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      Connected | December 7, 2023

      Keeping culture with Zainab Sumu

      Meg Boeni

      Written by

      Meg Boeni


      As the exhibition As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic enters its last month at PEM, we’re reflecting on everything the show has brought to the museum: talks with Wedge Collection founder Dr. Kenneth Montague, an opening-day workshop with drummer and dance instructor Greg Coles and numerous tours with Curator Stephanie Tung, to name a few.

      PEM’s presentation of As We Rise was informed by several key community partners. Today, we’re highlighting Zainab Sumu, a multidisciplinary artist who was born in Sierra Leone, grew up in London and Paris and has lived in Massachusetts for around a decade. She has collaborated with the iconic Malian photographer Malick Sidibé and creates textiles, sculptures and paintings out of Studio Znabu in Somerville, Massachusetts.

      Enjoy this behind-the-scenes conversation with Sumu, and be sure to visit As We Rise before it closes on December 31.

      How have the different places you've lived influenced your art?

      For me, the aspect of community is very important. My work has given me a renewed appreciation of what it means to be home because now wherever I am, I feel like I belong. Every place, whether it was in London, Paris or here in the US, it is me creating that aspect of community and seeing the things that remind me of where I was born, or the things that I do here every day celebrating life, culture. Those are the things that I've learned from all the places that I hold dear to me, that I also get to interpret in my work and in my everyday life.

      When I left Sierra Leone, I lived in London. London for me was coming of age, was living away from my parents. There were times when it was confusing and sometimes lonely, but I knew I was there for a purpose. I was there to study and I was there to learn as much as I could. There was also the negative aspect where I was the other, and most times the other is not treated that nicely. I remember being in London and wearing what was considered an African outfit, with a head wrap and everything. We were going to a party. I was just looking good. We were on the subway, and these guys were pointing and laughing. I was like, "Huh, that is interesting." My older cousin was cursing at them. I just stood there because it was my very first experience with something like that. I guess you have to wear jeans and T-shirts for you to fit in.

      A glimpse of the exhibition showing Sumu’s video interview in the gallery. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      When I moved to Paris, I actually got to appreciate the culture for what it is. I saw how the Africans were always in these colorful outfits, no matter what they were doing, even just going to work in the train station.

      A glimpse of the exhibition showing Sumu’s video interview in the gallery. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      Seeing the exuberance, seeing all these Africans from different parts of West Africa, from Mali, from Senegal, the sense of pride and how they carry themselves. It was one of those soul-moving moments where I got to be like, "Oh, wow, I can be this?" That awakened something in me that stayed with me. Here I was [in Paris] discovering all these other things, going to museums and seeing all this artwork. It was inspiring and life-changing for me. I knew then and there that that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something that has to do with my Africanness. When I got an opportunity to go back to school and studied fashion and textiles, I thought, "That's it. This is going to be my life's journey: to learn about the cultural wealth and then share that through my work."

      A large part of African culture, of the Black experience, is rooted in our fashion. We express a lot through things we wear and how we put them together.

      How does travel inspire your work?

      Each time I travel to a new place, I capture moments through photographs that I then translate into woven sculptures, textiles, paintings and sculptural couture.

      When I travel to any of the countries in Africa, I want to focus on an aspect of that culture that I feel will be enriching, not only for me but also so that people can discover other facets of Africa. For so long, the narrative has been so one-sided. Even just in Sierra Leone, there was so much of the rest of Africa that I didn't know about. I just started discovering all this richness.

      Normally, before I even travel, once I have decided on the country I'm going to, I will choose what cultural touchstone I want to focus on. When I went to Morocco, it was Gnawa music. Before I leave, I'll look at books. I will research online. I will go to the library. I'll get as much information as possible so I know where I'm going. When I get there, I know I'm going – to Essaouira, for instance, because that's where they have the yearly Gnawa music festival. I also make a point of visiting craftsmen and artisans, and visiting museums and different places of culture that can inform me in other ways. Once I'm there, it's on me to capture what I see. That's where photography comes into play. It's very important for me because that's how I freeze those moments, and those moments stay with me and then I get to interpret those moments and create the works that I do.

      Your textile and fashion brand is called Primitive Modern. How did you come up with the name?

      A lot of times, people think the word primitive has this negative connotation. For me, primitive is that which is of the soil, that which is cultural, that which is traditional. Everything that's done by hand, everything that's artisanal, everything that's craftsmanship, nature, all of that is primitive. What's bad, what's negative about that? I'm owning that word and celebrating it. My work is all about going back to the source, and using aspects of the contemporary, of what I've experienced in the different places that I have been exposed to and growing up, and bringing that together.

      Guests in a workshop on the opening day of the exhibition. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      That's how life is. It's an evolution. I don't want to forget the cultural aspect of the things that we can keep going from generation to generation.

      Guests in a workshop on the opening day of the exhibition. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      How do you feel about seeing an exhibition focused on the Black Atlantic?

      To me, [there is a] sense of pride to see these pictures celebrated globally. For the longest time, the narrative about all things African was so negative and so dark because you only heard about the war, the famine, or just the terrible things.

      To see people just having fun – that's what life there is. It's always about optimism. It's about joy. Everybody with laughter and dancing and just playing. Of course, there are aspects of every day – there's the difficulties, there's a lot of things that could be better, but you find that everywhere.

      For me, these pictures said, "Yes, this is the Africa that I know." It's that aspect of living that I know, and I see it celebrated with so much pride. My work is about that. It's sharing the joy. It's through the stories, through the culture, the traditions, and weaving them through from the traditional to the modern. For me, that's what life is about. It's keeping culture, basically.

      As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic is on view until December 31, 2023. The exhibition is organized by Aperture and curated by Elliott Ramsey (Polygon Gallery, North Vancouver, Canada). This exhibition is made possible by the generosity of Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch and The Lynch Foundation. Additional support was provided by individuals who support the Exhibition Innovation Fund: Jennifer and Andrew Borggaard, James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes, Chip and Susan Robie, Timothy T. Hilton, Kate and Ford O'Neil, and Henry and Callie Brauer. We also recognize the generosity of the East India Marine Associates of the Peabody Essex Museum.

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      Press release

      New Exhibition at PEM Celebrates Black Community, Identity and Power

      Past Exhibition

      As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic

      June 17 to December 31, 2023