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Artist Naomi Momoh Reflects on Her Favorite Childhood Novel

“It was the first time I had ever read a book from my point of view."

We’re grateful to debut a new video series that invites Black contemporary artists to reflect on their favorite childhood novel and the lasting impact of children’s literature on their artistic lives. Below, tune into a conversation between Duneska Michel and fiber artist Naomi Momoh as they discuss Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Duneska Michel: I am the School and Community Programs Specialist here at Children’s Museum of the Arts. I’m honored to be in conversation today with Naomi Momoh, who is a Philadelphia-based, Nigerian-born sculpture artist who focuses on fiber techniques and its manipulations. Hi Naomi, how are you doing?

Naomi Momoh: I’m doing great. How are you?

DM: I’m good! I thought it would be really amazing to start off with a children’s book that inspires you.

NM: The children’s book that inspires me is called Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This book was made and published in 2003. I read the book about seven, eight times from the ages of 11 to 15. It was a book I kept going back to and re-reading.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian author. Her work is considered fiction, though that is debatable, because a lot of it is placed around the political time of the Nigerian Civil War, from 1963 to 1969. A lot of her novels take place with that political energy as the backdrop of part of the story, and Purple Hibiscus is focused on that point of view. The point of view of Purple Hibiscus is from Kambili, who is a 15 year old girl who lives in Enugu, Nigeria … that’s the southern eastern region of Nigeria. She lives in a big house with her mom, her dad, and her older brother called Jaja. The entire novel is really from the point of view of this 15 year old girl. It was the first time I’d ever read a book from my point of view. It wasn’t a point of view of fantasy, because at that time, at that age, you’re reading a lot of fantasy novels, you’re reading a lot of science fiction and stuff like that. But this was the first book I read that showed her living her life, her experiences, from her point of view, and in her voice. One of the things I think that sets this book apart is that it talks about a very specific diasporic view of childcare and dealing with yourself and your emotions as a young person. The point of view is her father as this wealthy man; he’s a big name in Enugu. He is a prominent figure in the religious community. He has land, he’s a wealthy man, and so to the entire outside world she’s living the dream, has a big house, has a rich father, she can go to school. And then you realize when you read the book that is not actually what’s going on in her home. In her home, her father is a tyrant. He is physically, emotionally, and verbally abusive to her mother, her older brother, and herself. You realize that the description of what’s happening to the outside world is not what’s happening in the home. I feel like often when you’re a child and you’re living in a precarious situation, or you’re living in a situation where you don’t have the words to explain what you’re going through or how you feel … you read these books and you realize, hey, my family situation mirrors some of this. It might not mirror it in the intensity, because it is a work of fiction, but it mirrors the way in which diasporic black families live. We present ourselves in a certain way to the public, but the inside of our homes is completely different … you have a lot of things swept under the rug within these families.

It wasn’t just the story itself in Purple Hibiscus that attracted me; it was also the backdrop of what happened in the family, what it took for the family to change was outside of that. We talk about, right now, you’re in a pandemic, maybe your entire family circle has changed. Your trust has changed. How you live has changed. We always forget that children are experiencing this right now. Children are experiencing the upheaval of their families. The backdrop of Purple Hibiscus is a military coup. It was a conflict. The coups in Nigeria started happening in the 1950s. Civil War happened in the 60s. Mormons recoup in the 70s. When you’re talking about history, there’s always a before and after. The chaos is in the middle. The characters are in that time period, and her father is still involved in politics. Remember, her father is a tyrant and he also expresses narcissism. He’s abusing his family, even though he’s a major religious and political head in their community. It’s intense. And it’s all from the perspective of his youngest daughter. It is a very intense book, but it is a book that is digestible enough for someone who is 11, which is something that is incredibly difficult to do when you’re talking about very difficult concepts.

The whole point of changing the education system is how to introduce these really difficult concepts to children … understanding their voice from their perspective. Most of the time it’s through literature. It’s through a book! I was correlating how that outside / inside thing that happens in diasporic black families all over the world always comes to a head by outside chaos. The coup pushed the father to battle with what he does to his family — what goes on behind closed doors — and who he is, in contrast with the face he shows to the world. Usually chaos is what pushes that breaking point of both personalities to come to a head. We see it now during the pandemic — and still being in a pandemic — you see how family structures have completely changed, because whatever was underlying in that family, outside forces are going to pinch and push it until it’s revealed. There’s a lot of this when we’re in chaos, there’s a lot of this being revealed to us … who we trust, and who we don’t trust, completely changes. This applies to children. Children are going through this very complex emotional system of watching their families, and with so much death that has been around us for the past four years … children are being affected by all of those things. And oftentimes, they don’t really have a voice, unless they see a voice or read something in person, or if they’re allowed means of self expression.

