Shani Peters is the people’s artist. Walking past Tappan and UMMA on one of the first sunny spring afternoons of the year in Michigan, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Once everyone arrived, Shani requested that we rearrange the seating into a circle to encourage a more informal and relaxed discussion. It was at that moment I began to understand what her artistry is all about.
Rearranging some chairs may not strike anyone as something worth remembering, but to me it is trademark Shani. After hearing what she had to say, I realized her art is not just confined to what she makes with her hands, but rather, it is how she lives.
Shani’s art is not only thoroughly thought out, it is also congruent with how she conducts her own life in general. Speaking about her background, Shani noted in particular how the concept of ‘self determination’ played a large part during her life growing up, specifically through the celebration of Kwanzaa. The concept of Kwanzaa itself is rooted in a celebration of African heritage, and in turn, self determination. Of the seven days of Kwanzaa, Shani mentioned how she remembered celebrating the day of ‘self determination’ in particular with her family, and how it stuck with her.
As we spoke more about ‘self determination’ I realized that it is hard to easily sum up in a single definition. As Shani herself stated, “Self determination is profound yet obscure for a person of color in western society. How do you integrate into one way and yet keep your heritage?” I myself can relate to this struggle as a person of Indian heritage. The son of Sikh parents who immigrated to this country in the seventies, I am the only one of my siblings to be born in America. As a child I was able to fluently speak Punjabi, but lost the ability to speak it as I progressed through grade school. Today, I feel as if my tie to my heritage is more tenuous than ever. It is not due to a lack of interest in my background, but rather from the tug of war between staying connected to my heritage while living in contemporary western society. While I am not of African descent, I feel that I can strongly relate to this struggle surrounding the issue of self determination.
On her being a multi disciplinarian in different , Shani really made an impression on me with her statement that “As human beings we are multi layered and complex so we should be able to do many different things”. She also noted how while she is multi disciplinary across art mediums, her heart remains in video, which is her forte – such as the very successful work she has done with the ‘Laundromat Project’.
If there was anything to take away from the artist talk it is that Shani Peters is a true renaissance woman. It has been said that ‘living is an art’, – and I would argue that Shani is a testament to this statement.
Arjun Singh, Background General Studies