"You Have to Love Us to Love our Culture": An Interview with Deja Marie
It doesn’t take long to find uniquely talented black artists and creatives residing in the rust-belt city of Buffalo New York. One such visual artist, Deja Marie creates work embodying identity and culture, finding ways to balance the unflinchingly personal with socio-political exploration.
Identifying as an Afro-Latina, she selflessly uses her expressionist work to uplift Black American, African and Latino communities finding common themes in identity and struggle while also shedding a light on the beauty of culture and representation. For Deja, there is power in storytelling; in her own words, “I have put it on myself to be a voice for the voiceless.”
Richie Wills: Hi Deja. Thanks for agreeing to speak with me today. How are you feeling?
Deja Marie: I'm feeling good. Positive, calm, there's a lot of negative energy going on as you know for the past few days but I've been able to burn some incense and meditate. That's the best form that I can use to get away from all of the negative energy that's been around.
That's great. Self-care is especially important during these times. I myself have been burning record amounts of sage. So let's jump right in, I know you identify as an Afro-Latina, what does that mean for you and how do you navigate that identity?
It means a lot to me. We're very underrepresented in our own culture and in other cultures people don't realize that we go through all the same struggles that other black people around the diaspora go through and there's a constant battle. Within our own community we don't fit in, because we don't look the stereotypical way of how a Latina should look so we don't look like a J-lo or Shakira or a Sophia Vergara, you know, we don't have that "exotic" look but in the same sense somebody could say that an African woman from Ghana looks exotic. So, it's a weird double standard, you know? There's just a lot of bias and a lot of ignorance from people from my own community who say things like, "You don't look this way because of the color of your skin" or "Your hair is this texture". I just look at it as these people need a little bit more education because it can also be people who are the same exact skin tone as me, or have a finer hair texture than me that exclude themselves from being black. At the same time, they love their culture, which is very heavily African influenced so it has a lot to do with assimilation, self-hate and lack of education.
It's so powerful that you choose to stand in your blackness and don't shy away from culture and your black heritage when so many people around you do. To your point earlier saying these people need education, do you see that in your work? Or rather what kind of message do you aim to say with your work?
I definitely see it in my work. I feel very strongly about identity issues and social issues because growing up this was very hard for me. It's my background being a Puerto Rican, Mexican and Chilean, but I looked Black. I was raised by my mother's side of the family who is of Puerto Rican mixed heritage and my grandfather being Chilean but a Black Chilean who always spoke Spanish around the house. My goal is for my viewers to look at my work with an open mind and let go of the biases that they have. I also find it extremely important to create artwork that shows us in a positive light. This for me means a sense of majesty while incorporating different parts of our culture, whether that be Caribbean culture or West African culture.
I find that people tend to like culture but they don't like the people so I try to erase that mindset and show them that you have to love us to love our culture. It can't just be one or the other. So I also make it one of my goals to incorporate in my work different West African symbols that Black Americans and Caribbean’s can trace their lineage back to while helping to educate and show a different side of this culture that they might not know about because then it could reverse it for them, change their mind to think, "Oh, this is beautiful."
It's my goal to visit countries in Africa and see in person what i already believe to be true that it's not a - what did our president say "crap hole"?
I believe he called it a "Shit Hole."
Oh no beautiful countries, beautiful continent full of riches. I want people to know that there is a good civilization there, civilized people, great forms of technology and a lot of knowledge and history there. That's what's really important to me with my work is to educate people and if I feel like somebody is not accepting what I create, then I just leave them to that and hope that further down the line they can educate themselves away from the ignorance that they do have.
I think, that's one hope as an artist, is to try to impact someone with the work that you're creating and if you don't, you don't. At the end of the day, I think if we can change even one person that's an amazing thing you've done and I think you're doing an amazing thing here. As someone born in Nigeria, I love seeing my Yoruba culture being implemented in the spirit of the work that you do. I hope that younger people can look at your work and continue to be inspired by it which leads me into my next question - who are some of your biggest influences?
Growing up my biggest influence was without a doubt my grandmother who was born in Guánica Puerto Rico. It's a small little beautiful Island and she moved to New York city as an adolescent where she worked in politics. She worked alongside Mario Cuomo and later moved to Buffalo where she worked with our former mayor Jimmy Griffin. She used to hold a lot of political parties in our backyard [laughs] and when I was born since my mother was working most of the time to make sure she could provide everything that we wanted my grandmother took over that role of raising me and my sisters. I was really inspired by her and by that time she was retired and was involved with the church here on the West side and with Hispanics United. I would often go to church with her and she would read the Bible to me. She was a part of the Catholic religion, but later transitioned to being more of an old Testament Christian. So, all of that, you know, her raising me, she had a big influence on me. She really taught me to be a God-fearing Boricua [laughs again].