DM: Definitely, and like you said — reading it from their perspective, or from someone that is around their age. I can imagine that it would feel empowering.

NM: Yes.

DM: It gives language to what they’re experiencing. Because like you mentioned, we assume that kids aren’t aware of what’s going on. But they very much feel it, so to feel something, and not be able to give language to it, can feel really violent. So it’s really important to equip them with the tools necessary to be able to speak for themselves. Thank you so much for sharing. That book sounds amazing.

NM: Read it, it’s such a quick read. You’re going to read it so many times. And honestly, if you are not brought to tears after reading Purple Hibiscus, I don’t know who you are!

DM: Right! I feel like we learned a lot about your art practice through your talking about Purple Hibiscus, but I would love to hear more about how working with children inspires you.

NM: My artwork first started off with me investigating the intersections between race and gender from the experience of my childhood, because indoctrination and oppression starts from home, I feel. It’s something that I think we’re not addressing at all. I think we understand how outside forces can push that, but we’re not understanding why the black child doesn’t have as much self confidence coming into a world that is already trying to lower their confidence.

In my practice, I’m using children’s literature and children’s mythology. We teach children that mythology is very important. The tales we tell children are always about morals. They’re never just about expression; it’s always that at the end of the story, you learn to be either a good or a bad person. I think those kinds of books are horrible for children, because children are not experiencing the world in a better way at all. That’s not how learning takes place. Their life is so much more complicated … families already have their own complexities, and then a child is born, and then the child experiences the complexity of the family. Books that are about that “the moral of the story is, you do this and that” don’t help. I think that’s why you see a huge shift in children’s books now; they’re all about either self confidence or going on a journey. A lot of the top-selling children’s books are about going from Point A and maybe never getting to Point B, but having fun along the journey. I think those kinds of books are going to be way more popular because that’s what the children themselves are experiencing.

In my own work, I use a lot of text. Sometimes, I’ll take a children’s mythology, either a movie or book, or maybe a fairy tale. Specific fairy tales now are always about this “princess gets saved by the prince” dynamic, versus Disney in the early 90s, when it was all “princess gets saved by whatever dynamic” in that sense. I feel like those kinds of books are not necessarily empowering, because they don’t explain a life where that is not going to happen. That will never happen. No one can save you but yourself. A lot of those books also have archaic forms of what the relationship should look like … a lot of things that are not healthy. I always try to think about how these stories and these things were taught to me as a child, and how they affect us now, because we’re all having to go through the healing of whatever generational trauma we carried on from childhood … trauma that was enacted upon us.

Bringing those kinds of ideas within my work is really important, like breaking down teddy bears and stuffed animals … things that have comfort, but also pain. It’s all about that balance … Growing is about the comfort in pain, the good and the bad, both of those things happening at the same time. I also think that’s why I like wood leaves and sculpture. I like the tactile nature of feeling and objects having their own meaning. The text is doing something else as well. Lots of textures and lots of layers. For me, I’m rebuilding those memories, and in doing so, they’re going to be jagged, they’re going to be chaotic, they’re going to collide, they’re going to be soft, they’re going to be hard, they’re going to be piercing … they’re going to be a lot of different things. I like having those different words to describe the physical world, because if we’re describing feelings in this sort of way, I can be honest in how I’m actually making the art.

That’s why, in a lot of my art, you can see the deconstruction and reconstruction of things. Reupholstery, knitting, sewing, weaving … I do a lot of dyeing right now and I’m making fabric using a lot of natural materials. I love mixing natural with unnatural materials. It’s the sweet spot of having this plastic thing and then having your hair, and combining those … A lot of times when you’re trying to combine different materials, the easiest way is to weave it or sew it together, or just attach it because sewing is strong. You can also build on top of it. That’s usually what I’m doing in my work, as well, trying to reflect that.

DM: Yeah, I think it’s also a really important part of your practice. When you’re thinking about how you were saying that children don’t need to see good and bad as binary, but understand and give room for the process of just learning. Fabric and textile practices in general are very much about the process. And not always just about the outcome. So I can see how the manipulation of these materials will be so important for you, especially when you’re talking about your childhood experience.

NM: Right.

DM: Thank you so much, Naomi, for joining me today in celebration of black artists, such as yourself. I am so honored and I hope that folks take an opportunity to read Purple Hibiscus. Thank you!

“It was the first time I had ever read a book from my point of view."