Desiree Mwalimu I Artist I Writer I Curator I Priestess
"It's an intelligence and a fire we learn to dance in."
Where did you grow up? Describe that place and how it has shaped you…
My parents emigrated to the US when I was 5. I’m originally from Lusaka, Zambia. I was raised in Silver Spring, MD, just a blink away from Washington D.C. I grew up in urban and then later, more suburban neighborhoods where the majority of the population was black American. The areas were also home to a large cross-section of African, Indian and Latin-American immigrant communities. Though, coming up, no one said, “Hey! There’s that half Indian, half African hybrid child…”. I was considered "black American," which was true from a diaspora perspective. I was always extremely proud and honored to claim myself as a black girl.
I identified with "black Africanness" more than my "Indianness," because that’s the part of my experience that was being mirrored back to me more frequently. Actually, there was more of a black American than black African transfusion that took place culturally. My identity as a woman of color was very much informed by the image of black womanhood and black culture in America. However, I couldn’t claim the generational cultural heritage that goes along with being born black, a woman and an American on this soil. That’s a very specific type of experience with its own powerful legacy—its own struggle and its own triumph. It’s a legacy I deeply, respect, admire and feel personally transformed by, without question. However, it wasn’t until much later as an adult that I truly began to dig into my difference. I am still peeling back the layers of nuanced distinctions in my own narrative, and doing the work of unpacking cultural assumptions, expectations and societal privilege that impact my perceptions of myself, blackness, womanhood, and humanity.
What were you like as a child? What did you want to do when you grew up?
I was very girly. I liked playing dress-up, house, and anything that involved barbies, baby dolls, make-up and tea sets. I have this one picture of myself at 4, just before my parents left Lusaka, and moved to America. I’m standing in my father’s stacks (this is late 1979, I believe), with a plaid skirt and a purple sweater with yellow flowers on it. I’m practically swimming in his shoes—they’re so big! [laughs] I have a great big smile on my face and my hair was cut short, into a low fro. Between that photo and the girly business, that just about captures most of my personality.
When did you first leave home? Where did you go?
I left home at 18 to go to college. I studied art and art history at the University of Maryland at College Park.
When did you come to New York City? Was there a particular reason you wanted to come here?
I’ve been coming to NYC since my teens . I always felt at home in New York City, and knew one day I would move to here. After the death of a dear friend, also from NYC, I felt called to be here. I was going through a really tough time emotionally and coming out of a great depression when she died. I’ve lived here ever since. New York saved my life in many ways.
Is there something about New York City that is especially inspiring to you?
Everyday New Yorkers are inspiring to me. Barber shops, old church ladies, big hair, and people who still take chances with their creative self-expression inspire me. Live music in New York inspires me. Sunsets on an outdoor subway platform inspire me. Old school NY diners are inspiring to me…the Lower East Side, The East Village, and some parts of Harlem are still inspiring to me. Brooklyn Mom and Pop joints also still inspire me, though a lot of Brooklyn flavor has been compromised, unfortunately. Props to folks like Jyll--Hubbard Salk and Urban Asanas still keeping hope alive, here in Crown Heights!
What is it that you "do"?
I hate that question. So I won’t answer it. However, I will answer what my joy is. I love art and art making. So much of my time is spent creating room for that expression in my life. I am also a proud mother of two little boys, so I raise my children with that sensibility as well. I love working with women on issues that deal with sex and sexual identity. So the other part of my passion lies in creative projects and spiritual practices that investigate womanhood from that perspective.
What led you down this path?
I’ve been making art since I was 7. It’s just a part of who I am and how I move in the world. It’s been more of a path than a hobby, or something like that. It’s only been in the last 8 years, after the birth of my sons, that I realized how passionate I have always been about women’s stories and experiences. I wanted to learn more about my body, and female sexual anatomy in general. Now I’m channeling that into more structured expression. I’ve also always been drawn to astrology, magic, and generally off the beaten path spiritual view on life. That led me to tarot, Reiki, and tantra. Got me into trouble as a kid, but as an adult, I’ve learned to own that and to pour that into what I do more and more.
Can you tell us a little bit about your art practice and how it’s evolved?
I studied studio and art history at the University of Maryland in College Park. I developed an appreciation for abstract expressionist painting at that time so many of my works are 2-dimensional compositions that reflect my studies of that genre. Many of those works are now gone, but I do have a few that I've managed to hold onto. In my last year however, I became really interested in performance art after being introduced to Angry Women, a book about 16 women performance artists in the Re/Search series. I was really excited about the idea of using different kinds of media to tell a story.
Last March, I worked with artists Elaine Hargrove and Bridget Barkan on producing an art show in celebration of women's history month at Freecandy in Brooklyn. I curated and performed with 13 women in a piece that was a homage of sorts to Yoko Ono's book, Grapefruit. The work was basically a series of ongoing meditations on her instruction pieces. It was a lot of fun and I plan on returning to that performance and building on it for future works.
Since September of last year, I've also been co-hosting the Portal and the Whale Medicine Theater with my dear friend and writer, Tiziana Rinaldi Castro. It's an interactive experimental theater that involves storytelling through a series of loosely curated, multi-media happenings that take place throughout the night. Tiziana had this beautiful interest in theater as medicine and she shared that with me. This immediately spoke to me because of the work I had just done with Grapefruit. Recently, we did something for the Caribbean Cultural Center on 'Isis vs. ISIS' and the idea of Sincerity and Revelation. It's a work that we're going to continue to develop this year.
You also work with women on issues that deal with sex and sexual identity. What does that entail?
