For generations, the women in my family have built elaborate and beautiful cages in which they dance, sing and love. They marry, raise children and excel in careers behind bars they reinforce with their own laughter. Each wire of the cage is carefully welded to create the ideal woman. First wire, good daughter; second wire, obedient wife; third, selfless mother. These roles define the cage that is passed down like a hope chest or quilt from mother to daughter. Each girl in succession squeezing herself into the unyielding confines of this gilded offering. Each girl in succession filing down the pieces of herself which stick out or call attention, to become that which has been predefined by husband, father and lover. Never understanding why she simultaneously feels grateful for the security and stability of the cage and rage at the loss of something she cannot even name.
I have always been my motherís daughter. For most of my life I have been afraid to fail, not because failure itself was wrong to me, but because others might think it inappropriate. Years ago when my children were babies, the breakup of an abusive relationship with their father left us with no money and no prospects for home or work. I remember going to the welfare office with the twins in their double stroller. I was 22, uneducated and experienced only in pleasing the whims of an alcoholic and addict, whom I had lived under from the age of 14. I was dazed and blinded by the bright light of freedom and the twins were uncharacteristically quiet as if in understanding of the depth of the moment. I waited and watched other young women of color toting babies in and out, their hard expressions hiding the same fear and solitude I felt. Only, I could not follow them inside. My resistance was not because of any higher sense of personal responsibility or morality. I was simply more embarrassed to go into the welfare office than I was afraid. I could not face the idea of becoming a single, black woman with two children on welfare. Would my friends laugh at me? Who would want me then, a damaged stereotype of a woman? So we moved in with my mother and I worked and saved, and went to school, and raised my children.
In general, I worked it out. I became a stereotype of another form. The strong, selfless black woman. I worked two jobs, bought a house, graduated from college and performed dutifully as the perfect mother. Others admired me with comments on my strength and drive. How do you do it? 'Youíre so competent!' Yet I was lost. After the kids had gone to bed, I would find myself enraged and sobbing under the cover of darkness. I would scream silently into my pillow. Begging God for a way out from under the sheer magnitude of so much piety and virtue I knew I did not possess. I felt I could not own my success because it had been gained through false pretenses.
You see, I had done the right thing because others had expected me to. Because doing the right thing has always been a part of the cage passed down to me. When the men fail as foretold by our history, the women step up to the plate and martyr themselves on the altar of the family. In my life I have played many roles according to this theory. But far from representing an inner strength or determination, these roles were masks I donned to hide my uncertainty at my place outside of the cage. Like the prisoner who cannot function outside of the prison. I had defined myself by the expectations of whatever authority was present. My ease at playing a role for others left me continually unsure and unaware of who I really was. Even during the best of times, I felt an unease that is hard to explain. Almost as if at any moment I would be found out as a fraud, a fake, the shell of the person who I claim to be.
Painting is the way I have learned to throw away these masks. I remember the first day I painted. I took the class as a fluke. Three easy credits, I thought, to get me closer to my bachelors in Graphic Design and Business Administration. I went to the art store with the instructorís materials list, checking off each item as I found it. In class I had my carefully gathered tools laid out in front of me and sat with the other first timers eagerly awaiting instructions. How should we hold the brush? Should we have the colors in any order? What is the ratio of linseed oil to paint? I thought that by preparing my materials and following the rules, somehow painting could be learned in the same ways we learn algebra or trigonometry. The way I had learned to be a woman. Be nice, be patient, do what you are told, follow directions. A simple step by step process.
Well of course I was completely wrong. That first night was a disaster, as were many nights to come. My first painting was a laughable and pretentious piece of swirls and carefully drawn lines. However with each successive time I painted, I was forced to let go of what I thought to be true and trust in my own inner vision. A crash course in forced self-awareness. Painting demands honesty and forthrightness in much the same ways as writing or playing an instrument. The areas in which I had thus far excelled; image, efficiency and politeness come across as shallow and pretentious when painting. So for probably the first time in my life, I was forced to be honest about what I felt and thought. In doing so, I had to confront the fallacy I had built around myself. To recognize that while I have been a good daughter, an obedient wife, and a selfless mother, these roles do not define me. We are all more than the categories others put us in, regardless of how positive those roles might be.
Since that first night, I have probably not created any historic masterpieces. But my works are, as I am, in progress. Continually reaching towards a greater understanding of the world and creating my true place in it. I will be the person I choose to be and my work will always reflect that truth. My paintings allow me to acknowledge the many roles I have played and claim them as my own, rather than continue to be defined by others. I am a good mother, daughter and lover, but I am these things because I have chosen them. Not because of some misguided attempt to fulfill what I think others need me to be. These titles do not define me, rather I create them each day with my every thought and action. As in my paintings, each loving word bestowed on my child or heartfelt advice offered to a friend are pieces of the larger work that is me. When I paint I cross centuries, continents, languages and cultures to do something that is both simple and extraordinary at the same time. I visually connect myself to the world and itís many peoples and histories in a way I could never do in any other medium. I begin to feel connected to my ancestors as individuals and to build a bridge for my descendents to follow back to me.
While I am not without vanity and I hope my paintings are appreciated and even praised for their aesthetic beauty and my skill with the paintbrush. That is not the reason I paint. I paint because I have no other choice, because it is the means with which I was given to communicate with the world. It is the language with which I can read what others have written. Through painting I have been able to confront the fear and anger I have hidden behind many, calm and self assured masks. Through painting I have been able to see and accept the truth of myself, my family and our long history of sorrow and joy. Most importantly, through painting I have been able to truly celebrate and own the beauty and strength of this cage passed down to me, and to mourn the magnitude of what we have lost to it.
Alima Newton joined Fine Art America on September 16th, 2007.