Meet Starasea Camara, a Black Latina Muslim American Curator, Emerging Historian and Diasporist

Reporting by Lolla Nur, Freelance Community Journalist

Meet Starasea Camara, a Black Latina Muslim American curator, emerging historian and diasporist. She’s passionate about the transatlantic intersections and centering Black and Brown communities within the arts. Her focus is on West African, Indigenous, Latinx, Muslim, and Black American arts, intersectional histories and cultures.

In this interview, Starasea breaks down Black diaspora/Latine/Caribbean/Trans-Atlantic histories, her experiences as an emerging arts curator, and the need for specificity when talking about Blackness — and within that, Afro Latinidad. These views are expressed from her perspective, research, and lived experience. This interview took place in summer 2021 and has been edited for readability.

Salam! Please introduce yourself and your professional background.

My name is Starasea Camara. I am a Black woman of Caribbean/Latina and Black American roots, and my pronouns are she/hers. I’m an emerging curator and finishing my degree in
African diasporic history and visual culture. I’m a curatorial and program assistant for the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, based in the South.

I’m a transplant, I’m not from Minneapolis. I was born in southern California and raised by my mother who is mixed race Puerto Rican and Panamanian. I grew up with my maternal grandmother as my secondary parent, and she migrated from Chorrera, Panama to Cayey, Puerto Rico before settling in Brooklyn in the 60’s. She never learned English, so as a result

Spanish was passed down in the household not just to the first generation, but also to the second (ours). I have spoken Spanish at home throughout my life. My mom is very Nuyorican (a subculture of Boricuas from generations raised in NYC) so we primarily do our Spanglish thing! Language is always changing with each generation, and is another topic I am interested in.

Thank you for sharing. Your family is very diverse. How does that relate or connect to being Afro Latina?

While my family is incredibly diverse, my experience growing up has always been a Black one—in both languages and communities. As an Afro Latina, my community is the Black community, because even under the overarching umbrella of Latin(e), there are as many
different racial groups of people as in the U.S.

Here, there’s a box you check whether you’re Hispanic or not, based on whether you speak Spanish. But there are also Asian Latinxs, European Latinxs, African Latinxs and Indigenous
Latinxs, among other intersections. For me, it goes beyond identifying as Afro Latina/o/x and becomes about doing the continuous work: unpacking intersections between the diaspora, and being invested in Black liberation no matter where we come from — beyond the colonial structure of borders.

Also, there are so many similarities with the U.S. (especially the South) and the Caribbean. I’ve seen parallels just because they’re so geographically close. The cooking, spirituality, the culture;
I believe that the story of the Americas as a whole and our journey here still needs to be told.

Why, in your view, is studying intersectional histories important? Especially when it comes to Black diasporas and Black-Latinx identities and connections?

A lot of people think that with the sudden popularity of the term “Afro-Latinx” the U.S. is seeing right now, it’s almost as if this idea came out of nowhere. That’s not true at all.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade coincided with, and followed, the conquest of the Americas. British-Northern American history and their role in this is a single piece of the puzzle—not the
entire story.

Just because we don’t learn about history south of the [U.S.] border, whether it’s Indigenous or Black history, or other global intersections that have migrated to the western hemisphere,
doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. It just means we haven’t talked about it.

Those are some incredible and valid points. So, have you always wanted to work in arts curation?

I’ve known I wanted to be a curator since I was in high school. I carved out this pathway for myself in pursuing an individualized undergraduate degree. I have a background in visual arts, including welding, glasswork, ceramics, painting, and drawing. So as I started to get more experience in the studio art and fine arts world, I realized that I wanted to use my platform to uplift other artists.

Having such an intersectional experience myself allowed me to connect with different groups of people. My mission is drawing those bridges of understanding between the Black diaspora [across different] contexts, regions, places in time, cultural and visual expressions.

Tell me more about the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Souls Grown Deep has an annual internship program. They select three undergrads of color to work at institutions they’re partnered with, and position [the students] to work across the U.S.’s leading museums. Mia [Minneapolis Institute of Art] was one of the museums included in the 2019-20 inaugural cycle—which I was part of. I was the only one from the Midwest. The two
other interns were from Boston and Baltimore.

This internship was an important launching point for my curatorial career, and I hope more young folks who don’t typically have opportunities to curate [can be] a part of this foundation’s
network. The opportunity with Souls Grown Deep prepared me for my 2020-21 fellowship with the Emerging Curators Institute. This is another opportunity to continue digging deeper into niche research topics as a diasporist.

MashaAllah, the internship with SGDF sounds like it was a unique opportunity!

It was great! I worked with a great mentor, Robert Cozzolino (Mia’s curator of paintings). He took it upon himself to go beyond institutional norms and gave me the opportunity to lead the curation of a show. This culminated in the current exhibition, “In the Presence of Our Ancestors, Southern Perspectives in African American Art,” currently on view. It’s open December 2020 to November 2021. It’s my first exhibition, and it’s open for nearly a year.

