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  • Writer's pictureRa'anaa Brown

XII: The Monsters I’ve Been Too Scared to Face

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

Some days the smallest tasks prove to be the largest challenges. At first, you’re just flirting with procrastination, a “will they won’t they” sort of love affair. Then anticipation builds, maybe you forget about it, but like a poltergeist from a horror film it remains hanging over your head begging for attention. Once in a while when you’re aimlessly staring out of a window or see a stack of dirty dishes, your mind will flutter back to that task. But instead of being the most minute and palm-sized task, now somehow it’s become a monster to slay, an amalgamation of anticipation, anxiety, and maybe even the fear of what lies beyond the task.


For weeks, months actually, I told myself that I owed it to you all, but mostly to myself to keep writing. You see while I’m proud of the last few things I’ve written, I couldn’t help but hinge on the fact that everything I’ve been sharing as of late has been so sad and angry. Last year was a really hard time for me and I think that the more time has passed, the more I keep trying to convince myself that I’m over it all. Over the instability, the rug being pulled out from underneath me, over the fluctuations of my body, and the ebbs and flows of my mind, over the bullshit. The problem is, the harder you try to convince yourself that you’re over something, the more evident it becomes that you’re not.


I’m generally a happy person, angsty and anxious underneath it all, but happy above all else. I love the kiss of sunshine, hugging a loved one, and the feeling of sand between my toes. I love the shush of the waves as they pull in and out and the sounds of birds chirping on a spring day. I love love and romance, surprise kisses, and the rustling of butterflies in your stomach when you find that special someone. Because I love all these things and more sometimes it’s hard for me to be alone, hard to tuck myself into bed at night and have no good morning texts when I open my eyes, hard to make dinner for one and have a movie night with myself. But, something that I’ve come to realize is just because these things are hard doesn’t mean they’re not good for you.


My brain is always on the go, always thinking, always contemplating, always conceiving new situations in my head and even more solutions to problems that don’t even exist. And because of this, time to myself is often a scary thing, because I’m not really alone. No dear reader, instead I’m trapped with my intrusive thoughts. How is it that something non-physical, nor tangible can be so loud? If you’re familiar with this sensation I’ll take comfort in knowing I’m not alone, if not, allow me to describe it as best as I can. Close your eyes and visualize your mind palace. Mine takes the shape most often of a big hollow room with warm-coloured walls. Inside this echo chamber is the clamour of busy city streets. There are bells and whistles, horns, tires screeching and the lull of voices bouncing between the buildings. These noises are ideas and thoughts floating by, most not fully complete. They manifest as clouds of smoke, like an eerie fog that you can’t fully see through and yet it’s clear what’s beyond the mist. And there in the centre is me, not as I am now, but younger, more afraid and confused. I’m screaming, but my cries fall on deaf ears as the foggy city mindscape drowns me out. That’s the inside of my brain, on a good day.


At first, this mindscape was a terrifying place. There were no distractions to pull me out, no helicopter to airlift me to safety, no saviour that I had wrongfully become accustomed to. The longer I was forced into this state the more I realized the bells and whistles were chiming in sync, the screeches of tires and lull of voices a symphony that I just had to learn to listen to. I’ve spent hours upon hours tuning into my mindscape, and sure some days I don’t fully understand what is transpiring, but other days I want to weep at the sheer beauty my mind can conceive. These past few weeks I have leaned into my mindscape and out of it I’ve pulled creativity, and invention, and ultimately regrounded in my passion for art.


As long as I can remember I have loved art. Growing up I (wrongfully) said I wanted to be a painter like Picasso. (I don’t have time to get into why Pablo Picasso is inherently problematic, just know that I have learned a lot and no longer aspire to be like him). Regardless of all my influences, I wanted to be an artist. In middle school I was in an arts program, which looking back means shit all. Although I enjoyed many aspects of the program (not middle school, it sucked), the older I get the more I realize how problematic many “specialized” programs are. These programs are built in a way which breeds pretentiousness and this notion that by being in the program your skillset is better off than people who are not. This is of course false. Just because you were in an arts program doesn’t mean you’re an artist, and hell it doesn’t even mean you’re any more talented than students who exist outside these programs.


My time in the E-Arts program showed me the world through a different lens. What I loved about the program was the variety of arts we were exposed to. I think this is something that every child should have access to; drama and theatre, choir and band, visual arts and writing; the arts through and through. When I went to high school I opted not to go to the art high school but rather to the one with French Immersion. It’s funny how many of my classmates in eighth grade wholeheartedly believed that this would be to the detriment of my “pre-artistic career,” oh if they could only see me now. During my time at BSS (Bramalea Secondary School), I dabbled in art classes here and there until I found my new old passion for architecture. Music was my first love, but with architecture, I saw a future unfolding effortlessly in front of me.


I left band and choir behind to pursue two degrees in architecture. And while I don’t regret it, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss playing Torrents of Fire on repeat in Mr Brinson’s third-period class, or belting out All Too Soon in near perfect harmony with students in all different grades. Maybe someday I’ll pick up the tenor saxophone again or re-train my ear to the mezzo-soprano I once was. In some regards, architecture is like a symphony. You have many parts and instruments that when conducted at the correct time create a beautiful vision, and when a note is off or an instrument is out of tune, the entire orchestra suffers. Although I don’t want to be an architect anymore, my time in architecture school wholly laid the foundations for the artistic career that I have today.


