I love Instagram. I admit that 90% of my time using the Instagram app is looking at dogs and cosplayers (judge me, I don’t care). You should know that Instagram is also home to many talented artists as well. I stumbled upon Dania Frink’s Instagram page not too long ago and knew I wanted to see more. Not only that, but I knew that I wanted to know more about her phenomenal artwork, the woman who created it, and the thought process that went into creating.
Black Nerd Problems: Your artwork is unapologetically Black: adinkra symbols, hip hop lyrics, kinky and curly hair textures, and portraits of people who have similar features to mine. Just stunning and quite revolutionary in my eyes. What are some of your influences, and just how necessary is it that you produce the art that you make?
Dania Frink: Your words warm my heart, thank you! Yes, my art is unapologetically Black.
For many years, I have been creatively driven by one of (the incomparable) Sonia Sanchez’s quotes, “The black artist is dangerous. Black art controls the ‘Negro’s’ reality, negates negative influences, and creates positive images.” That’s a powerful statement, and reflects the responsibility of Black artists. I consider it an honor and my duty to reflect all aspects of my experience as a Black woman.
Not just the negative elements, the struggles — we often see that reflected in media and pop culture — but also the positively beautiful elements that most don’t get to see. It’s important that the diverse stories of the African Diaspora are told, but we cannot rely on mainstream culture to do it. That’s where artists and creatives come in. I believe that is one of my purposes.
BNP: I think people often forget that women are creators of so many movements, including social movements. One example is obviously how the #BlackLivesMatter movement was created by three Black women. What are your thoughts regarding females being creators and multi-taskers? What are your thoughts on the #BlackFemaleProject and why it’s important for Black women to have support systems? Where do you as an artist fit into all of this?
Dania: I’ve forever been amazed at the MAGIC of Black women (super shout out to CaShawn Thompson — creator of #BlackGirlsAreMagic). Example: when I was a little girl, there weren’t many dolls on the market that looked like me. Couple this with the fact that I went to a predominantly White, Catholic school in a neighboring suburb. Needless to say, I was constantly wrestling with feelings of inferiority. One Saturday, out of the blue, my mother sewed me a doll. Like, she made me a doll from scratch! The doll had chocolate skin, like me.
She wore a Kente outfit, a matching head wrap, thick hair (from the beauty supply) and gold earrings. It was the most beautifully regal thing I’d ever seen, and it made me feel beautiful. What my Mama did is an example of what Black women do, globally, for their families, communities, and one another, while launching and building careers, maintaining (and sometimes compromising) their health and wellness, and navigating all of the “isms” that can often times impede success.
The #BlackFemaleProject is such a gem. My initial thoughts on my participation were extremely limited. The purpose of the project is to collect the stories of professional Black women and share them with Black girls and young women in hopes that they are prepared to combat and change the forms of institutional discrimination that await them. However, I have received much more than I am giving — ranging from a growing network of women with who I am able to have transparent discussions, to processing my own career growth and balance with my authenticity. This project is truly the gift that keeps giving. As an artist, I find joy in being able to address and interpret complex issues through visuals — hence the inspiration behind the ‘W-2 Warriors.’
— BlackFemaleProject (@BlackFemaleProj) September 12, 2015
BNP: The name “Fluffy Jo,” which is the name of your website and brand, was given to you by your great grandmother whom you cite as one of your biggest supporters and a creative influence. Am I correct in guessing that you used her nickname for you as a tribute of sorts? What type of woman was she?
Dania: You’re correct! Creating art under my nickname is in honor of Ms. Bell (everyone, including her children, addressed her as “Ms. Bell”). I was fortunate in that she helped raise me; I was her first great-grandchild, so we spent a lot of time together. She was a Southern belle (no pun intended) from Texas, and a true renaissance woman. Ms. Bell loved to write; she wrote letters to many of her descendants (self-included), and recorded notable events as they occurred (births, deaths, presidencies, the latest episode of Donahue, etc.). So there were tons of notepads around the house, filled with her lovely cursive script. She loved to entertain — cooking, singing, dancing, and changing her wardrobe at least twice during the day. She gardened with my mother. Even as a senior citizen, she was very independent; riding the bus around Oakland alone, running errands. I just loved her spirit, and the way that she loved each family member — unconditionally.
BNP: Thinking of your great-grandmother made me think of my grandmother who only had an sixth-grade education and whose native language was French. She had a full life but I often wonder what her life could have been like if she had the opportunities afforded to her that I have now — things like easier access to higher education and better societal standing for not only women, but all People of Color. I believe all women, in their own ways, are artists. I believe all women have magic flowing their veins. If you could share a table with a handful of your female ancestors (dead or alive) that couldn’t fulfill their dreams because of their gender, color, or some other reason like financial means, what would you say to them? What would you say to the women who paved the way for you?
Dania: Wow, I am interested in learning more about your grandmother, but I suppose we’ll save that for a coffee chat. If I could share a table with these women, I don’t think I would be able to thank them enough. I would thank them for their perseverance, their courage, their creativity, their strength, and their love. I would ask them if my life’s path has made them proud. I would ask them to reflect on the progress we have made, collectively, as Black women. I would ask them to reflect on their biggest accomplishments, happiest moments, and moments of defeat. I would probably be in tears the entire conversation, too.