It’s been quite an experience. Creating the floor plan, the vision for everything, deciding where things go, researching these art works which represent the stories of 18 African American artists in the South, specifically from the Black Belt region.

The artists I curated used mediums [that] ranged from assemblages, wooden sculptures, quilts, metal and works on paper. They also used recycled materials to create impactful art that speaks to the nuances of the Black American experience. It’s a regionally specific narrative, and it was great to bring that to the northern Midwest.

It seems nuance and intersectionality are central to your work as an artist and curator.

You sound very intentional in everything you create, and curate.
Yes. [I think about how] many different experiences of being an African American there are, whether you’re rural or from the cities — and how do these histories connect? That’s important
for me because within these [arts] spaces, Black people are still painted with one brush, still viewed in monolithic and stylistic trends.

Define “stylistic” in this context.

Stylistic, in how I am saying it, is the idea that Black folks are popular right now. We’re popular to feature on TV as leads. Black art is selling more than ever currently, but the question is, with
everything that’s happening are people taking the time to understand the nuances that come with being Black and the realities that come with that? And not just the aesthetic value when it serves these institutions, whether they’re arts institutions or political institutions.

It’s clear that your own cultural, racial, and religious identities show up in how you curate. What other kinds of cultural experiences and influences have you had growing up?

For me, it was not seeing that representation growing up… Latin American media is inherently racist and antiblack, you don’t see Black folks on screen unless we’re playing a stereotypical role. I didn’t see Black women in Latin American magazines and media growing up, other than icons like Celia Cruz or Rosie Perez.

The way we talk about Latinidad here in the U.S. is problematic because we put this box around what Latinx looks like and who can identify as that, almost as if it’s a race of its own — but it’s
not. It’s a cultural and geographic affinity, a shared language. But even within Latinidad, there’s different countries that can’t be all represented under one umbrella term. How we talk about those nuances, that’s something the Latinx community has to tackle on its own.

It’s not like you walk around [as a Black person] with a flag on your forehead identifying where you’re from. That’s the beauty and complexity of the diaspora: you never know where someone’s from unless you ask. The only difference might be linguistic affinity but no matter what you speak, your Blackness isn’t erased by that. You’re gonna find us Black folks wherever you go.

This is helpful context for those not of the Latinx experience. Something I know we have in common among East Africans and Latinxs is the endearing usage of certain terms that denote Blackness, or darkness of skin. But sometimes those terms can be offensive. Are labels like this useful in your opinion, or hurtful

Negro/negra/negrx is literally the Spanish term for “Black.” It’s not a slur word, if not used in a disrespectful context. Language and terminology change over time. There are elders who don’t identify with “Afro Latino/Latina/Latinx,” and prefer to just identify as “negro/negra/negrx” or “Afrodescendiente.” Afrodescendiente is another common term, meaning African descendent, that is used interchangeably.

Identity is subjective, and I think something beautiful about us is that we have the autonomy to dictate how we are addressed. We even have that in the U.S.: some identify as “African American”, “Black American” or simply “Black.” When it comes to identity, we can save a lot of confusion and assumption by just simply asking someone how they identify, and respecting their answer.

Back to your research, how has being of the African diaspora impacted your work?

My research is very much indebted to the African perspective. I’m invested in looking at Indigenous West African populations, particularly the interactions between ancient Ghana, Mali, and the Almoravids. The western coast of Africa and the early Sahel that framed the Muslim experience there prior to movement across the Atlantic.

I’m interested in further researching the experience [of] captured, enslaved and stolen ancestors who were practicing Islam in the Americas, prior to being forced to being converted to Christianity during the Latin American inquisition.

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In the future I would also like to go to Panama where my grandmother is from and learn about local Afro Panamian populations that are returning to Islam, among other ancestral practices.

That’s why my work right now with the ECI fellowship is exciting. The artists I’m working with come from a Black Latinx experience, but they’re all different experiences and they all have their own nuances. They each have an intersecting existence with Latinidad — but in different ways.

Are there challenges you’ve faced as a student, curator or emerging historian?

When you have such a specific interest, no one department is going to cover everything, so I have to dig for people who are specialists who are studying in my area to even begin having
these conversations.

That’s why the fellowship and internship programs were important to me. I didn’t get to learn about Black Latinx artists in my classes because these identities aren’t included in the canon. So, when it comes to this specific career of curation, it’s still something that you’re very much doing on your own. And I don’t think that this is something specific to me — it’s experienced by anyone doing research on underrepresented communities and intersections.

For example, I took a class on Sufism and the professor encouraged me to research Transatlantic Sufism— and I wish more classes were free-flowing like that in undergrad. I definitely want to continue in diasporic studies, West African history or the Caribbean. I’m dedicated to the Atlantic world and contemporary Black artists.

Any final thoughts sis?

Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty go hand in hand, we cannot have one without the other. We cannot teach a history with gaps in it, and I hope that I can continue to learn from the scholars, artists, and community members how curators can continue to show up and do the necessary work of amplifying complete histories

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