The interview on "The Black Woman: Power and Grace" and about Kamoinge will be coming out soon in Slate Magazine France.
Why and how did you decide to settle this exhibition?
Kamoinge decided to do this exhibit because the time was now. The black woman's power and influence is on the rise and at the same time she faces many uphill battles culturally and professionally. She has always been the backbone of our families and churches. The black woman is a pillar in our community. Today, more black women are obtaining their graduate degrees than ever. The black woman is the breadwinner in quite a few households, she is a supermom and a rising force in politics and business. In most professional settings she has to work twice as hard for respect. She is still objectified and their is a long history of stereotypes that need to be shattered. We wanted the world of men, women and children to see her greatness. The time was right to honor her and show a nuanced narrative of her to the world. We love the black woman. We stand by her and behind her. Their aren't enough photos or images seen of us loving and supporting each other in public. Its in our family photo albums but the world does not have to access to that. We can't just rely on entertainment and school to educate and change perceptions. Photography and media are an even more powerful tool now in the era of cell phones, laptops and social media. Their are a lot more Michelle Obamas, Ibtihaj Muhammads and Meghan Markels out here but they are not seen. The black woman is perseverance, strength, love, faith and excellence. She is the MVP!
How long have you been working on it?
About twenty years this project was discussed by our current President Adger Cowans. Over the past fourteen years since I've been in Kamoinge it has come up several times. It was last summer when I decided put out a request for photos because I felt the exhibit would be very timely. We did not have a contract with a gallery but I knew the exhibit had to be in a location that we had not shown before. The gallery had to have a strong following and it would have to put us in a position to raise awareness to a new audience unfamiliar about our mission in Kamoinge and the black woman. in 2017, Karen Gaines of Photography Collections Preservation Project reconnected me with Catherine Johnson of the National Arts Club to discuss the show. Catherine and i met up in December and agreed to do the exhibit in May, 2018. Kamoinge started looking at photos collectively in the beginning of the year. Later on, a committee would form of Adger Cowans, John Pinderhughes, Daniel Dawson and yours truly to do a tighter edit. We reached out to several women in the group to be on the committee but many of were traveling, had their own exhibits, were on assignments or had scheduling conflicts.
How did you choose the photographers?
When I sent out the call for photos in the summer of 2017 I extended it to all the membership. The majority of the group submitted work. Kamoinge decided that we wanted this show to be inclusive of the majority of the members. We ended up having twenty-three photographers submit work. Our active membership is twenty-five people mainly based in NY. Some in Philadelphia, Texas and one of our founding members in California (Al Fennar) who just passed away.
Why did you call it power, grace and beauty?
We voted on the title "The Black Woman: Power and Grace" because we all thought it was fitting for black women past and present. The black woman has always embodied power and grace but it isn't seen in society enough. The black woman's power and grace is uplifting and overwhelmingly positive but not everyone sees her that way. Her beauty ranges in hue, her values, drive, intelligence, strength, activism, spirituality, confidence, fearlessness, shape and boldness. Over the years a lot of reality tv and other programming in the states have not shown a lot of black women at their best but have put her in the position to gain fame or wealth. These negative depictions have had a damaging affect psychologically on how to achieve success, self worth and love. The foundational virtues of the black woman is what we need to see more of. Its imperative for the black community, America and the world of men, women and children to see an image that can be looked up to and respected.
Are African-Americans photographers underrepresented? If yes, how do you explain it?
