Sana Musasama received her BA from City College of New York, NY (1973) and her MFA from Alfred University, NY (1988). Musasama began traveling as a way to recover identity and cultural place. Clay was a geographical catalyst that brought her first to West Africa. She studied Mende pottery in Sierra Leone (1974-75) and ventured later to Japan, China, South America and Cambodia. She has continued her quest, expanding her interests to tribal adornment practices in various indigenous cultures. She is challenged by the concerns surrounding the safety of women, specifically the rituals involving rites of passage, female chastity and the “purification” of the female body.
Musasama’s travels have transformed her and her approach to clay. Realizing that clay is universal, she believes that there is no dichotomy between her life and her work. Her trekking has taught her valuable lessons in observation, her mission speaks of a global citizen who walks through the artwork, heart first. Musasama’s work is informed by history, women’s studies, culture and her travel journal.
“I traveled through the world with my heart in my hand”. This quote is one that Sana Musasama feels, “very passionate about moving through the world as a woman and a solo traveler. The way that I extend to someone who may potentially be a stranger to me. If I see someone in harm or danger, or even somebody who just looks like they need someone to help them for the day or something like that, I reach out to them unconditionally”. Musasama is a Black artist whose incredible work focuses on bringing attention to the issues of oppression both historically and in modern day. She contributes much of her passion for activism to her parents and their experiences; “a lot of times growing up in the 50’s, a lot of black people felt that if they just kept their mouth shut, kept their doors closed, stayed quiet, and told their children to be obedient, that no harm would come to them”. She spoke of her parents growing up in the south where the KKK would snatch black children getting out of school and march through black communities and explained that her “parents came to New York to prevent their daughters from ever seeing anything like that, but they came silent”. This experience instilled in Musasama and her 4 sisters, “that during the 60’s and 70’s they had to flip that silence and become very active as young black girls. We had to understand why my parents were silent based on what they lived through, lynchings, and realize that that wasn’t going to be our story, but it was going to be another kind of lynching and we could not be silent”. All of the children applied this mindset in their own ways and “became alive with activism”. A notion that Musasama holds dear to her heart that shows itself in her works’ honest representation of issues around the world comes from writer Audre Lorde, “your silence will not protect you”.
During our interview, Musasama spoke about girls from the village she lived in during her time in Sierra Leone and said that they acted as mentors for her and a source of inspiration. When speaking about them in our interview and on her website, she said these girls visited her hut every day and taught her “the ways of village life”; how to cook on stones, how to wash clothes in the river, and how to eat and behave like a Mende woman. These same women also became the inspiration for Musasama’s “Unspeakable Series”. Musasama said, “Suddenly, one morning there were no young girls in the village. They returned thirteen weeks later changed. Our ritual of sisterhood was no more. They no longer had the sparkle of wonderment in their eyes; they weren’t silly young girls any longer. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me, I could not understand, I didn’t know why. I know now, they were circumcised”. Much of Musasama’s work has multiple sources of inspiration and forces the viewer to take a hard look at history. Her incredible “UnKnown/UnNamed Series” pulls from multiple inspirations including the 9/11 attacks, the sex-slave trade in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, and the Holocaust. This collection aimed to represent “the Earth that carries the memories built on the backs of oppressed/unrepresented people and their buried bones throughout the world”. Her “Maple Tree Series” also focuses on history and was inspired by the Maple Tree abolitionist movement that protested slave labor on sugar cane plantations in the late 18th century. Musasama’s work for this collection shows sculptures of trees combined with elements of the human body to “explore connections between trees, sexuality, and human agency”. Musasama’s beautiful collection “Girl Soldiers” tells the stories of the female child soldiers whose childhoods were ripped away and “replaced with the roles of war”. Each sculpture represents a child solider and an object she cherished before the times of war; “Here she is frozen in a moment of her life, which is being deconstructed by war. Yet she remembers the time when she played, dreamed and felt loved. The girls and women who held up half the sky perished before they developed into whom they dreamed of once being…simply a girl”. Musasama’s work is an incredible representation of issues plaguing many groups and her unique artistic expression requires the viewer to pause and take a moment to fully take in the stories behind the beautiful pieces. Musasama has also gone a step further to find ways to make an impact and help change the lives of those she has encountered. During her travels to Cambodia, she met with women who were once enslaved in the sex trade. She developed the Apron Project, a humanitarian project in which she hires these women to create one-of-a-kind aprons that are then sold as a way to help supplement these women’s incomes as they make a new life for themselves. It is no surprise that Musasama was the recipient of the 2018 NCECA Outstanding Achievement Award, during which it was said that, “Sana Musasama is an artist extraordinaire whose outstanding achievement is more in line with being a great humanitarian. Someone who is concerned with human welfare. Compassionate, humane, unselfish, altruistic, generous, magnanimous, merciful, kind, and an esteemed artist”.
