The Unapologetically Brown Series
By Maya Acharya
Brown girl, heiress of the streets/ walk tall with ya head high/melanin dripping from your thighs/ vibrate the city with the strength of your ancestors on your hips/ brown girl the world is yours
If you happen to have walked the streets of New York recently, you may have come across a poster adorned with pastel flowers and emblazoned with the words such as these.
These messages are part of The Unapologetically Brown Series - a project merging activism and art in order to celebrate and lift communities of colour. The series is made up of both visual and audio art, and includes community posters that bear messages of resistance and poetry by the series’ creator, Johanna Toruno.
Johanna, who is Salvadoran, started the series in order to widen the conversation around topics that she felt were not often spoken about in her community or in general.
“I thought if we can start creating conversations where we are the ones setting the tone then maybe we can shift the way our stories are told. The idea behind the series is that we take our rightful space in places not necessarily always so welcome to us. I think it’s about time communities of colour see ourselves properly represented and acknowledged.”
Growing up, Johanna says that positive reinforcement and real representation was non-existent for her. This is largely what spurred the creation of the series as a space for other marginalised people to feel “less alone”. She stresses that her community plays a key role in both her personal life and her art, stating “I live for the smallest details about my community - the determination and strength. The way I can always count on the consistency of their spirit.”
The title of the series is based heavily on her own experiences navigating white spaces in which she felt suffocated of her culture, constantly feeling the need to apologise for her existence.
“I came here at a very young age, spoke no English, and endured a lot of abuse, so I often apologised for living. I would say "sorry" a lot out of fear of reaction and to feeling like I was not in control,” she explains. “My work is for that little girl in that space. It's supposed to remind us that we are every bit the rightful heirs to this world - the black and brown body is sacred. My messages are bold in that purpose.”
The boldness of the work is also reflected in the way that the posters are exhibited – claiming space on lamp posts, sidewalks and other public areas. In addition to poetry by Johanna, they also include political statements and quotes from artists of colour.
Describing the work, she points out that “with the poetry the overall thread is always to remind black and brown women to love their melanin to remember we are strong, worthy, and deserving. The posters that feature other artists or activists and their quotes are always to deliver a message through relevant words, so if I place a Dolores Huerta poster with the quote ‘Walk the street with us into history / get off the sidewalk', it's clever and maybe you'll retain the message a little more. I want you to stop and maybe think ‘damn’”.
And it would seem that people do. The posters have gained a lot of attention and been met with appreciation from passers-by. People have posted photos of themselves posing next to posters, and sent messages to Johanna telling her how her work has inspired them and instilled them with confidence.
“It blows my mind. I am so so so happy that my work is resonating with people and that it’s doing what it's intended to do. My heart is so full when I get messages like that,” she says.
Not everyone has shared these positive feelings, though. The hostility has stretched to people tearing up and destroying Johanna’s posters in front of her. Her response? “I am not here to make people comfortable - I am here for my people via any means necessary.”
It’s this courage and willpower to create self-made affirmation that makes the series so powerful. Ultimately, the project is not about anyone else. It’s about acknowledging communities of colour and wanting them to thrive, because, as Johanna puts it, “we deserve it. It’s that simple.”
To learn more about the series, visit The Unapologetically Brown Series website
You can also follow Johanna's work on instagram @theunapologeticallybrownseries