Sarabande’s Shannon Bono on Afrofemcentrism, flipping the gaze, and channeling trauma into her art.

By Mission.

Shannon Bono cites bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maya Angelou as some of her artistic inspirations, and her work is a clear descendant of theirs. As an artist, writer, and educator, Bono uses Afrofemcentrism – a “consciousness” or focus on the experiences of Black women – to explore facets of Black womanhood and body politics. In the below discussion with Mission, Bono opens up about the cultural, scientific, and historical influences that shape her work.

Can you tell us about your artistic background?

I was recently introduced to Afrofemcentrism, a term coined by artist and activist Elizabeth Catlett. Afrofemcentrism describes a consciousness that asserts race, sex, and art as a way of living, where Black women are the subject depicted by a Black woman. I am a painter, cultural writer, and educator and my practice centralizes Black womanhood as a source of knowledge and understanding. This involves sharing the experiences of Black women through cultural practices, current or past events, as well as highlighting the effects said experiences may have on the body.

Are there any thinkers or theorists that you draw inspiration from?

I am inspired by Black feminist literature and critical thinkers such as bell hooks, Zora Neale

Hurston, and Maya Angelou. In my works I use the ‘gaze’ as a tool of resistance, an idea that was developed from the ‘oppositional gaze,’ a term coined by bell hooks which describes a critical way of looking at portrayals of Black women in the media/popular settings.

Why is it important to represent the Black female body in art?

As mentioned, being a Black woman and having a critical gaze as well as understanding the importance of visuals in the world is the reason I represent Black women in my artwork.

How are notions of body politics incorporated into your work?

I speak about Black body politics in my work, especially with regards to Black women’s history of not having control over their own bodies e.g. reproductive control, wet nursing, and controlling images such as the mammy or the hypersexualized Black woman. Black female bodies are inscribed with a set of meanings so I attempt to endow us with control over our own bodies.

What do you believe is the artist’s role in society?

I believe an artist should respond to the times and create alternative realities in their works that are beneficial to society.

How does your background in biochemistry play into your artistic practice?

Within my works, I merge African textile culture with surreal scientific demonstrations to build the foundation of a story. I use biological and chemical images to either accurately or metaphorically describe the content of that piece, in the same way a science book uses diagrams to teach us about the body.

How has your time at Sarabande influenced or had an effect on your work today?

The Sarabande Foundation has provided me 24-hour access to a professional working space which I benefit from greatly due to my crazy working hours. This accessibility allows me time to fully work out ideas without time constraints. The foundation also champions their artists by continuously sharing our work via their platform, which is great!

How has the current climate affected your artistic process?

I believe artists are very important during this time. It takes a lot of research and specialism to produce art. The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have been emotionally taxing for me and many people around the world and I have channeled this trauma into my work. I will continue to share stories of triumph in relation to Black women; whether that includes the NHS staff, activists/protestors on the front line and those who have unfortunately lost their lives due to racism and police brutality. I am currently working on a painting that questions racial attacks, and why a higher percentage of Black people are dying due to COVID-19.

Images courtesy of Sarabande Foundation