Art and Ancestry

Sheba Gittens looking at colorful fabric strips at art festivalCan the word “art” be used to describe a person? Sheba Gittens says it’s happened to her.

“My friend often says to me, ‘You are art,’” said Gittens, who by day serves as an academic advisor with TRIO Student Support Services, a program within the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences that provides advising, training, tutoring and activities for first-generation and low-income students. “She says it’s my being, my presence, my engagement.”

So, naturally, whether Gittens is in the advising office serving first-generation students, or on weekends, engaging with Pittsburgh youth in making Africana art, creativity follows.  

“Art is happening all the time. It doesn’t stop when I go from one place to another,” said Gittens. “Art, for me, is giving yourself permission to exist in your form of expression.”

And this summer, separate from her role with TRIO Student Support Services, Gittens is helping Black youth embrace their identity at the P.R.I.D.E. Pop Up Mini Art Festivals.

Building positive racial identity through art

Sheba GittensSpearheaded by the Office of Child Development’s P.R.I.D.E. (Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education) Program, which are both housed within the School of Education, the pop ups are one of the only festivals in the country with programming designed specifically for Black youth of ages 3 to 8. Through activities that teach kids to feel good about their race, expose them to Africana culture and identity and build their positive racial identity, the festivals have been widely attended since their inaugural year in 2017, according to P.R.I.D.E director of engagement Medina Jackson.

“Our festivals combine carefully curated artist-educator led arts activities, interactive performances and carnival-like attractions that are free and open to the community,” said Jackson.

“At the festivals, we provide really creative and beautiful ways of emoting and expressing — and doing it in a form that a youth has a tangible piece to take home with them and say, ‘Wow, I did that,’” said Gittens. “It’s a great space to support the nourishment of self and identity.” 

For the festivals, which are held three times per summer, Gittens created the project called “Honoring History Through Ancestry,” which encourages youth to decorate a branch of their family tree. “I was inspired by Ifa traditions of honoring ancestors,” said Gittens. “When I thought about how does one connect with your ancestor, what are the sounds, the smells… I started to think there is a deep connection between humans and trees.”

Using bells, colorful beads and upcycled fabrics, the youth honor the presence of those who have come before them through crafting visual “Afromations” — a combination of the words affirmation and Africana — of their legacy.

According to Jackson, families can bring the Afromations into their daily lives at home. “The Afromations take-home activity gives families language to share positive affirmations with their children as a practice to uplift and help them feel good about who they are, inside and out,” said Jackson.

Bringing her work full circle

Gittens is also a fellow with Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, which has allowed her to work with youth throughout the city of Pittsburgh. She’s also gone through many undoing racism trainings — looking into policies and laws that were crafted in response to the time of enslavement of Africans and indigenous peoples.

Gittens’ experiences outside of her day job at Pitt bring a positive influence into the advising office, according to Michele Lagnese, director of TRIO Student Support Services. “Sheba’s myriad of contributions to both the worlds of art and education enrich her work as an academic advisor with TRIO Student Support Services,” said Lagnese. “She brings a unique perspective to our team and pushes our staff to ‘draw outside the lines’ with colors that do not always need to match.”

It’s the same unique perspective that she’s bringing to the P.R.I.D.E mini pop-up art festivals — for Gittens’ third summer in a row.

“When I work with P.R.I.D.E., what we end up seeing is how history shapes the reality of our youth today,” said Gittens. “The festivals mean so much to me.”

The remaining P.R.I.D.E. pop-up festivals of the summer will be held in Homewood Aug. 24 and the Hill District Sept. 14.