Bold colors and joyful memories of black girlhood mark Charleston artist Jirah Perkins’s Miss Mary Mack: An Homage to Black Girl Nostalgia. The artist’s latest exhibit briefly debuted at the Charleston County Public Library back in March, before the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the city.
Perkins had started working on Miss Mary Mack just before she knew it was going to be shown at the Main Library’s Saul Alexander Gallery. “I started it and I kept going with it for the exhibit; I wanted to make it the whole theme for that show,” Perkins said. “I had gotten approved for this show and I knew I could go anywhere I wanted but around that time I was really focusing on black women and what it means to be a black woman.”
Perkins was able to have an opening reception for the show in March, but her work was “in quarantine basically, for the rest of the month.” However, the public can still view Miss Mary Mack on Perkins’ website.
Miss Mark Mack was created out of Perkins’ desire to share black girls’ shared childhood experiences of joy specifically by highlighting games played by young girls, as the exhibition title references the singing and clapping children’s game. “I was reading this book, it’s called Pushout [by Monique W. Morris] and it talks about the criminalization of black girls in schools and how that follows us into adulthood. I really wanted to just inspire people to research and learn the many narratives of black women and dig deeper into understanding the games we played as young girls,” said Perkins. “I wanted to highlight that and highlight the joyous moments that were taken away from a lot of us as children.”
Honoring the “the flair, togetherness, and unadulterated joy of black womanhood” as Perkins describes, she paints a series of works using bright colors and acrylics. “I’m in an experimental stage I’ve been going [through] for a while, so I definitely do different mediums and I’m just figuring out my way. Recently, especially with this collection, I include my own references as far as taking pictures and even kind of writing poetry behind the scenes to go with it. I picked up beauty supplies and I have pictures to go along with some of the paintings.” Perkins shares much of her process, including these reference photos and descriptions, on her Instagram account.
While some of her technique may be new for Miss Mary Mack, her subject stays within the ideas that Perkins generally focuses on when creating art. “My past work has been mostly just black women-focused and African culture-focused, but this one I really wanted to dig into especially African-American culture, especially seeing how it’s been appropriated so much with influencers nowadays.”
“People have tried to reinvent and appropriate our culture without giving proper recognition. So much that they’ve even profited from it,” Perkins said. “We’re not given our proper recognition so I just wanted to put more narratives out there so people can really learn and be inspired to learn.”
Perkins makes that idea clear when framing Miss Mary Mack and specifically chooses to express how the source of black womanhood comes from the joy of childhood as a black girl. “I wanted to shed light on some of the positive memories we shared in our childhood. In school, young black girls are disciplined and criminalized at disproportionately higher rates than other children. It can be difficult to enjoy the spaces we take up; when we’re encouraged to tiptoe around them. That conduct followed a lot of us into adulthood, causing a systematic erasure of adolescence.”
Beyond her latest exhibition, Perkins creates art in a variety of styles and mediums. “In the middle of a pandemic and an uprising it’s hard to really know exactly what subjects to paint and which route to go, so sometimes for me I just have to paint what I feel and that comes out in my abstract work most, just feelings alone and colors and texture.” In addition to abstract work, Perkins has been commissioned to create body paint for Charleston-based photograper New Moon Visuals aka Raven Green, who was recently featured in Time magazine.
Images of Perkins’ commissions, abstract art, and Miss Mary Mack, are available for viewing and purchase on her website, Ujorii Fine Art. “[Ujorii] is a blend of the two words ‘Ujima’ and ‘Satori’. ‘Ujima’ is a Swahili term for collective work and responsibility and ‘Satori’ is a Buddhist term for sudden enlightenment,” she said.
Perkins hopes her pieces will push others to learn, question and create in their own lives. “I just hope for people to read more and to learn more and definitely get inspired to do the same thing: to create work that raises questions,” said Perkins. “Especially people my age, young black artists especially, to be inspired and to do the same thing.”
Jirah Perkins’ art can be found at ujorii.com and on her Instagram @ujorii.