Local Artist Spotlight: Women in Art
In honor of Women’s History Month coming to an end, the Local Artist Spotlight for March features not just one, but four women this month. They represent a variety of backgrounds — both in medium and identity — and learning about why they do what they do has been truly inspiriting.
Armana Embaie is an Eritrean American jewelry maker and designer. Working with beads, natural stones, metals, pendants, rope and charms from over two dozen countries in Africa, she produces traditional beadwork unique to various regions and tribes.
Kate Sweeney is a self-taught photographer and visual artist that celebrates and uplifts women. Locally, you can view her work at Open Door Art Studio in the group show “This Inspired That” starting Saturday, April 6. She will also be part of Wild Goose Creative’s biannual live art auction, Wild Art Columbus, on Saturday, April 27.
Celia Peters, an artist and filmmaker, is bringing a new voice to American science-fiction with her latest film. As both writer and director, she and a team of producers, artists and creatives are currently in the process of financing and packaging the science fiction film “Godspeed.”
Imriska Kempker is a photographer and digital artist whose work centers around themes of queer identity, society and the environment — all while depicting the “core” of what the person or thing being photographed means.
Can you just give me a background on how you got started and what led you to your medium?
Armana: I am a first generation Eritrean American designer. Born in the historic Nakfa, Eritrea — home of Eritrea’s courage, steadfastness, self-reliance and resilience — my migration through spaces and places have birthed an expressive creative nature. I am a self-taught jewelry designer who intentionally creates jewelry that is predominantly influenced by African culture. It is my purpose to create with purpose and use my craft to introduce my audience to the historic beauty of African nations.
Kate: I fell in love with the process of photography as a teenager and took photos constantly, all the time. I had a lot of rules growing up, so photography became my freedom. As I got older and grew into my womanhood, I started understanding how photographs can heal. Taking self-portraits and photographing other people, dissecting how the images we digest daily can influence our sense of worth, then understanding and experiencing how transformative it is to see your body as a work of art… photography is 100 percent therapeutic for me.
Celia: It all started with me writing a screenplay. I was writing a screenplay when I moved from Chicago to New York to do graduate work in psychology. I kept learning about screenwriting on my own, but I also started working on whatever film productions I could get on in New York. It wasn’t long before I wanted to take the next step in the process and direct myself. Pretty soon, I directed my first short film.
Imriska: I was in [a 4-H program] when I was younger, and while a lot of 4-H is farm kids raising and bringing their animals to the fair, there’s other projects, too; there’s other things you can bring to the fair, and photography is one of those things. I took my first photography project in middle school around 2007 and absolutely loved it. I’ve been taking photos ever since.
What is your goal when capturing subjects? What statements are being made?
Kate: I like to explore the relationship between the human form and nature, and I want my subjects to feel empowered. I thrive making work that celebrates women and their raw beauty, their wildness, and I take great pride in being a woman artist. I think that the female gaze is so complex and abstract, we’re still defining it. And given the power of images and their ability to change the course of social norms, there’s no better time to cultivate a more feminine way of seeing the world. It’s empowering, especially, to see women being captured by other women, re-claiming how femininity can be portrayed and re-writing the narrative of how we exist in the world.
Celia: For the past some years, I’ve been working in the science fiction space. I create futurist stories about people who look like me, who are grappling with themes that are organic to the sci-fi landscape: identity, connection, technology, extraterrestrial life, evolution, the multiverse. Placing meaningful characters of color and women characters in the future is a fundamental tenet of what I do; for a long time, American science fiction did not represent people of color in the future at all, and many early portrayals were ancillary. I happen to be a sci-fi filmmaker who is also an afrofuturist, exploring the future from a multifaceted, multilayered, multidimensional perspective of Blackness.
Imriska: When I photograph people, I try to capture who they are; when I photograph things, I try to capture what they mean. I use photography to talk about meaning, language, and identity, especially queer identity. But then I turn around and I fold up my images! I use origami to talk about what happens when you take away people’s voices and identity. The photos show things, they give you all this information and meaning, and the origami hides, manipulates and distorts that information both physically and metaphorically.
How is your work inspired by your own background or identity?
