Fempower takes us inside its art slash fashion show exploring the future for black and brown people in a transforming world
The year is 2040. The world’s largest economic powers failed to heed the UN’s warning, in 2018, that we had 12 years to mitigate a climate change catastrophe. The atmosphere has warmed by 1.4 degrees Celsius, and in Miami, the effects are devastating. Heat and humidity have swelled to unbearable temperatures. Ninety per cent of the city’s vibrant coral reefs have vanished, leaving hundreds of thousands of pounds of rotting seaweed in its wake. The sea, steadily rising over the blistering pavement, is displacing hundreds of thousands of Miami residents. In another 50 years, 2.5 million people will have nowhere to go. Survival, in this dystopian, post-apocalyptic climate, is tenuous.
Like a glimmer of hope for the future world, a mystical tribe of black and brown femmes emerge from Miami’s sewage-laced shores. Their eyes are shielded from the scorch of the sun with large dark goggles; their locks twisted into braided crowns to protect their scalps. Long-sleeved, turtle-necked neoprene suits help them wade smoothly through the water. Ancestral survival wisdom is their sword; their unbreakable bond is their strength.
“We’re an explicitly anti-capitalist organisation and collective, and we fight against all types of oppression that may arise” – Helen Peña
Flashback to 2019, and I’m sitting under a mango tree on a particularly breezy spring evening in Little Haiti, its branches bearing the seedlings of this tropical summer fruit. The neighbours are cooking; the smell of fried chicken and griot wafts gently in the air. Fempower – a Miami-based artist collective formed to empower black and brown femmes through art, agriculture, and activism – sits tightly around me. We speak about Miami’s impending climate gentrification, their 2018 Miami Art Week exhibition, 2040, and the overwhelming need to become anti-capitalist activists in a moment when the global economy is spiralling wildly out of control.
Surrounded by founder Helen Peña, and core members Yesenia Rojas, Ashley Varela, Niki Franco, and Mumbi O’Brien, the women explain that Fempower was born out of a collective realisation that change was desperately needed.
“I was feeling very close to my blackness and femininity, but realising they’re not a priority in this country,” said Peña. “In 2017, after Trump got elected, I was having an emotional response considering the violence that would continue to be enacted against black and brown bodies and particularly, women. I started blogging and created this speculative fictional story, where a black female girl gang led the way to this invisible future. The blog post became a zine, and from there it was like: ‘What’s next?’” Fempower the collective was born shortly after, its mission grounded in radical feminist ideals and carried out through the power of community. “We’re an explicitly anti-capitalist organisation and collective, and we fight against all types of oppression that may arise, including sexism, imperialism, and racism. We’re an anti-prison, anti-police, abolitionist collective,” Peña explains.
According to Peña, Fempower was “born off Instagram.” Frustrated with the monotonous drone of her cell phone, and realising that her peers were slowly homogenising their identities through the guise of social media, Peña saw an opportunity to turn the visual platform into a recruitment tool. “I knew we needed to harness that power for something meaningful,” she said, explaining that the Fempower Instagram is as much an educational tool as it is a way for them to encourage attendance and support for their projects.
Uncompromisingly intersectional, Fempower’s ethos adheres to a legacy of black feminism, led by radical pioneers like Angela Davis and Kimberlé Crenshaw, and black artists and authors like Zora Neale Thurston and Betye Saar. In their work, Fempower envisions an ideal, equal world. One where our food is grown and tended, our clothes recycled and reused; dance and music is transcendentally powerful; art sparks important dialogue; and literature is essential for critical thought. “Fempower tries to have all of these aspects of our lives linked because we believe they should be equally honoured and respected as a safe space for black and brown femmes,” says Rojas.
Each of their core members holds a branch of the Fempower being, which is adamantly non-hierarchical. Franco, along with Palestinian poet and activist Zaina Alsous, runs the Liberation Book Club, which she curates with overarching themes like decolonisation, eroticism, mass incarceration, and ancestral and environmental preservation. “We have an intentional desire to exclusively read radical authors,” she says.
