Tina Knowles Lawson and Genel Ambrose on Curating a Love Letter to Black Femme Artistry

Tina Knowles Lawson and Genel Ambrose invite you to bear witness.

Come close, feel, listen, take it in, breathe. Let the hearts and lived experiences of Black women and non-binary artists show you the world through one other gaze. Let the space affirm you and fill you with understanding of the wondrous abilities which have at all times resided inside you.

That is the intended offering of the WITNESS exhibit—a visible art experience curated by Tina Knowles Lawson, a.k.a. Ms. Tina, and artist Genel Ambrose, running from April 1 through May 27 on the North Hollywood WACO Theater Center (for Where Art Can Occur and pronounced way-co). The show is co-presented with Ambrose’s GOOD MIRRORS, “a cultural institution committed to accurately reflecting Black women as whole and dignified beings,” and in partnership with Black Women Photographers. The duo brought together 14 artists born or living in Los Angeles to share their vision of society, community, and themselves through art, thus letting the audience see the world from their respective gazes and artistic dialects.


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“We as Black women, Black girls, non-binary, gender expansive, genderqueer—we’re artists, all of us. We’re by nature world builders, visionaries, conjurers who employ creativity as a practice of our own self-preservation,” Ambrose tells ELLE.com. “While we don’t even realize we’re doing it, we’re—I actually desired to bring that [forward] and have people have a good time that and acknowledge that.”

For Knowles Lawson, having the ability to carve out space for Black artistry to thrive and be nurtured with the WACO Theater Center—which she founded along with her husband, actor Richard Lawson in 2017—fulfills a longtime goal.

“When my kids grew up–Beyoncé, Solange, and Kelly [Rowland]–all went to the Shape Center and The Shrine of the Black Madonna [in Houston]. They were centers that mentored kids—I’ll say ‘mentored,’ regardless that they didn’t know because that word wasn’t an enormous deal. The neighborhood kids went there for art. They’d painting classes, ceramic classes, they danced and so they sang, and did all types of performing arts. It was just a spot of creativity that actually saved the lives of lots of inner city kids,” she says. And now, Knowles Lawson is working to do the identical for youths and adults with the WACO center, which offers every little thing from mentorship and acting classes to a variety of art classes. “Regardless that it’s a small place type of tucked away in NoHo, I’m really pleased with it.”

WITNESS is a multidisciplinary presentation of installations, sculptures, portraiture, audio and video works, affirmation rooms, and a digital platform experience where people can upload and take heed to stories and affirmations from Black women world wide. When it got here to choosing which artists to feature, Ambrose credits the shared values communicated through each artists’ work and a Toni Morrison quote from a 1971 Latest York Times article, which served as a “North Star” in the course of the curation process. The quote is emblazoned on a wall within the exhibit: “And she or he had nothing to fall back on: not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, nothing. And out of the profound desolation of her reality she may thoroughly have invented herself.” While meditating on this concept of reinvention, self-exploration, and redefining one’s self, Ambrose saw a throughline of those themes within the work of the featured artists that felt aligned.

witness exhibit

Works by April Bey.

Adrian Javon

In a single nook of the exhibit on opening day, strangers stand side by side, admiring the luxurious colours of Cara Elise Taylor’s photographs of Afro Latino family members in Costa Rica, and eventually inquire if prints of the photographs can be found for purchase. “I used to be nearly to ask the identical thing,” laughs a 3rd passerby.

Further along the way in which, waves of small groups sit and watch Elise Peterson’s video installations: a video collage offering an intimate look into her pregnancy journey, and one other that seems like a nod to the Black tradition of coordinated dances over generations set to the instrumentals of Frank Ocean’s “Nikes.” Black folks swag browsing at a celebration and within the stands of an HBCU sports game, a nostalgic video clip of friends, seemingly from the early aughts, practicing a routine surely meant to be uploaded to Youtube.

The wonder supply ASMR and sculptures created by Dana Davenport especially resonated with Knowles Lawson, as a hair stylist who owned a salon in Houston. “To see that vase made out of braids, and the chandeliers, after which to have [Davenport] talk concerning the history, it was very powerful,” she says.

witness exhibit

Dana Davenport.

Ashley Byrd

In one other room of the exhibit, Amber J. Phillips’ storytelling in Abundance, a brief film on the restrictions and radical possibilities of identity that’s deeply rooted in Phillips’ societal experience as a fat Black queer femme auntie from the Midwest, brings guests to a halt and commands attention as her voice reverberates from the mounted screen: “Yes I’m gay. And the Black church don’t be fucking with that gay shit. But the remaining of the world ain’t fucking with that gay shit either.”

Others enjoy an impromptu movie show experience, taking within the dreamy visuals cooked up by cinematographer Sade Ndya. Ndya’s split-screen production doubles as an ode to iconic Black women in cinema who’ve helped pave the way in which, like Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll, and as an imaginative meditation on the long run of cinema. Familiar faces like OG streaming pioneer and director extraordinaire Numa Perrier and artist/journalist Eva Reign make appearances.

“Historically, as with all things, there have at all times been amazing female artists—but things haven’t been as inclusive as they may very well be,” says Knowles Lawson, reflecting on the long line of girls artists across mediums who’ve been unsupported, systematically shut out of prestigious art spaces, and who’ve had their craft disregarded and widely undocumented in favor of their male counterparts.

witness exhibitwitness exhibit

Alexis Hunley.

Ashley Byrd

“I used to be so impressed seeing this exhibit come together and the way beautiful and the way unique the art is, and the soul and emotion and keenness that went into it,” she says, emphasizing the worth of artists having physical space to not only be recognized and showcase their art, but additionally to be in community and in conversation with each other.

Thousands and thousands of us have also witnessed Knowles Lawson’s art over time, even once we didn’t understand it, from conceptualizing the Wearable Art Gala, which raises funds to support the WACO Theater Center, to crafting quite a few hair styles and performance costumes for Destiny’s Child within the ’90s and early 2000s. She even has her sights set on one other creative endeavor: furniture design.

“I even have an obsession with artistic furniture. I’m working now on my first piece of furniture art, a chair, and exploring different cool things and natural elements. I’ve done several pieces, like coffee tables only for my family and friends, but I’m really excited [for this next endeavor],” she says enthusiastically.

witness exhibit

Rebecca Henry and Akua Shabaka of House of Aama.

Adrian Javon

When asked about a number of the things they hope Black women and femme visitors, particularly, take away from the exhibit, the curating duo don’t miss a beat.

“Our stories are being erased, or attempted to be erased from the history books, and so I just want the takeaways to be that we create who we’re,” says Ambrose. “We’re vessels of immeasurable potential and we’ve to carry strong to our stories. Our stories are what allow us to thrive and what allows us to soar as Black people.”

As for Knowles Lawson, a sentiment she often feels compelled to share when discussing art involves mind. “I just want young Black people to grasp how vital it’s to gather art. You do not have to have lots of money. You do not have to be some big-time collector. I at all times say, a Gucci bag is something that is brief lived but you reside with a chunk of art each day of your life. It inspires you, it makes your own home beautiful. It’s the gift that really keeps on giving without end. I believe that is vital for us to know.”

Headshot of Martine Thompson


Martine Thompson is an artist and author. She’s captivated with exploring mental health, TV & film, perfume, and different facets of beauty culture.

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