Maple Tree Series
“I traveled through the world with my heart in my hand.”
When asked about her mentors, Musasama spoke extensively about Howardena Pindell, the first black woman to ever get a museum position at the Museum of Modern Art in the 60’s (in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books from 1967-1979). Musasama said that, “Howardena had a way of moving through the world being incredibly articulate and angry, but in a beautiful way” and that “she used her platform to talk about the lack of diversity and the lack of black women in these institutions and would not stand to be the only black person at the table. She called people out in the most gentle and beautiful way that you didn’t realize that you were being slapped in the face with your ugly history”. Howardena Pindell has played an integral part in Musasama’s career for the last 35 years. Musasama described her journey of getting into the June Kelly Gallery of Contemporary Fine Art, recalling that in the 70’s she would show up on Fridays and hand June Kelly her slides and watch her review her work. Yet, for 4 months, Musasama always walked away being told, “no, thank you”. However, at an opening for a different ceramic artist, Pindell pulled June Kelly to the side and “very softly and gently said, ‘You cannot show this artist and not show Sana Musasama, a New York City ceramic artist. You cannot’”. Two days later, Musasama received a phone call from June Kelly herself inviting her to show in the gallery, and Musasama has been in the June Kelly Gallery now for 25 years. As Musasama put it, “It was Howardena Pindell. I got in because of her”.
Musasama brought up the historical issues with diversity in the ceramics industry, including the lack of visibility for artists of color that were obstacles towards her pursuing her dreams. She talked about how her parents “came from a time in history where if you were a successful black artist, you looked more mixed or white-passing. If you were a successful black entertainer, you looked like Lena Horne, or the Quicksand writer Nella Larsen. In that time, society favored the visual aesthetic of the white race so people of color who were considered successful had more of those features – that was who made it in the 40’s and 50’s”. During that time, Musasama recalls that the only artists of color were white-passing, or black artists who created derogatory work that white people wanted to see. She spoke about how difficult it was trying to become an artist without mentors that really looked like her, and how that made it difficult for her parents to support that career; “They kept saying, ‘Show mommy and daddy somebody that looks like you and we’ll do whatever we can to help you be an artist’”. While her parents did not get to see the success of many black and brown artists, Musasama spoke about artists of color who have now been recognized, recalling many names of famous artists including Simone Leigh, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Dawoud Bey, Fred Wilson, Hank Thomas, and Deborah Willis, many of whom she calls friends.
