Interview with Malika Ali, artist and curator

Meet Malika Ali - artist and curator based in Los Angeles, California. I was connected with Malika after a friend sent me a link to a call for artists for a group exhibition titled The Feminist Sex Shoppe. I was immediately drawn to the name, as well as the description of the exhibition:

"Work that explores concepts of sex-positive feminism including pleasure and desire, repression and repulsion, taboo and fantasy, body image and biology, love, lust, and eroticism. We welcome works that address sexual health and well-being and reflect the influence of family, religion, culture, politics, education, and the economy on women and their sexuality."

I immediately sent in my portfolio, and Malika invited me to show some of my drawings alongside the work of many other talented artists. The show will open March 28th - THIS SATURDAY at On the Ground Floor in Los Angeles.

After looking at Malika's work and some of her writing, I became more interested in her practice and her reasons for curating The Feminist Sex Shoppe. So, we got to talking...

>>>Side note- you should all check out this conversation (Two Feminists Walk into a Blog) between Malika and Tamara Cedre (artist and activist). It's a great read with a ton of information about the history of feminism and what's going on in feminism today.<<<

Was there a defining moment in your life when you began to identify yourself as a feminist? (Really, I'm thinking about the word feminist, and the choice to "be" a feminist and/or call yourself a feminist.)

Of all of the definitions I choose to accept regarding who I am, Feminist is in the most precarious position. My foremost political identity is my blackness. Before I understood much of anything else, I knew I was Black. This racialized existence has almost always been front and center, even ahead of my womanhood/girlhood. Growing up, blackness represented a kind of underground culture, counterculture even. Whiteness always existed just outside the front door, and it was mainstream, but I/we/Black people were regarded as something other than the “norm”. So, we found ourselves in the position of having to provide proof. Proof that we mattered. Proof that we were human. Proof that our contributions to this society were valuable. And with carrying all of that baggage, who had time for feminism?

I flirted with the big “F” in college, but hadn’t fully embraced feminism until I found myself comfortably situated within the middle class. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. First, I gotta make sure that I’m regarded as a human being, then I can become a Feminist. 

You mention that your race was extremely important in your upbringing, and your identity - even ahead of your womanhood...can you talk a little bit about your girlhood? Were you "girly"? I'm really interested in the way that your upbringing might have informed your path to find the "F word".


I've always been attracted to things that are considered feminine, but I was never that little princess running around with fluffy shit on. I still have sense memories from early childhood - abstract paintings on walls with muted oranges, reds, and browns, the patterns of dashikis, round halos of hair and afro sheen, door beads that announced entrances and exits with a shimmery sort of jingle. It was revolution time. The Black Power movement was in full swing. I was a a baby of the struggle. Becoming a girly girl wasn't even a question.

You recently did an interview with sociologist Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals about sociology and sexuality - how the collective influences, and is influenced by sex and sexuality. How much do you think the individual is affected by the collective?

I’m not a sociologist. I work as an artist and curator. But what struck me about listening to Dr. Chauntelle, who is a sociologist, is how obvious her statements were, yet I had not thoughtfully considered them before. Here in the US, we are conditioned to believe in our rights as individuals. It’s a very “I and me” centered place, so “I and me” forgot how much “you” can affect how "I" exist in this world. 

Psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and theology are all interconnected social sciences. And while our biology does shape our sexuality, so do our social environments. I’ve been listening to an old Jamie Foxx song called Blame It. Several head nods later, I realized that this song could be considered kind of “rapey”,  but it also speaks to societal expectations placed on female sexuality. 

"Shawty know what she want, but...she don’t wanna seem like she’s easy."

Easy! I’ve never heard that term used on men. Boys can spread their love around, but if girls do the same, they can be considered easy. So the fictional woman in the song, her biological urges and natural desires are affected by what other people in the club might think of her, by what society dictates.

You have three children. Do you involve them in this dialogue surrounding sex and feminism? 

I have two daughters and a son. And while I don’t sit my children down with a lesson plan and course materials, I try to include dialogue on sex and feminism within our organic conversations.

Let's talk about the idea of being sex-positive. Can you talk a little bit about this movement and what it means to you?

There are many factors that have splintered the feminist movement - class differences, race and ethnicity, and also sexual practices. As I understand it, in the early 1980‘s, feminists were engaged in sex wars. Did you know about these wars? 

Pornography and more specifically, anti-porn diatribes, moved front and center in the women’s movement. Pornography was considered, by some, to be a form of violence against women but never a choice a woman could make for herself. Then anti-porn feminists began to expand their stance to fight against BDSM and prostitution. I imagine that the anti-porn feminists of the 80’s would go into pure shock knowing that a BDSM title would sell over 100 million copies worldwide and mostly to women (Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy).

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Sex-positive feminism on the other hand suggests that women have agency. That we are not all victims of sex or slaves to sex industries. And that sexual pleasure, however it presents itself, is a woman’s right to choose. Consensual sex work should not be criminalized. And pornography featuring adult performers (not children/minors) should be recognized as fantasy entertainment and not censored by the women’s movement.

I am drawn to sex-positive feminism because there is far too much policing of female bodies. Shame is placed on women and girls to suppress or deny sexual desire. The very first iteration of my blog was called “Joie de Vivre,” the joy of living. Sex and sex play are forms of joy, of bliss. And I want women to experience joy without guilt or condemnation. I want women to own this freedom.

What inspired you to curate a show about sex-positive feminism? 

The backlash Beyoncé received when she declared she was feminist. This was the catalyst for my exploration. I was curious about the mindset that suggests feminism must be void of sensuality. That somehow lust could creep into the movement and kill it dead. Sex is powerful, I understand that. But if feminism is so feeble, we need to work it out, pump it up. Feminism should be able to withstand multiple orgasms.

Can you talk about your personal art practice? What mediums are you drawn to and why? 

I’m very excited about this new direction in my practice. I’m delving more into movement based works - dance theatre and dance films.

I’m fascinated with the possibilities of installations, I love creating environments. I’m also on a mission to make the written word viable within a gallery context. I know there are artists like Barbara Kruger who do this well, but I want to get my feet in these waters and make my own little ripples.

Would you say that your writing/art practice is a type of activism?

I would say that my writing, art, and curatorial practices are more a form of advocacy. I’m inviting people to think, ask questions, and dialogue. I’m setting food and drink on the table and saying, “Let’s sit and talk about this.” Activism is more of a push. Advocacy is a pull. But both are necessary. 

I think we are all somewhat familiar with that ritual that gets us going - that gets us making and doing. What's yours? What do you absolutely need in order to get going?

I need QUIET! An empty house, my cell phone powered down, folks to leave me alone. Virginia Woolf was absolutely right - a woman must have a room of her own.

Can you recommend a few feminist authors, books, or texts to our readers?

Two classics that give me so much life are Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.