Kate: I’m a huge advocate for body positivity which is highlighted by my subjects feeling comfortable and confident. I’m shocked at how female nudity and sexuality can still be so offensive to people, so my work shines light on these women who are owning their bodies, and they’re all perfect. The ongoing rise of the female gaze is so inspiring to me, changing the general consciousness on gender roles, stereotypes, and objectification, so I make photographs to celebrate the power and brilliance of all women.
Armana: My culture and journey to self-rediscovery has played a huge part in my choices. It takes a lot of vulnerability to not only be an artist but to showcase your expressions to the general public — to accept or dissect your work. I am an avid gold lover by tradition, natural earth stone lover by intuition, and a world traveler by nature. These attributes, including influences from the Zulu, Maasai, Yoruba, Tigrinya, Turkana tribes, have greatly influenced my designs. Customers are drawn to my jewelry because the idea of an “African jewelry designer” is kind of bizarre, or they’re curious to see what the collection offers. Although I do celebrate my roots with symbolic pieces, my jewelry influence is cross-cultural.
Celia: As a girl who grew up watching all kinds of films, especially science fiction, I was always hoping to see a story that was all about someone who looked like me and their journey. That’s a very basic desire on the part of audiences, yet people of color and women have had far fewer opportunities to see lead characters who are driving the stories in films, particularly science fiction films. A lot of progress has been made, but there’s a lot more progress to go. The best way for me to deal with disparities in the film industry and ensure that the kind of stories I want to see are being made is to create them — because I also know that I’m not the only one who wants to see the kind of work I do. There’s a huge audience of people of color and women of all races who really dig science fiction, fantasy and other speculative fiction. I am a part of my own audience, so I totally get it — and that inspires me to create complex, beautifully human, powerful, flawed, intriguing, relatable, non-stereotyped characters who are on their own journeys.
Imriska: Well, I’m a queer transgender woman, and being able to talk about being queer is very important to me — since I didn’t come out until college in 2014 and spent most of my life in the closet. My art reflects that: It talks about being queer and our struggle to have a voice.
How do you pay the bills? Do you experience burnout or lack of inspiration?
Kate: I’ve been a full-time freelance photographer for about two years now. For years, I made my money working in restaurants while I did photography on the side. Doing both jobs full-time was exhausting, so I decided to leave the restaurant industry to try to really pursue my photography career. I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of financial stability, but ultimately I’m happier focusing on my work.
As an independent artist, you have to be your own agent, manager, editor, promoter and everything else that leads to a successful artistic career. Sometimes when I have to focus on those roles more than just being the creator, I experience burnout. But I trust the universe, and I know things always balance back out at some point. It helps so much to have encouragement from the community.
Armana: Designing jewelry came naturally as a hobby. It’s what I do to clear my head and feed my creative spirit. [But] I’ve learned that when you change, your goals and decisions change. Today, I would say I am working on building my social and business network and being resourceful with my failures. Entrepreneurship is a jungle gym. You have to take the noes, criticism, and rejection and really ask yourself, “What is this teaching me?” Every unexpected turn has taken me to people, spaces, and places I never planned on visiting. I say this all this to say, I am fortunate enough to turn my passion into a career.
Long term, my goal is to start a non-profit women’s entrepreneurship project in developing countries in Africa. My goal is to facilitate economic self-sufficiency and to financially empower women through beaded jewelry and art.
Celia: I think all creatives experience times when things feel blocked, or you can’t seem to connect with your muses. I feel incredibly lucky that when I get to that place, something always pulls me forward; Some new inspiration, some new curiosity or some new epiphany leads me to create something new. At the end of the day, creativity is a part of who I am.
Imriska: I am lucky enough that I have a photography job; I’m a product photographer for GE Healthcare, which means I take photos of their merchandise so they can sell it online.
Outside of my job, though, I never lack for inspiration. I have more project ideas than I have time to implement, so I have quite the opposite problem. If I’m ever stuck, I look back through my sketchbooks until I find something I want to make.
My first art show was a series of pairs of portraits of queer people in places where their queer identity was erased, or where they were pressured into not coming out, and man, I burnt out really badly on it. I was initially considering doing a second show that would be a continuation of the portrait project, but when the show was over, I didn’t even want to look at another photo for a while. Burnout happens to everyone.