Afro-Dominicana artist Zahira Kelly went so many years without seeing images that acknowledged her ethnic identity, she felt she hardly existed.
When she finally “gave birth” to herself, as she puts it, she documented the start of her evolution in a 2011 blog post titled “If I don’t exist in your historic & present consciousness or books or media, do I really exist?”
But the most standout work to come from the 34-year-old Bronx native, who now resides in Georgia, would be her art. Kelly’s illustrations, paintings and digital prints capture the patterns of objectification, ostracism and oppression that countless black women have experienced.
From images that praise the art of twerking to women finding their self-worth in the wake of toxic romantic relationships, Kelly unapologetically places the glories, woes and ironies of black womanhood front and center in her work.
Warning: the following images contain nudity and graphic content.
In her latest collection, the Nude Series, she created three works of art (one of which is above) that are a combination of drawing, watercolor, graphic illustration and photography. They not only illustrate the beauty of black women, but also contain proclamations of self-love, something we often have to fight to maintain.
Kelly ― who also created the 2016 hashtag #MaybeHeDoesn’tHitYou to emphasize the insidious nature of emotional partner abuse ― said the above painting, titled “I’m Too Good For You,” was inspired by the frequent mistreatment she’s seen women around her endure.
“I just know so many black women who are dealing with so much dehumanization at every level of life, romantically, at work, just in general. Society doesn’t really value black women,” Kelly told The Huffington Post earlier this week.
“We’re sort of internalizing it,” she said. “But the point of the [painting] is ... we’re just all too f**king good for it.”
One of Kelly’s earlier works illustrates the burden of constantly being devalued by external forces. The painting, titled “Inconvenient,” was a visual manifestation of a graphic dream that Kelly had a couple of years ago.
“I was watching [this woman] and I could tell that she was used to feeling pain and at some point, she sort of felt it was her position in life,” Kelly said of the dream. “So she just started gutting herself.”
She said the vividness of the dream stuck with her, partly because it was symbolic of her tendency at the time to stifle her own self-worth to “comply with the rest of the world.”
“We are used to cutting ourselves down for everyone else and then we just start doing it even if no one else is around,” she said.
While Kelly has said that her art is simply a reflection of her experiences, for a number of black women, it’s a mirror into our own.
More of her artwork can be seen below: