art which is the written and sometimes spoken word. There is a revolution taking place in digital art. In all its forms it transcends how we access culture and art. I created my musings as a form to share my own thoughts. No one gave me permission or asked me to. I wanted to do it for myself, and I have seen as of late how it is resonating with others. I have had moving encounters with strangers who know intimate thoughts of mine as a result of social media. Art should create conversation. Communication of emotions is hard for most. I get to release my intense feelings and also get the immediacy of hearing from an audience. Ironically, I am allowed to be authentic because on Facebook it is my space.

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Author: Arbus

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