Zsudayka Nzinga is a mixed media artist and designer from Denver, CO. Her portrait work features acrylic, paper, fabric, oil bars, charcoal and pigment. Nzinga fuses traditional art forms passed through the Diaspora to create work which speaks to the power of history and how visual art aides in defining culture and identity. Her subjects are Black Americans and often women, placed in regal and empowering poses and scenes. Her work mimics African American stitch patterns and expounds traditional southern textile pattern methods. Her collage work is hand torn and arranged to create colorful and highly patterned people who resemble fabric. She has recently begun recreating the designs for a clothing and home décor line and is currently working on new pieces and creating a community art space in Washington, DC’s Ward 7 with her husband, James S. Terrell and their 3 children. She has been featured on multiple news outlets including Voice of America and Washington Post.
Could you explain what your art is like?
I am a mixed media artist. Up until recently, majority of my work was acrylic paint and I would do collages out of paper. Over the last year or so, my pieces have become mixed with acrylic, paper, fabric, inks. I’m very inspired by quilt work, particularly Black American traditions in quilting, and mimic a lot of that in my work. It’s also often compared to stained glass. A lot of my work has been focused on creating imagery that is empowering featuring Black American women and families. Lately, it’s evolved more into telling MY story. I’m working a lot more with photos I’ve taken in my personal life and experiences I’ve had. So even when the subject isn’t me exactly, a piece about birth would contain the energy of when I birthed my children.
What are important motherhood contexts people should know about you?
I have 3 children. Satra, who is 11, James P., who is 4, and Xiomara, who is 2. They are all amazing. The oldest is finding herself as an artist and creates a lot of digital content. The youngest two I free birthed at home with just my husband. When I had my oldest I had a terrible labor because of the way the medical industry is trained to ignore Black women and I decided I was going to take back my birthing power. My husband and I studied hard for the birth of our son. It was absolutely beautiful. And then we did the same with our youngest. Our son, had turned two just two weeks before she was born and actually woke up right at the end of my labor and was in the room when she was born. Watched her come Earthside, got into the birth pool, helped her latch, and spent the night laying with her. They are inseparable. With the last, I was painting while I was in labor until I couldn’t anymore. There are pictures of me a few days postpartum with the baby wrapped on my chest while I’m drawing out a painting.
We are a homeschool/unschool family. I’m not a big believer in the education system in this country (despite having been a teacher for over 15 years, several of which were in the public and charter school system, and my husband is also an art teacher). I don’t think it necessarily prepares children for the technology era. I instead have chosen to focus on them developing as healthily as possible. We spend a lot of time together. Our kids are immersed in exploring technology and the world. We farm, they help maintain my 100 house plants, we are turning our backyard into a botanic garden/farm and building everything together. We sell our work and home goods line at festivals all over the country and the kids come with us. We pay them to pass out our fliers and the oldest has a merchandise line she’s working on. We are teaching that time is the most valuable thing and to figure out ways to make money that allow you to control your time.
How has the practice of your creative life changed since motherhood?
Before I had children, I was able to work all day and all night. I didn’t have to keep any specific hours. I would make jewelry and then go sell it out on the street or at parties and clubs. It was a very free-flowing lifestyle. I used to have a lot of painting sessions that were also house parties. All kinds of people would come over and hang out while I painted and make music or videos. It was a very Basquiat-inspired time in my life. I was free and freehanding a lot of work and learning. The biggest change once I became a mom was having structure. Particularly after my second and third child. With my first I was a single mother for years after her birth, so I was still able to move around pretty freely and I just brought her along.
When my son was born I really had to structure the day. I breastfed him for almost two years and learning that everything I wanted to do had to be done in three-hour increments was a game changer. I couldn’t freehand as much anymore. I had to start really planning my work. I didn’t draw before then but now I have to draw out my pieces before I start because I might have to stop mid-process. I think this has really been what’s changed my work to more mixed media. Once a piece is drawn out, I can really see other things about how to approach the work.
