Malika Whitley Talks About Her Heroines In Atlanta Arts

As you may know, March is National Women’s History Month. Last year, C4 Atlanta shared the stories of women arts administrators in our city as part of a project with the National Women’s History Project called “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives”.

C4 Atlanta is excited to curate this blog series for the second year in a row! We will be highlighting women’s stories on our blog and on our social media throughout the month of March and into April. This year we have expanded the project to include the stories of more women and to share a diverse range of experiences, including women nationally as well as locally. Sharing women’s triumphs challenges stereotypes within today’s society and overturns social assumptions about who women are and what women can accomplish.

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Malika Whitley, CEO and Founder of ChopArt

With that being said, we’d love to introduce our next leading lady, Malika Whitley.

Where do you work and what do you do?

I’m the CEO & Founder of ChopArt which is an arts organization for homeless teens, serving teens in Atlanta, New Orleans, Hyderabad, India; and Accra, Ghana.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?

A few things! I’ve always loved to sing so I think that was my initial career goal. Then I wanted to be a journalist, but gave that up during my first semester of college. My most recent and more passionate ambition was to become a creative at a major advertising firm, eventually becoming the Creative Director and making an incredible campaign for Coca-Cola.

Who was your favorite artist/writer/performer growing up?

I was an Aaliyah stan. I love(d) her so much as an artist, role model and magical black girl. A few years after her passing, Beyonce earned my undying devotion.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?

My Daddy is one of the most incredible people I’ve had to honor to know. He’s done so much for to fight for me to enjoy the rights I have today as a black woman. I am truly grateful for getting to be his daughter. Everyone else in my life who is incredible is there as a direct reflection of the values my Daddy has taught me and who to surround myself with to continue growing…and I have some pretty swanky people around me so that says a lot. He’s the most accomplished and intelligent person I know, other than the fact that he can answer any question you’d ever have about anything…but he’s lived his whole life as a revolutionary which is so moving to me.

My Daddy has mainly taught me about true sense/pride of self, the importance of be an eternal student, and how crucial it is to stand for something and to fight for a better world. I’m pretty sure my life is a love letter to this amazing man. Our household was all about helping people. He taught me that I needed to earn my place in this world by service and by finding my own light and spreading it as abundantly as possible.

When and how did you first become interested in the arts? How long have you been in your line of work?

I’ve always loved the arts. I used to make my parents to sit through Sunday afternoon concerts in the living room and recruit (read: force) my sister be my back-up singer/dancer. I loved literature, I loved dancing, I loved theater. I’m very lucky in that way, I think. My first opportunity to really delve into arts in a way I felt that I belonged there was when I began working for the National Black Arts Festival. That’s when I decided that the arts must be present in my life in a meaningful way no matter what. This year will mark 9 years of my professional work in the arts community. ChopArt has been around for six years in June! I’ve very blessed to have the opportunity to have this job.

 

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Malika and some of the teens that ChopArt serves

How is art a passion for you?

Art is a healing and universal language. There’s such a power in that. The ability and the audacity to create something that says something and speaks for someone and pushes people is what helps us to keep moving forward. I love that the arts allows people to create corners of the world that they relate to and to invite others into that space as well. It’s the heartbeat of the world, whether one’s finger is on that pulse or not.

And, goodness, imagine how much bravery it must take to be an artist? To give the world a piece of yourself and permission to judge it…often for pennies and with little recognition. That’s ballsy! And that’s one of the main reasons we use art to reach and empower the teens we serve: because it’s audacious. We want our teens to take advantage of the audacity of expressing themselves and telling their stories without censorship and with the complete support of the ChopArt team.

What are your thoughts on equality and representation of women in the arts?

Well… I want to speak specifically from my experience as a young, black woman in the arts…because Frida taught me. There’s a wonderful network for women in the arts, that certainly has a ways to go, but wonderful. I definitely feel like I can pick up the phone and find a woman of the arts in almost any corner and level of it, and I feel that we take care of each other. Women of color, specifically black women are drastically underrepresented. I think it’s ironic that POC artists in Atlanta, with our large population of people of color, are so underrepresented in this space. When you think about how many black women in the arts that have gatekeeping agency, it’s definitely evident. I’m often the only black woman in the room unless I’m in a “black” space. This is from art shows to performances to meetings. So I’m really grateful for the Margaret Kargbos, Leatrice Ellzys, Theresa Davis’, Sheila Pree Brights, Angela Davis Johnsons, Jessica Scott-Felders, Charmaine Minniefields, Tracy Murrells, Sue Ross’, T. Langs, and Ashlee Hazes. We certainly need to keep building to make sure our magical black women are curating and telling the stories of the city in ways that best represents ourselves.

