Okay, so one of the first things your work is reminding me of is a quote I came across some years ago written by a fin de siècle black woman: “We are not a coming people. We are here.” – Mashadi Matabane
This project began organically: Two families, both with an interest in genealogy and history, started to look for something, not knowing exactly what that was, but looking for something. My mother, Jacqueline Kochak, a journalist and writer, a woman with a love and obsession for knowledge and truth through the exploration of history, set out on a search for her own family history not knowing what the result would be. Along the way, she began to speak with Paula Whatley. Paula, a woman who lived only one hour away from my mother, was on the same search. They were two Southern women who found each other. Their common connection was an ancestor, an ancestor who happened to be a slave master. My family’s ancestor was the slave master, and Paula’s was the female slave. This knowledge was extraordinarily hard for my mother to accept at first. She always thought she was from a poor farming family. Paula, on the other hand, knew of her family history and wanted to open a dialogue.
My interest deepened as I learned of the similarities between the four women involved, Paula and my mother, Paula’s daughter and me. My mother and Paula are only a couple of years apart in age, one a journalist and the other, a documentary filmmaker and professor. My interest deepened as I found out that Mashadi, Paula’s daughter, was a writer and academic, and I am a contemporary artist. We are two sides of one coin, exemplars of a narrative that has been buried by controversy and a shame in American history that has yet to be fully acknowledged. The brutality of that time and the unacknowledged history is at the forefront of our continued conversation. The exploitation and the abuse of that period, continued through the 20th century has resulted in an anger and division that must be confronted.
I proposed that the two families begin to get to know each other through starting a conversation, and in the process we could become a family, a family that has never been acknowledged. I proposed a project using our family archives, and to make reimagined images for our family. These first take the form of collages and montages of our two families’ images. From the collages I create large-scale paintings to synthesize these moments and write them into present history.
Paula and her daughter respond to everything I create. We have a continued skype conversation. I am collecting data, a new archive. In doing this, we rotate agency. We are history making—chatting and acknowledging, collaborating and negotiating. Through a newfound unity, we are transcending a patriarchal society; shame is revised into a new beginning.
An initial response to Natalya’s artistic statement by Paula Whatley Matabane
I love Natalya’s vision. She is searching for a deeper identity that unites four individuals in the face of hundreds of years of exploitative systems and actions that were designed to eternally divide and obscure the relationship between us. This is a bold act of an artist unafraid of naysayers on both sides of each family — naysayers who prefer that the divisions created by exploitation and abuse remain the status quo through all generations unless resolved through explicitly political or religious means or just hushed up as shameful for both sides.
Natalya’s work defies the exploitation and abuse as well as the naysayers. But art shakes us up, shakes up calcified beliefs and pain. That is what I see this vision bringing forward. It merges divided families created through the abuse and exploitation of slavery and associated shame. These family ties were created through force and abuse, then denigrated and hidden, creating shame within families on both sides publicly and privately for generations to come.
It is most unsettling for the average black person to acknowledge that he/she is has blood relatives among former slave owners knowing the abuse associated with that. It is most unsettling to the average white person who wants to see his/her family as racially pure, genteel and moral during the slave era. Natalya confronts both sides with the harsh reality of common bloodlines forged in exploitation. So what does that mean to those of us caught in this conundrum? Are we tooting our horns, uplifting it out of a belief that having white blood is an asset for African Americans? LOL! Or are we confronting shame, anger, and pain with the hope of a new way of seeing each other, finding new ways of interacting as in Natalya’s project?
Natalya’s work will shake us up. I am most anxious to see how the shake up might lead to new possibilities among a few of us on our commonalities and differences, possibilities of more collaborations that help erase historically evolved divisions. In a way, this concept reminds me of the efforts of some black clothing designers who painted the confederate battle flag in the colors of black nationalism — red, black and green. The effort failed and for many their real purpose was obscured but it evoked much discussion. But the message is clear, slavery was not a “black” thing or a “white” thing, it was a distorted and brutal relationship of racial and economic domination that brought blacks and whites into intimate contact with each other.
I know from stories about the history of my freed ancestors who had white fathers and grandfathers that they observed and learned from those white master-ancestors. They inherited talents and gifts from their white family genetics, and were perhaps given access to learning profitable skills that helped them in the new days of freedom. There is still lingering anger and resentment of mixed race blacks receiving some privileges that others didn’t get but they were all still enslaved. I don’t know what white people today think of those relationships.
Natalya’s work will become integral to reconciliation work for many decades to come. I imagine more fine artists and popular culture creators building upon her foundation.