Nestled in the Flatiron district of downtown New York lies a spacious gallery with a nondescript sign. The gallery, called Pen + Brush, boasts two floors totaling 5,000 square feet of exhibition space comprised expressly of female artists. But you wouldn't know it from first glance. This is by design, according to the organization’s executive director, Janice Sands. Pen + Brush’s current exhibition on view, which opened October 12, is called “King Woman,” an oxymoronic term that the curator of the exhibit, Mashonda Tifrere, chose inspired by a past experience. The way in which the term first came to her conscious understanding is, in and of itself, illustrative of the exhibition’s very objective.
“I’d just finished up a panel discussion on gender bias in the art world [in London] and a young woman came over to me and said to me, ‘You are a king woman.’ And I was like ‘Really? I’ve never heard that before,’” Mashonda recalled. “But she’s like, ‘Yeah you’re such a king woman; you’re doing everything, and you’re powerful and strong.’ And I was like, ‘I like that name.’ So I didn’t know what I would use it for, but I brought it back with me and when I started collecting the works I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a king woman show.’”
If you’re asking yourself why Mashonda’s name sounds so familiar, well, the recording-artist-turned-curator was featured on season one of VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: New York, and prior to the show was married to infamous hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz, but that almost seems like a lifetime ago. Although Swizz too has parlayed into art curation with “The Dean Collection,” you best believe Mashonda put in the work. Her focus on diverse curation, intended to present a bounty of offerings indistinguishable by the extent of each artists’ respective success and exposure, marks the first time Pen + Brush has, in its 123 years of existence, “used its platform to show emerging female artists alongside established female artists,” according to the exhibition catalog.
"[A king woman is] power and strength and vulnerability all wrapped up in one."
boasting pieces from 25 contemporary artists, includes established artists’ work alongside that of emerging artists’ work. For Mashonda's inaugural curatorial effort for Pen + Brush, she felt it important to equate a diverse array of artists with regard to representation and real estate, so to speak, within the gallery space. This is no small feat. That Mashonda breezily wove the exhibit’s purpose throughout the very structure of the presentation is a testament to her influence and dedication to pursuing equity in the art world, from the inside out. Her radical approach has already changed at least one historic institution’s trajectory, the aforementioned Pen + Brush, in specifically accommodating the show in such a way that it would uplift lesser-known artists.
“The idea was to mix them so that they’re showing in solidarity with these unknown artists. You know about me but look at her, look at her, look at her,” Pen + Brush Associate Executive Director Dawn Delikat said. “This idea was born to cross pollinate and just have a really dynamic powerful show to try to get different collectors and influencers in who might come for the big-name artists than discover something brand new.”
The term “King Woman,” above all, shaped the direction of Mashonda’s curation. Drawing on the overt complexities of navigating womanhood, Mashonda defines what the show represents in her own terms: "Power and strength and vulnerability all wrapped up in one. I wanted to emulate what I would imagine the everyday modern woman to be, a humanist, someone that embodies female power, she’s also in touch with her masculinity and her femininity all at once. So she’s strong, but she’s soft and she’s honest, and she empowers other women, and that’s what this show feels like.”
who initially forged a high-profile career as a singer and songwriter, come to curate an exhibition at the oldest all-female gallery in New York City? Well, Mashonda’s journey toward curation may have been atypical, but she says her early experiences in the music industry fueled a desire to create an enriching space in which females could thrive when supported by one another. Having long exhibited an aptitude for art appreciation as well as curating and hanging her personal collection, Mashonda longed for a somewhat more formal education in what she felt would be the next chapter of her life.
So here I am, this 32-year-old grown woman paying mortgage and interning at Global Grind.
with digital media through LifeStyleHer, a platform she founded for female empowerment, which is currently on hiatus while being revamped, Mashonda did what any ambitious up-and-comer looking to disrupt an unfamiliar field would do: she got herself an internship. She had already wrapped her stint on LHHNY, but didn't hesitate at the thought of starting at the bottom. “So here I am, this 32-year-old grown woman paying mortgage and interning at Global Grind [starting in 2013]. I knew that in order to learn what I needed to learn and create the connections that I needed I’d have to humble myself and put the work in and so I did just that,” she said. “I sat in that office with like 18- to 22-year-olds, and I had no qualms about it because I knew that I was putting in the work.”
