The exhibit starts in the artist's childhood kitchen before sending visitors deeper into a horrifying, necessary past
Upon walking into the second floor gallery space at Streetlight Guild, visitors will find themselves transported into the Detroit kitchen of artist Tiffani Smith’s late mother, Susie B. The dining room table has the same leaflets, the white cabinetry evokes a similar feel, and the countertops are identical to the ones that Smith prepared food on with her mom, who died when the artist was 11 years old.
“Everything that I learned about community, everything I’ve learned about love and how to treat people, how to nurture, how to take care of people, I’ve learned from my mother, and I learned it in her kitchen, which is why this space is important to me,” said Smith, who recalled her mother barbecuing for the entire neighborhood every Sunday. “It brings me back to everything she taught me.”
The space, which takes up roughly a third of Smith’s debut exhibit, “Born of My Mother’s Mouth,” which opened at Streetlight Guild on Friday, exudes comfort. Even the porcelain mugs and jars lining the counters were crafted by Smith during periods of escape, when she needed to momentarily set aside the horrors that fall just beyond the precipice, on the other side of a sign that rightfully reads, “DOORWAY OF NO RETURN.”
Passing beneath this warning, the mood shifts noticeably. Somehow, even the air feels heavier, more sacred, the walls lined with portraits of Smith's spiritual ancestors crafted from clay, leather, iron and collected precious materials, including sand from the beach in Sakumono, Ghana, in Africa, and water from the Assin Manso Slave River, also in Ghana. Best known as the Last Bath, the waters are where slaves brought from the north were dipped as a means of cleansing before entering into the transatlantic slave trade. Another portrait includes rings of coffee beans, a subtle reference to the way some transported slaves would be stacked atop bags of coffee and then forced to hold another bag of beans on top of themselves for the duration of the journey, maximizing space in the ship's cargo hold.
Other materials are more localized, including materials collected from a destroyed mural by late artist Jeff Abraxas — an extension of Smith’s “My Hood. My Heart. My Home.,” an ongoing project for which the artist collects relics from gentrified areas and turns them into pieces of jewelry that are then gifted to residents affected by encroaching development. (Smith, a jeweler by trade, creates these pieces under her Sankofa Arts label; “Born of My Mother’s Mouth” is her first foray into fine-art exhibition.)
Included in the exhibit are portraits of lynching victims, crafted as a means of reclaiming these lost stories, many of which Smith first confronted while in the midst of a 2016 writing residency put on by Maroon Arts Group, which required her to research hundreds of lynchings.
In one piece that takes up a majority of the north wall, a photograph of a lynching victim hangs above a clay likeness of Mary Turner, who was attacked by a mob and hung upside-down, her unborn baby cut from her womb and stomped to death on the streets beneath her body. If you enter “Mary Turner” on a search engine, the same photograph displayed in the exhibit is what appears. The trouble is, it’s actually a photograph of another lynching victim, Laura Nelson, and yet another example of how these likenesses and stories are often lost and distorted. Smith’s work is an attempt to try to repair this record, and to reclaim these stories for the women.
“It’s bringing awareness to these stories, and trying to correct some of the stories we’ve been taught,” Smith said. “And bring some life to their names, which have been lost for so long.”
Smith described it as taxing but necessary work. “It’s recognizing and understanding that I am just telling these stories. These people had to live them,” she said. “I can cry it out, have an emotional breakdown, and be fine the next day. These people did not have that luxury. So although I have a right to feel how I feel, as an artist, I also have an obligation to tell these stories and make them as right as I can.”
The emotionally heavy nature of the material exerted further pressure on Smith to get the details right, and she said she reworked some pieces "eight or nine times," including one portrait that, in its first incarnation, looked “too pretty” to transmit the necessary pain.
“There were times I had to walk away from pieces or completely destroy them because they didn’t feel right,” Smith said.
Those were the times she could retreat into her mother’s kitchen, or ceramic mug making, before delving back into telling the stories of her ancestors in the best way she knew how — with her hands.
“This has been a way for me to write these stories without actually having to write them,” she said. “I wanted to be able to tell the stories that are kind of lost to history, and very specific, real stories about people lost during the transatlantic slave trade and Jim Crow and all these eras we know about but never take the time to learn about individual people, individual stories. … I want people to not only learn these stories, but remember them in everything that they do.”