Reassembling the Diaspora// Paula Mans
The African diaspora is expansive, making it challenging to capture the breadth of experiences, cultures, and customs in any single piece of work. Luckily, some of us have been able to experience the vastness of the diaspora and translate our experiences for others; Paula Mans, for instance. A self-taught painter, collagist, and art educator, Paula began her art practice in 2020. With work largely informed by her experiences living internationally for many parts of her life, Paula’s collages reframe the dynamics between the figure and the onlooker, giving her figures the power to confront the viewer and even serve as a mirror. Through her practice, Paula taps into an ancestral, spiritual source that serves as a thread for the images she collects, her experience as a global citizen, and her ever-evolving identity as an artist.
What mediums do you work in and how long have you been creating?
I started taking art seriously in 2020 and I started making abstract pieces. I was working pretty large, I would say the smallest abstract piece I started with was 36 X 48 inches, so I was very ambitious from the start. Now I mostly do figurative collage.
Out of curiosity, is there any particular reason why you started making work in 2020?
I was at home and I was teaching virtually. I was an early childhood teacher at the time, and while raising my daughter and teaching in the classroom, I used art a lot. I loved spending time making art with kids, but it was never something I pursued seriously on my own. I think having so much downtime at home encouraged me to explore that as an outlet, and it just morphed into a life of its own. I don’t think that I ever expected to show publicly anywhere — it was more of just for me, so it’s pretty wild to see the trajectory I’m on now. If you had asked me three years ago, I’d say, yeah… I paint in my room!
That’s so crazy! You haven’t been doing this for that long and you’re already showing in galleries. Things are happening!
It’s taken me a long time to find my path. I’ve always done a lot of different things, and I’ve always been engaged creatively. In terms of visual arts, I always had an appreciation for it and grew up with a lot of art in my home — my parents are collectors, but in terms of me doing it, no way. I feel like I’m coming home to myself and learning so much about myself. I feel like this is my path! It’s taken me 35 years to get here, but I’m here now!
What attracted you to collage work?
I feel like so Black American kids were introduced to the arts through Romare Bearden. My parents had prints of Bearden all over the house, and one of my favorite picture books as a child was dedicated to his life. Also, I live in D.C, so I think with all of the protests, all of the marches, and everything going on, I felt called to make more figurative pieces and to create Black imagery because we need it. We’ve always needed it, but I think art, specifically Black figurative art, can be very affirming and can serve as a mirror. I think at the time, I needed to channel my creative energies into exploring that – as a way of social advocacy, but also as a way of creating a mirror for us to see ourselves reflected in — in a powerful way and not from a space of marginalization which is how blackness is commonly referred to, but as a space of resistance, a space of empowerment and strength, beauty, tenderness, everything.
Black images have been saturated throughout the media in every single way, from footage of killings to how popular Black figurative art is now. I have a lot of questions about that, and I hear people say that we’re going through another Black Renaissance or Harlem Renaissance because of how popular Black figurative art is and how popular Black artists are in the market, but I really try to create figures that aren’t just beautiful to look at, but actually have agency to look at you and challenge you. The gaze is really important to me because I feel that Black imagery is always beautiful, we’re beautiful people, but we’re much more than that. I want to turn around the power dynamics of the viewer looking onto the figure, and instead I want the Black figure to look back at you and either serve as a mirror, serve as a confrontation, make you feel affirmed; or if necessary, make you feel uncomfortable.
A large theme in your practice is invisibility, with your highly contrasted, monochrome pieces alluding to this. Can you explain its significance?
Abstraction is deeply personal for me and therapeutic because I was going through a divorce during the pandemic. Art was a way for me to evoke and process my feelings, but it was deeply personal. Whereas when I started making figurative work, specifically the collages, it took on a more collective or ancestral voice. I’ll start with a set of images to compile to construct a figure, and I’ll have an idea in my head. Lots of artists say this, but something else takes over, then I create something that I had never even intended — a very distinct face or distinct emotion that I wasn’t necessarily planning to create.
I feel like a lot of my figurative work comes from an ancestral collective place, but as I’m working more with collage, more personal themes are coming up, specifically invisibility. I created a piece called (Un)seen, and I didn’t intend it at all, but in the end, I realized it was a representation of my feelings as an adolescent going to private, majority white schools in D.C. I realized that I was creating myself; my twelve-year-old self. It’s interesting to see how it goes back and forth and oscillates to being something collective to something more personal.
Many of your pieces show your subjects from their waist or collarbone, is there a particular reason most of your subjects aren’t shown with their full bodies?
No, that’s a really good question. The first full-body piece I made is on my homepage, but I do want to start making more. I want to make a full-figure including feet — that’s my next move. It’s just harder to find images in that size, so I’m looking into investing into a better printer, because my little home office printer isn’t cutting it! It’s not intentional, and I would like to go even bigger and do more full-scale figures moving forward.
