[CONVERSATION]: Remembrance and Reimagining with Shefon Nachelle Taylor
A woman designing her own language, Shefon Nachelle incorporates elements of history, nature, the cosmos along with texture, shape and color to transcribe her understanding of her present life, the lives of women before her and the possibilities of her imagined future.
An extension of her poetry, Shefon creates a harmonious relationship between the digital compositions and storytelling. Self described as an experimental editor, the manipulated images are also a glimpse into an imagined world for Black women, girls and femmes — boldly stating the fact that they are the most influential and unforgettable, period.
— On ‘motivations in the work’
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: What feelings or experiences motivate your work?
Shefon Nachelle Taylor: One of the sources of inspiration for my work is my grandmother because I have only known her as like this very sage, sanctified grandmother that she has always been. In the last few years, I have become very curious about what her life was before that. That’s the case for both she and her sisters. They were all born in the 1940s, so I’m constantly thinking about my life in the context of theirs and what it means to dream a dream and also live it. That motivates me because there are times where I’ll talk to my grandmother about something, whether its work or art, and she understands it in a way that sometimes I don’t give her credit for. This just makes me wonder what she wanted or dreamed of for her own life and how can I be an extension of that dream, an extension of that imagination for her.
The other context for it is the city of Wilmington. It’s the largest city in the state, the Blackest city in the state. It is a city, historically and presently impacted by racism, violence, poverty and structural oppression. I’m encouraged by the idea that it’s possible for every little Black girl to reimagine their lives.
The city is very small, so I am in proximity to it all the times. I think about what it will ultimately mean to other Black and brown girls from Wilmington who had an incarcerated father, who has a mother that has a history of mental and emotional issues, who was raised by their grandparents, who had a baby when they were a teenager — all of those things that predetermine some path for us, that we can then reimagine ourselves out of. Those are the things that are always at the top of my mind, if that makes sense. My proximity, still, to these things encourages me.
— On ‘inspiration’
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: That makes a lot of sense. You provide a new reflection to these expressions of iconic Black vintage figures, like the Dorothy Dandridge piece we’ll be workshopping today. Tell me more about the inspiration behind such strong, personal motivations for your work?
Shefon Nachelle Taylor: Constantly thinking about my grandmother is also why these other women of those times show up. There is a particular quote from Alice Walker’s ‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens’ where she talks about our mothers and grandmothers who often talk about us as the mules of the world, which is still a very modern narrative. She mentioned about how they dreamed dreams that no one knew, like not even themselves — in any coherent fashion. And saw visions that no one could understand and she says, they wandered or sat about the countryside, cooing lullabies to the ghosts and drawing the Mother of Christ in charcoal on courthouse walls. She talks about how her mothers and grandmothers, some of them are moving to music that’s not yet written and they waited. They waited for a day when the unknown thing that was in them will be made known.
I feel like a manifestation of that unknown thing, of that moving to the music, of that writing with charcoal on the courthouse walls. I just can’t imagine that anything, any of my work would not incorporate some element of remembering, honoring or just keeping in mind the women with whom I share blood. The edits are also this combination of the two things we’re talking about — this remembrance and also this reimagining.
— On ’direction of the work’
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: I’ve asked you about what motivates the work and what inspires the work — let’s talk about what events and feelings contribute to the direction of the work?
Shefon Nachelle Taylor: It's been an insane last 15, 16 months within the political landscape, and I have had a very hard time staying connected to the reality of this world, to be honest. These edits are an opportunity for me to create, not just another world of my own but some other alternate universe in which Black women and girls have a very different experience. There are lots of those celestial elements that are part of it, because in my mind, I’m just like ‘Okay, all the Black women can just get away.’ Let’s just get AWAY, let’s get out of here.’ That’s really where the work started, in this moment engaging with the imagination and to think very fantastically about my life and the lives of Black girls and Black women.
— On ‘the future’
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: What are your hopes for your work?
Shefon Nachelle Taylor: My hope is that my work gets closer to communicating my fullness. I tweeted this quote from Liz Lerman, an incredible choreographer. When you talk about vision, that’s what we’re constantly doing — overreaching. Tryna grab some shit that we can’t reach, but she says in her later work, the gap between her ideas and what she’s actually capable of producing is smaller.
That resonates so deeply because there are things even right now that I want to communicate in my work that I can’t yet. I’m just not there yet — whether it’s in skill, vulnerability, whatever it is. I feel that way about myself. The goal for me also feels like the gap between how I show up in the world and how I communicate my identity — in art and in whatever else that becomes smaller where there’s no disconnection between who I am and who I’m communicating myself to be.
