Meet the artists: Amber Doe

An interview with Amber Doe, Abbey Fellow in Painting, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from April–June 2021.

Photo by Antonio Palmieri

After reviewing various forms of problematic representations of blackness in Italy and seeking correlations with your own experience, you turned to materials to interrogate the connections between the two, specifically linen, twine, wool and Tyrian purple. What kind of connections were revealed to you?

Thank you for the questions Marta, it is a pleasure speaking with you as always! My mom has always said no matter how old I get and all of the wonderful wisdom and awareness I carry I still somehow maintain a very childlike innocence and surprise about the world. Begrudgingly I have to admit she is right. I should know better but was completely taken by surprise by these colonial images of black females I kept seeing at all of the best cafes in Rome. It felt really jarring and I immediately thought what are these naked or nearly naked images supposed to tell me about myself?

Caffè D’Oro, courtesy of the artists

Early in my practice I found a kinship to animals and materials. One of my earliest works is called “self portrait.” I was initially inspired by the spider. The fact that it can create it’s home wherever it goes and spin this organic substance from itself to create that home is nothing short of magical. We are indoctrinated from a pretty early age about the “American Dream” and home ownership is a big component and something that is challenging in very real ways within the black community. My mom was a single mother and home ownership seemed very out of reach for us despite the fact that she works constantly. So I wondered will we ever feel at home? Even in our own bodies because black bodies are properties of the state in the US. In conjunction with my studio arts education I studied American History properly. It was like studying it for the first time. Learning that I was considered a cash crop and a commodity just like sugar, grain, cotton, and tobacco was harsh and very painful. As an artist I hope to be like an alchemist and transform meaning especially with material. So I used a fellow cash crop: cotton to create my self-portrait and be like the spider, make it travel and fit in anywhere. This is the moment where materials became my symbolism and metaphor to connect with everyone and everything on planet earth. A lot of my early work features organic cotton rope because I see it as an extension of myself.  Coming to Rome I researched materials I could connect with. My uncle Clarence did our family history many years ago and we know our slaveholder and the materials. We are from off of the coast of South Carolina, Fripp Island and we worked with indigo and cotton. Indigo is a slave labour dye and so was Tyrian Purple in ancient Rome. Twine is one of the oldest textiles in human history. We are all connected to this material. Linen has a long history of production in the US and in Italy, in fact Sally Hemmings, the slave that Thomas Jefferson kept for his personal pleasure, worked with linen and passed the trade to one her daughters fathered by Jefferson. I like to put myself directly and immersively in the experiences of others, former slaves, animals, materials. I see no separation. We all want the same things to be safe, loved, respected.  Tyrian Purple is what brought me here, so my connection is the deepest. It comes from a carnivorous snail called the Murex snail. Peter Paul Rubens’s painting entitled “Hercules and the Discovery of the Secret of Purple” is an ode to this wondrous discovery. In ancient Rome, Phoenician Red or Tyrian Purple could only be worn by elites because it is expensive and terribly produced. It comes from killing thousands of snails and letting them rot with ash and stale urine. 50,000 dead snails create a very small dye lot, one garment. It was awful work, so the slaves who produced it often lost their families because you could legally separate from your spouse if that was your work because the order and dye from your hands would always remain. I feel a kinship to the murex snail and the slaves that produced this expensive dye as a descendent of American chattel slavery. Arriving here and realizing that it would be impossible to create my own dye lot with Italian wool was incredibly disappointing. I didn’t realize it was still so expensive and impossible to afford and work with. I had to shift my focus and meditate on value. What is valuable? An unexpected collaboration was forced on me. How can I still work with something I can’t afford? My solution is more conceptual than with other works. How can I connect value? I thought about my value. I am worthless and invaluable within capitalism. So I am pairing the Tyrian Purple with a part of myself. Recognizing that black slaves sacrificed their bodies against their will for modern gynaecology, that doctors stole Henrietta Lacks’s blood, DNA, life force to study and cure all sorts of things within modern medicine and they never told or compensated her family ever! But labs across planet earth use her cells for everything. I am those women so are we as valuable as Tyrian purple?

La Gorgone e gli eroi - Giulio Aristide Sartorio, The Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, courtesy of the artists

Remaining on the subject of connections, can you tell us more about the relationship you draw between black women, animality and sexuality, associations that have long troubled feminist scholars?

Renowned Black author and activist, W.E.B Du Bois wrote about something called “Double Consciousness” in his seminal collection of essays “The Souls of Black Folks.” Double Consciousness is a specific psychological space that African Americans have to contend with, knowing ourselves through a racist white supremacist lens, knowing all of that history as well as knowing our own history and they don’t have to know how our histories intersect. To make it past despair and feel less alone I carry some of the best black feminist minds with me everywhere I go. Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Denise Murell. “Double Consciousness” is a tricky beast because through the lens of white supremacy a lot of the time people don’t know much or understand that layers of reference in my work so I feel exhausted from explanation and I also work with very traumatic subject matter and don’t always want to retraumatize myself with my own work. There is a very real sense of black trauma porn. I spoke with a friend from home while here and he asked if I could imagine a space of liberation for my work and my body after discussing the colonial black representation I have faced here. 