You’ve mentioned that your experiences throughout the African diaspora, particularly your time living abroad in Tanzania, Mozambique, Eswatini, and Brazil have shaped your identity and your art practice. What was your experience like in each of these countries, and how did your time impact your creative growth?
All of those experiences completely opened my perspective and opened doors for me in a way. I definitely see myself as a global person as a result of that experience. And in terms of affirming my Black identity, since I was going to majority white schools, I always felt at the margins. I think that living in different places among the African diaspora showed me that blackness is a passport of belonging — we belong to so many communities because of our shared experiences and shared ancestry. It opened up how I see myself and how I move through the world. I think that really impacts my work, the images I seek, and the messages I want to send out.
How does your experience working in the U.S, particularly in D.C., differ from your time abroad?
In every way. America is a very stressful place to live, but I also appreciate how engaged we are. I feel like typically, if we’re not politically engaged, we have a strong sense of rights in this country that I think in Brazil, I didn’t observe as much. Specifically, Black people, we have our own media, newspapers, magazines, and art platforms on a national scale, and I don’t think that exists in Brazil on the same level yet. I think people are very politically engaged in Black communities in Brazil, but it’s not necessarily on a national level in terms of national movements and national publications.
I think it’s harder in Brazil because it’s easier to feel disempowered. Here, there’s a strong sense of pride and a strong sense of self in regards to racial identity that doesn’t exist on a large scale there. It’s a work in process— their abolition happened much later than ours. The interesting thing to me, is that politically, I feel there’s a strong sense of rights and affirmation in the Black community here, but in Brazil, there are so many strong, cultural survivors from before the transatlantic slave trade. People speak Yoruba in traditional religions, they have traditional religions that are widely practiced and directly connected to Nigeria and Benin, they cook with palm oil in street food. Having that was affirming for me, because growing up, I didn’t have any of that in my African American household.
I’ve always known that Blackness was multiple experiences and not monolithic. There are many different kinds of Black cultures because we’re everywhere, but I think firsthand, going to Brazil and going to Candomblé ceremonies, eating dishes with palm oil, and listening to people speak words in Yoruba expanded possibilities when considering my own spirituality and identity. I think a lot of that indirectly shows up in my work. The colors that I choose, I realize that a lot are tied back to spiritual concepts that I learned living in Brazil, so it’s wild to see how all the experiences bubble up in the work that you make, even if it’s subconscious. At the end of the day, you’re working through your psyche with your hands.
You just answered one of my questions about spirituality and your work, so you were already ahead of me! You typically reference portrait photography of people across the African diaspora, where do you source these photos and what attracts you to certain subjects?
I definitely look for very strong features. I like eyes a lot, so I look for strong eyes. I love collarbones, too. It’s so funny that you asked the question about collarbones because collarbones are my thing — I think they look beautiful. I collect lots of images, I cut them up into pieces, then I just have them out in my studio, and I try to make sense of them. It’s kind of like building puzzles, which to me is interesting because I try to use my work as a bridge for the Black experience. It’s interesting to see how two eyes that might not necessarily be symmetrical can come together with these figures I construct and compose.
When looking at your work I’m grasped by the power of your subject’s eyes. It’s almost like some kind of pain is translated through them, especially since most of their expressions are stoic or have a sense of bewilderment. How do you want viewers to feel when they encounter your figures?
Have you read about the incident with Harvard? They owned photographs of two enslaved people from 1850. I think their names were Renty and Delia — it was a father and a daughter. They use their images on different promotional materials throughout the university. The photographs were taken by a Harvard professor in 1850, and I think I first saw the images around the time I started making figurative collages. They’re mostly shown from the bust, they’re both nude, and the background is very stark. You can see so much through their eyes — pain, discomfort, embarrassment, humiliation, everything. There’s a descendant currently suing Harvard for ownership of the images and reparations. She’s asking for all of the profits Harvard has gained from materials that use those images.
Thinking now, when I look at those images, I see how much they’ve impacted the work that I’ve made because I feel like they’re in direct conversation with those images. Those images were taken of those two people against their will, and they were created to defend eugenics. I want to create images in response to that where the figures are placed in a position where they have the power in that interaction between the viewer and the piece. I want it to evoke strong feelings in the viewers, become a mirror for some, a way to reconsider your own experience and identity, and a way to feel connected to others. I also hope that it challenges people to see the many layers of humanity — we are not a monolith, we are multiple, and there are limitless possibilities of who we can be in who we are. Those are the tensions that I want to express to viewers who look at the work.