You see, there was a period in my life were I decided I didn’t want to be an artist. Society’s capitalist overlords convinced me there was no money in art and that money was what mattered, so I should get me a “good and sturdy job.” Thus architecture, take some art, dash some science and technology on it and there you have the world’s simplest recipe. So that’s what I did. But somewhere along the process of shaking professional spices on my growing career path, I realized that the idea of working in an office made me sick. The notion of a 9 to 5 became the vision of hell and I knew it was my time to bow out of the architectural rat race. How did I get back to art? Trauma I suppose, with endless scoops of oppression on top.


At some point art became a way for me to express myself and use my voice, an opportunity to let out all the thoughts that I’d kept inside for too long. Art became a place for me to connect with my community. I spent so much of my life wondering what it meant to me to be Black and at some point art answered my calls. Art presented a series of platforms and mediums for me to be unapologetically myself and simultaneously explore who I could be and who I once was. Art became my safe haven, my joie de vivre, my everything.

Let’s take another trip down memory lane to last year. It’s 2022 and I’m in the first year of my PhD (which I’ll finish eventually, at some point, probably). I’ve moved about to the distant land of Montreal and amidst feeling lost, art made me feel found. At the behest of my mentor and friend Tammy, I applied to my first arts residency and was somehow accepted into the program. I still can’t believe when I got the email, I was so used to skimming letters of rejection and searching for keywords “unfortunately,” “high volume of applicants,” “couldn’t pick everyone,” and so on and so forth, but instead I saw the words congratulations. And just like that I embarked on an ongoing journey into the 2022 STEPS CreateSpace Public Art Residency.


Full disclosure, as I write this, this project is still underway. After making several lovely connections in Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointes-aux-Trembles, I have found a lovely space, Parc Armand-Bombardier to showcase my forthcoming and first solo Montreal installation, Elemental. I am blessed and excited to bring this project to fruition after so many months of work and planning. I hope to see you there for the grand opening weekend July 14 and 15.


Like most things, when you do something once it opens the door for you to do it again. And yet somehow I was still shocked when I was invited to participate in the Kickstart Disability Justice Take Roots Among the Stars Residency held at Gibraltar Point last October. I will forever hold this program close to my heart because with it came many firsts. My first “away” residency, my first solo artist space, my first time connecting with artists in a curated space for 2-weeks, and most importantly, this residency represents the first time I comfortably and wholeheartedly called myself an artist.


Are you familiar with imposter syndrome? Yes? Great, this is not that. Fun fact, imposter syndrome was coined through a methodology that was designed to discuss white women in relation to white men in some regard (I can’t quite fully recall), but now that I’m aware of that, I no longer subscribe to that notion as that is a community I do not hail from. Regardless, the sentiment of feeling like a fraud is I’m sure something many of us has felt while getting established in our fields. For you maybe it was your first time in your lab doing top-secret scientific research, or when the OR buzzed you and paged Dr so and so. Well for me, it was impossible to call myself an artist despite constantly creating because I couldn’t conceive that I was in the field with some of the greatest greats who have ever walked this earth.

Take Root Among the Stars Artists in Residence

Although I didn’t output nearly what I thought I might, my time at Gibraltar Point was so incredibly healing. It was a time when I regrounded in my practice and pushed past the stigmas of what art is and is not, and there hidden away in a beautiful forest on the edge of my mind laid my ability to confidently call myself an artist. It was a breakthrough unlike any other, and since those 2-weeks on that island, my world has been forever changed.


Now jump forward to 2023. Life has begun to stabilize ish, there are (hopefully) no more rugs to be pulled out from beneath me, and life is good, *knock on wood*. I want to talk to you about January 31st for a minute. Seemingly an average Tuesday, January 31st marked the day before another Black Futures Month, a time of year when people decide Black people matter for a short stint. I love February and hate it at the same time. There is an influx in incredible afro-centric programming, but there is also a massive increase in caucasity, nerve and everyone’s favourite, white guilt. I awoke on January 31st in decent spirits and looked at my phone as I do most mornings. Pushing past the do not disturb feature I began checking text messages and emails from the night before when I came across a particularly interesting message.


The subject line said: Black Arts Fellowship 2023-2024 Response, and the brief email read:


Dear Ra'anaa,


Happy New Year!


Thank you for your submission to the Black Arts Fellowship 2023-2024. Please find attached a letter in response to your application.


Warmly,

[insert sender’s name]


Wildseed Black Arts Fellowship Headshot by Isak Vaillancourt

There was a single attachment. A letter that would say yes or no to the biggest artistic opportunity of my life thus far. I quickly skimmed the attachment and then moments later burst from my bedroom waking my sleeping friend on the couch as I shrieked “I GOT IN! I’M A BLACK ARTS FELLOW!” Now I am aware this was then confidential news, but I damn near shit myself with excitement, I just had to share. This news is now public, and in fact this week the Wildseed Centre is showcasing my work on social media as they take the time to highlight each new Fellow. To think that I was so anxious when I was applying to this program that I maybe mentioned it to less than five people, and now here I am preparing to embark on this incredible journey. It all feels so surreal, like a moment I’ve been dreaming of for so long and now that it’s here it feels like I’m living a fantasy.



I’m not sure where I was planning to go with all of this but I appreciate you for sticking it out with me. Maybe I started writing because I wanted to talk about how it doesn’t matter if you’re institutionally trained, and going to art school doesn’t the artist make, you can’t teach creative spirit. Or maybe I just wanted to take a moment, a rarity in my life, to applaud the immense growth of myself and the trajectory of my art, something I previously believed to be impossible. Or maybe deep down I just needed to get back on the writing horse, ride into the haunted forest and slay the monsters I’ve been too scared to face.


Cheers,


Ra’anaa


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