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  • Writer's pictureFlavia Totoli

Iconic and Anonymous Women Project

“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

Nina Simone

I can't get this sentence out of my mind.

On the other hand, how can an artist not talk about all the personal feelings they have as a consequence of everything they lived? I guess the answer is that both are intertwined. Like most things in our lives there’s never only one reason why we do the things we do.

That’s how I came up with the reasoning behind “Iconic and Anonymous Women Series”. Like so many women I was in a place of great sadness and loneliness after a romantic separation. I felt lost, empty and didn’t know where to go, both physically and emotionally. Being an artist, what made sense to me was painting.

I first started with Anonymous Women. Women like me, that nobody knew but carried so much pain and beauty in their lives. But that wasn’t enough, I needed direction, I needed inspiration and so, the Iconic Women side was born.

All of this to explain that from a personal history, a personal search I ended up looking, not only to my personal history, but also at a society and structural system that hold so many of the reasons for the pain I went through all my life.

Reflecting on gender and race helped me organize my thoughts and realize the obvious fact that I wasn’t alone. My insight might sound self-evident to many, but I believe that we all, as individuals, need to come to certain conclusions by ourselves in order to actually understand the issues at hand. One thing is to make rational sense of things, another entirely is to understand them with our hearts, things are intertwined and nothing ever has only one explanation.

Gender and Race

As a woman it's inconceivable that any woman would go through life without suffering the impacts of sexism. As a bi-racial woman it seems impossible for any non-white person to go through life without suffering the impacts of racism. It’s important to be very clear here: not being a man and not being white already puts an individual in a place of disadvantage. And I’m not even throwing class in the mix (not yet at least).

I’ve been reflecting and studying about gender and class for many years now and I still have a hard time trying to place which one comes first, which one makes life harder. only definitive answer is: if you are a black woman you’re in the place of most social and historical disadvantage.

There are no social privileges in being a black woman. We’ve always been judged from the start. As a woman you "can’t be a fully capable and rational individual". That’s what society tells us every single day. You cannot go out without planning ahead: "where am I going? Who am I meeting? What clothes should I wear so I can try to appear more “respectable”? Will these clothes put me in a place of more vulnerability in terms of violence? Will this skirt make me more or less safe as I walk down the streets? Will any of this makeup make people think I’m not smart enough?"

Women have been trying to free themselves from these chains for a long time. In my experience, these seemly trivial things, like clothing, hair or make up, can make a difference on how we’re treated in a shop, date or work function.

Sometimes I think that we’re in 2020, after all, and all that probably doesn’t matter all that much, that maybe I’m overreacting, but it takes only one look at the news to see that we as a society have not overcome these stereotypes, these judgments and that we, women, are far from being free.

So, many times we still end up choosing the longer skirt.

I’m a mixed raced woman. I have black, indigenous and Italian heritage. My skin is light and my hair is curly. I can “disguise” my black heritage straitening up my hair and not sunbathing. And it begs the question: why is it that the fact that I can “disguise” myself is relevant at all?

I shouldn’t have to think about that, the same way I shouldn’t have to think strategically about the length of my skirt. But in our very imperfect world I do think about all these things. And the very fact that I can disguise myself gives me access to privileges other black women don’t have.

That makes even clearer how important is the conversation about race and also how unequal is this world we live in, a world that instead of taking pride on its diversity chooses to single out and diminish whoever is perceived as different.


This is why my portraits are done beautifully. Because in a society that sees black women as not beautiful, it’s disruptive in itself simply to portray black women as Beautiful. My darker skinned sisters should occupy all available spaces until there isn't anywhere else in the collective imaginary where diversity is linked to any sort of negativity.

As art from the last century has mostly portrayed black women either subservient or sexualized I feel there’s no choice but to be part of the change.

My art aims to normalize portraying black women in positions of power, beauty and strength, which is the place we all should be in an ideal, equal and diverse world.

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