Mashonda’s earnest quest for knowledge paid off — and led her to unchartered territory. Through her work with LifeStyleHer, Mashonda realized she wanted to zero in on helping women in the art world, and thus, ArtLeadHer, a second platform, was born. But with this new territory, Mashonda again felt the need to educate herself in an unfamiliar field. She followed up her Global Grind internship with internships at art fairs before her artistic academic experience culminated while attending Christie’s Education, taking the time to study both stateside and across the pond in London through the program led by the famed art auction house. Mashonda then hit the ground running, both curating shows and representing female artists immediately following her final education endeavor.
For women in the art world, there has, since the dawn of time, been a lack of representation both in private collections and public collections, such as museums and galleries. In the 1980s, a group of activists called the Guerrilla Girls confronted the art world with the ugly truth that was, again, already all too obvious to women: that the playing field was not level. Through protests and now-iconic posters, the group tried to direct awareness toward the vast inequity that had perpetually plagued the industry for women and women of color (WOC).
When I asked Sands, of Pen + Brush, how far we’ve come since the Guerrilla Girls, she had this to say: “Not very. Not very far at all.” And again, like virtually every other aspect of life, women of color face a particular marginalization that no doubt affects their level of exposure and subsequent success. According to Mashonda, WOC face an extra set of strains with regard to equity in the art world. “From my own observances and interactions with WOC artists, the very real and persistent obstacle of lack of access and opportunities has led to an internal obstacle of intimidation,” Mashonda said. “Intimidation is real, and figuring out how to navigate it and how to fit in makes the idea of making it in the art world almost foreign. That’s also why when WOC do make it, they are fiercely protective of what they have. They don’t want to get kicked out of the ‘club.’ In protecting themselves, they can’t be open to every opportunity. It’s limiting. But it’s what they feel they have to do.”
for some time now, Mashonda has some advice for WOC artists. “I encourage woman artists of color who feel unsupported and possibly unable to take risks to fuel their creativity professionally and to seek out like-minded communities that are supportive.” She added, “Look to art events, organizations, institutions, and galleries that are inclusive of diverse voices. They are out there — don’t get discouraged. If this is your passion and you have worked to develop your talent, your skills, your voice, you need to own it!”
Mashonda also urges emerging WOC artists to “know the field” they’re trying to enter by frequenting museums, galleries, openings, and art events with an emphasis on networking and marketing one’s self. This also extends to seeking out materials regarding art over all mediums, including magazines, blogs, and even YouTube videos that host invaluable information provided by artists, curators, scholars, and dealers. And for her last bit of advice, she offers the following: “Never give up!” With these very real trials and tribulations that apply expressly to WOC, it’s all the more important that such female artists support one another.
Mashonda doesn't just talk the talk when it comes to this matter. In fact, she lives by the principal. Perhaps the most crystallized allegory for “King Woman” arrives via an unlikely vehicle: a video installation by artist A.V. Rockwell in conjunction with Alicia Keys entitled “Sweet Girl.” Rockwell and Keys collaborated on The Gospel, a short film and “visual prelude” to Keys’ sixth studio album, of which “Sweet Girl” was one of four chapters. Keys and Mashonda both have children by Swizz Beatz, Mashonda’s ex-husband and Keys' current husband. The “natural decision” to include a piece involving Keys was a “no brainer,” according to Mashonda.
“I fell in love with ‘Sweet Girl’ because it represents me when I was a teenager. Like I remember getting my doobie wrap and wearing my name chain and getting acrylics and all this different stuff on my nails. And that struggle of not being able to walk down the street because you just knew that you were going to be harassed by some guy on the block. The film just shows that soft, beautiful girl having to build this hard shell around herself, just to be protected from her society, and that was me. So when I was curating ‘King Woman,’ I knew that I wanted to do a video installation, and The Gospel came to mind immediately,” Mashonda said. “Alicia connected [Rockwell and I] because she loved the idea, and it was, here we go again, back to the women empowering women thing; like you know, people might think of an Alicia video being in the show as something they never would’ve expected. But for me it’s like why not, like this is art, this is beautiful, and it’s us coming together for one main purpose, and that’s to empower other women.”
Pen + Brush is ironically located in the Ladies’ Mile Historic District, which in its heyday was an incubator for female-only social clubs, comprised of leisure class white women who convened to foster a sense of connectivity, autonomy, and unabashed femininity in the face of stifling patriarchal rule during the mid-nineteenth century. In a twist of fate, the very same geographic area now houses a historic art institution’s arguably most radical exhibition yet, curated by a Black woman.
The revolution will be led by such women, a truism confirmed by reports that Black women have long had the highest voter turnout of all electoral blocs (and also happen to be some of the most progressive voters). The revolution will be led by “King Women” — women like Mashonda Tifrere.
“King Woman” is on view at Pen + Brush, located at 29 E. 22nd Street, until December 9.