‘Are You Just a Plaything of Nature?’ Amina Ross on the Politics of Beauty
A self-proclaimed “undisciplined” artist, Amina Ross’ generous making practice includes curating a vibrant workshop series called Beauty Breaks — a series that saved me from isolation as a friendless transplant bumbling around Chicago only a year before. The irregularly scheduled workshop, hosted in F4F’s attic and performance space, brought together an earnest and dynamic group of young Black queerdos intent on building community in a notoriously challenging city. I learned how to use tarot as a tool to cultivate my intuition. I built small sculptures from recycled goods. I meditated, wrote poetry, co-created impromptu group performances, and refreshed my spirit in ways I could not have imagined. It was diametrically opposed to any of my former interactions with “beauty,” and I wanted to talk about why.
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kemi Alabi: You’ve had workshops that deal with the aesthetics of the body, workshops that are more theoretical about joy, hands-on food making. What’s the through-line?
Amina Ross: It started with beauty, health, and wellness as a magazine category. It’s amorphous, really — but a “lifestyle magazine.” If I say that to you, you can imagine what it is. It’s about what a proposed lifestyle is, what a lifestyle should be, quote-unquote, by this magazine industry that’s selling ideals that are oftentimes aspiring toward whiteness and class ascension. Then they label it beauty, health, and wellness. I think about [Beauty Breaks] in the way I imagine editors think of what goes into a lifestyle magazine, which can really be anything. But I think about beauty, really interrogating that as a concept.
What catalyzed your fascination with beauty, wellness, and the lifestyle magazine concept?
I had this residency, and I had to utilize one of their collections. The collection I chose to focus on was the Johnson Publishing library because I’ve always been interested in Jet magazine — for mainly aesthetic reasons, seeing all these beautiful Black people on these covers. They would have…