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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Leandrea Hill Depicts the Beautiful Secrets of Big, Black Women

The love below

Posted By on Wed, Jun 14, 2017 at 7:00 AM

After Leandrea Hill told me about her most recent art project, I couldn't get that Drake lyric out of my head — you know, the one that goes, "I like my girls BBW."

Hill's latest project focuses specifically on just that: BBWs, or big black women. Hill's preference has always been to paint plus-sized black women, but for her most recent series, the Juicy Collection, she took it a step further.

"This is my first time focusing specifically on the vagina," she told me.

Hill explained that the project was born "because I had someone contact me about having a painting of their vagina done – commissioned – for their bedroom."

The collection ended up consisting of 13 up-close-and-very-personal paintings.

"They're all plus-sized black women who I had submit. I want to celebrate our vaginas," Hill said. "I wanted to focus specifically on black plus-sized women – our most intimate area."

On June 3, she celebrated the new collection's release as well as her that of her chapbook, "Beautiful After Dark." Hill is a poet primarily, and the book showcases her written work, including selections of her erotic poetry ("pornetry" as she calls it). She considers the Juicy Collection and all of her visual art "unspoken poems."

Like some aspects of the female anatomy, the location of the release party was elusive and mysterious. I almost walked into someone else's semi-formal event before finding Hill's studio tucked in the middle of a business center on North Tryon. The studio is made up of two tiny rooms, the white walls barely visible behind the patchwork of bright paintings that stretch from floor to ceiling.

click to enlarge The artist (far right) speaks with the author. (Photo by Tyrone Combs)
  • The artist (far right) speaks with the author. (Photo by Tyrone Combs)

In the first room, Hill's latest unspoken poems were unmistakable. In shades of brown and purple, the paintings were visually similar, but represented a diversity of vaginas.

As Hill described the collection: "Some of them are pierced, some of them are a little fuller than others, some of them are dark, some of them are light."

(Interestingly, though, all of them were shaved.)

The little studio was crowded. Attendees, including friends of Hill and the subjects of the paintings, rearranged themselves, stepping this way and that to stay out of the way. Some slipped past each other to make trips to pick up deviled eggs and chicken salad. People mulled over the paintings, pointing out favorites. One of the pieces reminded someone of a shaggy dog. Another said it looked like Edvard Munch's "The Scream." All agreed that the collection was important.

"It's definitely a way to bring light to our bodies, to paint positive about our vaginas and the things that they do, as far as bringing forth life, bringing forth intimacy, love and lust," said Hill. "All of those things are tied in. Even though it's nude and it's most definitely a private area, it's not vulgar. It's just art — the art of our bodies."

I went to get more chicken salad. Commenting on how good it was, someone called it "chicken crack" and everyone laughed. The buzz in the room was overwhelmingly joyful. Between signing books and taking photos, Hill told whomever was standing nearby about the challenges she faced in taking a photo of her own vagina.

"I have two selfie sticks," she said. "Not once did I think of using them!"

I felt like I had stumbled on a group of friends, and never like I didn't belong. The joy and intimacy of the venue reflected the joy and intimacy of the subject matter; no hushed tones, no docent monitoring from the corner of the room.

Hill mentioned that in the past she has unsuccessfully applied for grants to support her visual art projects — although she didn't apply for any for this particular collection. I thought about what role the venue and any attached institutional support have in altering the art's message and meaning.

I imagined an exhibit of BBW vaginas at the Mint Museum. Would an institutional sanction be worth celebrating? Would such a venue strip the art of its intended purpose: that it's by, for and about black women? More curation and less celebration?

Naturally, Hill seeks a wider audience for her work, but as the roomful of friends cracked jokes and passed around plastic cups full of wine, I couldn't help feeling like the intimacy of the little space and the exuberant atmosphere were an inextricable part of experiencing Hill's work.

Hill herself considered the event a success. The next day, she took to Facebook to thank everyone who supported her latest endeavor.

"The art of blk bbw vaginas is real," she wrote. "It's magnificent."

Apparently, Drake was right all along.

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