Kamari Smalls

Pretty's Forest

I situate myself as a multimedia artist engaging with performance, movement, projection, video, fabric, light, and sound composition. I imagine that more materials and methods will be added to the list as my work is emergent and becoming. I consider being a scholar and educator an extension of my artistic practice, as I am constantly engaging Black feminist thought, Black girlhood studies, and Black performance theory to attune my research, to respond creatively—theorize, to tap into movement forms, to incite imagination, and to expand what moments of learning looks, sounds, and feels like. Personal formations in Black spaces of worship and the ecstatic practices within are central to considerations of spirituality that are present within Black girl and women repertoires. Expansions on movement, practices of sound and listening, and an allure to materiality manifests in my work through the interconnectedness of the aesthetic, ecstatic, and affective.

pretty's forest

My practice is a “fusion of theory, theology, and artistic praxis” (Ryan, 11) which leads me to consider aesthetics, affect, and the ecstatic. I think about how these three inform each other and move me to reflect with my girlhood—informing my creative interests and my artistic choices. In my thesis which is a glossary entitled, Instances of the Spirit, under the term “Girlhood” I say that my girlhood was heavily spiritual as I grew up in a Baptist church, full of art and performance, and Black girl centric. These experiences have made it to where artmaking, girlhood, and spirituality (all the things invoked through these words) cannot be understood without each other, the connections so tangible in this moment.

My first semester at RISD I had this idea to do a multichannel set-up in a space similar to my exhibition space. I wanted this sound component and for the walls to sparkle in reaction to a light source—a disco ball at the time. I bought a sheer black curtain and some rhinestones from Wal- Mart and glued the rhinestones to the curtain that night. The rhinestones weren’t glittering how I imagined, and the curtain’s translucency didn’t help, so I left the idea to focus on the sound. This idea—Pretty’s Forest, has been simmering in my imagination and I am grateful that I noticed what felt aligned, trusted myself and those who love me, and ultimately followed my heart.

“Light was a mist filtering down in muted colors. Was as wispy as smoke, but it did not reach the ground. It played odd patterns on pine limbs and bark. The forest sparkled and was
magical, as in a serene dawning” (Hamilton, p. 54).

The thought of a forest was there, this quote from The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl by Virginia Hamilton evidenced as the calling. Immediately I imagined the feel and look of the sun streaming through the trees. With four bamboo sticks that I painted with iridescent watercolors, I constructed a frame where I weaved fishing line through in a grided pattern. Luminous materiality is central to my work and is something I wanted to carry out again through textiles following my last two studio pieces. I laser-cut wavy designs out of varying mono and two-toned organza fabric with the idea to hang and overlap the pieces from the grided structure. I chose to suspend the whole structure to offer a glimpse into this magical forest. For the light source I initially thought about panning a beam of light across the overlapping fabric pieces, but decided to continue with my explorations in projecting through layers of fabric—as projection is light.

Rear view projection of dance footage through hanging layers of organza.

“They know spirits when they see them, for they see them all de time. Live every day with spirits of de woods,..” (Hamilton, p. 103).

I have worked a lot with Black performance imagery and video, tapping into notions of ephemera, body, improvisation, and the ecstatic. Zora Neale Hurston articulated this beautifully when she said, “Negro dancing is dynamic suggestion” (Hurston, p. 835). In past works I reference Alvin Ailey and Company, Urban Bush Women, and my influence as a liturgical dancer. In this work I rear project a dance piece choreographed by Patti O’Neal in 1992 that my mom—Sumiko Anderson performed with dancer—Melvin Maxwell to Oscar Brown Jr.’s version of Afro Blue. This led me to Mongo Santmaría and Dee Dee Bridgewater’s versions of Afro Blue, which have both been sonic affirmations for this piece. My mom—Anderson (this is the movement lineage I come through) and Maxwell signify the spirits, their already dynamic movement complemented by the dimensional experience afforded in the relationship between the projection and the fabric’s luminescence and layering.


My mother—Sumiko Anderson and dance partner—Melvin Maxwell jumping in the air.

My mother—Sumiko Anderson and dance partner—Melvin Maxwell
jumping in the air.

“The will to adorn is the second most notable characteristic in Negro expression.” For “it satisfies the soul of its creator” (Hurston, p. 831).

“So he went ‘round clippin li’l pieces offa everything --- de sky, de trees, de flowers, de earth, de varmints and every one of dem li’l clippin’s flew off. When folks seen all them li’l scraps fallin’ from God’s scissors and flutterin’ they called ‘em flutter-bys” (Hurston, p. 120). The butterflies I handcrafted, another nod to past studio projects and my forever fascination with fairies, are adorned with rhinestones and made from multicolored wire, fabric, cellophane, and mylar. The curtains are adorned as well, connecting both quotes by Zora Neale Hurston. To give context, the quote about butterflies is a story that Hurston documented on how God changed/transformed his final creation—the world. I reason that activation is performance, particularly in how certain materials interact with light and in how the view moves/engages with the piece. Rhinestones, cellophane, and mylar all have particular interactions with light that I wanted to play with, bringing me back to my first semester investigations.


Handcrafted butterflies amongst a mixture of organza fabric.

Handcrafted butterflies amongst a mixture of organza fabric.


Hamilton, Virginia. The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. Harper & Row, Publishers, 1983.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings: Mules and Men, Tell My Horse, Dust Tracks on a Road, Selected Articles. Library of America, 1934.

Ryan, Judylyn S. Spirituality as Ideology in Black Women's Film and Literature. University of Virginia Press, 2005.


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