Episode 88 │ From Richmond to Reclamancipation (QATAR)
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
"And so I went anyway, [and] I've now earned my master's degree as a direct result of all this... Specifically as a Black American, this kind of environment can be refreshing and facilitating, depending on what you're trying to accomplish." (Nia, Episode 88)
This is the last episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad in 2021! Eight is my favorite number anyway, so instead of pushing for 90 I figured why not close out the year with episode 88! My 88th guest is a Doha-based writer/painter/collage artist/designer named Nia Alexander, who's done study abroad programs in Morocco, Greece, Mexico, and of course Qatar. Of all these countries, Qatar is where she's spent the most time—a semester in undergrad and a two-year MFA program that she just completed in May 2021—so that's mostly what we talked about. We also discussed Black Girls Abroad, a blog Nia created to provide information about her own travel experiences as a Black woman, and which she plans to expand into an archive/platform that other Black women can contribute to as well.
Nia's hometown is Richmond, Virginia, and until 2017 she had never left the East Coast of the U.S. She comes from a family full of creative people, and her desires to pursue an art career and travel internationally were both greatly inspired by her mother, an artist who studied in Italy as a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) student. Nia began to take art seriously upon attending an arts magnet high school, and just like her mom she also attended VCU, where she studied painting and printmaking as well as art history. Even though she entered university knowing that she wanted to study abroad too, she hesitated because she didn't feel comfortable with the idea of spending months away in a different country. But then, VCU's design department organized a 10-day trip to Morocco and opened it up to the other art departments, to which Nia thought, "Oh, perfect!" Thus began a series of international travels that saw her venturing somewhere every year from 2017 to 2019, "It was sort of like a domino effect where one trip led me directly to another study abroad trip."
Nia went to Morocco in 2017, spent a semester of her senior year in Qatar in 2018 (which included a volunteer trip to Greece and a personal vacation to Turkey), went to Mexico in 2019 as an alumna, and returned to Qatar in 2019 for graduate school (which included another school-related trip to Morocco). Besides her two times in Qatar, all of these trips were 7-10 days long, and Greece was the only one that wasn't arts-focused. In light of the refugee crisis in Europe, Nia's cohort went to Greece to learn from and volunteer with Athens-based groups devoted to helping refugees, and Nia was able to join the trip thanks to a student dropping out last-minute. Her other shorter programs included visits to various artistic organizations and museums, in addition to attending lectures and workshops, such as the classes on Mexican printmaking tradition that she took in Mexico City.
Nia's undergraduate and graduate studies in Qatar took place at VCUarts Qatar (Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar), which Nia hadn't realized she could have access to until fairly late in her undergrad years. During her first trip to Morocco, she met students and faculty from VCUarts Qatar who encouraged her to apply for the semester program that she would partake in the following year. Since it was the same university system, the curriculum in Qatar was basically identical to what Nia would've experienced in Richmond, comprised of studio classes and a senior seminar where Nia and her fellows put on mock presentations of their artwork, did mock pitches for their creative practice, and made all manner of technical and other preparations for their senior showcase at the end of the academic year.
The VCUarts Qatar campus is located in Al-Rayyan, which is adjacent to Doha, the largest and most metropolitan city in a fairly small country. According to Nia, long-term residents might complain that Doha is boring, but she maintains that there's still tons to do in this city, including witnessing aqua blue water and dhow boats at the promenade known as the Corniche, racing ATVs in the desert, checking out museums, and exploring the Doha Design District which was just opened this year. In addition to investing in design and the arts, apparently Qatar is also revamping its infrastructure in preparation for the 2022 World Cup in Doha, set to take place in autumn 2022.
