One Artist’s Melancholy Look at Missing African-American Women


But this exhibition was eight years in the making, said Ms. Hinkle, who is 29 and the mother of a 4-year-old son. She has spent her career focused on the issue of erasure, inspired by her upbringing in Louisville, Ky., by a single mother who was also an artist. However, living in the segregated South, her mother wasn’t able to pursue her creative passions.

“Her artistic talent was never truly nourished by the environment that she was in,” Ms. Hinkle said.

In Ms. Hinkle’s eyes, it was a major theft of identity. “My mother always taught me that if I feel an injustice or an abuse of authority, to never be afraid to speak up about it,” she said. “She really instilled in me this powerful self-possession.”

Ms. Hinkle set out to pursue art through canvases, performances, collages and sketchbooks, often calling on history. One of her first works was a series called “The Uninvited,” in 2009, which focused on 19th-century postcards from Europe that depicted West African women in sexualized positions. She marked up the postcards, occasionally giving the women different backgrounds or covering up their bodies. She wanted to give them armor and an identity beyond how they were captured.

“That changes the narrative, so that you are not consuming their nakedness,” Ms. Hinkle said. “They’re now looking back at you.”

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This piece, called “The Evanesced: Blemished,” evokes the idea that masks are ways that identities are hidden, says its creator, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle.

Credit
Jake Michaels for The New York Times

Ms. Hinkle is one of a group of young female artists pursuing multifaceted approaches to exploring identity, especially with respect to gender, race and Africa. For example, the Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu, one of the most acclaimed African artists working today, sometimes draws over existing images of black female bodies.

Ms. Hinkle’s significant break came in 2012, when she became the youngest artist to be featured in the “Made in L.A. 2012” biennial, organized by the Hammer Museum here. It was a performance-based installation called “Kentrifica,” about a fictional nation where the histories of Africa and Kentucky come together. The layered piece studied migration habits, social structures and cross-cultural experiences.

On the other side of the country, “The Uninvited” was featured in an exhibition called “The Fore” at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

“Increasingly, her work has examined the black female body specifically, as a ‘territory’ to be occupied and objectified, or to be devalued and allowed to disappear through various acts of violence,” Anne Ellegood, a senior curator at the Hammer and an organizer of “Made in L.A.,” said of Ms. Hinkle.

In 2016, after finishing a Fulbright fellowship in Lagos, Nigeria, Ms. Hinkle returned to the United States and became fascinated and appalled by the case of a convicted serial killer, Lonnie D. Franklin Jr., also known as “the Grim Sleeper.” Last year, Mr. Franklin was convicted of murdering 10 young women in Los Angeles over 30 years, and sentenced to death.

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The artist Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle at her exhibition at the California African American Museum.

Credit
Jake Michaels for The New York Times

Law enforcement officials were criticized for not giving the case enough attention, and there were suggestions that this was because the victims were women of color on the margins of society. Ms. Hinkle met with her friend Naima Keith, a curator who is now a deputy director at the California African American Museum, to discuss a project. The connection between the two ran deep; Ms. Keith was one of the curators of “The Fore.”

“We really got into this deep conversation about not just black women, but the invisibility of African-American women,” Ms. Keith said. “We were both obsessed with Lonnie Franklin. We just started talking about how a serial killer could go uncaptured for 30 years, killing African-American women.”

Ms. Hinkle got to work. She made her own brushes. Then, to create the art, she danced.

Really.

Ms. Hinkle would play hip-hop, including Kanye West, and then draw on acid-free, recycled paper, dipping Spanish moss into India ink while dancing, which creates the nebulous and sporadic nature of her work.

“I tried to explore what it means to take up space with my body,” she said, “to kind of inhabit this swagger that they’re talking about.”

The approach surprised even Ms. Keith, who has watched Ms. Hinkle grow as an artist. “Every artist has their mantra, right?” Ms. Keith said. “Thinking about the subject matter of that music, and thinking about how it relates to the body of work itself, I have never come across that. ”

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One of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s drawings at her exhibition at the California African American Museum.

Credit
Jake Michaels for The New York Times

With the intertwining of the physical and the artistic, Ms. Hinkle said she “started thinking about movement as this means for empowerment and joy.”

She added: “I’m a channel. I literally channeled these multiple presences to come out.”

Once she took her first pass, she would come back and listen to softer, more relaxing music, like Billie Holiday’s. Then Ms. Hinkle would take calligraphy pens to add color and texture to faces, curves, breasts and hair. It was her way of providing the missing women with personalities and stories.

“I didn’t want to judge what I was putting on the paper, or who was going to come out,” Ms. Hinkle said. “I didn’t know what I was going to draw before I did it. They’re not sketches. It was a one-shot deal.”

The images are vivid. Some women are dancing. Others are braiding hair. Others are shown in introspective poses. But Ms. Hinkle is more than comfortable with letting viewers draw their own conclusions about what the women are doing.

“I want them to think about how we are all agents in erasure, and how we all have a role that we play,” Ms. Hinkle said. “Who we go out looking for. Who we spread the news for. What names we say. The names we don’t say. I want them to go home and think about the women and their families.”

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