I facilitate creative sacred spaces for women to remember, heal, and nourish their relationships to their sensual and sexual selves. I've worked with women individually and collectively. Each woman has her own narrative and her own needs so I customize certain rituals accordingly. My rituals run the gamut from ancient practices on how to love your yoni to techniques on how to strengthen your awareness of the sensual in your body and the Earth. For some, rituals involve going to see a specific art show or listening to a certain piece of music. For others it may involve a more specialized series of pranayams, affirmations and journaling. All my rituals involve direct experiences in and with nature and aim to heighten each woman's awareness of her connection to lunar cycles and their effect on her body and her psyche. It's not easy, one-stop shop work. It requires sincere devotion and a sincere desire for change on that woman's part. Determination and compassion get her there.
You're also a priestess. How does one become a priestess?
Being a priestess is not something you just wake up and decide to do. It's a calling if it has any authenticity. Traditionally, a priestess is defined as a woman who leads ritual, but it's more than that and it's very much connected to that person's relationship to their ancestors, which for me, had a lot do with my bloodline.
Our ancestors are formed through the blood but also through an ongoing thread of lineages that travel with us from lifetime to lifetime. So one could be drawn to traditions and practices that have nothing to do with their identity in this current lifetime but they will absolutely feel succinct, familiar, and instinctual. There are a number of trainings and programs that teach women how to embody the path of a priestess and that includes everything from divination and trance to shamanic journeying and medicine-working. Alyssa Starkweather offers a wonderful program in this regard. One could also say that master teachers like Queen Afua and Mama Gena are examples of modern-day priestesses honing in on the energetics of ancient matriarchal teachings on wellness, pleasure and the inherent wisdom of the body. Their work also circles over a deep knowledge and reverence for the Divine Feminine. I would also say that some dominatrixes and sex-workers are modern-day priestesses holding space for humanity's spiritual growth and evolution in their own rite. The question is consciousness though, and whether or not these women are conscious of their exchange energetically and how they work with that to maximize the highest benefit on all sides. However, as a general guideline, depending on the culture, and the era, it's important to remember that a priestess was and is known by different names and based on these identities was/is sought after for a wide range of gifts that serve her community toward a deeper relationship with the Absolute.
Can you talk a bit about embracing sexual identity as a tool for spiritual growth and personal empowerment?
Sexual essence isn't given to some privileged few. It's the birthright of every being on this planet. We own it. We are all designed to do great things with this power—we're just used to viewing it in one dimension. And for women of color communities, we have a very specific journey toward the remembrance of what that means for us and toward the task of creating, establishing and sustaining agency in our own lives. As a descendant of the African diaspora, we are just beginning to really tell our own stories. With each story we release a little more shame and rage, and guilt, and create a little more room for a spontaneous expression of this creative, life-affirming energy to rise and flourish in our lives; to tell the truth about who we really are and where we've been, we regain a sense of ourselves and something about the tenderness, vastness, beauty, depth and mystery that we each hold inside, as we begin to apprehend what the nature of sexual energy actually is and does. We've seen it in each other. All the time. When we play music or write or create amazing visual work or enjoy a nonsensically delicious meal that has lovingly been prepared for us by our friends and family. It's an intelligence and a fire we learn to dance in. We have much to transmute and transform. We have a right to feel, look, taste, touch, smell, see, and create with courage, and consciousness. We have a right to want to explore and investigate pleasure; to play and be playful. This is our inheritance. Life-force energy—sexual essence; creative life force potential—is the vehicle that makes all that happen.
What would you like people to know or understand about Tarot as a form of healing and empowerment?
It is a tool, as yoga and meditation are tools, to put you in closer touch with the wisdom and presence of the Divine. They are a collection of archetypal signs and symbols that flicker like a candle when it gets too dark to see clearly for the seeker. The images can be used as points of meditation to penetrate into deeper parts of the psyche that need illumination.
What inspires your work?
My sons inspire me. They view life from such a fresh lens. They teach me to appreciate all the little things. My sons and an obsession with living deeply.
What’s your favorite part of what you do?
Whether I am working with a client or on a creative project, it’s witnessing beauty and truth and love and contradiction in our experience of ourselves and each other. Finding ways to connect into that from a place of honesty and compassion.
What are your biggest challenges?
OK. Time management. I’ve really had to reel myself in because I can easily lose myself in a number of different rabbit holes. Also, learning when to stop giving and nurturing others so that I have something left to give to myself.
What is the biggest lesson you've learned along the way?
The more I know, the less I know.
Do you have a mentor?
I have had different mentors. But someone who I speak to, strictly guiding me through all the signposts of my life? No, not yet. I have a life coach, that certainly counts as someone whom I speak to regularly, although we’ve since become really good friends and our relationship has shifted a bit.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to live a more creative life?
Breathe more. Try something different every day, no matter what it is. Be gentle with the parts of you that don’t know what to do or how to start. Some barriers have to be stormed open and others require a loving hand that pieces together all those threads very patiently, one by one. Practice gratitude for all that is beautiful and joyous in your life right now.
What does the word authentic mean to you? How does your work allow you to live authentically?
Authentic means truth as it applies to ones own experience. My truth and your truth are not the same. I can only live out what is truthful inside of me. It may or may not be compatible with your truth or someone else’s but it is mine, nonetheless, and I’m the only person that can claim that. We can only be ourselves. When we can do that we inspire others to do the same. We are not all meant to live in a sea of same. Nature is not that way. Life is not that way.
Check out Desiree's piece on Sex and Future Feminism for Sensheent Magazine’s inaugural issue! Make sure to subscribe for additional articles from Desiree as well as other brilliant writing on sex and the culture of womanhood in the 21st century HERE. Desiree also writes for the Urban Asanas blog monthly.