Often we think that art’s power comes only in its final form when it reaches an audience. But I’m here to tell you that the creation of art in itself can be a powerful conversation.
I discovered this when photographing my friend, Amena.
She and I were in an art gallery when I saw a set of photographs by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew that struck me. They were images depicting Indian and Native American people with titles that played on these words and stereotypes, like “American Indian” and “Indian American.”
I immediately pointed the photos out to Amena, and she stood stunned at the beautiful captures. We immediately came to the same conclusion that this was her, but with the titles “American African” and “African American.”
That’s when I knew I had to photograph her.
Amena is my best friend of twelve years. We had seen each other at our highest, lowest, and weirdest moments. And a lot of our lowest moments stemmed from conflict of identity.
Hers specifically was that she is Sudanese, which means she is black and Arab.
As she describes it, “I always have to give the whole history of what Afro-Arab means. It’s hard to identify as Afro-Arab with both Arabs and black Americans.
When I exist as both and belong to both groups, I feel isolated from both groups. I can never comfortably label myself as one thing because either I’m uncomfortable with narrowing my complex identity or because they’re skeptical and feel like there’s more to the story that they are entitled to know.”
[bctt tweet=”When I exist as and belong to both groups, I feel isolated from both.” username=”wearethetempest”]
I had heard some of the comments she’d received.
A black girl told Amena that she wasn’t black because she didn’t “act black.” Yet she’d feel prominently black when Arabs would think it was cute to use the n word in front of her or when people would say that all black men look like her brother and father.
Amena had to wade through several questions, labels, and hurtful comments that I couldn’t fully grasp until we talked about them frankly, primarily over FaceTime conversations at 2 a.m.
Some of the most prominent moments of conversation came when producing these pictures.
I’d photographed Amena before, but she was always just a model for whatever assignment I had for my photography class. This was different.
This was a piece about her and dug directly into the hurt she had experienced the past couple of years and was finally overcoming. Because of this, I knew I couldn’t just be the artist in this situation. I had to let her take control of certain things. While I had an image of what I wanted to portray, it was her who had final say, because these were her stories, and it was my role to listen.
However, I’m not here to talk about her identity, how much I understand what it’s like to be in her position (I don’t), and the history of it all.
I’m here to talk about art. Specifically, the conversations held behind the making of this piece of art.
Photography takes meticulous effort and planning. We were inspired by Mathew’s use of stereotype to get her point across, and we thought we should utilize it, too. We had to talk through how a stereotypical black and stereotypical African person would dress and pose, what setting they would be in, etc. Throughout this process, I learned about the two cultures and Amena’s relationship to each.
One moment I remember clearly is sitting in the car, prepping to take the “American African” photos. She was removing her makeup while I was Googling images of Sudanese henna. She pulled a sharpie out of nowhere and immediately started drawing on her hand the henna design I found.
Then we ran into the field and she showed me typical Sudanese poses.
The actual photo shoot was a rush to catch the sunlight, so we didn’t think about the photos we were producing until after they had been produced. When we saw them, it was kind of shocking.
Neither of the two photographs we consulted looked like Amena. That was precisely the point.
[bctt tweet=”Neither of the two women photographed looked like Amena.” username=”wearethetempest”]
We worked hard to exaggerate the stereotypical images of each identity, that we lost sight as to how fabricated they were.
Yet, as we took the photos, I could see parts of Amena in each of the identities. None of the images perfectly matched the stereotype, since she was the subject, and she herself did not fully match either stereotype.
With the “African American” photos, she dressed stereotypically black, but she was wearing a hijab. We don’t think of hijabs when we think of black Americans, but black Muslims exist, and Amena is one of them. To further push that point, she chose to wear a shirt with Muhammad Ali, an icon to both blacks and Muslims.
With the “American African” photos, she was clearly not in Sudan, but the closest thing you get to Sudan in Kansas. We don’t associate America’s heartland with Africans, but again, Sudanese Americans exist, and Amena is one of them.
[bctt tweet=”I often forget the boxes Amena is put in because I simply I see her as Amena.” username=”wearethetempest”]
I often forget the boxes Amena is put in because I simply see her as Amena, my intelligent, obnoxious (sorry, Amena), genuine, and loud friend. This photo shoot demonstrated how real those boxes were in a way our FaceTime conversations couldn’t.
On her end, she agreed to the photo shoot because she has a hard time putting her identity into words, and this was the opportunity to visually express it with someone she trusted. She says that this was a reminder that she doesn’t fit perfectly into either mold and that she doesn’t have to, while still allowing herself to appreciate aspects of each.
I’m sure there are different reactions to these photographs based on what each viewer carries with them, and I encourage that.
But it’s important to remember that it isn’t just the conversations that result from finished art that is important, but also the ones that create art. Difficult ones. Ones inspired from other conversations. Ones that lead to images that might not even be that impressive, but may touch someone else in the world who needed to overhear it.
In creation, there is a conversation, which can help promote a mending of our humanity.