Mamas at Maryland Institute College of Art Fred Lazarus IV Center pose with assemblage creation by Mama Sallah. (Photos by Jannette J. Witmyer)

By Jannette J. Witmyer,
Special to the Afro

If while driving through the 100 block W. North Avenue late Monday (5/9) afternoon you thought you witnessed four Black women seated in encircled chairs in front of the Maryland Institute College of Art Fred Lazarus IV Center, deeply engaged in conversation, you absolutely did. Seated in the midst of the noise, grit, and commotion of passing of cars, trucks, buses, and people, Mamas Kibibi Ajanku (‘16), Rashida Forman-Bey (‘22), and Sallah Jenkins (‘23), spoke about the individual journeys that placed them on the path to become past, present and future graduates of Maryland Institute College of Art MFA programs, respectively. 

Having just completed her first year in MICA’s Rinehart School of Sculpture MFA program, Mama Sallah planned to host the interview in the space where her art resided. Instead, she arrived to find workers sweeping up the remains of her work, which had been unceremoniously disassembled with neither her permission nor knowledge. No other artists’ work had been touched. She was distraught. Then, the other Mamas swooped in, consoled their disrespected sister, and addressed the situation, refusing to allow it to impede them from completing the original task at hand. Basically, they just did what mamas do.

Mama Rashida (Community Arts, MFA ‘22) instructed a staffer to bring four chairs outside, and Mama Kibibi (Curatorial Practice, MFA ’16) suggested that the group sit in the sun while we spoke. Then, once settled into a sunny spot in front of NANCY by SNAC, following a brief but meaningful discussion touching on the disparities inflicted on Black artists and their work (another conversation for another time and article…), the interview began.

The women have known each other for decades. Mama Rashida mentioned activities that date as far back as 1989 and cited numerous times and ways that their families and organizations have supported each other, while serving the community. Their involvement in activities directed at raising awareness and improving the conditions of children, families, and communities in general, is what has distinguished them as Mamas in cultural communities. Now, their acquisition and pursuit of MFAs has earned them the moniker, “MICA’s MFA Mamas.”  

“We all have been workers in our community, working with our children, working to uplift our community. Myself and Mama Kay with WombWork Productions, Mama Kibibi with Sankofa Dance Theater, and Mama Sallah and Mama Lola with Ancestors’ Roots,” Mama Rashida explains. 

Mama Kibibi adds, “Our connection cycles in a lot of different ways. We’re all connected through Coppin, and we’re all connected to the drum and dance community. Through our children, our age mates… And, we’re all connected through MICA, in our own way.” 

Both Mamas Sallah and Rashida completed their bachelor’s degrees at Coppin State University as nontraditional students, following decades of being away from the classroom as students. After years spent raising children and grandchildren, each decided that it was their time. 

For Mama Sallah, it was a matter of giving something to herself for a change. “I decided to return to school because for three decades, I had been a mother and teaching art for over 40 years. And I realized that I had a lot of stuff inside me that I wanted to do. And so, I said, ‘This time, instead of doing everything for everyone else, I was going to do something, finally, for me.’”

Her interest in attending MICA came from the same place. She explains, “I decided to come to MICA because I knew the resources for all the things that I wanted to build were here for me to build them. I could go someplace, where I can finally find things that fit me. I wanted to deal with steel. I wanted to deal with wood. I wanted to deal with saws and welding. Being here is going to help me take my art to higher heights. It’s already started.”

Mama Rashida, who receives her MFA on Monday, May16, and is MICA’s inaugural Distinguished Community Arts Fellow, attended Coppin to pursue her interest in teaching and says that grad school was not in her plans. Then, she learned a hard truth. “I wanted to teach, and Dr. Hyatt said, ‘Well, Mama Rashida, if you’re going to teach, we’re going to need you to go get that MFA. Would you consider going to MICA, you know, that Community Arts program?’ And that’s what I did.”

It was not what she wanted to hear, but with another professor (Professor Willie O. Jordan) also in her ear to “get her papers,” she applied. “When I went to apply, everything was effortless. Then, I got a scholarship and a fellowship. And I said, ‘Oh, I guess this is the direction that God got me to go in at this time,’ because all the doors opened for me to do it. And Community Arts is what I have been doing my whole life. So, this was just a good fit for me.”

