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Turning BBW into a Point of Pride, Not a Category of Porn

Theresa Chromati subverts the derogatory moniker to reclaim the black, female gaze.

by DJ Pangburn
27 December 2016, 6:50pm

Artist Theresa Chromati next to her painting ‘And a jumbo half n half’. Images courtesy the artist

The acronym BBW, internet shorthand for “big, beautiful, women,” exists in a liminal space in pop culture. Found in Drake lyrics and as a porn category, BBW commodifies and objectifies those it’s meant to represent: specifically big, beautiful black women.

Baltimore born-and-based artist Theresa Chromati wants to smash this derogatory moniker and reclaim it by presenting black women in all their kaleidoscopic glory, power, and complexity. As she tells The Creators Project, “I was like, ‘Okay, BBW stands for this one thing in this very pornographic, oversexualized world, but what if it could stand for other things that I think are just as beautiful and should be represented?’”

‘Black Blissful Worship’ from the ‘BBW’ series

Chromati’s work is a seamless and unique blend of graphic design and fine art, of digital and traditional media. Her work embodies a strong visual language and iconography, with bold and voluptuous figures rendered with a designer’s touch.

After initial sketches, Chromati creates vector images with software, then digitally prints the work. Then, she tiles it together and adorns the piece with acrylic paint, conté crayon, fabric, glitter, and hair. Other times, her canvas may be vinyl, as in Tea Time, or sewn onto paper, as in I Massage My Scalp As She Takes Out My Hair.

‘Blessed Bonding Woes’ from the ‘BBW’ series

Her work is often autobiographical, mining Chromati’s own experiences and the lives of women she knows for inspiration. She observes the beauty of partnerships between people, and these themes surface throughout her work. “So, very intimate moments, like the collaboration between you helping a sister taking out her hair,” Chromati says.

‘I Massage My Scalp As She Takes Out My Hair’

In her BBW series, the acronym finds its way, rather poetically, into the titles of the work. Beneficial Boot Wear depicts the intrusion of a white woman into black culture and is, as Chromati explains, an exploration of cultural appropriation. Behind a Braider’s Weaving depicts two women, each collaborating to pamper the other. Chromati cites this as a historical activity among women, harking to ancient civilizations, as well as an activity she saw frequently in her childhood.

‘Between a Braider’s Weaving’ from the ‘BBW’ series

One of Chromati’s most recent projects is Tea Time, a five-panel piece, depicting community partnership as an oasis in a “post-destruction” environment. “Within the black community, through my eyes, there is always a constant struggle to stay afloat and try to maintain a safe and relaxing environment, so that’s what Tea Time depicts,” Chromati says. “It’s about realizing that you finally created a safe environment for yourself, your community, and your partners.”

Tea Time is also rife with symbolism. “Toward the left part of the composition, there is the introduction of milk, which is a metaphor for oppression,” Chromati adds. “That’s about putting our foot down and stopping any more ways that we’re inviting that into our communities.”

‘Tea Time’ installation view

The piece also subverts tea, a symbol of colonization of the West Indies. “It’s about paying attention to the introduction [by the British] of something that is very simple and thinking about how this is a routine in someone’s everyday life,” Chromati says. “Now, it’s something that’s very soothing and that you cherish, but it comes from a time that is very negative.”

Panel view of ‘Tea Time’

Tea Time also marks the introduction of sound art into Chromati’s multimedia works. “The figures I create in these works don’t exist in this world, so I want to get closer to what that world looks and feels like. Sound and music are another way of helping the viewer to feel that they have transcended into an alternate space but also please the senses,” she says.

Panel view of ‘Tea Time’

Chromati is at work on a new body of art that depicts partnerships between men and women. This Bedroom Series, as Chromati refers to it, will depict couples in a variety of intimate situations, positive and negative.

“I’m just that person that puts it [all out there], and even if I’m talking about something that may make someone feel uncomfortable, I think it’s very important to add a whimsical quality to the work,” Chromati explains. “Even if it’s talking about a sexual encounter that went horribly wrong, I feel that the composition should have humor in it. I want [the viewer] to feel some kind of emotion, so that when they walk out, they’re thinking about it.”

‘And a jumbo half n half’

To see more of Theresa Chromati’s work, click here.

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