Ja’nell N. Ajani, cultural producer, curator and educator, shares five works of art that have helped her on her mission.

By Ja’nell N. Ajani, Photo by Kara Hawley

Curator and educator Ja’nell Ajani’s interests are wide and varied, but reading and art fuel her passions. A current UT Austin Ph.D. candidate, the Spelman College and NYU School of Social and Cultural Analysis graduate focuses her research on “the amorphous boundaries between art, commerce and historicizing artistic legacies, with an emphasis on Black and Brown artist estates.” She shares five works of art that have informed her life’s journey.

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

The book Wild Seed by Octavia Butler has been in my collection for years. The main character, Anyanwu, is a shapeshifter. In the novel, she morphs into a leopard during one of her first transformations. I remember being enthralled by Anyanwu, as well as feeling a deep sense of kinship with her. Observing the strength and agility that leopards possess in the wild has often served as a sort of spiritual reminder throughout my life. While reading, I felt like I was Anyanwu because I knew that I, too, was a shapeshifter. Or at least knew that many times I have demonstrated being one within a spiritual context. What I mean specifically is that I have utilized my belief and faith in God many times as the only viable way to overcome personal life challenges that, quite honestly, I believe some people could never come back from.

“Versus Medici” (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat

I once heard the scholar Yasmin Ramirez say, “If [Basquiat] had only lived a little longer, I think he would have met a whole new generation of young people who had been exposed to something that would have embraced his multi-valiant sense of himself as a man of color of the world. The 1980s were really not ready for Jean.” I remember immediately thinking of Versus Medici. The painting, which stands seven feet in height and is executed on three conjoined canvases, showcases a valiant figure immersed in an array of brilliant colors. I believe it is an accurate description of Ramirez’s sentiments.

Get Out by Jordan Peele


In early 2019, I started to design a class entitled The Mind of Jordan Peele. It premiered at the University of Texas at Austin later that fall. Equally important to talking about Peele’s work is looking at the filmmaker from the perspective of a Black entrepreneur. Key and Peele and Get Out laid the groundwork for him to create Monkeypaw Productions and offer opportunities to other Black creatives. In my course, we look at other Black cultural producers, directors and writers who are generating ideas that are just as radical and innovative as Peele, like Issa Rae, Lena Waithe and Donald Glover. We pull from essays and stories by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates to see how their works amplify or contrast Peele’s ideas. 

The Living Blood by Tananarive Due

The day I found this book in the library was transformative. That haunting cover immediately caught my eye. It lowkey gave me Candyman vibes—terrifying! Another stand-out moment was reading the title of the book: The Living Blood. Although Due’s work is not exactly biblical in context, I remember thinking about the story of Jesus. Yet I quickly forgot about all these ideas once I started reading the book. At the time, I didn’t know who Tananarive Due was, but she instantly became one of my favorite authors. I thought it was so cool that Due had invented an entire plotline around a character named Jessica, her daughter Fana, and her husband, who is an African immortal named David. Later, I found out The Living Blood was part two of three in Due’s African Immortal series. I was hooked, and even though I had started the books out of order, I finished the entire series within about two weeks.

“Karen, Brooklyn, 1982” by Jamel Shabazz

This image gives me a sense of nostalgia, particularly when thinking about my own sister, Karen Alethea Rose. When I am invited to speak about my latest exhibition, Peace to the Queen: A Retrospective, which is interchangably inspired by Karen’s murder and Shabazz’s legendary photographic work in New York City, I show this image beside an actual image of my sister. You can immediately see the uncanny resemblance. My sister loved being fashionable and getting her hair and nails done every week. However, her outer beauty was truly overshadowed by her inner beauty and indomitable spirit. She was an incredible mother, sister, friend and daughter. My family and all her friends from our hometown still miss her so very much.



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