Like so many Black women, Genel Ambrose has been deftly navigating within spaces where she didn’t see reflections of herself her entire life.
Ambrose vividly recalls growing up internalizing the messages of those around her – the ones that painted the picture of her Black identity being a liability. Until one day, following a horrible work experience, she’d had enough.
“(I) just really had an awakening,” shared Ambrose, who credited the writings of Black female authors like Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde as a guide for her own work and self-liberation. “I’ve seen this witnessing of myself into someone who’s firm about her identity, and proud to be a Black woman.”
In her first art exhibition WITNESS, the Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and curator takes viewers on an immersive, multi-sensory journey of what it means to be a Black femme in a world that tries to constantly erase their humanity, transporting you to an artistic metropolis free from racism, sexism, homophobia and harm.
“WITNESS is certainly about Black women, seeing ourselves whole, seeing ourselves full, (and) seeing ourselves on our terms,” said Ambrose. “I want to remind the world that we are human beings.”
Co-curated by Tina Knowles Lawson, WITNESS is a “labor of love” showcasing powerful artwork by Los Angeles-based Black women and nonbinary artists, who reimagine society and community through the lens of their art that invokes the soul. The exhibit also features work by Black Women Photographers in partnership with Ambrose’s company GOOD MIRRORS, a collective of storytellers, community-builders, and impact-minded cultural strategists catalyzing positive systemic change. Even with a background in experiential production, Ambrose said she pulled from a deeply personal place while transforming the WACO Theater Center, usually a traditional theater and coworking space in North Hollywood’s Arts District.
“Ms. Tina is unwaveringly committed to uplifting and supporting Black artists. We both believe in the power of art as a pathway for individual transformation, limitless possibility, and legacy for Black people,” said Ambrose of working with Knowles Lawson on the project.
“I was leaning into it from a spiritual aspect,” she continued. This very sentiment can be felt as you walk through the rooms in WITNESS. Each step submerges you deeper into a sacred, cultural expression serving as a testimony for Black women and girls to see and hear themselves through both traditional and digital media, from a chandelier of braids to ASMR of products found in the beauty supply store, that are both mesmerizing and healing. The exhibition, sponsored by Melinda French Gates’ company Pivotal Ventures, features two affirmation rooms, where you can listen to empowering stories from other women in the TRUTH portal, share your story or write your own affirmations that can uplift those walking behind you.
Ambrose is keenly aware of the crucial role art plays in aiding Black and brown communities while undoing damaging stereotypes and said she has plans of taking WITNESS nationwide in the future. For now, she excitedly looks forward to showing the exhibit to her closest art reviewers during the closing reception – her three young daughters. Ambrose dreams of a day when her girls and every Black girl are fully empowered to advocate for themselves with the stories of their elders informing them. This dream fuels so much of her work.
“It’s incredibly important for us to know our stories because it gives us the confidence that we need to show up. It gives us the sense of lineage and pride that we can tap into and lean into,” explained Ambrose. “We, as Black women, have done a good job of showing up as we are, confident and whole. I just think it’s the rest of the world that just hasn’t caught up. We’ve done the work for ourselves, for each other… I feel like WITNESS is a public display and visual record of that, and I’m just hoping that the rest of the world catches up.”
WITNESS runs from April 1 to May 27. Learn more when you visit the WACO Theater Center website.
Lenora E. Houseworth (@LenoraSheWrote) is a marketer, writer and creative passionate about wellness and culture.