Black Imagination: Sites of Power, a Conversation With Natasha Marin

by Beverly Aarons

“What happens if we regard each other as powerful beings?” That’s Natasha Marin’s essential question in “Black Imagination: Sites of Power,” a virtual exhibition/experience originally slated to open at the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) pre-pandemic. “I’m thinking about individuals as power conduits,” Marin said during our telephone interview. But in mainstream society, Black existence is not contextualized within the framework of power — not in the media, not in the movies, books, or games. “How does that change?” Marin asked. “How can we hear each other?” 

“Black Imagination: Sites of Power” is expansive, featuring video, audio, text, and visual art that explores power from the first-person point-of-view of over two dozen Black artists. It offers no one definition of Blackness, Black imagination, or power, but it does unveil the multiplicity and complexity of the Black experience. There’s everything from a video of a young Black man (Stephon Dorsey) soaking in a tub of pastel flowers and poetically musing about healing through tears to a two minute video of Marin and her child brushing their teeth with turmeric, coconut oil, activated charcoal powder, and toothpaste — an oddly relaxing film to watch, and the soundtrack is pretty catchy too. 

Marin is a memorable conceptual artist. In her 2018 exhibition “Black Imagination: Ritual Objects (2018, Virago Gallery) — Marin captured the essence of Black joy in 144 bottles, which she described as “ritual objects.” Well, Black joy must be a hot commodity because they were snatched up quickly — fewer than 10 bottles remain today. 

“I think we want to know why,” Marin said. “When you see someone joyful, don’t you want to know what they’re doing to live their life so right? Do they start every day with lemon water? Do they give themselves a ripe avocado whenever they want? When life serves them lemons, how exactly do they make that into lemonade?” 

Marin arrived in Seattle in 2008 from Texas, but she has had a multicultural experience. She was born and raised in Trinidad and immigrated to Canada and then to the United States. Her mother was a “super” teacher — someone who taught other teachers how to be better at their job. But in her day-to-day classroom experience, Marin didn’t have a Black teacher until her freshman year of college. That had an impact. 

“Representation is so important, and I just don’t think we even understand how important it is,” Marin said. “Seeing yourself reflected back to yourself is validating. This is the fundamental building blocks of a healthy ego.” As a child growing up in Canada, Marin was surrounded by her very large Black family, but at school she was often the only Black kid in class. “If none of your friends look like you for a while and then your teachers don’t look like you for a while, you sort of adapt and adopt customs that may not feel indigenous to your being, as a survival tactic.” Marin said that she is now unlearning “traditional” ideas and ways of existing. 

Porscha Shaw. Video still from “Black Imagination: Sites of Power” directed by Jay O’Leary Woods.

A self-avowed workaholic, Natasha Marin is on a journey of challenging “hyper-productivity” and even the concept of Black excellence itself, which might be seen as a somewhat controversial position. 

“Who are these people who have figured out this work/life balance?” Marin asked when I inquired about her workaholic ways. “Send them to me. I want to learn from them. I want to sit at their feet and learn from them.” Marin said she doesn’t know “one Black woman without a hell of a work ethic” but that Black women need to learn how to “find ourselves worthy and of value without having to be productive and hyper-productive.”

If only one person could see her exhibition/experience, who would Marin invite? The exhibition isn’t really designed for celebrities; it’s for ordinary people and youth especially, Marin said. But she would love for Michelle Obama to experience her work. “I stan real hard for Michelle,” she said. “Michelle is like the personification of togetherness.” A trait that Marin imagines must be a heavy burden. “She’s almost like a martyr to this Black excellence that we all are struggling with.” 

Marin wonders aloud if part of Black liberation is to let go of some of the incredibly high standards wrapped up in the concept of Black excellence. She lightheartedly describes her children as lazy. “I think to myself often, ‘Is this my ancestors’ wildest dream? To have happily lazy, unbothered Black children.’ … Maybe I don’t need to do anything except sort of cultivate and nurture and make space for them to be because there’s been enough suffering. There’s been enough withholding. Maybe now is the time to start unlearning the expectation of excellence. Maybe that’s what liberation looks like for my children. … If you don’t have to be excellent, if you just have to be, what would you be?”

And that is the second essential question asked in “Black Imagination: Sites of Power”: If Black people could just be, free from the expectations of racist controlling narratives, who would they be?

Beverly Aarons is a writer, artist, and game developer. She works across disciplines, exploring the intersections of history, hidden current realities, and imagined future worlds. She specializes in making unseen perspectives visible and aims to infuse all of her creative work with a deep sense of emotionality.

Featured Image: Patrick Mugalu. (Photo: Erika Schultz)

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