In a thriving and growing community, women of color are still vastly underrepresented in Iowa and especially in the art community. These three women tell all on their experiences living in Iowa, struggles in feeling alone, challenging their community, pushing forward to represent, drawing attention and inspiring women of color as a whole.
Meanz Chan was first exposed to photography and videography when her parents documented her family as a child. She started in college with fashion blogging and soon found other photographers to collaborate with. “It’s cool when you find people that are willing to help you and bring together your vision without trying to compete with you,” says Chan.
Chan’s current project, Women of Color: Iowa Series, is a passion project on Instagram that started in December 2018. The series focuses on women of color in Iowa, telling their stories and experiences on being a person of color in a predominantly white place. “We draw parallels from our experiences as we talk about our differences, understanding and celebrating those differences,” she says.
Since the beginning of her project, Chan now has a list of 70 women she plans to interview who she has met through her photography or in everyday life. “That says a lot about how many women of color there are here and about how many people are willing to participate…I want people to see that there are other women of color out there in the community and this area, that we’re not alone and that you can reach out to these people,” says Chan.
Chan wants to educate everyone about the diversity of culture in Iowa through her series; each woman of color has a different story. “[We] feel like we have to push aside or push back our cultural identities because it weirds white people out. We’ve had to hide parts of ourselves and make ourselves small to fit in. I’m tired of doing that and a lot of people are tired of doing that.”
Women of color who are represented in the Iowa art community runs slim. “In photography specifically, I unfollowed so many accounts because everyone uses the same models and they’re all white and that’s really disappointing,” says Chan. She doesn’t see many women of color artists in general, and that may be due to lack of visibility. Her project allows for a platform to make these women of color visible, sharing their experiences for all to see and and other women of color to relate to. “They’ve all impacted me in different ways,” Chan says. “A lot of these people I didn’t know very well before I met them but they’ve become my friends. I’m really happy to have met a lot of these people.”
“I like to be my own boss, make my own opportunities, be my own star, and bring people into it that I think are going to accelerate a message of peace and community,” Peyton Johnson proudly remarks. Johnson is a woman who does everything, at least that’s how her friends describe it. Johnson is a performer through theatre, manager and singer for her bands and host for her podcast. “I never had people hand me opportunities because I’m a woman of color, I’m supposed to fit into one mold all across the board,” she says. Johnson started with theater when she was 12 playing a small role in her middle school play. “I came on stage and I got to work with people and watch the adults above me work together in a beautiful cycle. That’s when I noticed there was something special about this type of process,” Johnson says.
Falling in love with theater brought her great joy, but that came with a troubling reality of being a woman of color in the Midwest. Johnson knew she was eligible for roles she tried out for, yet she was never cast because she didn’t look like the character on the front page of the script. “It really hurts and it sucks because you know from a young age that things aren’t fair and you don’t know why things aren’t fair. You take it personally,” says Johnson, “I got into theater because I was kind of told that I couldn’t.”
Johnson draws in the energy from unfair denial of others by pushing to be a face of representation for women of color. “You love it and you have to keep pushing through. Because representation in everything is so important,” says Johnson.
She admits that leadership positions give her a break. One of the leadership positions she currently has is running her own radio show and podcast, “The Tea with P.” “I’m not cast in anything theatre-wise right now. I was really missing the busyness and in a way it was like performing,” she says. Since then she has grown a new love for podcasting and having a conversation with anyone she’s interested in getting to know. “I like to highlight other artists. We talk about music and fashion and connect to people… I’ve had so many different people and talk about things they love and listening to them get passionate,” she says.
She also manages and performs with two bands, but one challenge she faces is working predominantly with men. “Being a woman kind of gets in the way of things like that, where men talk over you, they don’t listen to your ideas, and then they repeat [your idea] later then it’s not your idea, it’s theirs,” she says.
Despite the challenges, being in her bands has taught her that Des Moines, Iowa serves as a launching pad for new artists. The Midwest stereotype tends to communicate that these states are in the middle of nowhere and that these states don’t count, but Johnson insists that Iowa does count. “If you ever have the time or money to stop by any venue, I would say just do it. There’s so much talent that rolls through town…it’s like a little tiny gem,” Johnson says. Putting in the work to reach out to women of color in the community is vital as well. While women of color artists are constantly supporting each other, it’s important for white allies to actively support their friends of color and listen. “I think white people underestimate how impactful they can be when they listen to a person of color’s issues,” she says. “They’re learning about what not to do or what to do. Just be a good friend.”
Before Zet Gold moved to Des Moines, Iowa, she was an artist in Las Vegas with her brother doing street art. “We would tell our parents that we were going to Walmart then go hit up the train tracks, but it was [mostly] wanting to get out of the house,” she says.
Through graffitiing, her love for art flourished. “I realized that it was much more than putting something up on the wall. It was the way I was communicating with the community that I was in and creating a conversation,” Zet says. Soon, Zet moved to Des Moines to showcase her artwork in other ways.
Now, Zet tells stories through her art, illustrations, installations, ceramics and sculpture using humor. She has an intrepid and eclectic style, utilizing bold colors and subtle elements within her expressive work. The characters that make an appearance are usually animals and people displaying a certain emotion, and the interaction seen between characters is key to portraying her message. “It’s how I cope with things. I like to share my personal things that I’m going through with my work, I don’t like to necessarily water it down but make it easier for people to take in or understand because it’s literally almost like writing in a diary,” Zet explains.
She’s realizing more and more that she’s not the only one dealing with her struggles. People will often tell her how they understand what her pieces communicate because they are going through the same struggles. “Some of the pieces I make are so heavy, and they do look fun or whimsical. But when somebody understands, I’m glad they don’t feel alone,” says Zet.
Zet feels that she can set an example for people of color, especially for young Filipinos like her. Often times, people will move from the Philippines to America for better jobs and for security. With the idea of a better life in mind, it’s all about working hard, and passions are forced to be set aside. “It’s definitely security vs. happiness and what you’re passionate about. You need to set your feelings aside and be realistic. I hear a lot of Filipinos say, ‘I can’t do that,’ or ‘I don’t think I’d be allowed to.’ I hope I set an example for those people.”
Des Moines is progressing significantly in a short amount of time, but Zet notes that the art community still lacks diversity. Cliques are commonly found in the community, allowing certain groups of people to have more visibility versus people of color. “Do I always have to work harder just to get attention?” Zet says. “You break it down, and I put much more effort into my work. And I hate that colored people have to work harder just to get attention… I think it needs to be more open to more cultural things.”
Despite this, she doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. She sees the importance of staying in a place that’s predominantly white and showing people things they have never seen before. “That’s the one thing keeping me here is being able to teach people. And I realized that as slow people can be, the people here are super teachable, that’s the one thing that is exciting me,” Zet says. “I want to teach these people something, because if that makes a dent for the time being that I’m here, then I did my job.”