Balti Gurls elevate female-identifying artists of color through art shows, performances, and parties

It's an unseasonably brisk night in February when we pull up to EMP Collective. The energetic emcee Killjoy raps to a swaying crowd while a projection of curated images such as TLC's "Word Up!" cover and other black '90s icons shines bright off to the side. On another wall hangs a dreaming sun tapestry and three large, golden balloons spelling out "EC2" against a coral wall. Two women collect the entrance fee at the door, offering free Balti Gurls stickers. Another couple of women vend T-shirts and vegan cupcakes; elsewhere there's punch for $5 a pop. This is Edge Control Vol. 2, a party curated and hosted by the Balti Gurls, a Baltimore-based collective of women of color who aim to provide an inclusive space for other artists who identify as women of color.

Eleven women—printmakers, performance artists, fiber artists, musicians, DJs, designers, and more—make up the collective: Jenné Afiya, Alejandra Nuñez, Ashley Chambers, Chanel Cruz, Christianna Clark, Jessica Hyman, Joy Postell, Khadija Nia Adell, N'Deye Diakhate, Stephanie Alexandra Wallace, and Suldano Abdiruhman (disclosure: she is a friend of mine).

Jenné Afiya, a stout, copper-toned woman with short platinum coils, says they do not want to be affiliated with any institution. "Not all of the Balti Gurls went to art school," Afiya says at Red Emma's a few weeks before Edge Control Vol. 2. "I want to respect that." Rather than being tied to some major organization the Balti Gurls are more interested in creating their own space.

The group began in the spring of 2014 as a potluck discussion group, initiated by Afiya, of 15 female-identifying artists who'd come together through mutual friends. "We felt like we needed a safe space to discuss our art, identity in general, and how those things intersect," Afiya says. "And we didn't feel like there was a space for that."

They're continuing the tradition of collectives among women artists—such as the Guerrilla Girls, the activist group who famously unveiled a print in 1988 titled 'The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist.' The 13 "advantages" included "Seeing your ideas live on in the work of others" and "Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius." But while the Guerrilla Girls railed against a sexist art establishment, the Balti Gurls are exploring intersectionality.

Baltimore's art scene has its share of racism and sexism, as evidenced by an incident last fall when an unknown vandal scrawled the word "nigger" on a sculpture of a pregnant black woman in the Copycat building. This one-two punch of systemic oppression can wear down women of color, so a support system designed to heal these wounds feels crucial, the Balti Gurls say.

About a year ago, the Balti Gurls collaborated with Sisster Press to screen Cecile Emeke's "Ackee and Saltfish" at EMP Collective. The film is a short satire about two best friends named Rachel (Vanessa Babirye) and Olivia (Michelle Tiwo) who scour East London for a brunch spot while exploring race, gentrification, and identity through witty banter. The Gurls wanted to host the screening after they stumbled upon Emeke's "strolling series." Afiya contacted her for a visit to Baltimore.

"The response from that [screening] let us know that we should work together on other projects for the community," Afiya says.

"We are open to collaboration with other artists and collectives," Nuñez adds. "The support thing is real; it's not just something we say to one another."

"We're not a clique," Hyman says, adding that their mission is to provide a platform.

The Balti Gurls' platforms often take shape in the form of performances and exhibitions. During February's Alloverstreet, Balti Gurls hosted an event called "BLK LUV" in the Copycat. The Penthouse Gallery was lit by lamps hanging from the ceiling, along with few candles and blood orange table lamps strewn about the floor. On the walls hung works by the Balti Gurls and other women of color: a shrine to black womanhood by Afiya; a print of a baby pink girl in patterned leggings and a black tee with her thick hair in alien buns by Abdiruhman; a surrealist watercolor painting of a nude woman painted mint and gold with lavender waves by Sophia Yeshi. DJ Trillnatured (Hyman) spun a medley of black classics to round out the vibe.

The Balti Gurls were recently awarded a Grit Fund grant from The Contemporary, and with it they're working on a three-part exhibition series centered around themes of "Self Care," "Exposure," and "Practice." Their exhibitions tend to feel like parties, and vice versa.

"We were no longer just visual artists, but performers," Cruz says. "Edge Control became a platform for artists like Miss Zeroni and [Nuñez's] stage persona DJ Genie to perform and feel safe. Every party is its own thing and we wanted to offer the vibe that we have."

Afiya explains that in addition to connecting women of color as artists, their friendships also strengthened. "It became [a] 'Hey, you're cool, I'm cool, let's hang out' kind of thing," Afiya continues.

In much of their work and events, there's a free-flowing, communal style of cultural nostalgia; the Balti Gurls aesthetic is retro from head-to-toe, bouncing throughout the latter half of the 20th century in order to venerate artistic and cultural titans of the '70s through '90s, from Minnie Riperton to TLC, and ultimately preserve the black and brown aesthetics that may have been erased.

"Through Edge Control, our aesthetic kind of became your auntie's living room," Afiya says.

"Queens of the throwback," Cruz adds. "Lots of furs; thrift store aesthetics."

"Out of respect for those who came before us," Hyman says. "We want people to get that natural hair is all good and your edges can be as rough as you want…We're trying to own what's been appropriated."

Catch the Balti Gurls in conversation with Deana Haggag, director of The Contemporary, at Platform Gallery on May 5.

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