BNP: You took an interest in visual art at a very young age, I think you said 3 years old? As a child what specifically grabbed your attention?
Dania: My earliest memories are of drawing in the living room. My parents are creative people, although their chosen professions aren’t in the arts (mother: global risk management executive, father: fleet auto mechanic). However, I recall my mother sewing a lot when I was a little girl. She sewed a lot of my clothes, including some of THE BEST Halloween costumes I’ve ever seen in life. My father is a visual artist; he sketched and painted a lot when I was a child. This is the environment to which I was exposed. As I got older, I became more shy. Sometimes I stammered when I spoke, I was very tall for my age; an awkward child with flimsy self-esteem. I continued to devote a lot of my energy to the arts because received praise for my talent; thus my artistic practice was born. My self-esteem grew in a different capacity — skill and talent. I had friends, but enjoyed time alone. It allowed me to explore and immerse myself in other art forms (e.g. dance, film, literature) which very much influenced my artistic journey.
BNP: You’ve also taught visual arts in K-12 schools and several community-based organizations. In your opinion as an artist, why is it important that we don’t overlook art programs in schools? In your childhood, was there something special that you remember seeing from your early school days? Or something that you’ve seen as of late that you wish you could have had back as a young student?
Dania: One of my favorite teachers’ name is Gerri Wolhtmann. She was a parent volunteer at my elementary school, who was later hired as a visual arts instructor. Mrs. Wolhtmann poured so much into me as her student. She was my introduction to the fine art world; use of charcoals and pastels, painting and drawing techniques, etc. What I appreciated about her is that she allowed me to grow as an unapologetically Black artist, in a predominantly White environment. She encouraged me to reflect my experiences as a Black girl in my work — and further research Black artists throughout history (many of whom would never be mentioned in my social studies classes). This was pivotal for me, at that time and in that place. It shaped my pedagogy when I taught, many years later. There’s plenty that I could say about the necessity of arts in school (both visual and performing arts practice, and arts-based learning for core subjects). For now, I’ll summarize with the fact that there is a vast amount of untapped potential in our young people who have limited exposure to the arts. Untapped potential could mean = future painter, designer, researcher, teacher; it could also mean improved speech development; or even positive mental health outcomes. The arts are NOT a luxury.
BNP: Is there a mission statement in mind when you work? Is there an emotion or theme that you want to reach the people who look upon the art you create?
Dania: I’d certainly circle back to the Sonia Sanchez quote that I mentioned before. Also, I’ve heard the late Nina Simone say the following in one of her interviews, “It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” That struck me, so much so that the quote is featured on my website.” My professional background is in MarCom/PR, so I have a mild obsession with storytelling. The researcher in me always digs for the story behind the headline. As many of us are aware, there are perspectives that get left out of mainstream media. This is problematic, but not new. Black artists (of all genres), document our culture, our collective experience. The late Varnette P. Honeywood’s work, for example, brings back fond memories of my childhood as a little Black girl in Oakland. Her piece, “Dixie Peach,” hung in our kitchen and reminded me of when my mother used to curl our hair in the kitchen! I love how Black art has also played a vital role in social movements; from the Black Panther Party’s logo to the myriad of #BlackLivesMatter-inspired art that floods Instagram on a regular basis. At the end of the day, I want to create art that highlights the stories and perspectives that are often stifled.
Dania: When I first joined the #BlackFemaleProject, I started thinking about what I would have told my younger self about the "real world," as a Black woman professional. Somewhere in that process I visualized how I've mentally prepared for some of my tougher days at the office. Whether it was prayer, a pep talk from my mother, a hug from my husband, a long gaze in the mirror, I felt that all of these actions symbolized a warrior preparing to go to battle.
My strategies for maintaining were like pieces of armor that I put on before the start of my day. I thought of how cool it would be to visually represent this through paintings, and proposed it to Precious Stroud, the creator of the #BlackFemaleProject. The rest was history. The growth of the #BlackFemaleProject has been astonishing. We have grown beyond Oakland and are now in NYC and DC. I imagine the growth will continue because the need is great -- there are so many little Black girls that will benefit from our stories, and so many of us Black women that will benefit from this sisterhood of support.
BNP: Lastly, any big projects coming up?
Dania: Great question! I would like to continue to explore with the W-2 Warriors, as there are more stories to tell there. Another project on the horizon centers on Black love -- a theme that is being discussed more often as Black folks are reclaiming what love looks like in our communities. The inspiration behind this project is my husband, Sharif, and our parents: mine have been married for 32 years, and his for 40 years.
BNP: Sounds great, Dania! Looking forward to seeing more of your work!
Dania's W-2 Warriors had a great opening night and is on site until the rest of September. If you're in the Oakland area, be sure to go check it out! Also see more of Dania and her work on her website, Facebook and Twitter. Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't remind you to take a look at the website of the very necessary Black Female Project. Learn more about this amazing project emerging out of Berkley, California and share!