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3.07.2010

Souljah-Sotomayor



Above image:
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor meets with SISTER SOULJAH/

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV).
(revised Alex Wong photo), 2009
digital print, 11”x15”
Ayanah Moor / Shani Peters
Discussing Ayanah's Souljah-Sotomayor Project


Shani Peters:
Your recent series Souljah-Sotomayor touches on the timely and highly recognizable appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, yet simultaneously parallels this current topic to a public debate that is nearly 18 years behind in the collective memory of the U.S. – the public words of Sista Souljah, and former President Bill Clinton’s denouncement of them. While Sista Souljah continues to write and lecture and is surely a role model for some black girls today, she was best known as a key figure in the politically active hip hop scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Unfortunately, I’d venture to that today, she is what most mainstream media folks would refer to as “an obscure figure.” Now, I’m looking at “The Coldest Winter Ever” on my bookshelf right now and I’m peeping the side pony-tale in the work ; ),

What are your thoughts behind making a key character out of someone who so many viewer’s may not recognize? Do you struggle with decisions to insert these types of figures into your work? Are your intentions to educate? How do you answer the question when you are asked who is the audience for your work?


Ayanah Moor:
The Souljah-Sotomayor project developed over the course of about a year, and was largely informed by hearing cable news pundits and commentators describe certain political figures as having a “Sister Souljah Moment.” Cable news networks fascinate me, like MSNBC, Fox News and CNN and I also read a lot of news blogs/magazines such as Huffington Post, Wonkette, and Slate. As someone whose work is highly informed by popular culture, and has paid a lot of attention to hip hop, my curiosity was piqued by the repeated reference to Sister Souljah. Ultimately if the viewer didn’t know who Sister Souljah was, they’d only have the commentator’s usage, that is, to denote controversy. I regarded cable pundits’ conjuring Sister Souljah, (her name, absent her physical body) as a concept worth interrogating. As a result she is today both absent and hyper-present. She is not a participant in current political discourse, but is forever impacted by a political strategy Bill Clinton employed 18 years ago. And that is the very meaning of the Sister Souljah Moment. In fact if you look up the term on Wikipedia it states:


In United States politics, a Sister Souljah moment is a politician's public repudiation of an allegedly extremist person or group, statement, or position perceived to have some association with the politician or their party. Such an act of repudiation is designed to signal to centrist voters that the politician is not beholden to traditional, and sometimes unpopular, interest groups associated with the party, although such a repudiation runs the risk of alienating some of the politician's allies and the party's base voters.

Basically Clinton is regarded as using charged language by Souljah (outside of the context of her longer quote) as a means of distancing himself from Jesse Jackson when both were trying to earn the Democratic Party nomination for President. Clinton used Souljah as a scapegoat to appeal to mainstream white voters. So with this project I am drawn to both Souljah’s presence and absence. It’s a circular logic but one worth playing with. Use of my image as a surrogate is also a familiar tactic in my work. So performing Souljah is a way to examine public memory, or its mis-remembering. There was so much documentation of Sonia Sotomayor meeting with senators to win support for her nomination to be Supreme Court Justice, that I thought it’d be interesting to substitute white U.S. Senators with Sister Souljah. What would it be like if Sotomayor had to repeated meet with Sister Souljah in order to become Supreme Court Justice? President Barack Obama, it has been said, had his “Sister Souljah Moment” when Sonia Sotomayor spoke about how her Latina heritage impacted her decisions, and how this may be different from the experience of a white male (paraphrasing). So the Souljah-Sotomayor project is navigating a wide terrain. I am creating a fictional meeting of two women impacted by so-called controversies. I am commenting on the delicate tightrope women of color have to walk when they participate in political discourse, I am also revisiting, re-contextualizing, and revising the way that we think about Sister Souljah and Sonia Sotomayor.

Lastly in reference to your question, I never struggle with the figures I put in my work. My audience is the public, but depending on the viewer’s cultural/social/political context they may also have to share the thinking load of the work I’m presenting as well.