A bout with renal failure cost Stephanie Safiyatou her home and business, and almost took her life. Now recovered, Safiyatou has created a multi-media art exhibit that shines a spotlight on a number of issues women in Baltimore face, attempting to foster healing by bringing these issues into the light of day.
"I was flying through life full-speed," said Safiyatou of her life prior to her illness. "I missed a lot going that fast."
In 2011 kidney disease forced Safiyatou to slow down. She spent the year in and out of the hospital, a trying time that left her with lots of time to think. "When I get out," Safiyatou recalls saying to herself, "I'm going to be everything I can be. I'm not going to stop. I'm going to live my life in a way that says thank you back to God."
In 2013, having recovered and rebuilt her business as a hairstylist, Safiyatou sought to fulfill that promise to herself, running with the first idea that came to her mind: "Girls, Baltimore girls. We have a rough time."
Safiyatou set about creating an art exhibit that displays the strength and beauty of Black women in Baltimore, while openly addressing the struggles they face in the city. The project is part photo exhibition and part performance piece in which challenges afflicting women in Baltimore, such as addiction, losing loved ones to violence, infertility, and infidelity are acted out before the audience.
The photographs are of Baltimore women in varying styles of dress tied together thematically by the varying use of hair in the images. Hair is presented as a means of self-expression and empowerment. In one image, a woman shears away an extreme length of hair, a rejection of the norms society often places on women's lives and bodies.
"I think a lot of it has to do with – just a cutting away, in a sense," said Selena Britton, publicist for the exhibit. "Cutting away from emotional ties, and cutting away from the whole physicality of what society says we are supposed to be."
The images convey the resilience of women in Baltimore, says Safiyatou, noting that the phrase "Baltimore Girls" signifies, "strength in the face of adversity."
"In the face of everything that we go through, we still shine, we still smile, we still put our clothes on, we're still beautiful," said Safiyatou.
The successful soft opening at Living Well in Charles Village during the first week of May, sparked Safiyatou interest in touring 'Baltimore Girls' to different communities, believing it communicates a message that speaks beyond the city's boundaries.
"We're all the same people," said Safiyatou. "I don't care how much money you have, I don't care where you live. We all hurt, we all cry, we all love, and I think that we just need to get free."
For Safiyatou, that freedom is only possible through a direct engagement with the sorts of issues, challenges, and personal pains that 'Baltimore Girls' seeks to highlight. "We have to breathe some life into this city and deal with these issues," said Safiyatou. "We gotta face them, we gotta talk about them … we gotta deal with everything, then we can begin to heal."