What in your profession has  given you the greatest satisfaction or fulfillment? Looking back, what would you have done differently? What would you do again?

Seeing the teens we serve find light and community has been such an honor for me. I’m really lucky to work within my purpose and for that purpose to be to pour love into teens who feel invisible. I want to say I’d do several things differently but I believe that everything happens for a reason so I’m hesitant to claim do-overs. If I added anything though, it’d be more administrative and program support volunteers to avoid carrying such heavy loads.

As far as what I’d do again, there are two things. I would love to relive an evening I took a bunch of teens from the My Sister’s House shelter to a dance performance. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong on this night but the teens were so excited to get out of the shelter and explore the city’s arts scene. Witnessing them speak freely about identity and trajectory was we literally explored their city was really moving. We also had some great dance offs.

The second is a moment at the girls’ camp location at our summer camp in Hyderabad, India. The main task given to us by the government of Hyderabad was to prove that the girls could succeed in the same camp as the boys…and they blew it out of the water, literally. There was an intense rainstorm during their closing showcase. Picture this: over a thousand teenage girls who have found their power over the former 2 weeks are on an open air, man-made, concrete slab stage under the Hyderabadi night sky on a warm May night. And in the middle of the showcase, a sheet of rain pours down so hard that it shut off the lights in the entire compound. These young ladies came into the camp 2 weeks earlier unwilling to speak and asking for permission to take risks and to be creative. That night these same young women ran through the pitch black, rainy night to retrieve their artwork hanging 30 feet into the air. They chanted “We are Alphas!” in front of the government officials  who came to watch them. Then, under the adornment of cell phone lights and a dull emergency generator flickering on and off, these young women came back out in full performance make-up and costumes and SHUT. IT. DOWN. They insisted on performing. They insisted on seeing it through. These young ladies performed their hearts out with so much pride with the rain beating on their shoulders. Goodness gracious, it was beautiful. I’d also like to note that all four of the boys’ camp locations stopped their showcases when the storm hit :).

What most excites you about the arts in Atlanta?

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ChopArt helps homeless youth express themselves through art

I love the availability of arts in Atlanta. You can go anywhere and take it in. And I love that the arts community in Atlanta is so close knit. There’s also this feeling of being in the presence of greatness. I’m really fortunate to live in the same city with my favorite living artist, Fahamu Pecou, and to be able to go to his shows. Like…what a time to be alive. And I can enjoy so many other artists that are influential forces in my life here in Atlanta. Incredible artists come to visit and pour into Atlanta in beautiful ways. That empowers me to take my niece and nephews to an exhibit that reflects them and challenges them, which is really important to me.

 

What do you hope to contribute to the Atlanta arts community?

I want to help build upon a community that is dedicated to pulling back the invisibility cloak thrust upon our homeless youth. I’d like people to come see ChopArt art shows and productions because it’s dope ass art work and not because teens experiencing homelessness created it. We can do that through being able to hire extraordinary artists as long-term instructors, gaining a studio and stage space to create, and transportation resources to bring our teens to a space dedicated specifically for their creative outlets. Then, you’ll really be able to see what our teens can do.

Where can I learn more about your organizations and work ?

Please find us at www.chopart.org, and heyChopArt on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Bio:

Malika founded ChopArt while living in Cape Town, South Africa. Since this point, ChopArt has served over 17,000 youth experiencing homelessness by providing a comprehensive blend of arts programming, mentor-ship and advocacy services. ChopArt operates in Atlanta New Orleans, Accra, Ghana and Hyderabad, India.

Malika is a graduate of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA and has worked on five different continents within the international marketing, arts curation and social enterprise industries. Malika’s programs have been publicly recognized by the governments and business leaders of Hyderabad, India; Cape Town, South Africa; London, England; Accra, Ghana and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

As an advocate for youth and the arts, Malika has dedicated herself to the development of her community through inclusion in creative and meaningful ways. She has been featured as Atlanta Tribune’s “Young, Gifted and Black” entrepreneur and has been nominated for a WILDE award along with several community honors.

ChopArt is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization helping homeless youth express themselves through art. Through our programming we provide opportunities for community organizations and professional artists to collaborate with our youth participants to create artwork and art projects helping to foster awareness of the homeless situation in Atlanta, generate funds for our homeless youth participants and their families, and provide a platform of positive and creative reflection and self-reflection for our youth. We currently partner with local shelters and homeless organizations to provide a minimum of 6 weeks of art workshops and immersion.

 

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