On July 27, 2017, California Representative Maxine Waters was questioning Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who responded by fawning over the ranking member’s presence in a seeming attempt to run out the clock.

Since lawmakers typically only get a few minutes to question witnesses, Waters interjected with a phrase common in House of Representatives floor procedure: “Reclaiming my time.”

A clip of the tense interaction quickly went viral on social media, as Black users in particular took up Waters’ assertion as a mantra for how they’ve had to navigate racism, sexism and more—a quippy refusal to let their time be wasted.

A year later, New York-based designer Gail Anderson unveiled a poster bearing the phrase in bold chartreuse font against a deep purple background. That poster, Reclaiming My Time, is now part of a new exhibition that bears the same name at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Michelle Wilkinson, the museum’s curator of architecture and design, chose the phrase as inspiration partly because the museum acquired Anderson’s print, but also because of the exhibition’s focus on seating. The phrase “became a fitting title to capture the importance of consciously making time to sit, rest and reflect,” Wilkinson says.

“Reclaiming My Time” reflects themes of Black rest, reclamation and restoration in the face of systemic inequalities. The art exhibition features Black designers across various mediums displaying their own interpretations of the themes, inspired by poet and performance artist Tricia Hersey.

“You are worthy of rest. We don’t have to earn rest. Rest is not a luxury, a privilege or a bonus we must wait for once we are burned out,” Hersey wrote in her 2022 book Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto; she also began a campaign called “The Nap Ministry,” which focuses on the “liberating power of naps.” “Rest is not a privilege because our bodies are still our own, no matter what the current systems teach us.”

Hersey’s declaration is a response to America’s culture of overwork, which has a disproportionately negative impact on Black people. A recent study by Wen-Jui Han, a scholar at the New York University Silver School of Social Work, found that Black Americans are more likely to work irregular hours and get less sleep, resulting in a higher percentage of health issues before they reach age 50. But this isn’t new: Black Americans have been overworked since before the country’s founding, through chattel slavery. And even after the institution was abolished, federal laws sprung up to criminalize “vagrancy,” making any Black person who appeared idle vulnerable to forced prison labor.

“Reclaiming My Time” seeks to confront this long tradition of Black overwork and aims to “participate in this larger conversation about rest,” Wilkinson says.

Wilkinson focused on seating for the exhibition, since chairs embody the literal definition of rest and relaxation. She wants viewers to connect with “the idea that something that is everyday can be thought about,” she says, “and ask questions like ‘Who made it? Why did they make it? Why did they make it that way?’”

Among the furniture on view is Rope Hammock (2022) by multidisciplinary artist Sheldon Scott. The South Carolina-born artist describes the piece as a “confluence of concepts of leisure, labor and ingenuity.”

Rope Hammock
Rope Hammock, Sheldon Scott, paint on cotton fiber and wood with steel chains, 2022 National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Sheldon Scott

“The hammock was invented in Pawleys Island in the hot summers of the South, particularly the Gullah Geechee corridor close to Sea Island,” Scott says. “It just wasn’t comfortable to be in a cloth hammock. You wanted something that was breathable.”

The hammock was originally used as part of a performance art piece Scott put together in 2022 called Altar of Repose: I’m gonna lay down… In it, the artist lay in the hammock for eight hours as a physical embodiment of leisure.

Scott notes that many Black Americans have embraced overwork as a means of combating systemic racism, much to their detriment. “Black excellence and Black success have largely been a recipe for burnout culture,” he says. “It doesn’t take very much to pull back and see that it’s not sustainable, and it’s not necessarily a measure of success.”

“In ‘reclaiming my time,’ I’m deciding how I spend my time and allowing that to be able to create a full-on practice of leisure,” Scott says.

Other designs included are a three-legged American walnut chair with a T-shaped backrest resembling an Ethiopian Coptic Church prayer staff by Ethiopian American designer Jomo Tariku, as well as a plywood chair with a jagged top reminiscent of a crown by Miami-based architect Germane Barnes.

“We’re at a moment where agency is fleeting, and a lot of people just don’t have the ability to have control over their own bodies,” Barnes says. “One of the things Black people have always struggled with is the ability to just rest and be able to take a break. This show is emblematic of that.”

Dan Chair
Dan Chair, Michael Puryear, enamel paint and graphite on poplar and pecan wood, 2010 National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Michael Puryear
Dan Chair (2010), by furniture maker Michael Puryear, blends several cultures at once to represent the history of the Atlantic slave trade in the United States. The chair, made of wood sourced from the plantation estates of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, is modeled after a pre-existing style of chair connected to the Dan people of West Africa. Puryear also used a Japanese technique called ukibori to produce raised marks on the wood to evoke the physical and mental scarring resulting from chattel slavery.

Wilkinson hopes to spark a curiosity in people to pursue furniture making themselves.

“I want them to get excited about understanding that they can imagine themselves as designers, because it’s everywhere,” she says. “You have to be able to pay attention to it and ask these questions.”

While chairs encourage the physical aspect of rest and leisure, the exhibition’s collection of paintings, collages, magazine covers, posters and wallpaper express leisure in a spiritual sense. In painter Amy Sherald’s 2012 piece Grand Dame Queenie, a Black woman stands resolutely in a crimson blouse and striped pants, staring directly ahead as she holds a teacup beneath her face—as if she’s daring the viewer to interrupt her peace.

Grand Dame Queenie
Grand Dame Queenie, Amy Sherald, oil on canvas, 2012 National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Amy Sherald

“The tradition of portraiture has become a way to reclaim time for me as a Black figurative painter that paints Black people,” Sherald says in a statement. “The paintings are a resting place for people to see a reflection of themselves that is not in resistance or contention. It’s just a Black person being a person.”

Reclaiming time means more than prioritizing rest; it also translates to having the freedom to spend time as one pleases, such as at play. Wallpaper by interior designer Sheila Bridges depicts Black children in the toile style—a type of printed fabric originating from an 18th-century textile manufacturer in Jouy-en-Josas, France.

“In terms of ‘active leisure,’ you see girls jumping, double-dutching, playing basketball, picnicking,” Wilkinson says of the wallpaper. “Someone called it ‘Black frolicking,’ which I really love and wanted to bring that sense of lightness and down time into the museum.”

Rachelle Baker, a digital illustrator whose 2021 Elle Decor cover is featured in the exhibition, says that the theme of reclaiming time struck a personal note for her as a working artist. “I had a really long time where I was only doing work for other people,” she says. “And when I hear that term, it’s like, OK, I need to take time to rest and do my own stuff that makes me happy, because if I’m happy doing my own work, it will make doing any other work that much more enjoyable.”

Washington, D.C. artist Jennifer White-Johnson reclaims time by bringing Black disability into the spotlight. Her poster features a black fist above the words “Black Disabled Lives Matter.”

“As a Black designer who is disabled and neurodivergent,” she says, she sought to “reclaim visual narratives” and “create a visual language that diverges from conventional symbols of accessibility,” such as the common wheelchair icon or puzzle piece. “It’s about more than just token inclusion,” she says. “It’s about allowing disabled individuals to lead the conversation and recognizing inherent value in their perspectives. There are Black disabled people in the future.”

Another poster, Forward, features an expressive Black figure painted deep blue with a shaved head and a nose ring, surrounded by various shapes and symbols and the word “FREE” written above their head. With this image, Stockholm-based illustrator Andrea Pippins wanted to depict internal peace amid a loud, busy world, and “to honor the present while imagining our futures.”

The phrase “reclaiming my time” can mean resisting the idea that people have to be and live a certain way, Pippins says. “In essence, this statement says, ‘No more. I get to decide for myself.’”

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