Great question. Yes we are under-represented. Organizations like Kamoinge, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Studio Museum of Harlem and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. exist because of this. If you was to look up ten galleries most wont have any photographers who are black or they might have one or in some cases if you have a "progressive" minded gallery owner two. Kamoinge has been around fifty plus years doing great work and I can say that only 25 - 30 percent of our photographers are represented by an agency or gallery. Four of which occurred within the the past five years. It took forty years for our work in the 1973 Black Photographer's Annual to be recognized by a mainstream museum (the Virginia Fine Arts Museum). Getting our work published has been an uphill battle over the years. Recently a notable publisher met with Kamoinge. They asked us to submit ten themes of books we could do and the only one they were interested in doing with us was on old Harlem. We refused! Magnum Photos is another example of under representation. This international photo agency has been around for seventy years and it has only welcomed one black photographer on staff. This is indefensible. As far as museums, very few of us are in the permanent collections of mainstream museums that are not African American. A lot of photos of black people that have been acquired were not made by black people. An outsider can have a unique perspective but too often the focus has been on the issues in black communities, void of dignity and missing our triumphs. This has created a monolithic view of black lives. The world has not been educated visually on the excellence of Africans and African Americans. The under-representation has misinformed the world and fed racist beliefs. How many times are we going to see a naked sick child representing poverty in Africa? This is a big problem. It has created more distrust with both races and more distrust of media. Under representation has hurt black photographers ability to take care of their families and our art has often been devalued if its not represented or endorsed by someone who is white or if we did not go to an elite university. Museums, educational institutions, not for profit organizations, magazines, newspapers and the commercial industry have not not put enough resources into employing our vision and voice to be equal with authors, curators and photographers who are white. If their were more solo or group exhibits of our work while we are alive a cultural shift could occur that could raise awareness for everyone. Last year, James Estrin of the NYTimes wrote two articles on the lack of diversity in the photo industry. In addition, the NYTimes also did a story "Its a Diverse City but Most Big Museums Boards are Strikingly White." All of these articles were very telling but not shocking to us in the African diaspora. It is our hope that more people who are not black see the value in addressing this matter of inequality and under representation.
What are the biggest challenges for African-Americans photographers?
We have to work twice as hard to be seen or get our work recognized by someone in the industry, their is no room for error when you're black, employment is not evenly distributed, our art is often seen lower in value even when we are accomplished, grant opportunities to be on panels and being benefactors of the top grants are few. The majority of us would love to be on the playing field for some photo festivals and art fairs like AIPAD NYC but to have a booth to sell your work at AIPAD NYC is an exorbitant amount of money. Getting our work seen by international audiences and showing our work in galleries or museums overseas is not easy. This is why I'm so happy to do this interview. The warm reactions from near and far on our current exhibit have been energizing to see. The National Arts Club has proved to be a great venue to show our work. We don't focus on the challenges of the industry, we focus on producing great work. That is what we want to be know for and that is what we are committed to.
How does photography help to empower African-Americans/ black women?
Positive images uplift. A lot of images in media and publishing have not shown enough African Americans or Africans in a positive light or in positions of humanity. This is psychological violence. Our educational structures have not created curriculums that are inclusive of the significant achievements Africans, Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans have made in history past and present. When this becomes mandatory in all schools and not an elective for people to learn then we will have made progress. Images of us as slaves, criminals, poor, broken, entertainers or as sexual objects is something we have to fight against everyday. Dr. Deborah Willis University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University has dedicated her career towards shifting this with countless books, exhibits, talks and even a documentary about black photographers. Curator Shantrelle P. Lewis has done this as well with various exhibits and her Aperture published photo book "Danydylion" dedicated to black men with style. Dr. Sarah E. Lewis of Harvard University is another pillar doing great work domestically and internationally. Lola Flash has documented the LGBTQ community for thirty years, Delphine Fawundu and Laylah Amatullah Barrayn published a book last year dedicated to women photographers of the African diaspora. All of this work is important in raising awareness and empowering black women and girls. When you see an image you identify with it can stop you in your tracks and generate a range of thoughts or emotions. A photo can inspire you or educate you. It can confirm a dream or goal in mind. When you see someone who looks like you doing work like this that's meaningful, artistic and educational that reaches you in a deep place that makes you want to be the best that you can be. So many of us are influenced by what we see as opposed to what we are taught. More balanced images of what it is to be black by black photographers should be supported across the globe by anyone who believes inequality is a global crisis. The perception versus the reality of who we are can change if governments put their muscle behind this. The times we are living in right now are scary. Racial and gender intolerance are at a tense place. More films like "Hidden Figures" need to be made. The triumphs of great women like Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou are not seen enough. Work is being done to move in a progressive direction but black men and women cannot do it alone. We need people of all races and ethnicities of good conscious to join us in this effort to deconstruct inequality and under representation.
* Russell Frederick is a co-organizer of the exhibition and Kamoinge’s vice president. For any inquiries, contact Russell Frederick.