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: How would you describe this Dorothy Dandridge edit?
Shefon Nachelle Taylor: Skies and space are kind of always at the backgrounds of the work because I always feel like that’s where I am and that’s where I start. Sometimes I’m closer to the Earth and maybe in the clouds but sometimes I’m like what the hell am I going to create three universes away, trying to get to the core of what it is that I’m experiencing.
Beyond aesthetics, I love Dorothy Dandridge as a songstress and actress. There’s not a Dorothy Dandridge movie that I have not seen, whether it’s ‘Carmen Jones’ or ‘Bright Road’ or any film that she’s been in. I love it. I love being able to insert myself in that time. I think about this one quote from Dorothy Dandridge where she mentions if she were white, she could capture the world.
And I think about a woman like Dorothy Dandridge, who is probably as a black woman, the closest you get to a Eurocentric standard or idea of beauty, who still was having these conversations with herself — about if I were white I could do incredible things. What I thought about a lot in that was this dismembering we do of ourselves. On the spectrum of blackness, when we talk about women and femmes. That deconstructing of ourselves that we do, in order to reimagine ourselves as beautiful, which really translates to re-imagining ourselves as our oppressors that also somehow for us, translates to worthiness and beauty. We know that; from all the things that we’ve experienced, that our ancestors have experienced, that it is the ugliest thing.
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: Now this piece takes on a whole nother meaning for me.
Shefon Nachelle Taylor: See! And that’s why I don’t want to explain it. I’m always curious about what comes up for other people.
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: So do you wanna know what came up for me, initially?
Shefon Nachelle Taylor: Please. Let me interview you. [both erupt with laughter]
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: To see Dorothy Dandridge cover the sky, it made me realize and understand influence as a human thing. The direction of the eyes catches me immediately because there’s one that’s kind of staring off into its own world and then there’s one that is inherently different but staring directly back at you. That makes me feel like that’s what the ideal standard is and how it seeks to position itself within your understanding. The ideal wants to stare you down into your face, until you succumb to it, until it takes over you. But what’s the overwhelming majority of the image? Dorothy Dandridge’s face and body is her own and also that fantastical self that is away from ‘the ideal.’
Shefon Nachelle Taylor: Right.
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: Like the message could be ‘Yes, the ideal may exist as a part of me but it doesn’t or doesn’t have to consume me.’ I feel like it's changed since then.
Shefon Nachelle Taylor: It HAS. I’ll send it via Twitter DM.
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: [receives updated edit] [exclaims] And it changes. It changes. It’s changing. Wow. Okay, this is so interesting. Everything is coming full-circle. A healer that I know, Sojourner Zenobia, does a lot of sister circles and workshops focused in meditation, movement and journaling. Her theme for the end of the year’s session was ‘the body as a garden’. I feel like this piece, given your intent, is an expression of the work to remain true to your whole nature, how you still encounter and in some cases, succumb to the being changed by ‘the ideal’.
Shefon Nachelle Taylor: I love that. Flowers are a very common element in all of my work. And I think in writing, in the edits, in real life — a lot of times, it’s just for no other reason than they’re just so damn beautiful. Like first and foremost, without having to get all deep and profound.
I love that, thinking of the body as a garden — I really fucking love that. This idea of being constantly in bloom and honoring yourself when you’re not in bloom, when you have just planted your seeds into the ground or when your seeds are wobbling out and you’re not getting no flowers this spring. [laughs] That’s real. I think one of the things that I kind of recognize in my life is we’re not a reflection of nature, we are that thing.
So this idea of being a woman and being connected to nature not just in a flowery flower kind of way but also feeling myself getting closer to the wildness of nature. I think that’s where I am also in my waking life. I’ve been really meditating, revisiting ‘Women who Run with the Wolves’ and one of the reasons I’m so excited about thirty is I feel like that part of me is coming.
All of those aspects of me as a woman that doesn’t align with femininity, doesn’t traditionally align with womanhood, I want all of those things to escape in my waking like and in my art. Mostly because I make the association with freedom, I make the association with liberation when I talk about wildness in nature.
And you know, that’s the nature of a flower, right? It’s just gon’ bloom. It’s gon’ do what it wants to do. It’s gon’ be as colorful and wild and as beautiful as it wants to be.
Check out a few of Shefon's favorite things at the links below: