Just in a brief conversation with , it becomes clear she has three key priorities: caring for her family, creating art, and overall physical and mental wellness. As a single mother living Fairfax, Virginia, balancing all three takes strength. However, Wandera has found a positive outlet to maintain her peace and mental health: art.

“Art is in itself a form of therapy because it allows us to dig deeper into our spirit and to ourselves,” Wandera told The Informer. “Art is the closest language of the spirits. I really believe that. It just makes you feel more connected with yourself and the universe as a whole.”

For the Kenyan-born artist and mother, art allows Wandera to unplug from life and the world’s daily stressors.

“There’s a magic in there when you’re able to create or just engage in creativity. It’s what makes us human at the end of the day, especially in this world where there’s so many struggles,” she said. “It’s an election year, there’s a war going on. There’s environmental disaster, impending themes tend to be just getting worse and worse every day. It’s important to take that time and just recognize your humanity. And for me, having this artistic practice helps me recognize that within myself.”

As Wandera uses art to process her own trials, the Gay Men’s Chorus of ߲ݴý (GMCW) is examining major topics surrounding societal classifications and cultural identities in “Portraits: An Exploration of Sexual, Gender, Racial, and Cultural Identity.”

Nicole Wandera's "Strange Fruit," will be featured in the Gay Men's Chorus of ߲ݴý's premiere of "Portraits: An Exploration of Sexual, Gender, Racial and Cultural Identity" on June 16. (Courtesy photo)
Nicole Wandera’s “Strange Fruit,” will be featured in the Gay Men’s Chorus of ߲ݴý’s premiere of “Portraits: An Exploration of Sexual, Gender, Racial and Cultural Identity” on June 16. (Courtesy photo)

In its world premiere on June 16 at the Kennedy Center, “Portraits” will feature nine artists, nine composers and nine choreographers from across the U.S. and abroad, collaborating to create an original multidisciplinary work. 

“We have 27 artists from diverse cultures, orientations, genders, ages, and backgrounds, coming together to create an original work that will tell an aspect of the human experience,” says Thea Kano, GMCW Artistic Director.  “Not only is the artistic element visually breathtaking, but the overarching message of inclusion truly matters at this time. I hope that members of the audience will take comfort and support from seeing themselves represented, and audiences will leave the theatre with a sense of connection to the portraits and a deeper appreciation that regardless of race, sexuality, or gender, we are all human.”

Wandera’s “Strange Fruit,” is one of the works selected for GMCW’s “Portraits,” in collaboration with composer Paul Leavitt and choreographer Catherie Oh.

“This piece is inspired by mental health in the Black community, and how Black men rarely have a safe space to be vulnerable and express themselves. The name of the piece is inspired by Nina Simone’s version of ‘Strange Fruit,’” Wandera said in a statement about her work.

As she does with much of her art, Wandera told The Informer that “Strange Fruit” helped her as she worked to heal from tragedy.

“The person in the painting is a very important person to me. He was my partner at some point. And he unfortunately did struggle with bipolar. And so as his partner, I never really understood how to help him because in my background, we don’t really discuss mental health,” she explained.   “My way of understanding heavy emotions and trying to siphon through them is to paint. So that’s how I ended up creating this painting.”

Influenced by her own life, her partner’s tragic trials, and African roots, Wandera’s artwork was one of nine pieces selected out of 250 submissions.

“The painting itself has blue and orange and these are contrasting colors. And for me, it was a literal translation of having to deal with somebody who’s going through those struggles– the ups and downs, the warmth and the cold. And at the same time, the patterns that I created with those colors are patterns that are traditional in my culture, that are often used when a boy is becoming a man,” the artist explained. 

From the work, Wandera was able to create a healing masterpiece.

“While painting this and trying to understand the person, I guess I got more connected to the painting — making it more about mental health because it’s important,” she said.

Wandera’s personal art therapy aligns with medical studies. According to the : “Art can help us to emotionally navigate the journey of battling an illness or injury, to process difficult emotions in times of emergency and challenging events. The creation and enjoyment of the arts helps promote holistic wellness and can be a motivating factor in recovery.”

In creating work to help her cope, Wandera’s work — and that of the other artists, composers and choreographers — offer audiences a chance to heal as well. 

 “The beauty of the ‘Portraits’ project is that these are regular people, and we want people to see themselves represented on that stage,” said Kano.

WI Managing Editor Micha Green is a storyteller and actress from ߲ݴý, D.C. Micha received a Bachelor’s of Arts from Fordham University, where she majored in Theatre, and a Master’s of Journalism...

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