Slavery used to be abstract, but since becoming a mother to my niece, it is deeply personal. I can’t imagine being sold and separated from her and mentally and physically surviving the pain of losing her. The concept is unbearable. I dry all of her tears when she is sad, sick, or scared. There have been multiple reports of police violence and black female death in the US since I arrived in Rome. The murder of Ma’Khia Bryant stands out in my mind because she was a child and she called the police for help and instead of help she was murdered by the police. I thought about Ruby, what if the country of my birth takes my life before my natural time? What do I want her to know about me? About black women, our sisters in species, sister snail, sister dolphin, sister whale and sister sheep? Why are we all sisters? 

The troubles with the diaspora! After seeing my colonial self-represented I have been harassed by multiple Africans to buy bracelets I don’t want. Am I my brother and sister’s keeper? At first I bought as many things that I didn’t want as possible, but the tide turned against me. I had several incidents where they left my white companions alone and focused on me solely. They sucked their teeth in anger and pushed and touched me. Can’t they see I traveled like they did over the sea, over salty water, filled with our marine mammal kin? Pods of whales and dolphins that want the same things, family, safety, love and enough to eat. Gumbs shares in ‘Undrowned: black feminist lessons from marine mammals,” that when dolphins are pregnant they sing their babies name and the pod quiets down so the baby will know their name when they are born, know their families voices and calls, know they are loved.” My mom has sung to me my whole life, in the womb, when I emerged and to this very day she sings to me constantly. I sing to Ruby. Our dolphin and whale sisters sing. Bodies that are dumped into the sea, or drown in the Mediterranean hear our song, the same song from the middle passage. The song of the stolen desperate to live. We are killing millions of whales and dolphins every single day for the commercial fishing venture of humans. Stop eating seafood and fish today! Invest in plant based seafood. We will all die when they die. Sister murex snail deserves life. We have purple alternatives. I digress, sorry Marta. 

Fresco at Casa Massimo, courtesy of the artists

“Are black women still the beached whale of the sexual universe, un- voiced, misseen, not doing, awaiting their verb” (Spillers 1984, 74). These words from Hortense Spillers’s famous 1984 essay “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words” continue to resonate in our twenty-first-century moment. What Spillers articulates in this phrase is the persistent connection drawn between black women, animality, and sexuality that has long troubled feminist scholars. Spillers argues that slavery and its legacy produce black women as an animalistic other, “the principal point of passage between the human and non-human world. In this way, black women have traditionally been situated as repositories of the natural and unevolved.” – Christine Sharpe, In the Wake.

In the work here in Rome I am interrogating my own liberation. Am I natural or unnatural? Who came before me struggling in the wake? Saartjie Baarman, my ancestors that actually came to live and work in Rome, Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy and Aethiops.  Bring me to sister sheep, you provided me truly raw wool, full of death, faeces, blood and flesh. My immersive spirit felt the kinship immediately. I couldn’t use the wool in the way I originally intended because I can’t afford enough Tyrian purple for a dye lot. So I didn’t know what to do with it. Firstly I thanked her for her life and her sacrifice, I slowly started cleaning this filthy wool, telling her sweet nothings. Donatella from the BSR saw me cleaning the wool and told me a story of her childhood with her grandmother and making baby’s blankets. I had a wonderful studio visit with another Donatella and we talked about the smell, the oil and working with the wool with her sister. There! It is worth it – we are all connected with you sister sheep. They can see themselves in the work. Your death is not in vain. Thank you. I don’t need Tyrian purple to declare your value. One funny story about material connection and then I am done talking. When we first went to get dried flowers together I selected milky oats and wheat. I knew the fact they were dried was significant because flowers are a female symbol and dried would indicate no longer fresh, and exciting but was a good material representative of an old hag, someone past their prime. My sister called me a miserable hag the last time she saw me, it really stung and stuck with me, I cried. She said no one would ever love me and want to be with me. I think I have carried that longer than I should.  The day after the lunar eclipse blood moon we went to Tivoli and Hadrian’s Villa. One of the academic’s gave a speech in wildflowers. I looked around and everywhere was wheat and milky oats dancing in the sun. I picked those plants in April and May. They told me I was in the right place. Maybe it’s not too late for my liberation. My work in Rome is my version of “sails”. Imagining I can create sails to carry me and the ones who look like me and who love me to a new sea. 

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).