You were given a severance payout of $20,000, which became a significant moment at the beginning of your practice.
Yeah! It was a lot of money. AT&T Latin America basically said, “The bubble has burst, your job,” which was internet related, “is redundant, we can either give you half of your salary as a severance or, since you are management track, you can move back to New Jersey, work in Headquarters and stay on the corporate path”. I was like, “I’ll take the money, thank you”. The first thing I did was buy a camera, a twin lens Reflex. I wanted a Rollei but the camera store that I went to didn’t have one with a light meter that was working. So I ended up getting a Yashica GMat and the light meter ended up breaking two days later. I bought it for $700. It was a big purchase for me at the time. Now it doesn’t feel like much when we are spending $2000 + on computers, but it was a lot of money for me to spend on a camera.
Then I went to Ghana. My family has a house there and I wanted to go visit it. Because I am a person who needs a project, and consequently have a hard time just being somewhere or being on vacation, I decided that while I was in Accra I would do a photo series on Hip-hop. The idea came because a few years prior, while I was in university, Abeku, a student at our brother school, Morehouse, told me he was one of the first Hip-hop artists in Ghana. I remember the day that he told me that. I thought, “Hip-hop in Africa?, no way!!!!”. It was something that I never thought about: Hip-hop, music videos, concerts and Africa. I had never envisioned this for Ghana. So I called him up 4 years later and I said “I would like to do a documentary project on Ghana Hip Hop. Can you connect me to some people?”. And he did. That series was called Full Circle: A survey of Hip Hop in Ghana. That’s essentially how I started. I simply wanted to show something about Africa that people didn’t really think about.
When was that?
That was in 2001. A few months later, after a short stint in Johannesburg, South Africa, I came back home and while hanging out in New York, I met Marco Villalobos, a writer with The Fader, a notorious publication at the time. The two of us immediately started collaborating on love, life and research. Not long after, I was directed to Trace, another groundbreaking music and lifestyle publication. Claude Grunitzky, its founder, published an interview and a small photo essay from my Ghana project. It was my first 'tare sheet'. I was finally 'published'. From there, I got the bug and wanting to do more magazine stuff. I moved to Brooklyn and started running around the city shooting bands, djs, and concerts, started freelancing (emphasis on free) for Fader, Anthem and One World magazines. That was in 2002/2003.
During that time my professional relationship with Marco began to flourish. He is Mexican American, born and raised near Sacramento, CA. He came to NYC to do his Masters in Creative writing. Not long after we met I somewhat randomly asked him if he had heard about Black Mexicans. I had come to the subject because my undergraduate sociology thesis was on race relations in Latin America. I was looking at the difference between Afro-Latin communities like Cuba, and the Dominican Republic versus more Euro-Latin spaces like Chile and Argentina as compared to predominantly indigenous spaces like Mexico and Central America. It was a somewhat naïve project, but in the process I did a bit of research on Mexico and I found that to this day there are black communities nestled among the coastal fishing villages on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. Marco and I discovered we had a shared interest in the subject so we started to going to the 'Costa Chica' and Vera Cruz on the Gulf side. This became the African by Legacy, Mexican by Birth (ALMB) series. It was a collection of portraits and creative non-fiction about a slave rebellion tat took place in 1608.
How did you get to Berlin?
I came to Berlin with Marco. His mentor, a satirical writer, Darius James, was working with the folks from B-Books, a feminist/anarchist/leftist bookstore in Kreutzburg. We instantly become a community with its employees/shareholders. They opened a lot of doors for us. On one hand it was so much less expensive living here than New York, but on the other hand we were super charged creatively and intellectually, not to mention there was cultural acceptance as full-time working artists here.
And Universitat der Kunst?
