Hoops Portrait Project: Interview with Nicole Acosta

By: Milwaukeño

Hoop earrings have been a part of fashion since ancient civilizations and have evolved over the centuries to become essential clothing accessories in modern time. However, for many cultures of color they are more than just a fashion accessory.

“For the Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other communities of color, hoops  represent a symbol of pride, an expression of individuality and a connection to their culture” states Nicole Acosta, the creator of a Hoops Portrait series taking place Arts at Large gallery in Milwaukee’s Southside.

The exhibit features portraits of folks rocking their hoop earrings, which Nicole Acosta photographed herself to showcase the significance of what hoop earrings mean to communities of color from diverse cultural backgrounds.  Nicole’s Hoops series, which is an ongoing project, has sparked a lot of attention at the local and national level, creating a movement amongst hoop lovers who feel a special bond to the round shaped earrings.

We talked to Nicole Acosta about her experience working on the hoop portraits for this exhibit and the cultural importance of this project.

About the artist: Nicole Acosta, is a first generation multi-disciplinary Mexican artist born and raised in Milwaukee.  Her background as an artist includes an extensive line of work in the visual arts, written word and photography, being in the art industry for many years and a well-established artist in the city.  Nicole is also a member of LUNA (Latinas Unidas en las Artes), a collective of diverse Latinx artists comprised of 30 members. LUNA, founded in 2017 has the mission of empowering the Latinx artists community in Milwaukee.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

MKÑ: What inspired you to begin taking hoop earring portraits?

Nicole: Well I love taking photographs and love hoop earrings! But this ongoing project started from the hoops exhibit LUNA held back in the summer of 2019.

LUNA applied to 30×30 show at a local white owned art gallery that is located in the Southside where many LUNA members grew. We were rejected by the local white owned gallery, but thankfully the Urban Ecology Center showed an interest in our show and offered us a space.

So for this collaborative project at the Urban Ecology Center, my idea was to photograph every LUNA member wearing hoops to promote the show. I took the pictures and then all the LUNA artists shared their portraits along with their stories on social media. By doing this, we ended up getting a lot of attention to the actual show that we were promoting. However, many people thought that they were coming to see hoop portraits, but really each LUNA artist created a piece of art inspired by hoop earrings.

Click here to see a video and learn more about LUNA!

After that, people started to reach out asking if I could take their hoops portrait. This inspired me to create free and open hoops portrait sessions. It was a great experience that formed its own energy with a life of its own.

MKÑ: How did the idea of making the Hoops Exhibit at Arts at Large come about?

Nicole: When I announced a second community shoot, a young journalist, Nyesha Stone, from Carvd  N’ Stone, reached out to write a piece about the portraits. As soon as the article got published, it went viral on social media! This is when people from all over shared the article. What was the most beautiful part for me was, seeing people sharing the article along with their own hoops stories. Reading their stories and seeing how this project resonated with people, made me realized the huge responsibility I had behind this project.

That is why at the beginning of 2020, I wrote a letter to myself for my New Year’s resolution. One of my goals for the year was apply for a couple of art residencies to focus on my hoops portrait project. I was able to secure an art residency at Arts at Large which is where my current Hoops exhibit is taking place.

Nicole’s current and ongoing Hoops Portrait Project is part of the “Energy and Power: History, Hoops & Words of affirmation” exhibit at Arts at Large.  Thirty Six of Nicole’s hoops portraits are displayed in this exhibit with images that feature people from different ethnic background, religions and age. The photographs were taken the fall of 2019 during the two open sessions that Nicole held in the community. For this exhibit, each person photographed was also asked to submit their own personal story, asking them: “What do hoop earrings mean to you?”

MKÑ: What are some of the stories behind the portraits that you would like to share with us?

Nicole: One of my favorite portraits is of Sasha Bariffe, who I met working on this project and become very good friends with. Sasha is Afro-Latina who went to school to become a midwife.  For her certifying exam, she wore her hoop earrings as a symbol of strength.

Her story reads: “The North American Registry of Midwives has a history of treating Black and Brown midwifery candidates poorly. For my certifying exam, I wore a shirt that said “Decolonize Midwifery” and my Hoops for strength, but also because they took a photo for your file and I wanted them to remember me. I am the 1st Afro-Latina Certified Professional Midwife in the entire state of Wisconsin. I will do whatever I can to make my care accessible and hold the door open for other student midwives of color to get to where I am.”

Sasha’s portrait was important to me because of her story and for representation purposes because, I think a lot of times people think of Latinas as being light fair skin women and a lot of time erasing the stories of Black Latinas. So it was important to me to feature that yes, she is Afro-Latina and we should respect and honor her existence and her story, because there is a need for this representation.  

Another portrait I like a lot is of Desiree Schocko,  who is Native American women.   She came to one of the open sessions and brought  her feather and her fan.

Her story reads: 
“The hoop represents equality, connectedness, family ties, and for most the never-ending circle of life. Indigenous people use the shape of the hoop/circle as a symbol for our powwows, ceremonies, traditional housing, cycle of the seasons, and the four directions. The hoop earrings signify all those aspects and I feel beautifully connected when I wear my quilled hoop earrings.”

There is also the portrait of my best friend Jazmin Delgado, who is a Latina and talked about how she never thought she was good enough to wear hoop earrings.

