Mashonda Tifrere walks in Pen + Brush’s gallery just as a tall poster of a black lobster with 24-karat gold bands around its claws is hung from the gallery ceiling. It’s too low, she says to the two men by the 10-foot ladder. It needs to be just a couple inches higher and perfect for the exhibit’s opening. Works from various artists are placed around the room, waiting to be put in place before Thursday evening. There’s a topless portrait of model Ericka Hart bearing her double mastectomy scars with pride, along with a topless portrait of Tifrere, which she posed for atop a castle in Long Island.
Tifrere curated the exhibit, “King Woman,” after finding nearly all 25 artists, who are all women, on social media. She was asked to curate the exhibit by Pen + Brush, a 123-year-old organization that aims to showcase the work of female artists and writers. At first, Tifrere didn’t know what she would call the group show, but after hearing a woman, who she said embodied art through her hair, her clothes, her everything, use the term king woman, she immediately knew that’s what she would call it.
“Society has it that women are queens and princesses. We can’t go for being a king because that’s just too high up.” She goes on to say, “It’s going beyond society’s labels and standing firmly in your womanhood, your femininity and just being more than what you were ever expected or taught to be. You can be a king.”
A former singer and writer for artists like Jay Z, DMX and Eve, Tifrere transitioned into working in the art world a few years ago and took a year-long course at Christie’s. She launched ArtLeadHER, a platform for women in the art world, two years ago on International Women’s Day and celebrated by hosting an event with Gucci’s Chime for Change and Beyonce Knowles’s BeyGOOD foundations.
“Our voices are not as loud or as heard as the men who oversee our projects,” Tifrere said of the music and art industries. “The male artists, for some reason, they just seem to be more respected or connected with the executives. Whereas the women are always fighting to be heard and for their opinion to be valid.”
Downstairs, there’s more artwork to be seen. One is a beaded work that reads: “Indestructible.” Another is a poster of hijab illustrations with quotes from the artist’s friends that read: “I am who I am your approval is not needed” and “I am allergic to stupid people.”
Carole Feuerman has exhibited four times at the Venice Biennale and participated in New York’s Art in the Parks. She says she was attracted to the exhibit because she is a strong women’s advocate and thinks it’s important to focus on how art and these types of shows can empower women. She will showcase a new piece, Chrysalis, a hyper-realistic sculpture of a swimmer in a Swarovski crystal cap, with traces of glimmering water droplets on her skin.
Tifrere, a Harlem native, has reached out to several artists from around the country and the world, including Roos van der Vliet, who is flying in from the Netherlands. Van der Vliet also painted a portrait of Tifrere after feeling a strong connection with her when they met in Amsterdam. “I really hope this connection and her being a strong ‘king woman’ show in my portrait of her,” she said.
Another artist, Kharis Kennedy, is making the trip from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands where she’s been powering through the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria. For Kennedy, the exhibit will be “a moment of respite,” she said. “I welcome a moment to refocus on the power of creativity, unity, and rational dialogue to effect change and lift each other up.”
The exhibit will run at Pen + Brush, 29 E 22nd Street, through December 9. Admission is free.