You’ll find Johanna Toruno on the streets of NYC plastering pictures of her flower-filtered poetry, Kendrick Lamar, and Selena on blank walls, street lights and buildings. When I came across The Unapologetically Brown Series on Instagram I was intrigued not only by the name but by the concept of being unapologetic and brown as the premise for a body of street art. I also wanted to learn more about the woman behind a movement bringing sparks of joy and acceptance to women of color “by any means necessary.”
Toruno began writing to cope with her sudden immigration to the US. “I came to the US from El Salvador in 1999 when I was nine turning 10. My mom came to the US six months before I did after my cousin was kidnapped and killed. My aunt brought me to visit my mom but they didn’t tell me I was going to move here. We had to start over.” Life in the US for immigrants is a hard one; Toruno’s story didn’t simply end when she came stateside. “My mother ended up marrying a white guy who abused us, and he’s in jail for the rest of his life for what he did to us. My series is the way that I cope and the way that I deal with the difficult things I’ve gone through in my life.”
“When I came here I didn’t speak any English at all and I was so angry because I didn’t speak the language and I was forced to live here. So I started writing to kind of deal with that. It was a way to control what I couldn’t control for a long time, which was the language barrier.” She started out doing spoken word poetry. “I think that some poetry needs to be said out loud, it needs to be given life in a way different than just reading it.” She soon moved on to creating flyers of herself with her writing and posting them up around her Queens home and all around NYC.
“I started as a spoken word artist and then I started doing political art. Our issues did not start when this administration came into play, but the nature and climate of people now is at a whole new level of racism. I needed to do something to combat what’s happening.” And she is, through her work she heals herself and other women who are treading in spaces that feel borrowed in this increasingly hostile political climate. “It’s nice to see things that are for you when you’re in places that aren’t.”
It’s only fitting that her flyers are put in plain view for all to see with messages directed at the Brown women walking the streets. Though many of her posters reference a hard reality, they also display a softer side thanks to the floral overlay she uses on her work. “Flowers are my thing, I don’t own the images of people like Selena or Angela Davis but I put the posters together. The poetry is mine. I pick what speaks to me and what I think is important to highlight for other people.” Sometimes the posters feature public figures like Angela Davis with a quote, sometimes a paragraph of political musings, sometimes just a few poignant words.
She increases her works’ visibility by using social media, and she’s been fortunate to get a positive reaction from most people. “I haven’t been met with a lot of resistance, but I’m having to navigate having such an impact – I have to learn how to be there for people.” There is something to be said about the visceral nature of art that you can so easily access and interact with especially since the very concept of art is something that has been kept elitist and tightly regulated. A recent study – that surprised absolutely no one – concluded that 80.5 percent of artists in top NYC galleries were white and 70 percent were male. It is important for women of color to see themselves represented but it is also equally important for them to feel like they are being seen.
When I asked Toruno what she wanted other women to know about her work, her response was quick. “I want women to know I do this for my community, it’s why I choose streets as my platform. I want people to have physical reactions to my work. I want people to feel happy and like they’re a part of something. I want people to see themselves in spaces that they wouldn’t normally be in.”
Ultimately Toruno’s story is one of strength. She leads through example and cites Rihanna as one of the women who has inspired her and the name of her series, “Rihanna’s album, Unapologetic, it’s about not being sorry for what you’re doing. I’m not sorry for any of the work that I do or for being brown.”