Our friend Tara Herbst, now Tara Mahapatra, was one of our closest friends from B-Books. She’d studied under iconic photographer Katharina Sieverding a professor at Universitat der Kunst (UdK). She had this really lovely Masters program with an open door policy (much to the chagrin of the school). She felt it enriched her students. Rather than just having enrolled students she would invite other people around. One day Tara said, “Go, show your work, I think they would really enjoy it and Khaterina will loooooove you”. So I did. I presented Full Circle and a bit of African by Legacy and Katharina said, “Keep coming, keep coming”. So I did.
Did those classes change the way you thought about your practice?
That was when I first started engaging in critical thought. I began thinking about issues of representation, questioning my position as an American, as a Black person, as a woman. I began to ask myself if and how that subjectivity changed how people interacted with me as my subjects, and subsequently as viewers of the work. There were a lot of very difficult questions that I had to answer in that class. I started thinking about my work differently. At the same time I was deeply involved in developing my practice. I started printing large format. I had done some printing during my undergrad fine art elective classes, but Katharina took it to another level. She had a lab for large-scale prints. I was swimming in the chemistry, making billboard sized prints. I really enjoyed that, but the bulk of the education at UdK was really the theory and the crit.
What was it like showing your work in a critique environment?
It was a rough crowd. There was one person in particular who said, “If I had taken these photographs it would have been problematic.” He tore me to shreds. He said, “As a white European man in Mexico, taking picture of people because they are black, that’s problematic. It’s racialising them”. For him, the fact that my subject was the black body was absolutely racist and, hence, disgraceful. He could not understand it. He also could not understand why I was able to put this work out there. He knew he could not have gotten away with it. I stand behind the project and what I was doing, but there is something valid about that question. That was the moment I began to question my subjectivity.
Is that when you started to use your own body in your photographs?
Not immediately. That conversation was happening around 2004/5. I started performing in my work in 2009/10. At this point I was still in the middle of ALMB. In fact we went back to Mexico, then went to Nicaragua and Colombia to do a bit more work on African descendants in Latin America. That was followed by a traveling exhibition. Then in 2007, I went back to South Africa. At the time I was still doing quite a bit of documentary/ reportage work. I kept going. I was confident. Harsh Udk crits aside, I still felt what I was doing was necessary in terms of shifting the gaze, expanding the map, and presenting other images of the black body.
But my time in Berlin quietly destabilized me, his questions nagged at me for years. It implanted thoughts around representation. It made me think about my practice differently. Then Paris happened. By this time Marco and I had stopped collaborating and I shifted my base to Johannesburg. In 2009 I was invited to Mali to present work for the Bamako Photography Biennial. While there, Barthelomy Togou, an artist friend said, “You should come to Paris”, and he told me to speak to Lucy Touya from Institute Francais, then Cutrure France. I did, and ultimately secured a residency at the Cite des Artes.
It was the first time I was faced with four white walls. At that point, that was not how my practice functioned. I’d never needed a studio. Everything happened outside. I went to people’s homes. They never came to me. To add to it I didn’t speak French at the time. There was a communication barrier. So in Paris I was faced with a lot of obstacles.
Socially as well. Much like in Berlin everyone wanted to know where in Africa I am from. Non-Blacks especially would ask, “So where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from? But where are your parents from? … Grand parents?”. Ultimately I’d say, “Trans- Atlantic slave trade… you figure it out. I wish I knew”. Which usually was followed by “Oh” … awkward pause … then, “So this must be your first time traveling”. Seriously stupid questions. “Your family must be so proud that you’ve gone to college and done so well”. To which I’d say, “In my family I’m among the least educated and only average in the travel department”. I was becoming fatigued about these kinds of things. I constantly found myself explaining myself. Trying to stop people from looking at me in a one-dimensional way.
