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  • Writer's pictureDedeStewart

Killin the Game: The Duality of Tee Aviles

Hii! Welcome or welcome back to Discussions with Dede!!

I’m a teacher. From 8AM- 4PM, I am “Ms. Dede” and I am those children’s “play-mommy”. I’m 22 years old and do not have children of my own (thank God),and oftentimes it gets tiring having to nurture these young minds and souls. A couple months ago, I realized that I did not have an outlet- a place where I could go to nurture my own mind and soul. I found Open Space Arts Center(OSA)and I started to volunteer there because I was yearning for a space where I could be around my two favorite things: art and other creatives. OSA changes their exhibits monthly, and last month they had an exhibit called “Emerging New Expressions: Youth Unleashed”, where they spotlighted young artists in the area. Now,I must say, these young people can draw, okayyyy! I am always so blown away by people who can draw because it is a talent I really wish I had, but God gave me so many talents I guess He had to save some for others:).

But in all seriousness, there was so much talent and beauty in the room that I could not pick a favorite piece… until I saw Teonta (Tee) Aviles’ piece “MuvaShip”. There was something about this piece that left me wanting more. It left me wanting to know more. This piece left me wanting to know who the artist behind the work was. So, I found her. Well more like she found me. For every exhibit, OSA hosts a reception to introduce the artists and their work to the community. I really wanted to meet Tee, so I awkwardly stood by her piece the whole night. I was supposed to be greeting the guests but I did not want to miss meeting her so I hung around close enough to her work. When I finally stepped away, I heard a voice talking about “MuvaShip”, and without thinking I blurted out “OMG you’re the artist, I’ve been waiting forever to meet you!”. She turned around and greeted me with a beautiful smile and I could tell that her soul was as amazing as her art. We chatted a little about her art and we found out that we’re both Tri-state area girlies. Me being from Jersey and her being from Philly, we found a lot of similarities in our upbringings and we laughed at the stereotypes of both states. I felt like she was one of my homegirls and we had just met that night! I decided that I wanted to interview her for my blog, because I could tell that she had a story to tell and I knew that people needed to hear it. 

I used to do this feature called “Killin the Game”, where I would interview notable Black women who are “killing the game”in their respective fields. I decided to bring it back, and change it up a little bit. So I sat down with Tee and listened to her story.

Tee and I went out for lunch and I really wanted it to be more of a conversation and less of an interview. We made fun of October Scorpios (Drake we’re talking about you), bonded over our love of cultural foods, and went deep as we discussed how we take care of our mental health as young educators. We conversed about everything from hair and Black womanhood to showing up as your authentic self in each room you walk into. One of the many lessons I got from talking to Tee is the importance of duality. Humans are so complex and intricate, and it’s a shame that we try to pigeon-hole ourselves into fitting in this one box. Yes, you can be everything at once. You can be loud but quiet, intelligent but stupid, shoot you can even be a sensitive thug (me lol). She talked about the dichotomy of being from West Philly but also learning how to occupy such a white- dominated space like art. We went deeper into her duality as a mixed-race woman from West Philly who grew up rich by definition but also poor in some ways. Hope you all enjoy my first feature back in this new installment of “Killin the Game”.

Dede Stewart: What did West Philly teach you?

Tee Avilles: [West Philly] taught me to grind. Philly taught me that there’s a whole different side of this world that people don’t know about. Philly taught me how to embrace the bad and still work through it to really appreciate the good. Without Philly, I would not have been able to really navigate these spaces that I am in right now, which sounds so weird because they’re so polar. My background in art wouldn’t be so luscious without it. [I] was so close to University City,UPenn,so getting to certain art spaces as a kid was easy. I could go to the art museum and go see a bunch of art, and then go down the block and see murals of graffiti or a mural of someone who died. 

Luxury and poverty [went] hand-in-hand in my upbringing. There was so many people in my life that had money, and there was so many people that had nothing.There were times in my life where it was “two at the foot of the bed, two at the headboard”, but later, I get my own room and it was a single-home. One night you’re eating hibachi and the next night you’re eating hot-dogs and ramen noodles for dinner. 

