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Honoring Our Crowned Beauties

A Q&A with ‘Peace to the Queen’ Lead Curator Ja’nell Ajani
Ja’nell Ajani is an alumna of Spelman College and has earned graduate degrees from New York University. Photographer: Florian Koenigsberger
Ja’nell Ajani is an alumna of Spelman College and has earned graduate degrees from New York University. Photographer: Florian Koenigsberger

For more than 40 years, New York City-based photographer Jamel Shabazz has been telling stories through powerful images that capture the energy and spirit of Black life in the city. Using photography to reveal our shared humanity, Shabazz provides a nuanced perspective of Black and brown communities through portraits and slice-of-life scenes—from commuters riding home on the subway, to children playing on the streets to clusters of friends posing for a group shot.

Inspired by the celebrated photographer’s work, Ja’nell Ajani, a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies, came up with the ambitious idea of curating an exhibit with a specific focus on women. In addition to featuring the artist’s first full retrospective, she also took an untraditional approach by festooning all walls with decorations, textures and paints.

Now through Sept. 17, the exhibit, “Peace to the Queen,” is on display at the George Washington Carver Museum. Read on to learn more about Ajani’s experiences curating the exhibit, how it helped her heal from her sister’s murder, and what message she aims to get across through Shabazz’s transcendent imagery. You can also learn more about her class, The Mind of Jordan Peele, by reading this recent Daily Texan story. 

What is the significance of the title “Peace to the Queen”?

Jamel Shabazz

A few years back, I met the photographer, and we started a friendship. We talked about what the work would look like, and how I wanted to re-center his archives around Black and brown women and children. The title of the show, “Peace to the Queen,” is a riff off a phrase he says every day. He really loved it—and he loved my concept for the show.

What does it mean to you personally to serve as a curator for this artist’s work?

Myrlie Evers
Myrlie Evers

I feel honored to be able to bring an artist like Jamel Shabazz to Austin, Texas. His work is inspiring and uplifting and is exactly what we need to see right now as we grapple with these trying times. I also feel a sense of gratification that I was able to transform a very difficult life event for my entire family into something powerful and beautiful. Again, I want to note that this exhibition was no easy feat to execute and took many years of planning in order to come to fruition. I am just grateful that Shabazz entrusted me to execute my vision and share it with the Austin community.

Could you share a bit about how you took an unconventional approach to designing this exhibit?

Hands Off, Brooklyn, NY, 1998 (West Indian Day Parade, Eastern Pkwy, Brooklyn, NY)
Hands Off, Brooklyn, NY, 1998 (West Indian Day Parade, Eastern Pkwy, Brooklyn, NY)

When you walk around the exhibit, you’ll see a lot of walls covered in black, roses, green foliage and bright colors. This is not a traditional show as there are no white walls, and the colors are all very striking. Some of the backgrounds have significant meanings. For example, the rose wall pays homage to my sister, Karen Rose, and her life. The photographer loves nature, so I looked for ways to incorporate the things that he loves into the exhibit. This is an exhibit that broke a lot of rules, and I am thankful that the Carver Museum gave me the flexibility to paint walls and let loose with my creativity.

What was it like for you, personally, to put this exhibit together?

Styling, Montclair, NJ, 2012
Styling, Montclair, NJ, 2012

Making this show was more of a catharsis for me. Seeing images of these women every day helped me get through the challenges of grad school and to heal from my sister’s death. This exhibition is a way to honor her memory—turning it from that tragic moment into something beautiful and powerful. Her name is referenced in the exhibition in a way that is so reverential and indicative of her personality. Most importantly, people will know her name, that she had a life, and she lived.

Could you describe a particular piece of Shabazz’s work that really captures your attention?

1.Old School Love, Brooklyn, NY, 1982
Old School Love, Brooklyn, NY, 1982

Wow, honestly, there are so many! I’ve been a fan of Jamel’s work for so many years! It really is so hard to narrow it down to one!  So, I’ll pick two that are featured in “Peace to the Queen.” The first is an image entitled, “Old School Love, 1982.” It features a couple embracing outside on a NYC sidewalk. I am in love with the serene expression on the woman’s face. It is so priceless. It is as if she knows how much she is loved and adored by her partner. In addition, the way in which he embraces her is so very gentle and compassionate. It is a beautiful visual representation of Black love.

Karen, Brooklyn, NY, 1988
Karen, Brooklyn, NY

The second image that really captures my attention is “Karen, 1982.” This image gives me a sense of nostalgia—particularly when thinking about my own sister, Karen. When I am invited for talks at other universities to speak about “Peace to the Queen,” I show this image along with a photograph of my sister side-by-side. You can immediately see the uncanny resemblance. On any given day, my sister would be dressed exactly like the Karen that Shabazz captured back in the 1980s. My sister just loved being fashionable and getting her hair and nails done every week. However, her outer beauty was truly overshadowed by her inner beauty and immense spirit.  She was an incredible mother, sister, friend and daughter. My family and all of her friends from our hometown still miss her so very much.

What message do you aim to convey through this exhibit?

My  goal is threefold: (1) to unabashedly celebrate the life of my sister, Karen Alethea Rose; (2) create a space that functions as a portal, of sorts, and allow for visitors to have a transformative experience while viewing Shabazz’s work; and (3) convey why it is important to respect and protect the Black and Brown women in our lives.

What’s next for this exhibit?

It is my sincere hope that “Peace to the Queen” will be able to travel to other museums and nontraditional venues both domestically and internationally. I am also looking forward to doing more talks about the show in the near future.