After one of those tiresome evenings I had the thought, “I wish I could multiply myself so that all these different aspects could walk into the room with me. Everyone would see us, process our diversity and then I’d go back to being my singular self and have a normal conversation”, rather than constantly finding myself the subject of some kind of anthropological study. So that night, Leapfrog was born. Back among my four white walls, I decided to multiply myself into these black woman archetypes spanning a century. Woman who existed. Women I wish others could see when they see me. Yes, there is the servant; yes, there is the slave; yes, there is the educated one; the academic; yes, there is the activist; also the entertainer; yes, there is the super chic; the socialite, the transgender. All these people are me. My lineage. My legacy. Now lets talk about muffins.
Ultimately I decided to perform these roles because the voice of my harshest critic in the Seiverding class was always playing in the back of my mind. What is this really about? What am I really trying to do? Why do I feel the need to expand myself, my map? I realized that it was really about me wanting to feel more comfortable with my image and my body. It was true that it probably wasn’t the best idea to work through that using someone else’s body. What right do I have to attach my set of ideas, my obsessions to another person’s body? Even if they are Hip-hop artists, there is so much more complexity to their identity. With ALMB, yes they may be Afro-Mexican but they are also Mexican, who am I to assert them as black first. I’m putting that on them. Even if they signed up to be a part of my project, just in the act of editing the images a certain way I am putting something “on” their body. It began to nag me, so I shifted focus and began to explore a more personal journey.
Poverty Pornography was inspired by Geoff Dyer’s publication, The Ongoing Moment. How were you introduced to that book?
The way that came about was through Mikhael Subotzky. I was in Johannesburg and I had just started working on the Poverty Pornography. Again it was all about the representation of the black body in contemporary photography. We met at a party and I was telling him about how I was trying to highlight, and hence critique, reoccurring themes/stereotypes of the black body. He said that I have to read this book because it’s dealing with what I was talking about. It was quite formative because it is very much about recognizing and finding patterns in the history of photography. It also fortified the kind of work that I was doing. I was in fact chasing these ongoing moments. Motifs. I was questioning how we see; how we are taught to see. It was important to come across.
There are so many fantastic photographers coming out of South Africa at the moment who are challenging the role that photography has played as a weapon of colonial control.
This is an important moment. I am just one of many artists who have chosen to revisit the archive and step up to challenge it. Earlier today I was doing an interview with a journalist looking at the women’s body. We talked about how in recent times, people who have been the subject of inquiry are now participating in the examination. They/We are revisiting how they/we have been framed both figuratively and literally and also becoming architects of their/our own story. It’s happening with women. It’s happening with black people (read non-whites). It’s happening with former colonial subjects. People are picking up the camera and asserting themselves because it’s frustrating to be the subject of study and have no input to how you are being portrayed. South Africa is definitely taking the lead in terms of photography, but there is a whole generation of artists all over the 'global South' who are picking up the camera and really challenging photography with photography. I felt quite at home in what I had to say when I got to Johannesburg.
Being surrounded by this new generation of artists, was this something that you were thinking about when you moved to Johannesburg?
I fall backwards into all kinds of things. Usually when I want to do something, it hardly ever works out. To be honest, when I first got to Johannesburg after leaving Ghana in 2001, I was thinking to continue the Hip-hop series. But I had a hard time. While there is hip-hop in Johannesburg my contacts lead me to Kwaito, which is more akin to House music. So that was a bust. Also, I found South Africans to be quite suspicious of foreigners, so it was not very easy to just make something happen, and for good reason. Back to my Udk story I shouldn’t have it so easy. Back then, in Ghana, I found, everyone wanted to talk to the American girl. There was undue deference. Perhaps because there is a longer history of black Americans in Ghana. In South Africa, there was a lot of meddling and weirdness coming from foreigners during the post apartheid times. Lots of Westerners coming with a savior mentality. Black Americans were no exception. So often before I would open my mouth Joburgers were like, “I don’t need you to save me, just go away with that”. And “no, you can’t take my picture”.
