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Self-Emancipated: Ifé Franklin in Conversation with Chenoa Baker

Chenoa Baker joins in dialogue with artist Ifé Franklin to discuss her work on view at MFA, Boston, as well as an upcoming performance with Olmsted Now.

Interview by Chenoa Baker

A procession of figures wearing white journey across a graveyard.

Processional held on September 11, 2021, at the Dorchester North Burying Grounds in Upham's Corner. This event honored Betty, Ann, and Cambridge, enslaved ancestors who rest there, and was presented by UnBound Bodies Collective's Roots and Futures Project. Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective photo, courtesy of the artist.

A multidisciplinary artist living and working in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, Ife Franklin creates indigo-dyed cloth known as adire, video, photography, written work, and performance. Her practice incorporates a variety of Ifá references that Franklin says come to her intuitively. Ifá is a polytheistic religion from the Yorùbá culture in Nigeria whose traditions include the veneration of ancestors. Franklin’s active choices in religion, the body, and the deliberate refusal of the white supremacist paradigm in her work reminded me of the words “self-emancipated,” which I originally saw in a permanent exhibition that opened in 2013. Titled “From Slavery to Freedom, the show was held at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh and was curated by Sam Black, its director of African American programs. The word appeared in wall text about Charles Garlick, who became self-emancipated in 1843. Since viewing that exhibition at the Heinz History Center, I’ve used “descendant of self-emancipators” when describing myself, having finally found the language to characterize the  intentional journey of my great-great-grandparents and my family’s multiple ways of resisting the status quo.

Similarly, Franklin authors a story of her ancestor Willie Mae through video and the written word. We were brought together not only by our interest in ancestral history, but also through my advising on “Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas,” currently on view until May 21, 2023, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This show highlights work from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, illustrating multiple ways African American and Caribbean artists engaged with Pan-African thought and aesthetics. Based on the brainstorming session with my cohort (Dr. Kyrah Malika Daniels, Stephen Hamilton, and Napoleon Jones-Henderson), the title was inspired by Franklin’s collage Ancient Voice, Honoring Spirits, Touching Roots.

This collage showcases visual references of Ifá priests in Nigeria wearing red to honor Oshun, a sacrifice of a chicken, and a divination plate. All of the elements she incorporates are conduits to ancestral presence in daily life. Due to the Western history of enslavement, honoring the ancestors in the West is an act of self-emancipation, rooting, and unraveling systems of oppression. Recently, Franklin was the recipient of an Olmsted Now grant, which will allow her to showcase a processional that invites and thanks ancestors who are buried in the Boston area. The processional is scheduled to be held on September 25 at the Copp’s Hill Burial Ground in the North End neighborhood.

Please note: The following interview includes a racial slur used by the artist. Following standards set forth by the AP with regards to the treatment of slurs and obscenities in direct quotes, the artist’s voice has been preserved intentionally. 

Left: Ifé Franklin presenting her work at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, alongside curator Martina Tanga for a Juneteenth event, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist. Right: Ifé Franklin, Ancient Voice, Honoring Spirits, Touching Roots, 1997, and Ifé Awakening, Warrior Spirit, 1997. Image courtesy of Martina Tanga and MFA, Boston.

Chenoa Baker: We can riff off of my offering to the space and discuss self-emancipation. It’s a repurposed cigar box. The woman in the picture is my great-great-grandmother Anna Mae Elizabeth Wagner Lomax with my great-great-grandfather Richard Baker and their daughter. Together they self-emancipated and went to Tennessee. This is the earliest documentation of my family.

Ifé Franklin: You look like her. As soon as I saw it, I was like, “Wow, asè.”

CB: Thanks.

IF: Thanks for sharing.

CB: What does self-emancipation mean to you?

IF: Emancipation is the freedom to be me. My work is who I am. I’m a person who asks questions and says “no.” When I was in high school, my soul knew I needed to get out of that house. College was that for me, but my ancestors had me at art school because I wouldn’t have made it at a regular college. When I was at the Museum School, you could attend Tufts to get your BA. I was in the diploma program instead because I wanted more studio work. Self-emancipation is fighting to be me and have the bandwidth to figure that out. When feeling that way, you can regenerate different iterations of yourself. That’s a blessing because many people don’t feel loved enough or told that they can do it. Sometimes you need one person to believe in you to carry on.