Although progress has been made in some regards, Musasama made the point that a lack of diversity still plagues the industry today. She spoke about a NCECA celebration during which there was a panel talk on 50 years of Women in Ceramics, and the fact that the panel did not include a brown person of color. Musasama recalled that another of her mentors and fellow artist of color, Winnie Owens Hart, stood up at the panel talk and told the panel, “how deeply insulted she was that they could not come up with a Brown, tan, or indigenous person in ceramics to be on that panel” and then walked out of the room. Musasama explained that this was the reason that committees and panels have to be diverse and have to represent groups other than the white body. She described a situation during her time at Hunter College; a large group of MFA students protested and wrote letters to the college about the college’s need to “decolonize their mind. That they needed to stop teaching history and the books that they’ve used for the last 40 years because they only speak from a male Eurocentric canon. They wanted the faculty and literature and books to address the diversity of the students that were there, racially and gender wise”. That same summer, Musasama was asked for the first time in 26 years of working there to be a part of a meeting with full-time faculty, as an adjunct. Musasama explained that the college understood that changes had to be made and valued her input as a woman of color as an important part of creating those changes. She said that she felt honored to be a part of that meeting and such a pivotal moment in the history of the college. She said, “I sent them all this literature. I took the opportunity to speak from the heart. I told them how I felt as a brown person, and as a woman, how those identities were intertwined and how they had shaped my experiences”. Musasama explained that she felt like she gained something from being in that meeting; “I learned for myself that everyone has room to learn when it comes to these issues – even I have harbored incorrect language that needed to change. This meeting was an opportunity for all of us to learn and I commend Hunter college for saying, ‘We have to change – to better understand what issues exist, and what we can do to fix them’”. Since that meeting, Musasama explained that the college has made extensive changes to their literature and syllabi and has been more inclusive of all identities when making decisions and looking to the future of the college. She also mentioned that Hunter College is not the only institution that has been creating change as a response to calls of action; “What I learned is that this is something that’s happening everywhere – that there are students all over the world with these kinds of sentiments and calls for change are permeating academia, which I think is a step in the right direction”. Musasama talked about how people need to be made aware of the issues that others face for change to become real and mentioned another of her favorite Audre Lorde quotes that hangs on her front door, “If you think the system is working, ask someone who isn’t”. Musasama explained that “so many people go through the world really blind to other peoples’ circumstances, because theirs are perfect and there’s not a thing wrong with the way their life is flowing, so they don’t see what you’re complaining about”. Sana Musasama is an incredible artist who not only artistically illustrates real world issues and the oppression that many groups face in her work, but she has helped to bring issues to the table of institutions where change is necessary.
Musasama also hopes to help other emerging artists understand diverse perspectives and break down the lines that divide us. She said that, “I tell my students all the time: have a friend of another nationality, of another religion, of another class, of another ethnic group, of another agenda. Have all of these people under your umbrella of friendship and diversity. Learn what other people are about. Blend and demystify these lines and look at as us as a human race with different ethnicities, but don’t look at it as “Black race”, “White race”, “Asian race” – break that up. It’s a construct that doesn’t help us; it only divides us.” Musasama noted the importance of understanding multiple perspectives and listening to the unique experiences that different people have and has successfully been able to weave these notions into her incredible art. Her work is a testament to the beauty of being honest about real issues in the world, the need to represent the stories of those who may not have been heard before, and the importance of the harrowing moment when a viewer takes an introspective look to empathize with the experiences of others. With an incredible story of her own and a passion for bringing attention to the stories of others, Sana Musasama is an amazing artist whose exquisite work knows no bounds.
Educational/Personal Growth Opportunity
““I tell my students all the time: have a friend of another nationality, of another religion, of another class, of another ethnic group, of another agenda. Have all of these people under your umbrella of friendship and diversity. Learn what other people are about. Blend and demystify these lines and look at as us as a human race with different ethnicities, but don’t look at it as “Black race”, “White race”, “Asian race” – break that up. It’s a construct that doesn’t help us; it only divides us.”
Now it’s your turn to be challenged:
Sana Musasama speaks to the importance of understanding multiple different perspectives. Look to your own circle and the diversity that exists within it, and listen to their stories. How have your personal experiences shaped the way you view the world and developed your artistic expression? How does listening to their experiences and stories change the way you view the world and what you want to say with your artistic voice? How does having a diverse group of voices within your circle help you grow as an artist?