My heart is broken. The mentor who had the largest single influence on me, as an artist who writes and makes photographs, passed away Saturday afternoon. Barbara DeGenevieve’s work often unsettled me, and it is this project that drew me to her as a student. These images are from her 2006 work, The Panhandler Project. I often joked that she is my “mama in black art,” which tickled her so much. I took the joke far enough to ceremoniously anoint her an honorary black woman last fall with Mahogany Mother’s Day Cards and a tutorial on how to make a headwrap. I made a few enemies with that, I’m sure. However, she was a true ally who spoke up for students and faculty of all backgrounds and used her privilege to call other white, cis people on their complacency and prejudice.
Barbara gave me the only incompletes on my transcript because she wanted to keep working together. This past year she insisted on doing independent studies with me, even as her health declined and I was working full time. She knew the work was not done and could see through when I was just presenting enough to get by but not actually challenging myself.
Just a few lessons she gave:
Have no regrets.
Guilt is an utterly useless emotion.
Be sexy and be hot. Take pleasure in your power.
Fuck what people think about you. Whatever they believe about you is on them.
Help your mother with her writing. Dream for her.
Don’t care about being a reliable source of information. Let your audience come to their own conclusions.
Make your own autobiography. Believe whatever you want to believe.
Don’t just write “about” Michelle Obama and Beyonce. You can access them. Write questions you want to ask them directly about this work, because you can.
I want the world to take the time to get to know Barbara’s work. She worked tirelessly, even in the months before her death, as an educator and an artist, rejecting the idea of victimhood to lead to empowerment. She was in the trenches of the diversity conversation before it was popular, working behind the scenes to make SAIC a more inclusive environment. She challenged many of us who feel powerless to stop ingesting messages of inferiority and the burden of respectability. Barbara was a truly fearless and dedicated woman whose influence will be felt for years to come.