We don’t emancipate by ourselves. A lot of times, without white abolitionists, we wouldn’t have been able to even have a platform. I don’t want to give them too much credit, but who listened to us? We were enslaved, and even free Black folks were still niggas and nobody listened. We can’t be free alone; we need community to be free. Sometimes that community doesn’t look like me and I accept that. I discern this because a lot of the abolitionists are the gatekeepers. They have the platform, money, and title. But if people can deal with me, we can work together. It’s refreshing to see the shift in their minds. The people that I’ve worked with feel genuine. These people are interested in me and what I have to bring. I’ve prayed for this. Previously, if you weren’t a Boston-based painter of certain things, you didn’t get the money. They don’t understand what I’m trying to do. It’s not that my work isn’t good. I felt like I needed to reinvent the wheel for them. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep going.

CB: Your two-fold project of writing The Slave Narrative of Willie Mae and creating a short film adaptation of the written work highlighted the story of your ancestor. What stood out are moments of free dance movement when Willie Mae, her family, and friends plot her emancipation route. There is something about the body and the mind linked to liberation. Do you see similarities between yourself and Willie Mae?

IF: Last summer, I visited my aunt, who was 102. I had never seen this picture, at the top of the stairs, of Willie Mae holding my aunt. My sister put the two pictures together. I look like her in the structure of my face. I talked to a friend living in Nigeria on Instagram about the upcoming processional. She said, “We are the ancestors. We are the portal.” Our existence, our breath is the portal. When I hear people talk about Afrofuturism, I feel that we are Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is the future, past, and present. This is the balance of life. Spiritual work always dovetails with macroaggressions, like the appearance of white supremacists in JP. Balance always comes; they cannot squash nor kill us off. Again, we have abolition through divine work in museums and galleries. There’s freedom in knowing that. Trust is essential for freedom. Trusting my own heart is uncomfortable because fear wants to come in and say, “You can’t.” When folks mention freedom fighters, everybody talks about Harriet, but there were thousands of Harriets. Hundreds of women, men, and children decided, “I can’t do this anymore. This is not my life. There has to be something else. What is beyond this?” They took the risk. Every day we’re taking risks. One of the biggest risks that I’m taking is leaving my job. That is total freedom. Can I do it now and if not now when? I’m sixty-two. When am I going to trust that deeply? When am I going to release fear?

CB: This fall, you’re creating a processional for Olmsted Now, the bicentennial celebration happening with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. How is your project taking shape?

IF: Before I received grants for processionals, I did them with friends. I read an article about Jane and Cicely, two enslaved women buried in Harvard Square. Anybody can go there and see them. I wrote on my Facebook status: “I’m going over here. Does anybody want to join?” Three of my friends and I put flowers, prayed, placed chicory, and sang. Then we went to the Dorchester North Burying Ground where the Unbound Bodies Collective did the processional. Before forming a group, we went over there and Jean Appolon, the founder of Jean Appolon Expressions—a dancer who teaches Haitian folk dance—put a vèvè down with cornmeal. It’s a beautiful practice. I wanted evidence of the ancestors. It came to me as a processional because Black folks do them all the time when they’re going to get baptized down South. They walk from the church to the river, in white, singing and communing. Fast forward, the Unbound Bodies Collective created living altars and asked me to be a consultant. Then they asked me if I wanted to participate because they wanted the project to be intergenerational. They said, “What do you want for a living altar?” I replied, “I want to do a processional and make it for the community.” That was the first official community processional for the egun (ancestors). The opportunity came after the living altar with Unbound Bodies to apply for the Olmsted Now grant.

I’m planning the program for September 25. The difference between this processional is that I’m doing everything—the flowers, the juju bags, et cetera. My hands bring that magic. We’re going to have drummers. Whoever shows up is who it’s supposed to be for. This is about the one thousand Black people buried in Copley Hill. In this particular plot, there are only five or fewer headstones because tombstones were made out of wood that deteriorated. People didn’t have the money for the granite. With the Unbound Bodies Collective living altar, which the Olmsted Now Grant project is similar to, we went there, said thank you, laid flowers, did our interpretation of a ring shout, and sang. It’s not a performance, it’s not spectatorship; it is moments of silence, story sharing, laying there, and transferring frequencies of love.

In 2015, Ifé Franklin mounted the second version of her Ancestor Slave Cabin at Franklin Park, where she hosted a series of performances and community events, including a reading of The Slave Narrative of Willie Mae. This presentation was a part of Franklin’s ongoing Indigo Project. Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo, courtesy of the artist.

