The Artist Putting Up Posters of Icons to Make Women of Color Visible

With her Unapologetically Brown series, artist Johanna Toruño wants to tell other women of color, "I see you. This space is yours."

by Amelia Capaz
Sep 30 2017, 1:01pm

Images by Johanna Toruño

In a world where activists operate by countering the claims of the alt-right or the Trump administration, 27-year-old Johanna Toruño of Queens is a breath of fresh air. Through her project The Unapologetically Brown Series, she omits the bad and focuses solely on the good.

The premise of the series is simple: Give brown and black girls and women the positive representation they're lacking through inspiring words and imagery. Toruño, who is originally from San Salvador, places iconic WOC celebrities and aspirational figures from Aaliyah to Assata Shakur against pastel floral graphics. Some have poetry, calls to action like "protect Central American children and their families," or inspirational quotes like Angela Davis's "you have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world." She then prints these images on flyers and hangs them all over New York City for people to see throughout their daily commutes.

With only a year in operation, The Unapologetically Brown Series has already made strides toward Toruño's vision of affirming women of color and strengthening the WOC community, with over 20,000 Instagram followers and a panel at the New York City community center Mayday Space in August.

Broadly chatted with Toruño about her work to give women of color space in the world, literally and figuratively.

BROADLY: In your own words, how would you describe The Unapologetically Brown Series to somebody who has never heard of it?

Johanna Toruño: The Unapologetically Brown Series is my "bat signal" to POC everywhere, that we are here: "I see you. This space is yours." The work is meant to be a direct message to remind WOC that we are present.

How many members belong to the series? Is it just you hanging the prints, or do you have help?
The series is just me at the moment. I create, print, and paste everything around. Unless other people take advantage of the free posters I provide through my website and paste them around their own cities. Which does happen, but currently, it's a one-woman show.

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What was your inspiration for starting this project?
I've been inspired throughout my life by the way people in my country of El Salvador have expressed themselves through murals and street work. I wanted to take what I learned from home and translate it into my work today. I am inspired to celebrate my community's beauty every day.

There are a lot of positive and motivational quotes associated with your prints. Where do you find them?
I read a lot, so books and Google!

You also use a lot of flowers. Are they symbolic?
Flowers are my "bat signal" I am referring to. I'm always going to incorporate flowers into my work one way or another. They are another piece of home I carry. My grandfather taught me about plants and flowers as a child during the war in El Salvador. Things weren't always peaceful, but somehow, the garden inside the six-foot concrete wall around our house felt free, so I took the flowers with me when I left, and I carry them with me now.

Who supports this project financially? How do you attain funds for prints?
I sustain this project by selling prints of some of the posters I put up, as well as other related items, in order to keep the work on the streets. Printing street posters is very, very expensive.

Does the heating political climate in this country motivate your work?
Although I agree things are very heated, I believe they always have been. Only now, there's a presidential approval to wild out. My work has always been community motivated, not politically, and although those things sometimes may be hard to separate, my efforts go directly to my backyard because that's the only thing I can control.

At your panel, you mentioned "reclaiming spaces." What are some ways you feel POC can do this effectively?
There is no right or wrong way to reclaim space. Reclaiming your own space is a personal experience. For me, reclaiming space can be sitting somewhere I usually wouldn't out of fear or discomfort. It can be sitting up a little prouder in situations I feel overwhelmed in. Reclaiming is about self-awareness and understanding our value in spaces that don't always make us feel visible.

How can non-POC help POC reclaim spaces?
I think non-POC need to acknowledge their privilege and use it for good [and] learn what is needed while working within their own community, to know that their privilege needs to be consistently and constantly challenged.

What's the most rewarding part of what you do?
The response I get from people that find the posters in the wild and have connections with them. I get messages of photos of people posing by them, videos of little girls reciting my poems, and an overwhelming amount of support I feel incredibly blessed and grateful for.

Where do you see the series taking you in the future?
I want to collaborate with more artists and take this across the country and meet other communities throughout. I want to turn this into a creative hub of celebrating each other.