You recently completed your Masters in Art Education from Boston University – congrats! Can you share a bit about this journey and why you decided to pursue the degree?
I was an early childhood teacher before the pandemic, and I realized I don’t want to teach kids to read and write. I love kids and love teaching, but if I was honest with myself, I spent about 80% of my day in the art center in my classroom. It was a Reggio Emilia-inspired program, so it was art based, and we had a resident teaching artist on staff, and I remember being so jealous of her. She got to make art and teach kids to look at art critically, interpret art all day, and learn different techniques — that’s something I wanted to do. During the pandemic, I started applying to art education programs, and that’s how I ended up at BU. The program was great because it’s specifically for art teachers that are also artists themselves. So there was a lot of pedagogy but also a lot of hands-on art making.
I took cool classes like puppetry, classes about global Masquerade, shadow puppet classes — just all these interactive, hands-on mediums that I had never experimented with. I think that helped me as I started to pursue my own artistic practice because it showed me new materials and new ways of thinking about art making and teaching that I had never considered before. As a result of my global Masquerade class, I ended up working with my professor to plan a year-long conference for women, mask artists.
They were all artists talking about masquerade and performing, which was helpful for me because at that point, I had been making art, but I hadn’t really thought critically about the work I was making. I was hearing other artists talk about their practices and the scholarship that backs up their work. Not only were they visual artists, but they were also researchers and scientists experimenting with different materials and techniques. It helped amplify my view of what it is to be an artist, and I began to see myself in that.
It was really awesome for me because I had never really spent time around artists. If I’m being honest with you, the first show that I went to was a year ago. I had been to museums, but I had never been to a gallery or artist talk. It’s like I’ve been catching up and trying to learn and absorb as much as I can. It’s been a steep learning curve, but it’s been so enriching for me. Using art as a lens to think critically about my experiences, identity, politics, and perspective on the world has been so awesome. I bring my daughter to all the openings and artist talks, and she’s six. I don’t know how much she gets out of it, but I want her to see that’s a possibility, because I think for so many women, Black women, and women of color, culturally, art isn’t a serious option for us.
Who is an artist or project that’s impacted you over the last year?
I love Zanele Muholi! I think that the tonality of their work, the monochrome, and the contrast are things I see a lot in my work. I also really love how vulnerable the work is because a lot of her work is self-portraiture. But there’s something very sculptural about their work, even though it’s two-dimensional. That’s something that I would like to explore more in my work because collage, like photography, is typically a two-dimensional, flat medium, but I enjoy the angles they use — it almost renders as three-dimensional because it pops out of the image.
L: Paula & her daughter (2022); R: The Kind of Quiet that Gathers Lightning (2021), Acrylic and collage on canvas; 24 x 30 in
I went to Afro-Atlantic Histories, an exhibition here in D.C. at the National Gallery of Art. I’ve been going to the Gallery of Art since I was a kid, and I never saw a lot of images of us there, but when you walked towards the end of the exhibit, there was a 12-foot-tall print of one of Zanele’s self-portraits, and it was the largest piece in the museum. It’s was so powerful to see the undeniable, colossal presence of Zanele’s face in the middle of the National Gallery of Art. I think their work is just incredible, and I would like to find ways to marry my interests in texture and abstraction into collage. I’m trying to find ways to build up the paper so it’s not completely two-dimensional, and I want to try and play with more materials to make things pop and have more texture. I want to bend collage as a medium in ways that I never thought to do before. Zanele really inspires me in that way because I see a lot of sculptural elements that I’d like to bring to my own collage-making.
What is an accomplishment you’re proud of, no matter how big or small?
My divorce. All of that pain unlocked a door inside of myself. I always knew that I was a determined, strong person, but that door led to so many paths I never knew existed. I think the reason why I turned to art is to process that pain, and I think if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be who I am right now, and I wouldn’t be as tapped into my interests, my passions, and in my art making. I think it made me a stronger person, a stronger woman, and I’m using this path to come back to myself.
What’s next for you, and where do you imagine yourself within the next year?
I would like to have a solo show…one day. I don’t feel ready yet — I think there’s so much more that I want to experiment and explore within my art making to get to that point.
Can you provide a few tips for other artists?
When you’re starting to exhibit and talk about your art publicly, it’s very easy to feel insecure, especially coming from a place of not having formal training and starting fresh. I always say this quote: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Everybody has their own path, everybody has their own expression, their own identity, and their own process, and you have something valuable to add too. It’s really important to block out the self-doubt and the voices you hear in your head and stand firmly in what you contribute because everyone has something important to say, and every artist’s perspective is valuable. The work you put in and the investment are important, so you’re doing important work regardless of whether you’re painting in your room or painting for others to see. At the end of the day, it’s about an internal journey. Just stand firm in who you are.