30 Americans in New Orleans: Noni Clemens

Carrie Mae Weems, Descending the Throne (from the series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried), 1995-96. Two monochromatic c-prints with sandblasted text on glass in artist frames. Courtesy the artist and the Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Editor's Note

The next response in our series “30 Americans in New Orleans” comes from Noni Clemens. For Clemens, the “30 Americans” exhibition offered the opportunity to think about empathy and defining cultural identity.

Everyone has at one point asked him or herself: “Where am I from?” and “Where do I fit in?” As a “Third Culture Kid,” these questions have often incited anxiety and confusion in me. The term has been around since the 1950s but sociologist David C. Pollock recently updated our description: “A ‘Third Culture Kid’ (TCK) is someone who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.” We TCKs have frequently moved internationally, are usually highly accepting of other cultures, and adopt elements from several cultures; yet we do not feel full ownership in any.

“Where am I from?” and “Where do I fit in?” are challenging questions for many of us TCKs, since our identities are defined outside of any singular place or culture. So naturally, the works in “30 Americans” that drew from cultures outside of the artist’s birthplace appealed to me as a kind of patchwork--Nick Cave’s Soundsuits (citing Eastern European Pagan ritual dress) and Iona Rozeal Brown’s paintings (borrowing from Japanese Ukiyo-E woodblock motifs).

As the child of a black Zimbabwean mother and white American father, I am aware that I am typically assumed to be of African-American descent in this country. Yet my black identity is decidedly African and removed from black American history. I was born in Zimbabwe and raised in France. A number of works in “30 Americans” confront aspects of African-American history that I recognize as painful but are not rooted in my ancestral history. I found myself deeply moved by these works in an unexpected way: feeling empathetic but outside of the experience, like a familiar stranger.

“30 Americans” challenged me to share in others’ exploration of identity while reflecting on my own and reminded me that answering the questions “Where am I from?” and “Where do I come from?” is a struggle for a lot of us.

Editor's Note

Noni Clemens is a student in the Master's in Art Administration program at the University of New Orleans. Born in Harare, Zimbabwe, she has lived in New Orleans since 2013.

“30 Americans” on view through June 15 at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street) in New Orleans.