An artist of the ephemeral experiences life’s fragility, and turns her tragedy into a message of support for others
At Williston, award-winning visual artist Maya Freelon Asante showcased a solo exhibition of her art—the first of many to come. She credits the school with prompting her to develop her political voice and sense of personal advocacy, which threads throughout her career. Cosmopolitan magazine has called Asante “one of the most bad-ass female artists in the biz.” Her delicate tissue paper art has been exhibited internationally, with shows in Paris, Jamaica, Madagascar, and Italy. In 2015, Asante and her husband experienced the loss of their newborn son. Her subsequent gallery show at Morton Fine Art in Washington, D.C., reflected this loss, and the couple is currently making a documentary film about the experience, called Waiting on Wonderful.
Who at Williston had a strong impact on you?
My art teacher, Marcia Reed. She always challenged me to try new things, to go bigger, and offered me my first solo exhibition at Grubbs Gallery as my senior project. She knew that I could do it. It was a real gallery, with labels and an artist statement. She set me up to practice professionally before I graduated high school. I was able to have a reception and really do it the way that professional artists did. I was so grateful for the opportunity. Having it in there, with an official exhibition card with my art on it, that was an amazing feeling.
How did Williston encourage your political voice?
I was on the student council. I also was president of A4 and T.R.I.BE., student groups that helped address the lack of diversity in the faculty, and differential disciplinary treatment for students of color on scholarship versus legacy families paying full tuition. Political power had always been around me, but I didn’t realize that I could have any impact as a student.
What’s inspiring your work right now?
My husband and I had a baby in October 2015. He passed away after three days. He had a condition called anencephaly. We knew for the last 10 weeks of the pregnancy, which prepared me a little bit for the experience. We immediately named him Wonderful Legacy Asante and honored him, even though it was 100 percent certain that babies can’t survive with that condition. It allowed us to appreciate him and his life even though it was shorter than expected. For me in my art process, I always talk about the fragility of life. I use tissue paper because it’s fragile but beautiful, and it came full circle for me creatively. It made me appreciate something that was ephemeral and fleeting.
Why is it important for you to share this story?
By acknowledging infant death, it becomes less of a taboo. I want people to know that they can find some healing instead of suffering in silence. Williston allowed me to realize that my voice is powerful. You can challenge anything, including a teacher. I’ve taken that experience into the real world, because you have to be your own advocate and speak up with your own voice so you can help other people.
What’s a favorite memory of your time at Williston?
My grandmother came to Grandparents’ Day, and she made the whole school stand up and sing with her. My grandmother was an amazing woman. She was an activist and marched on Washington. I remember asking her specifically, “Whatever you do, please don’t make people sing.” She didn’t listen. At lunch, I have a distinct memory of all these people coming up to me and saying, “Your grandmother is so cool. All I want to do in assembly is stand up and sing and she let us do that.” I realized that my grandma knew how to connect with people. People told me hanging out with her was the highlight of their day.