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Maisha Marshall-Ende is Reconciling the Complexities of Culture and Blackness Through Design 

Maisha Marshall-Ende is a Toronto-based photographer and videographer, born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She was adopted by Canadian parents when she was a few days old. She grew up in Ethiopia, only spending her childhood summers in Canada. She completed her primary and secondary education at an international school based in Addis Ababa and recently obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts from OCAD University in Toronto. Maisha’s work explores Black culture in a western context. Her understanding of race was shaped by growing up in Ethiopia, where dark skin was the rule, not the exception. Ethiopia is an incredibly diverse country. There are a multitude of tribes and cultures, over 80 spoken languages and a deep sense of national pride and identity rooted in the country’s ancient history. That is to say, Maisha did not grow up defining herself as a black woman, but rather as an Ethiopian woman. She never considered her skin color to be her defining feature; it was only one of the many pieces of her ever-evolving identity. Nor did she have a single understanding of ‘blackness’ (in a western context).

Moving to Canada as an adult was a shocking change. No one knew where she came from or the unique experiences that had formed her. Yet her skin color alone was sufficient evidence to categorize and stereotype her. Suddenly, she was a black woman and was expected to conform to a standard she had never even known existed. She turned to her art as a way to make sense of the racially-charged environment she found herself in.

What does it mean to be black in Canada? And is there room within the established understanding of ‘blackness’ for the true breadth of experience that exists? These are questions that five years ago, she never would have thought to ask. Yet now they press on her heart every day. Her art continually leads her to new understandings about race and identity as she attempts to answer these questions. She is Ethiopian. She is also black. This work is a result of her attempts to reconcile these aspects of herself. Thus her project “Frash a Dash” was born.

“Frash a Dash” Du-Rag Originally, the du-rag was the headgear worn by poor laborers and slaves in the 19th century. During the Black Power movement -- a political movement that emphasized racial pride and economic empowerment in the late 1960s -- the du-rag was revived among African Americans, particularly rappers, athletes and young men. Eventually, the du-rag evolved into a hairstyle preserver. Today it has become a popular fashion statement, and there are hundreds of du-rag designs available. “Frash a Dash” is a phrase in the Ethiopian language Amharic that is a commonly heard refrain. Mattress sellers on the street shout it to advertise their wares. The fabric featured in this work is frequently used to cover these mattresses. Working with the familiarity and motif of the fabric, the series adopts the title “Frash a Dash.”

As an Ethiopian-Canadian who moved from Ethiopia to Canada for university, a common theme in my work has always been the challenge of navigating between worlds and trying to find a space to feel accepted and comfortable. This project is about creating a cultural bridge by taking objects that are emblematic of different cultures - the du-rag and an iconic Ethiopian fabric - and combining them in a celebration of the complex and multicultural world that I inhabit.

My experience here in Toronto has made me aware that there is a misconception that every black person’s story is the same and that there are set ideas of how a black person should act, look and dress. All too often, the narrative of the black American experience is held as the default standard, leaving little room for the multitude of other histories and cultures that exist. This idea of a monolithic black experience is misguided, dishonest, and exhausting. I say exhausting because I certainly feel that my story has been sidelined. My understanding of race has been shaped by growing up in a multiracial family in Ethiopia, where black people are not the minority but the overwhelming majority.

Moving to Canada as an adult, I quickly came to the realization that here I was not seen as an Ethiopian woman, but only as black. In addition to the broader issues of institutional racism and underlying prejudices that all black people must grapple with, those of us who do not fit the mold that is propagated by media portrayals can face additional pressure from within the black community to conform. In a sense, there are those of us who exist on the margins of the margins. I am a black woman and proud of it. I am an Ethiopian-Canadian and celebrate it. In my work, I try to not only explore my own understanding of race, gender, and identity but also try and broaden the conversation around what it truly means to be a black woman.


Images 1-2 : Photographer : Medina

Creative Direction and Styling : Gouled Ahmed & Maisha Marshall-Ende

Models : Tiyé Aalem & Dana

Images 3-5 :

Photographer : Nika Thompson

Creative Direction and Styling : Maisha Marshall-Ende


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