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Trade winds: Sana Musasama.

SANA MUSASAMA IS AN INTRIGUING ARTIST DRIVEN by conviction and documenting her travels through life. She is not a passive traveller but one who passes through diverse terrain, villages, cities and landscape with a mission to in some way change or transcend circumstances she encounters. Having lived in numerous cities and counties in the US shaped her earliest memories; her father served in the Navy and thus transferred to many locations during the course of his career. While many youth are traumatized by frequent relocations at an early age, moving from place to place invigorated Musasama; for her these were adventures. At the age of 15, Musasama often accompanied her aunt who travelled frequently to West Africa, Ghana and Europe, particularly Germany, Italy and France. These early childhood events informed how she approached art making. She uses art to articulate ideas that are based on a socially inscribed phenomenology; her works attempt to slow us down and contemplate. She is a self prescribed activist, and says "... to be an artist, a woman and black, you can't avoid it".




One of Musasama's early garden series was inspired by her research of the Maple Tree abolitionist movement initiated in New York and Holland in the 1790s to protest slavery in the West Indies. The maple tree was the symbol for this campaign, which promoted the substitution of sugar extracted from trees as opposed to sugar cane thus eliminating slave labour. Several irregular totems, profuse with incisions and pod like formations on their tops make up her Maple Tree Series. Before building these structures, Musasama takes large slabs of clay and embeds patterns, an inscripted private language, signs and symbols. One structure in the series entitled My Hands/My Heart has hands extending from a smooth split plinth that is approximately five feet high. This is the only piece in the series that is not glazed; it is a rich chocolate brown made of a manganese clay base from Holland. Concerned with materials and textures, Musasama often uses four to five different types of clay.

The central work in the Maple Tree Garden installation is Sap vs. Sugar (the signature metaphor for the abolitionist movement) which looks like a fountain replete with tiered rings adorned with pod shapes above a bulbous support. The piece is crowned with a matt chrome light green projectile. All of the surfaces are embellished with her signature repetitious patterns. The monumental clay works in this series include nine structures and were created over several years. Rather than trees they resemble aquatic life forms. Dirt, ceramic shards, sand and wood are scattered around these enigmatic organic structures, rendering them earth bound.

Musasama earned her BA from City College/CUNY and prior to earning an MFA from the acclaimed Alfred University, College of Ceramics, she studied Mende pottery in Sierra Leone, West Africa. There she participated in the life of the community as a potter. It was this experience that would later stimulate a series raising questions about female circumcision. Over the next 25 years, Musasama travelled to Peru, Israel and China and, for the last decade, she has spent a significant amount of time in South East Asia, particularly Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Her travels to Asia were driven by her desire to intercede on behalf of young women sold into slavery. Reading an article on the work of Somaly Mam to provide a safe place for girls rescued from sex trafficking in Cambodia, Musasama was so moved that she sought out the counsel of Somaly Mam and spent five years, off an on, with girls at the Lighthouse orphanage. One of the activities she fostered was doll making as a means to restore some facsimile of normalcy to the lives of these girls. Musasama sought to bring back the life in eyes dulled by life's transgressions. "I want these girls to have the same agency as my niece who is protected and still plays with dolls at the age of eleven (as do so many girls in the US)." Soon Musasama's lens would refocus on New York City where she lives; here she realizes so many young girls are also victims as sex workers and abducted into sex slavery more often than is known.


Informed by feminism, Musasama lived through the advent of the movement in the 1960s and 1970s and embraced the notion that all women should be free to choose their paths in life. She has moved through life knowing this and speaking it. She does not live a traditional lifestyle and has avoided the confines of the nuclear family precept. Instead she chooses to travel across the globe as an agent of social change. She cites others who, for the cause of human rights and the liberation issues of women, live social change 24/7 and are on the road constantly. These women inspire her and are like warriors who bring to the forefront globally the rights of women to control their bodies and their lives. As an artist with a social voice, Musasama brings to light discourse on sex slavery, female circumcision and other lessons pertaining to human rights, such as mass burial sites of the unnamed and the need for clean water worldwide based on what she personally experienced or learned. Musasama feels that one should take the way you walk through the world and apply it to your life. Being an artist means you are always investigating and revaluating; this is essential to her process of being socially aware.

Referring back to an experience from 25 years ago, Musasama creates a series that encapsulates her first encounter with female circumcision. This work, made for an uncircumcised audience, raises the issue whether this is practice that should continue. And are we to judge? The title Unspeakable points to concepts of entrapment versus power. Or is female circumcision an indicator of both? Marking a transition from childhood to adulthood in the Mende Society of Sierra Leone, female circumcision is a rite of passage, in many instances, considered a virtuous act and representative of mores upheld by women in diverse traditional cultures that binds them to their societies. "Genital modification is not only important in producing 'socially informed bodies' but as a vehicle for creating meanings that bound and represent the socialized self by mediating its relations to the ambient social world." (Terrence Turner, p. 149). That said, Musasama exposes the 'secret' practice in expressive and graphic form. It is evident that she believes that female circumcision, practiced for thousands of years, needs to be re-evaluated. At this point in time, is the trauma too much?


In Unspeakable oval shapes nearly 12 inches in height are abstracted versions of female genitalia. Gypsy Wound has a midsection that is closed, a folded slab of clay, with nail-like protrusions at its base and pierced by an elongated curvilinear form. The piece is gray, produced by using a low fire glaze and engraved with marks resembling tribal marking and a cursive script. This script is a narrative of Mende girls' stories as told to Musasama years ago. She describes this series as Outer Beauty/Inner Anguish, because genital modification is thought to make a woman's private area beautiful, as smooth as a pigeon's back. Yet the healing can take innumerable weeks and the shock of a life time mitigated by a sense of belonging and a signal that the young woman is ready to take on the traditional cloak of womanhood. Musasama's testimony literally written on the sculptured body bears witness to the double-edged sword of female circumcision.

Sana Musasama looks with a critical eye; through art she has found a way of reinterpreting her life experiences in a concrete way.

Article by A M Weaver

A M Weaver is a curator and art journalist residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US. Her recent projects include "In Their Midst" chronicling the work of six international women photographer/filmmakers
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Author:Weaver, A.M.
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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