The children have greatly shifted my subject matter as well. I had to heal from the trauma of my first birth and kind of shut it out. Whereas the power of my last two both resulted in paintings of birth. I struggled to breastfeed my first (I suspect because of stress and lack of encouragement), but with the second I had the opportunity to be a full-time mom and just relax and prioritize breastfeeding. I had a beautiful experience and several pieces have come from that. I painted a series of pieces about body after baby, with women with stretch marks or stretchy, hanging bellies holding their babies. I paint a lot of pictures featuring the kids now as well. They pose for me. They have experiences that I am interpreting as a mother.
What has been most challenging about sustaining a creative life in motherhood?
Having the time. I often feel pulled in many directions. I sometimes teach art programs, I’m vending, I’m preparing for shows, I’m running a print company so we make most of our items from home. I’m teaching them, I’m growing food, I’m cooking and cleaning all day. When do I have time to really focus on the art, which is my love? When do I have time to finish things that nag at me when my kids may be sick, teething, having a bad day? When does self-care happen and is painting part of that? I’ve also never been a mom that felt that the kids come before ME. How does one balance being healthily selfish and also a mom, which is the most selfless of all jobs?
What’s been the best surprise about having a creative life in motherhood?
How proud my kids are of me. Especially my oldest. When I had her, everybody around me was like, “ok Zsudayka, it’s time to get serious. Everybody wants to be an artist but your child needs stability, stability, stability.” I refused to give up and then everybody decided I must have a mental health issue. Then I moved with her when she was 2 to Atlanta and then to DC and people would call and message to lecture me daily and have conversations with each other about intervening. Well, now that I’m showing work in museums, suddenly everybody is sooooooo supportive. But I look at my oldest, she knows how hard I worked. She knows what it took to move and to try to get on my feet in a new city completely alone. She watched me go from staying with a friend and showing art on the street, to being in museums. From struggling to sell a piece for $200 because we needed groceries, to paying my mortgage from paintings. She saw me say who I was. Art cared for her. And I hope she remembers that and pursues her dreams just as steadfastly.
What issues come up as an artist with children?
I think a lot of times museums and galleries don’t expect for artists to have their children around and involved. We bring the kids to our openings almost every time. We have studio visits, and collectors and curators are looking at work, and we are holding children, and making cheese sandwiches, and stepping over toys. The kids often want to show them their work too, and we require they oblige. My oldest sells her work pretty consistently to our collectors and has had several pieces in gallery shows because we do this. It’s annoying to people who don’t have children sometimes. Depending on the gallery/circle, and if I’m not with my husband, there is always the assumption that I am a struggling single mother artist. Having to constantly let people know that we do this full time as a family is frustrating. People always want to ask me how much I make and make comments about how artists don’t make money and it’s annoying to constantly have to field those kind of comments and expectations.
What’s been the your most important practice for having a creative life as a mother?
I make sure that people around me, including my husband, value my work and my time working. I’m very clear that this is a career, not a hobby. I knew long ago I wanted to be a mom who kept her children home and I worked very hard to create the environment and opportunity to do so. I require my creative time be equally prioritized to my husband’s teaching time. Keeping the kids involved has been really helpful.
Who are other artist mothers in your field that inspire you?
Most women artists I know have older kids. I think when you have kids who are in high school and college there’s a shift in the demands and it’s easier to protect your time. I rarely see other women breastfeeding at their artist talk. I toured a gallery for a show once 42 weeks pregnant. Had the baby the next day. Dropped the work off two weeks postpartum. Attended the opening with a 6-week old. There’s pictures of me breastfeeding and talking to collectors. I go to art openings with a baby on my back and a baby in the stroller or in Dad’s arms. Everybody knows me, I’m breastfeeding in the middle of the gallery. I’m the mom at the festival set up and selling with a 6-month-old baby. Because for me, one baby don’t stop no show!
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