Part of why Qatar appeals so much to Nia is because she feels much freer as a Black woman there, and the way she was treated in the classroom made her realize how much her environment had changed. While she didn't encounter disparagement or intentional malice toward her art back in the States, the encouragement she received from teachers and others often included pressure to make her art about Black pain and trauma, a pressure that Nia has faced since middle school. Qatar was the first time that she, as a Black artist, didn't have anyone pushing her toward that path, "It allowed me a lot of space to breathe and to reflect and to grow, because I felt safer in a lot of ways... I've definitely been able to build my confidence and find my voice here." Nia's artistry developed exponentially in that one semester, and it's no wonder that after graduating she decided to pursue her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in interdisciplinary design at that same campus.
"That's how we all get to the future."
Most of Nia's MFA was self-directed, with the first semester dedicated to ensuring everyone in her cohort had the same technical basis in woodshop, mold making, using 3D printers and laser cutters, and so on. From then on her program shifted to a more independent mode of study. One of Nia's longstanding dreams is to design toys, books, and games that help create positive social change in a fun way, and as she concentrated on her master's thesis she also spent a lot of time conferring with her thesis committee, which helped bring her vision to life ("I love [them]. Oh my goodness, they are angels!"). That vision resulted in "Reclamancipation: A Story of Brilliance, Resilience, and Transilience", which centers around a huge, immensely colorful board game that Nia created, and focuses on the varied experiences of African American women. The game is meant to encourage discussion and is divided into different thematic neighborhoods (such as childhood, spirituality, and the outdoors), with players advancing through the game by sharing memories and telling stories about themselves based on certain prompts. The goal of Reclamancipation is for players to reach the final neighborhood (the future), with the idea being that, "through the sharing of stories, and getting to know one another, and laughing and crying and respecting, that's how we all get to the future."
Nia credits her MFA with shifting her focus from trying to think or plan everything out in advance to just going ahead with making things, and allowing for the rest of the project to reveal itself in its own time. She's rightfully proud of what Reclamancipation has become, certain that the labor and love she's sown into it have paid off, "It was a lot of emotion and energy and time that went into this final product that really accomplishes even more than I had imagined it would accomplish." When I remarked that the game almost sounds like a group therapy session, Nia mentioned that a Black woman in the audience of her thesis defense also noted that it could be used as a means of discussing trauma in a communal space. These ideas aren't dissimilar from Nia's own hopes for Reclamancipation; she wants to make it a real game, packaged and widely distributed so that people and organizations can use it to foster mutual support and understanding between players.
Given that she completed her MFA only six months ago, Nia is currently granting herself the patience and breathing room to decompress from the intensity of her program, contemplating her options without putting too much pressure on herself. In response to me asking about her vision for how she would like the future to go, she told me she's been drawing a lot just for fun, searching for jobs that will sponsor her visa to stay in Qatar, and is considering applying for a PhD that may or may not have her switching countries. (Folks have advised her that academia could be a safe bubble to be in while the world tries to figure itself out amidst the pandemic.) And although she used to have a bucket list when she was younger, now Nia isn't very picky about future travel destinations. However, she does hope to go on an intergenerational girls' trip to Italy with her mother and grandmothers one day, and she looks forward to potentially welcoming her loved ones as visitors to Qatar in early 2022.
Speaking of 2022, Nia is also jazzed to re-engage with Black Girls Abroad next year. When she went to Morocco back in 2017, she had a completely different experience from what she'd prepared for because the information she'd sought out beforehand proved irrelevant to her as a Black woman, student, and artist traveling abroad for the first time. "I wanted to help fill the void that I'd stumbled upon through my own research and experience not matching up," and thus she started Black Girls Abroad, which she paused writing blog posts for at the end of 2020 to zero in on her MFA. In early 2022 she looks forward to writing new blog posts, featuring new people other than herself, and experimenting with social media content. So as far as Nia's future is concerned, "It looks colorful, I can say that much. And I'm looking forward to it... I feel really prepared to walk into the future and see what happens." Nia can be found through Black Girls Abroad (blkgirlsabroad.com; @blkgirlsabroad on Instagram and Twitter), and her artwork can be found at niaalexanderart.com (@niaalexanderart on Instagram and Twitter).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "From Richmond to Reclamancipation (QATAR)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below! Young, Gifted and Abroad will return in January 2022!
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.