Tee wanted the people to know that hot-dogs and ramen is still a meal. Not a “broke, college student meal”. A meal period. 10 for a dollar got you starch and protein, so put some respect on its name!! Nutritious and delicious:)

Anyways, back to our regularly scheduled program. 

Dede Stewart: How did that duality affect your art pieces?

Tee Avilles: That’s a good question. You see a lot of the good and the bad in my work. There’s a lot of beauty and pain and there’s humor and grotesqueness. Maybe it’s because I’m a Scorpio and I’m big on evolution and change. We have death and rebirth, good and bad, ups and downs. It’s reflected in my work because that’s life, that’s my life. 

Inner Child by Tee Aviles

The Void by Tee Aviles

2024 by Tee Aviles

Dede Stewart: When I looked at your piece, MuvaShip, there was a lot of authenticity and it looked like a direct reflection of who you are as an artist and a person.What did you want people to get from that piece and where did you draw inspiration from?

Tee Avilles: I drew a lot of inspiration from my subconscious mind, she does what she does! I was prompted from one of my Fall classes to make a portrait with your hands as a focus. In my mind, I’m like “What, again?”, I was already so mentally beyond making portraits. I wanted to make something that looked obscure and I kind of sat on that thought for a while. And out of nowhere, that popped in my head. It was this ship that was my face, my head… my face came off my head and it had different images or portals. I fit the hands in there because that’s my tool as an artist. They control the brush, pencil, clay and how I maneuver things. It was me being as random, wacky, and absurd as possible. I did the “Please Stand By” thing, the 90’s nostalgic screen, because I could vividly remember a time turning the channel and that was on the screen. I wanted it to feel like this self-discovery, and I thought it would be important to include certain attributes about myself… my hair is a big thing. My hair is the one thing that reminds me of my ethnicity, that I’m a Black woman. Point- blank period. So having the curly texture in that piece was very important to me. But yeah, it just came to me.

Muvaship? by Tee Aviles

Dede Stewart: So talk to me about your hair, and its significance to you especially in your art. 

Tee Avilles: Great question! Number one, hair is really big in my art. I [try to]incorporate some type of realistic version of hair that I’m used to. It’s always going to be [wildly] “hairy”, in-your-face, gaudy… it has to be because hair is your crown. 

I have never seen any women in my life not take care of their hair or do something with their hair. A lot of the women in my family had “good hair”. Thank God the concept of “good hair” has switched,because my hair would not have lived if the whole consensus of “good hair” stayed the same. I had family members who relaxed or straightened their hair; and tried to relax and straighten my hair! I remember combing my hair used to be the worst.[But], my sister didn’t, she has my grandmother’s hair, who is 100% Puerto- Rican. My mom trained her hair to be that [straight] texture and my aunt kinda had that hair, but it was thick because her dad is Black as well. It was hard for me as a kid because everyone wanted me to have straightened hair because it was easier to manage, this management of hair and identity of self was so ingrained in me. So, I put everything in my hair. Blue Magic, Pink Lotion, Carol’s Daughter, even that really bad black gel.That was a hard thing to learn as a kid- that your hair wasn’t considered “good”, but in high school I started to embrace it. However, teachers [used to] ask me “Who scared you?” and “Did you get electrocuted?”. I started to ask “Why me, why is my hair this texture?”. I bleached it, straightened it, and cut it. I started to do protective styles later,but thank God for the media and the pioneers of the natural hair movement, my hair thanks them. So when I get the chance to accurately depict beautiful women of color’s hair and express it in my art, I do. 

Voyeur by Tee Aviles

Dede Stewart: Talk to me about being “one of the few”. Art is a pretty white- dominated space so how has being a Black woman in this space impacted your art career?