Her story reads as follow: “To me hoop earrings mean that I am enough. For most of my adolescent years I’ve always felt that hoop earrings were rejecting me. Whenever I would hold a pair of hoops up to my ears I would hear them whisper “you’re not worthy enough or brave enough to wear us.” To be seen with them hanging from my earlobes I was allowing myself to be seen which was something I feared. To me only the brave and fearless girls I surrounded myself with wore big beautiful hoop earrings so why wasn’t I enough? As I grew older I started realizing that it was never the hoops that were telling me I wasn’t enough it was myself. Now every time I look in my mirror putting on my hoops I am always reminded that I am enough.”

When Maria walked into the session I was so excited because I had been reaching out to my elders to stop by but wasn’t having any luck. Additionally, Maria is Muslim and wore her Hijab. Her story is so damn beautiful to me and an important one to highlight. 

Her story reads: “I choose to cover because I’m Muslim. No one sees my hoops, but I know they are there. I wear earrings every day. But when I wear my hoops, I feel feminine and fierce. The hoops make me feel Mexican. In my head I’m that calendar girl holding the Mexican flag–boys aren’t the only ones with hoop dreams. I’m proud to be a Muslim, proud to be a woman and proud to be Mexican.”

The last story I want to share is about Zakia Wells. Zakia and I were chosen as artists-in-residence this year at Arts at Large. If I’m not mistaken the first time two women of color are showing together in their gallery. I’ve become a huge fan of her work and the affirmative presence she brings to a space. I am honored to show alongside her. 

Her story reads: “Hoops are power and pure divine expression for me. I wear this spiked hooped in honor of my sister who passed away in 2015. The same year I entered college and went through a total mental breakdown, in my mind, heart, friendships, and even my vision for my life; all were destroyed. I wore the pair of spiked hoops to my first adult artist event; feeling the safety of my sister. She always loved huge jewelry and each time I wear hoops or I paint my nails; I think of her and how I prayed daily for the strength to her get through the years of suicidal depression, sexual trauma, and the transformation of my soul. In turn; I gained sisters from different walks of life. I gained love, empowerment, and joy. These hoops represent to me; how death can transform into life. I wear her jewelry proudly and loudly as her voice was in this life. Hoops are hope, joy, and freedom all in one.”

MKÑ: What have you learned from working on this project that maybe you didn’t know before?

Nicole: So as I started to dig more into the history of hoop earrings, I read that archaeologists found that the oldest pair of hoop earrings date from 2500 years ago and were worn by Sumerian men and women. They then traveled through Egypt and all over the world.

What I learned was Black, Latinx, Indigenous and other communities of color all share a common love for hoop earrings.

I came across a mural created at a college campus in L.A. that read “White Girls, Take Off Your Hoops” and it got me thinking about how hoop earrings are not “owned” by Black, Brown or Indigenous people, but that they are very much engrained in our cultures.

I also learned that our hoop experiences can be similar but also very different. For instance, I have a picture of me at my Quinceañera changing into my bigger hoop earrings that my Abuelita gifted me. Then, there are stories from Black women like this: “I always wondered if, and when I wear them, how “unprofessional” they come of but I love them! Hoops make me feel so beautiful, so voluptuous, and so Black.”-LaTrenda Leonard Sherrill.

I also kept several screenshots of people’s stories, but this is one of my favorites:

So stories likes these not only show the importance of hoops to each culture but it also shows that hoop earrings are also a bridge that connects these cultures.

MKÑ: What is your personal connection to Hoop Earrings?

Nicole: To me, Hoop earrings remind me of my grandmother. My Grandma was a big part of my life. I called her “Wela” but her name was Trinidad. She was hilarious, I feel I got my humor from her, she was so funny.  And she was always decked out with huge “Virgen” chains, medallions, and rings on all her fingers. Jewelry was her thing! But I was not like that growing up, I was more of a rough around the edges kind of kid, but I would always play with her jewelry. So, for me, hoop earrings are a reminder of tradition and passing down our mothers’ dreams and hopes.
As an adult, I never leave the house without a pair of hoops on.

MKÑ: What is the message you are trying to get a across with this exhibit and your work?

Nicole: The message is about breaking down stereotypes and reclaiming part of our cultures that may be perceived as unprofessional. It is a moment for us to recognize that hoop earrings are much more than just accessories. I hope that everyone’s hoop stories will lend themselves to breaking down stigmas attached to hoop earrings. But most importantly, it is a moment for people to recall memories, stories and what they mean to them.

For me, as an artist, is also important to document our experiences while we are here, and I think is important for Black and Brown people to do the documentation. For the longest time, white people have been documenting us and have held the lens and shaped our narrative. It is important for people of color to take that back and document our own narratives.

So as a Latinx photographer, this exhibit is claiming a space in hopes that maybe in the future, Black, Brown and Indigenous people will be inspired to also pick up a camera and document their own experiences as well.  It is more than just exposing culture through photography; it is about claiming a space for voices who are usually silenced or erased.

Photos for article provided by Nicole Acosta.

You can see Nicole Acosta’s Hoops Portraits at Art’s at Large through October 16, 2020. For more information visit artsatlargeinc.org.

To see more of Nicole’s work visit: www.atsocanicole.com
Nicole Acosta on Instagram @atsocanic

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