Varela, who studies landscape architecture and practices herbal medicine, tends the Femme Fairy Garden, ripe with moringa, papaya, cabbage, and kale. Rojas curates the music at Fempower’s many parties and events. O’Brien and Peña team up to art direct and curate Fempower’s 25-member artist collective, which is the only area of Fempower in which members must apply and be accepted on a twice-yearly basis. “We feel out who joins us based on political compatibility and personality,” says O’Brien. “If you take your work seriously and are community-minded, and can demonstrate that across mediums, then you’re in.”
New Fempower members are initiated with the Fempire Boot Camp, a political exercise designed to build collective unity and cohesion, and instruct its members on the collective’s overarching mission. “All of the members hold marginalised identities that force us into the consciousness of survival, but a lot of our histories and pasts have been suppressed or deliberately kept from us,” says Franco. “So every time we collectively study, we go back to ourselves and our people.”
As our conversation in Little Haiti wears on, we’re occasionally interrupted by neighbours playing music, or calling out for one another. The block is alive with the familiar scents and sounds of the neighbourhood, which became known as Little Haiti in the 1980s after an influx of Haitian immigrants and businesses moved to the area. The predominantly low-income neighbourhood, ignored for years, has been thrust into the spotlight of late: as one of the highest-ground areas in Miami, developers have turned their sights onto the neighbourhood as sea levels have risen. The displacement of long-time residents and businesses has already begun, with rising rents pricing out neighbours and young Miamians. “Brown and black bodies are more vulnerable to the climate crisis because of where we live,” says Rojas, who grew up in the neighbourhood. “Which is why we should treat climate crisis as a real crisis.”
2040, Fempower’s 2018 Miami Art Week program, was directly inspired by the climate crisis currently being faced in Miami – one that is displacing our residents, polluting our shores, and causing the widespread death of our natural environments. Armed with an arsenal of facts about what the future might hold for Miami in 2040, Fempower set out to create a post-apocalyptic world, with a futuristic fashion presentation illustrating the last generation in a dying world, films showcasing the possible effects, an exhibition of works by several Fempower artist members, and a panel discussion focused on preserving and utilising ancestral farming techniques to combat assured food shortages.
“Brown and black bodies are more vulnerable to the climate crisis because of where we live. Which is why we should treat climate crisis as a real crisis” – Yesenia Rojas
2040 was rooted in the idea that art, music, and education can dismantle power structures and produce a more ethical world. “We used art as a way to agitate, upset, and awaken people, and to inspire a sense of urgency and paint a picture of what will happen if we don’t change,” says O’Brien. “Memorial to Mother Earth”, for example, was an installation that formed a sort of burial ground out of soil. On either side of this dirt mound, two sproutlings symbolised the last living seeds of a dying planet. Another film asked viewers to strap themselves with a vibrating backpack, as scenes of climate catastrophe flashed across the screen. With every thunderous rupture or flood, the backpack shook furiously, simulating the experience that so many thousands have been forced to endure.
“I don't think (they) were ready for something so powerful that didn't follow the typical Basel agenda,” says Rojas. “It was great to see the response of other Miami leaders in promoting the event,” adds Peña. “It was our goal to be visually stimulating and educational, and people learned a lot and carried on conversations. The event even inspired a New York Fashion Week Show by Chromat, because designer Becca McCharen-Tran based her latest collection on 2040.”
As the collective continues to grow and awaken social conscious, they are adamant that climate change will be at the forefront of their mission. “This is ground zero for climate change, so it will always inform our work,” says Peña. “We’re going to continue looking at how we can shift our priorities and budgets to prioritise people instead of wallets.”
Back in the garden, Varela takes a look around at her work, remarking that sharing these farming practices with the Fempower community is an act of activism in and of itself. O’Brien reminds me that change begins on an individual scale and that it’s actually not so difficult to become more mindful about waste. Peña asserts that the corporate structures that cause so much black and brown pain can only be challenged by the power of community. Rojas declares an all-out fight.
“We should treat climate crisis as a war, because it’s eliminating people and places,” adds Rojas. “So if politicians and powerful companies who control our everyday life aren’t on the right side of the war, we need to be more extreme and radical about preserving our lives, right now, but, more importantly, for the future we hope exists.”
Photography Lex Morales, fashion Margo Ashley, make up Hellie Vee, hair Gaby Thompson
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