CB: Have you experienced resistance in spiritual work and how did you navigate it?

IF: I wouldn’t be on my artist journey if it wasn’t for my family. When I said I wanted to attend art school, they never said, “You can’t do that.” I was the first one in my family to go to college. My grandfather said, “Be the best one.” People were cheering me on. I don’t know anybody who has said in my family, “I want to attend art college.” I was good at it. I’m grateful because they spent a lot of their funds to house me and feed me. They were counting on me. I went to two art colleges. Being around people who have different incomes, they’re always having vacations. I saw that I could take a break. But in my family’s mind, you keep going. I dropped out of college. After a while, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, how to do it, or how to make a living. I cried because I didn’t want to disappoint my grandfather. He said, “You won’t finish.” He said, “Then you are giving up? You’re not going to finish. This worries me.” I said, “I need time to think about what I’m doing.” I was in school from elementary school to college without a break. It’s a whole class thing. You don’t get a break. You go because this is the mission. My grandfather stopped talking to me because he was hurt. Later, I moved to Boston and realized I wanted to return to school. I got all the funding except for maybe a thousand dollars and I wrote to my grandfather asking for about $700 – $500. On my way back to school, I Xeroxed everything. Then I got a letter with $2,000. He sent more than needed. I felt overwhelmed, and I wouldn’t be who I am without my family. I know that they’re uplifting me. At my altar, I heard the voices of my grandparents and Willie Mae come through. They are proud and protect me.

The resistance within myself is fear: What do people think, and what do they say? I’m not afraid when I’m doing the work because it remains whether it’s shown in a museum or not. Regardless, this is my position on the planet. The work continues beyond that. Fear is resistance, but spirit overrides that. I don’t worry about external resistance, because when the time comes for me to show my work, I will. The biggest thing is not losing track of what I’m doing and not changing for others. It never ceases to amaze me how people invite you because they like what you do but then they want you to change. I don’t want anything to change my voice because then I’m not free. I will lose a gig, whatever. It’s about learning how to say “no” and having other people learn that their vision is not mine. They wouldn’t have asked me to be if my shit wasn’t fierce, beautiful, had a lot to say, and filled with culture. I’m sure I’ve lost opportunities, but I gain myself. My work grows when I say “no” because I’m not blocked.

CB: Can you describe your collage, textile work, and ancestor slave cabins, and how they all demonstrate self-emancipation?

IF: At different times, I’m working on different things. I don’t see them as separate; I’m receiving downloads from spirit when making work. When I went to school, I studied photography and started collaging because of the influence of an ex-partner. The collages were from journals I sold. They weren’t expensive to make and helped with my anxiety. When I was at the Museum School, people wanted me to work with Stanley Pinckney. Part of my work-study job was sorting mail for instructors. Pinckney came in and got his mail. He said, “You should take my course.” I said, “People said I should take your course. But people said you were mean.” He laughed and said, “Yeah, I’m disciplined. Some people who come here aren’t disciplined. If they come to class, they must be on time.” Through conversation with Stanley, I found out he was a devotee of Shango. This whole class, the art of adire, is from the Yorùbá culture in Nigeria. I was timid because of chemistry, numbers, and measuring. He said, “Don’t be so timid.” Then I fell in; it permitted me to be myself.

After his class, I photographed, performed, and made videos. He attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. He graduated and taught there for forty years. Every department approached Stanley for critiques. How do I do a resume? At that time, they didn’t have artist business courses, but Stanley was doing that. He told the school, “We should be doing this. How are we sending them on to the world without preparation?” It took me to another level. I had my own clothing business because Stanley said, “You could make money from this.” I started selling T-shirts, and then I started doing all other things for that.

I’m grateful to be myself, Black, Queer, an artist, and a human being. I’m grateful to my ancestors that I can have choices they didn’t have and walk around with no scars on my back. My final thoughts on everything are that I get to be free and bring my ancestors along for this journey; what they didn’t have, they have with me. They show me visions of things that were their lives. I remind them that they can come on this journey with me, that they can relax, and that they don’t have to be afraid anymore. They can trust me to take care of them.


Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas” is on view until May 21, 2023, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Franklin’s Olmsted Now processional is scheduled to be held on September 25 at the Copp’s Hill Burial Ground in the North End neighborhood.


Chenoa Baker


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