Aesthetic as Activism: SHAN

by Nia Hampton

If “the personal is political”, then how you dress and adorn yourself says a lot about who you are. It can also say a lot about what you want to be and who you feel connected to. As technology pushes us all to master the selfie and think of ourselves as brands, people who may not have ever had to think about their “aesthetic” are developing language around why they adorn themselves. We here at invite you to read our interview series “Aesthetic as Activism” and be inspired by these activists who opened up to us about their looks, dreams for the future and self-care routines.

This month’s feature is SHAN. This Baltimore native is a photographer, writer and activist who does more than merely document the struggle, she’s fighting daily in the communities she documents and being beautiful while doing it.

What does aesthetic mean to you?
The term aesthetic has many meanings and is sometimes affiliated with superficiality so it’s a word that I had to redefine for myself. To me, there’s this synergy between my subconscious and conscious that manifests into my expression of being, thinking, and experiencing, from how I dress and accessorize my body to my language and my art and advocacy. I consider my aesthetic to not only be in my looks, but what I say, what I am and who I am.  My aesthetic doesn’t define me, I define my aesthetic. I use my aesthetic to embody my beliefs, my emotions, my taste, my lifestyle, my history, all the pieces that make me who I am.

What looks are you going for right now?
I am Black and proud, I come from powerful ancestors and I aim to communicate that through my aesthetic, especially my physical appearance. I look at my physical appearance as a way to pay homage to the Black Panthers and many of my ancestors who weren’t allowed to express themselves. I have an androgynous look and this is intentional. One part of me likes my clothes to baggy and another part of me rejects the stereotypical notions of gender and women. My style is political, an organic act of resistance and connection to my ancestors. I look at my style as very masculine with a side of femininity inspired by both women’s and menswear. So a lot of times I purchase women clothing in big sizes. I love the bagginess of mens clothing but I hate how basic menswear can be and this is where womenswear can play a role other than inspiration.

One of the looks I’m really into, especially the fall and winter, is all black everything, very militant looks that consists of assorted buttons and pins, black berets, black turtlenecks, leather vests, VERY BLACK t-shirts, accessories, and outfits that echo the messages of pro-blackness and resistance associated with Black Revolutionaries. There’s something about turtlenecks under a leather vest that is sophisticated, political, and very classy. For the colder seasons I like to make sure my turtleneck game is very proper.

My style and my looks can be a little contradictory. I dress based on how I am feeling and sometimes I feel less militant and a little colorful, artsy, and lively. I live for a good pair of overalls, striped shirts, colored socks. I’m into quiet labels and designer, pieces that aren’t loud and over-the-top. Also, I love a good shoe, either a throwback Nike sneaker or Wingtip Prada, shoes matter.

Jewelry is a major part of my looks. I wear gold rings on eight of my fingers, I wear gold teeth because the south taught me, I wear gold necklaces full of symbols that speaks for my spiritually.

What does activism mean to you?
Activism is another word I had to redefine for myself, I realized there are many lanes of activism and resistance. My activism starts with me doing the individual work to be the change I want to see in the world. Then actively working to make the world better for my community and that comes in many forms. I use photography as a form of activism, to reveal our circumstances and lives as we stand strong in the face of oppression, to show us and the world us. I take photographs of Black people in order to reclaim our image and rewrite our history. I will always advocate for the freedom of Black people and I do this with my lens. I believe people digest images quicker than words, so photography is a way for me to communicate to my people. I allow ancestors to work through me in order to provide photographs, art, literature, and storytelling that can represent, connect, and educate us all. I use my voice and my creativity to fight for freedom.

Resistance, also, is the simplest form of activism. I live in a society where I have to resist and combat daily assaults to my humanity, my blackness, my femaleness, and yet I survive. Survival is also my activism.

What are some internal/external changes you’d like to see in life this year? What changes are you making personally? And what changes would you like to see in the world?
Everything starts at home, so the change I want to see has to start with me, at home. I plan to do the emotional labor and individual work that allows me to fully claim my space and my existence in this world, to embrace my sexuality, my identity, evolve spiritually, and heal victoriously. My goal is to address and get rid of unhealthy patterns, behaviors, and relationships, all while using generational survival strategies to learn useful habits of thinking and being. I want to embody my Goddess self.

I would love to see more young people (my generation included) become entrepreneurs and have a better understanding of financial literacy. I feel confident in our abilities to break generational cycles and create new ones like generational wealth. Wealth that consists of more than monetary merits, but also, ownership, education, property, and even social wealth. I would love to see Black men show up for black women and not perpetuate or turn the head to violence against black women. To listen to black women, learn and correct their own behavior, extend this knowledge to other men, and not only to comprehend and agree with the issues but work to increase awareness in order to call out and have those important conversations with their male counterparts. I also, would love to see Black women just flourish, evolve, and prosper in all ways. I wanna her get hers!

What’s your makeup/haircare/skincare/self care ritual looking like?
I don’t wear makeup, however, I might wear a red lip on the coldest day of the year. I do exfoliate my skin three times a week. I apply raw honey directly after I exfoliate, it stops my skin from getting dry.  Also, I don’t do much to my hair except pull it back when it’s covering my face, which is often. My hair is growing so quickly and it’s getting long, full of wisdom, memories, and time, in which I wholeheartedly appreciate. My hair is important to me, so I am very tender and loving towards it. Amidst this chaotic world, self-care comes in many forms for me. My loving and caring community of Black Women gets me through each day. We are able to congregate to have heart-to-hearts and be present in each others lives. I take time daily to write my uncensored, vulnerable, and most honest words and thoughts down in my journal. Here in my journal I write affirmations, goals, reflections, feelings, love letters, I spill it all out in my journal. It’s also personalized for me, decorated with a variety of stickers of women, I personalized my journal to motivate me to not only use it but to give it a warm and gentle feeling. My journal feels like home, it feels very friendly and accepting of me. Another self care activity is playing basketball. I play once a week for two hours, where I go full Mamba mentality. I tune in to my body, my skill, and opponent, and I ball out. Ball is life. Some more simple forms of self care is mindfulness, being gentle with myself, listening to intuition and my body, and pampering and treating myself.

What are your Muses/Inspiration at the moment?
My muses will always be Black people, and our lives, experiences, identities, stories, from contemporary times to the future. Right now I am truly and constantly inspired by people in my direct community like Trae Harris, Jess Solomon, Desiree Venn Frederic, Raven Paris, Theresa Chromati, Deana Haggag, Jenna Wortham, Devin Morris, Shydeia from Black Girl Magik, Yaya, Randi Gloss, and Robin Marquis, just to name a few. Of course there are others like Beyonce, Tracee Ellis Ross, Solange, Slick Woods, the Migos, who effortlessly and uncompromisingly carve out their own space in this world. It’s so inspiring to witness.

What creative projects are you working on right now?
Right now I am working on so many things. I am finishing up the finalized edition of my WDMBB (What Does It Mean To Be Black) zine which will be accompanied by a new venture called FREE BLACKS, a collection of apparel dedicated to and embodying the pun of the free black individual. Soon I’ll be starting a photojournalism project that reclaims and explores the multifaceted and unique dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship and how these relationships shape, harm, heal, or propel us moving forward in life. I’m so excited to get started and see this project blossom into something beautiful. Shortly after, I’ll be retreating into the woods to work on some music and some cinema photography.

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