Tee Avilles: At the end of the day, I know I am a mixed- race woman but I grew up as a Black woman. I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish or eating arroz con gandules everyday. I grew up with a lifestyle and a mentality that [was] “You’re a young person in West Philly”. I wasn’t reminded what I looked like until other people reminded me. When you [have] a lot of edge in rooms where people don’t have that edge, these haters, they get intimidated. I’ve had people tell me how intimidated they were by me, but I was probably the most timid and the most feeble person in the room. When they say “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, I was the “lamb in the lion’s coat”. They isolated me,[they picked on] the way that I talked, the jokes that I made, and how I expressed myself.I [felt] ostracized in certain spaces, I was made to feel like I didn’t know about certain things. I had people tell me I couldn’t create certain art pieces, because I “didn’t know what that was like”. You can feel how certain cultures like to gate-keep,but when you have such undeniable talent, and you’re just too real and work too damn hard, then you’re in their league. They can’t do anything about it, but what can they do? They can make you feel small and make you feel less than. I had to learn that I can make that my motivator and fight. But I can say, all those people are not even near where I am now. I didn’t have to go “Philly” on them or get nasty, I just kept my dignity. I kept being me.

"Keep underestimating me, I love surprises!"

Dede Stewart: How were you able to create these Black-centered pieces in these Predominantly White Art spaces?

Tee Avilles: Something about that racism, people don’t like to touch on that! I used that as fuel so if I talked about having high-functioning anxiety, I’m going to get [pushback] from 30 people who think they are the face of anxiety. I am sorry but I am not going to cry in the middle of class right now, personally I’m going to go down two flights of stairs and cry because I’m not going to make a scene. I’m not going to have a panic attack here because my brush is not working or [because] what I’m drawing doesn't look right, I’m going to have a panic attack because I have this class [but] I got work in 30 minutes. I felt empowered because I didn’t need to open up a magazine or look at an IG post and get inspired by someone else’s situation, I got my own. Let me flip through the pages of my own story and pull something out and show y’all what’s up. That’s why I was like let me make it as big, Black, and beautiful because y’all can’t touch this. Y’all don’t know anything about this. Again, it felt empowering but it also felt like I stuck two middle fingers up to the art world in undergrad because I was like “Now I can talk about having high-functioning anxiety as me a Black woman or having trauma as me a Black woman.” I wanted to emphasize that this is me.

"People use your ignorance against you and make you feel like you don't belong because you don't know it. You have to know your concepts because people will challenge you. Of course they know it because of the opportunities that were afforded to them but I [didn’t know]. I had to research and study because I knew they were going to challenge it. I had to know my work very well.  "

I based one of my pieces on this Black woman named Ladonna who was the custodian, and the only other Black worker in that school. She was so sweet, and she saw me. I didn’t have to code switch with her. I wanted to accurately depict the lives of Black people and how some stereotypes are true,but they're not everything. We thugs, hoochies, etc but we are also powerful and beautiful. These stereotypes give people an excuse to treat us inhumanely but there’s beauty in these other parts as well. So yes, Imma put a beautiful black woman in this headwrap because in some workplaces she can’t wear this headwrap, but in this place, she’s going to exist in her full being. 

There is No Greater Agony than Bearing an Untold Story Inside You by Tee Aviles

Dede Stewart: What advice do you have for Black female artists who are “one of the few” and who bring their authentic selves to whatever room they are in? 

Tee Avilles: That’s a loaded question. Do what makes you happy, do for you! When it comes to your dreams, don’t do anything for anyone else. No one else’s thoughts or opinions should be in your mind when you’re going for your aspirations. You can not live for other people, live for yourself!

Tee Avilles= You asked about who are some of my “destiny helpers” or people who have really helped me along the way, and I want to shout out some of them! 

[My] mom is a huge one, if it wasn’t for my mom… I go to her about anything,my toe [nail] could be coming off and I would call my mom about it.I think people completely underestimate my mom, and I don't think it is intentional, but she is probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my whole life. The sacrifices that she’s made- you need her on your team… but she’s on my team! She’s mine. My sister, I think she was put in my life to learn a lesson from. Not like she specifically taught me anything, but being her sister taught me [so much]. If I need someone to tell me how it is, not negatively, but to allow me to see things for how they are, it would be her. My dad, he’s very reasonable, I call him if I need someone to reason with. My aunt, that’s my dawg. And then there’s my best friend on the planet Earth… at the end of the day I know I have her. These people, they are my support system. 

Well, this post was long enough but I hope you all enjoyed!  Check out more of Tee's work here-

What was your favorite part of the interview?

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