Titled Habits of Survival, Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) student Venise Keys presented an exhibition of independent research for the Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) graduate certificate program. The opening reception was held January 16, 2015.

Keys sees her studio practice of drawing, painting, book making, embroidery, and assemblage art as a calling to the ancestry of American artists to illustrate the complex layers of black female identity. Connecting deeply black female identity in relationship to hair, her works use hair as a primary material and concept. This association is two-fold for the artist as Keys’ parents are entrepreneurs in the hair industry on the south side of Chicago.

Her practice captures and evokes the emotion of black female experiences. Habits of Survival does not explicitly depict power fists, Afros, or fully realized black bodies, as Keys says, but rather lends a narrative to viewers to understand smaller necessities that construct Keys’ connection to her identity.

While Keys is an M.F.A. candidate, she is also working towards the graduate certificate in WGS. Just as her life experiences have moved her naturally to evolve as an artist, Keys says she was groomed into feminism as a young girl. Having met WGS Director Alison Bailey at a book-making workshop in spring 2014, and with further correspondence, Keys said she would have been a fool to not earn the graduate certificate. Keys went on to say the WGS graduate certificate has benefited her personal growth as well as her artwork in regard to structure and discipline. She has discovered a discourse and language and is now able to find the words to put to her experience.

Her favorite experience with WGS has been an independent study with Bailey. Throughout this experience she was able to attend Bailey’s course on feminist philosophy and take learned lessons beyond the classroom and into her own research. Keys was able to further explore beauty politics and now has interest in investigating similar topics. She believes this experience will fuel the rest of her artworks as well as future studies in WGS.

Finally, Keys identifies her biggest surprising lesson from WGS as the validation of everything she has thought and felt throughout life. Her ideas were validated as real and were proven to exist and be lived experiences shared by others.

Keys’ solo showcase Habits of Survival will be on view until Monday, February 2, 2015, at Rachel Cooper Gallery (RCG). RCG is an extension of the WGS Program, located next to Fairchild Hall on South University Street across from DeGarmo Hall. It offers M.F.A. students the opportunity to exhibit their work. RCG works to establish a viable art space for discussions about gender, identity and embracing diversity in the fine arts.