So it was difficult at first. But I understood it. I shouldn’t be able to just turn up and expect people to let me take their picture. So, long story short, it was a bit of a failed experiment. But when I went back in 2007, I met photographer Liam Lynch, who was shooting for Dazed and Confused mag. At the urging of my housemate, I showed him some of my work and he said, “What are you doing living in Sandton, you have to come to Parktown and see some of these galleries”. He introduced me to Lolo Valehko, another woman photographer who had just done an amazing series on downtown street culture and fashion. At the time she was having a show of new works at the Goodman Gallery. I missed the opening, but the three of us hung out afterwards. I immediately fell into their friendship group and I met other photographers and visual artists and I started gallery hopping. I almost exclusively socialized around the arts. I moved to Newtown in the Central Business District (CBD), which at that time was unheard of for a “middle class girl like me”. But the Brooklynite in me found home in “town”. It informed my practice in ways I cannot articulate. Through my network I was pushed into the space of “fine art’ rather than documentary.
Prior to that, I was working at an NGO and was already considering another path for my life. Liam and Lolo snapped me out of it. I met my gallerist very quickly after that. I remember Monna [Mokoena] saying, “You’re work is great, I’ll take your book, but my gallery program is packed for the next three years”. He may as well have said, “Don’t hold your breath”. I thought, ok, he’s blowing me off. But then I started going to all of the MOMO openings. I would see him and he would ask me questions about what I was working on, wanted to know if I was showing anywhere. I think what sealed it for him was a show here in Berlin at Galerie Peter Herrmann. A controversial, yet seminal figure in the Contemporary African Art world. He gave a lot of us our first shows.
Monna came to see that show and shortly thereafter, brought me into the program. He then put me in front of the curators of Bamako and I was curated into the Biennale. This lead to the four white walls in Paris, where I multiplied myself into the ‘Leapfrog’ series. And in 2010 almost 3 years to the day, I first appeared on the walls of Gallery MOMO. For me, South Africa is ground zero. Nothing would have happened without South Africa. Like Berlin, cost of living is such that I can live there. I can afford to make work. There is respect for my field. And now, more than a decade since I shipped my practice overseas New York is beginning to look at me. I’m proud of that, but honestly I have South Africa, Berlin and Paris, to thank.
Your practice has predominantly used the static portrait. In a recent group exhibition at Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, you exhibited Wild as the Wind, a self-portrait that shows you running. Is the use of movement a new direction in practice?
Absolutely. It’s a movement study. Everything that I am doing at the moment is about that. I am looking for motion and weightlessness. I want to shake the load off. My work has always been quite political. It is perhaps aesthetic, but it is ultimately a form of activism. I want to liberate the black body.
Earlier this year the ‘Black Lives Matter’ dramas filed my social media. Everywhere I turned I was met with heaviness. The criminalised black body was shoved back in my face. Even in the age of Obama, our husbands, brothers, fathers and sons were being publicly lynched on what felt like a daily basis. The Ongoing Moment. Truthfully that’s been the case for centuries, but in this moment I became acutely aware that there was nowhere to hide from that set of images. I nearly turned off my Facebook account to shield myself from news that everyday another man was being murdered by the police. But it would have done no good. Everyone I knew was talking about it constantly. Black, White or Other.
To add to it, I had the 'fortune' of a successful series that also talked about profiling. I literally had nowhere to turn. Archival Impulse and Poverty Pornography were quite celebrated, which I was and still am grateful for. But what I didn’t foresee was how traumatic that success turned out to be for me. I produced those series in order to call attention to and hence to 'exorcise' certain demons. What I didn’t foresee was that in explaining and defending the work, I would have to constantly revisit and talk about these traumas and my relationship/ experience with them.
So somewhere around mid 2015 I decided that when I went back into the studio I wanted to counter all the static heaviness with movement and weightlessness. That’s all I want right now; lightness, movement … freedom. So in Wild as the Wind we have an idea of what she is running from and we have hope for where she is going, but what I want to focus on, is the fact that in that moment she is kinetic. She is moving. She is free. That is the space I want to be in at the moment.
Interview Berlin 2015