Hey Creative Friend,
It’s time for another SBTA- Story Behind the Art. This time the piece in question is “Essential Worker” It was the last piece I completed in 2020.
I started working on Essential Worker at the end of March, early April, 2020 – soon after the COVID pandemic had become an issue here in the U.S. During this period, we watched many passengers on a cruise ship test positive and the controversy about whether or not to allow the ship to dock in California.
I know, I know, it feels like a long time ago. Yes! Sometimes, it just takes a while for me to develop my ideas into a piece of artwork.
This piece – Essential Worker – was in direct response to the coronavirus. I wanted to capture the panic at the time, the feeling of bravery and heroism of essential workers. On a daily basis, they were heading out towards the virus when the rest of the public was looking for ways to stay away from it.
The Climate in Which I Created Essential Worker
In the beginning months of the pandemic, there was a severe shortage of personal protective equipment especially for healthcare workers. At around the same time, a raging debate about the effectiveness of homemade-masks ensued. For this reason, I chose to use a homemade mask to memorialize that period during the pandemic. It was a time when the CDC was recommending that healthcare and essential workers use TShirts and any cloth covering over their mouths and noses because there just weren’t enough PPE.
I also wanted to use homemade masks instead of N95 masks to acknowledge the sacrifice of so many sewists all across the country who sewed masks for essential workers – firefighters, healthcare workers, teachers, restaurant workers and so many more. Children and adults alike, many who hadn’t sewed for years, dusted off their old sewing machines, in some cases organized sewing groups, and made millions of masks. The generosity of the human spirit was truly on display during this time.
More Inspiration for Essential Worker
Additionally, I witnessed how the country went into lockdown and how some people who’d previously been at the bottom of society’s ladder, suddenly become classified as “essential” to the functioning of our economy. When companies started closing their doors for business, these grocery workers, mail men, uber drivers, delivery people, kept working to keep everyone else comfortable.
Honoring the Essential Worker
For some of them, it was a choice between their health and being able to provide for their families. Black workers were disproportionately found among Essential Workers. They risked their health and that of their families resulting in high death rates from COVID in the Black community.
In the early days of the pandemic when the country was in lockdown, hair salons were closed and for the first time, people had to learn to groom their own hair, cut and style their hair or just let it be. For the Essential Worker, there was no option to let their hair be, because unlike the rest of the population, they had to show up at work.
Incorporating my Identity into my Art
So, I chose to braid the hair of the subject in this portrait because braids are a form of protection for the Black person’s hair. Braids help lock in much-needed moisture and protect the hair from the elements and from breakage or damage. Braids can also be worn for long periods of time without needing to go back to the salon to have it redone.
As you know, I like to use a lot of symbolism in my work. For this piece, I wanted to juxtapose protection from the braids for this Essential Worker’s hair against the protection of the mask from the virus.
I designed three fabrics, specifically for this project. One for the mask (an original kente fabric design), another for the shirt (an original Ankara fabric pattern) and the third for the background. I wanted the background fabric to reflect some of the terminology that became part of our vocabulary as a result of the pandemic. So, you’ll find many words we now use everyday in that fabric.
The Year That will not be Easily Forgotten
2020 is behind us; but we’ll never forget it. This piece will always remind me of what a year 2020 was. It was a tough year. Many lives and jobs were lost due to the pandemic. We had racial unrest and reckoning which traumatized me. I wrote about that experience here. It turned out to be one of my most shared articles resulting in a lot of support as well as hate mail. All of that inspired me to create yet another powerful piece of work – a tribute to Charleena. No doubt that 2020 has certainly gone down in the books as a year to be remembered.
At the end of the year, I was especially delighted when I realized that TIME magazine reader’s poll for 2020 chose the Essential Worker as the person of the year. Many people stood up and stood out in 2020 but I tip my hat off to the Essential Worker.
Question: What or who stood out to you in 2020?
PS: Part of the series: The Story Behind the Art
Also published on Medium.