She adds, “Seeing Mama Sallah graduate from Coppin and then Mama Kibibi at MICA, I said, ‘I probably could do this.’ And the motivation really was so that I could begin to pass on to the next generation of teaching artists the information that I have in reference to social justice-theatre, and the importance of artists as healers and artists as activists. So, teaching the next generation is really what my goal was, because now I’m approaching the winter years.”

Mama Kibibi says that she returned to school for a few reasons, beginning with her family legacy, which is steeped in academic tradition. “I just felt like I needed to [do it], that it was part of my completion. I did a lot of lifelong learning. And when I came through in my college years, what I needed was not found in the classroom. I had to travel back and forward to Africa to get from masters and dyers and dancers and drummers. So, I did that kind of learning first. Later on, as I wanted to broaden the story that is central for dance theater, and deepen it, and contemplate how and experience lives beyond the stage, I was invited to be a part of this Curatorial Practice program by its director and founder George Ciscle. And, you know, it’s just part of continuing that story.”

Mamas at Maryland Institute College of Art Fred Lazarus IV Center pose with assemblage creation by Mama Sallah. (Photos by Jannette J. Witmyer)

For Mamas Sallah and Rashida, their journeys at MICA have led to the discovery of a love for new things. For Mama Sallah, it’s Assemblage (“art that is made by assembling disparate elements – often everyday objects – scavenged by the artist or bought specially”). “I think I’ve been doing it for a long time, but not to the magnitude that I’m doing assemblage now. So, I don’t know if I’ll do clay again. I probably will, but at this point in time, I love going into what people consider trash and picking in it, and it becomes my treasures. I love the stories that I see and feel from the trash. I love changing those stories into new stories.

Mama Rashida discovered a love for painting. “I am a performing artist and director, but I’ve realized that I like to paint. Also, I love working with fabric, making puppets, and doing masquerade. My painting, now, is a part of what I’m doing and the place that I go to really free myself. And it was with the inspiration of these two mamas. Mama Kibibi inspired me through her art to keep doing my art. And, when I first started painting, Mama Sallah said, ‘Where’re his ears at baby?,’” she laughs, and Mama Sallah cuts in laughing and says, “Yes. And I said, ‘We’re gonna sit right here, and we’re gonna go step by step.’”

As the 2022 recipient of the free studio in the Bromo Arts Tower, which is awarded to one MICA graduate student each year by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA), Mama Rashida can only express gratitude for the support she’s received and says, “My painting is my space where I go to spiritually to create, and other parts of myself have expanded as a result. You know, I’m really grateful for these two mamas, because I have called them for help, consulted with them for advice on things about the studio and all kinds of things. And they’ve been so open and giving and sharing and loving. At first, I couldn’t say that I was a visual artist. With my last exhibit, I was able to add visual artist to my resume.”

According to Mama Kibibi, the experience has expanded her understanding of how all of the things that she’s done through the years [social justice, spirituality, movement, and performance] connect.  “What I gained out of this is an ability to pull back my own lens and look at what I do and the way it all connects and always has connected. And so, I think the confidence that I have now as a Mama, right, I probably would not have embraced in the same kind of way,” she explains. 

All of the women pay homage to standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before them and credit the unwavering support of teachers, mentors, and “sisterfriends” who have helped them along the way. People who always encouraged them to reach higher and helped to make a way for them to do so… People like Joyce J. Scott, Leslie King-Hammond, Linda Day-Clark, and Nicole Fall, all artists, teachers and activists themselves… 

The Mamas know that their hard-earned MFAs will open doors, allow them to open doors for others, and enhance their ability to do the work that they feel chosen to do. All will continue to teach. For Mama Rashida, it is all connected to sharing wisdom and love. She explains.

“There’s something that’s gained and gleaned from having elders in the space where you’re interacting with young people. They energize us, and we share wisdom with them and energize them too. All of us as artists have a deep love for community. And we’ve got a deep love for our people deeper, and, even deeper, we have a deep love for humanity. I think all of our art speaks to it. And all of the things, all of the work that all of us have done over the years speak to it. And we’re in a space where we’re still doing the work we’ve been doing,”

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Jannette J. Witmyer

Special to the AFRO