Questions of Identity
Dual degree student Nadia Wolff BRDD 21 TX considers how religion relates to race, sexuality and global colonization.
Growing up black, queer and Catholic might sound challenging, but with support from their parents and teachers, Brown/RISD dual degree student Nadia Wolff BRDD 21 TX managed to find their creative voice and be named a US Presidential Scholar in the Arts before graduating from high school. “The Catholic school I went to wasn’t an explicitly homophobic environment,” the native of Miami explains, “but queerness and sexuality in general just weren’t acknowledged.”
With encouragement from a middle school teacher, Wolff applied and got accepted to the prestigious Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH) in Miami’s design district and was able to focus on graphic design, painting and poetry. The child of two Haitian immigrants felt right at home in Miami, an international community with multiple venues—including the Pérez Art Museum Miami—showcasing the work of Caribbean and Latin American artists.
As a senior, Wolff was invited to participate in the weeklong YoungArts Foundation residency program in Los Angeles, where they worked directly with high-profile artists and designers like Derrick Adams, fellow Miamian Naomi Fisher and sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard. “Making those connections as a teenager was truly a life-changing experience,” they say.
Moving from such a diverse community to the more insular world of College Hill here in Providence was a bit of a culture shock, Wolff admits. But they’ve relied heavily on personal connections with other artists of color made through Black Artists and Designers (BAAD), a student organization they now help lead as vice president. They’re also involved in WORD!—the Brown/RISD spoken word club—with peers from both organizations providing a helpful POC perspective and critical feedback on their work.
“My work is about identity,” Wolff explains, “and it’s hard when a [personal] project is met with apathy in crit. I’m still looking for RISD professors who [are willing to provide feedback] about the content and concepts I’m exploring as an artist. In the meantime, the burden to make space for those conversations falls on me—as a student—which is challenging.”
Balancing workloads as a dual degree student is also challenging. At RISD Wolff chose to major in Textiles in part because “the work that comes out of the department is so dope.” They began incorporating embroidery into their work and are focusing on the medium “as a feminist tradition and also a way of mimicking meditation and prayer.”
Wolff’s work at Brown straddles the Africana Studies and Comp Lit departments, considering “religion in relation to blackness, queerness and histories of colonization.” A spoken word piece they presented at RISD’s MLK Celebration Concert in January tapped into their personal struggle to understand Haitian culture and the psychological adjustments needed to adapt to life in the post-Obama era.
Since such explorations can be exhausting, Wolff appreciated a recent Wintersession class on machine knitting that provided an influx of new energy. “The work Textiles upperclassmen are making is really inspirational,” they note. Their own creative process involves exploring ideas through writing and then developing a visual vocabulary through which to express those ideas artistically.
And personal history continues to inspire creative projects as well. Wolff’s offer to help a cousin clean out her closet led to an epiphany centered around an old Communion dress. “I keep coming back to that dress,” they say. “I’m constantly thinking about the Virgin Mary, race, motherhood and what a black Caribbean aesthetic looks like.”
Reflecting on their academic journey thus far, Wolff says they’re thankful for the incredible opportunities they’ve had and for the safe space their parents have always provided. Supporting young people as they explore their identities, they say, “is a matter of learning. And I’m grateful that my family is willing to learn.”
Students in a thought-provoking Wintersession course question societal norms that shape our everyday lives.
Graduate student Kelly Taylor Mitchell MFA 18 PR translates elements of her personal history into evocative installations and artist’s books.
Senior Zenzele Ojore 18 PH returns from a summer internship in Uganda with surprising new insights about her own identity as a black American artist.