As far as my art influences go. I like Kehinde Wiley because he creates these like huge hyper-realistic images of black people, showing them in full majesty on horses with flowers around them in a beautiful way and his whole idea is he's showing black people in a way that we are not seeing, we're always seen as the aggressors and not as actual human beings, you know? I also like the work of Kara Walker. She does these large black paper cutouts that are. very simplistic, but very telling. I also really like Basquiat's work as well. Yeah. I love his work and I love the vibe of his work.
To kind of pivot a little bit to your actual work process. How do you create your pieces because when I saw your work, I thought to myself, "These are really elaborate and detailed”? What is the process of creating it?
All my work starts out with extensive research. To be able to create work with Yoruba influences and symbols and names I have to do my due diligence to educate myself on that culture. This goes for any ethnic African groups or culture that I incorporate into my work. I never want to offend or seem like i'm appropriating a culture that technically, I myself am part of. Then it goes into my sketching process if I do sketch, sometimes I just like to sketch in my head because when I put it down onto paper, I feel like it can get boxed in.
I have so many ideas in my head that I get a better result when I just put it down on canvas - wood or whatever I paint on. Then I move on to figuring out the place where I'm going, everything is very strategic and I begin my process of painting, eventually taking a step back from it. When I think, you know, "Maybe I could add more to this image" I don't go back to my sketch but add more directly into my work. In the painting I'm working on now the male figure's name is Inioluwa - meaning 'God's Heritage' and he initially wasn't ripping out his heart or soul from his chest, I added that after I did the sketch because I felt like it needed more to it to speak to the story of what I'm trying to create - The eternal and spiritual love between black people that has existed since we were created.
I also want all my images to interact with the background and not be stiff so I layer it on with a thin layer of underpainting and then begin my process by testing either on the computer or with paint swabs to figure out what colors to put with each other which are complimentary or which will look good together. It can take me a couple of weeks to a month to finish a painting depending on what shifts I decide to use.
Wow. That's incredible. As a writer myself I can't help but draw similarities between processes for visual art and writing narrative fiction, because like in writing you sometimes have to create a template or an outline and then use that to like flesh your story. How do you seek out opportunities and navigate with your art in Buffalo?
I definitely try to make connections with like-minded people and like-minded organizations that focus primarily on pushing out more Black art and more Latino art. We have a gallery called El Museo in Allentown that really encourages people of color to apply their work into the gallery so that we are more represented and so we have that safe space for us and for other people to then come in to the gallery. And I try to do work outside of the contemporary white art scene and try to connect with other local art galleries around Buffalo that would be a good assistance to me. I also try to make contact with people who are interested in our culture and wants to know more about ways they can assist in eradicating negative biases towards it.
I'm familiar with El Museo. I've checked out a few lovely exhibitions there. So, this is a question that I'm personally curious about who is your favorite superhero and why?
My favorite superhero is Blade because I like the idea of a half-vampire half-human black character, you don't often see that you know. Vampires are kind of associated with white people because it kind of fits their very pale skin and that ghostly look and you add the fact that Blade is so skilled as a martial artist and swordsman, you don't necessarily associate that even now with black people. People don't know about African martial arts, they don't know about ancient stick fighting or Dambe, and they don't know that it's not just an Asian practice, that there are also black martial arts too. It's still kind of controversial even now.
I love me some Wesley Snipes he's so underrated but I enjoyed the Blade movies especially the second one. You also reminded me of Capoeira, I know a few black and brown folks practicing in Buffalo and it's origins were from enslaved Africans in Brazil. This brings me to my last question. How can people find and support your work and is there anything else you'd like to share?
I’m currently seeking to make a change within the health of our youth and adults in the inner cities, in the areas of proper nutrition education. I will be enrolling in the intensive course studies of Dr. Llaila Afrika, where the studies include Diagnosis of disease, use of Herbs to cure and prevent disease, Vitamins and Minerals, Sclerology, Kinesiology, Bodily Systems, Chemical Analysis of Saliva and Urine, and Psychological Analysis.
Once I receive my certification in this course I will then move forward in collaborating with local Whole Food stores, farmers markets and vegan stores, to include their stores, products and healthier food options into the inner cities of Buffalo. The long term goal is to then see an decrease in our health illnesses an increase in mental health and physical health, and Black/Brown ownership of neighborhood grocery stores.
In order to successfully do this, I need some financial help as the course costs $1,240. I will be having a fundraiser where I will be selling all my original artwork listed, as well as prints and apparel on my online store. I am also open to accept any and all commissions. You can contact me through my website or Facebook page!
If you would like to simply donate to my fundraiser, please feel free to leave a donation of any kind in my Cashapp:
Or my Donorbox Any donation no matter how small will be greatly appreciated!
You can find me on social media, my Facebook art page is Deja Marie Fine Arts. My Instagram name is artisticbeauty3 and my website is DejaMarieFineAart.com. You can find links to my Society Six online store on my website. Also, I have a separate link on my website for my original artwork that I am currently selling right now.