The Role of Activism

The Role of Activism

What does it mean to be an activist? How can we use social media? In the age of Instagram, Houston Center for Photography considers visual identities.

Documentary photographer. Radical Activist. Cultural Pioneer. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Kwame Brathwaite (b. 1938) – with the support of his brother Elmobe Brath and the African Jazz Arts Society and Studios (AJASS) – created monumental shifts, sparking the phrase “Black Is Beautiful.” Brathwaite’s movement inspired communities to embrace their heritage and visual identity, resisting the standards of a Eurocentric fashion industry. The work developed beyond concerts, exhibitions and events, developing into merchandise and successful advertising campaigns urging communities to “Buy Black” and “Think Black.” With the help of the Grandassa Models – a group of women that became icons of empowerment – the message was clear: to reclaim the self. 

Houston Center for Photography (HCP) celebrates Brathwaite’s legacy and wider reputation as an activist and influencer – challenging mainstream ideals and popular imagery. Tools of Revolution showcases the work of three innovative contemporary artists that “construct, elevate and celebrate” the black body. Arielle Bobb-Willis, Micaiah Carter and Dana Scruggs offer new narratives, creating modes of communication through the power of the image. Ashlyn Davis, HCP’s Executive Director and Curator, discusses the relevance of the show today and how these exciting new names push the boundaries of physicality and visual representation. 

A: How did you begin planning this show? Why did you decide on using three photographers?

AD: I was keen on bringing Kwame Brathwaite’s work to the Houston community – largely because it sits at the intersection of fashion, music, identity, politics and the Civil Rights Movement. The exhibition provides numerous entry points to engage with Brathwaite’s powerful body of work – one that has largely been overlooked by the broader arts community. At the same time, I felt it was important to expand the narrative of his career by rooting the discussion in the contemporary moment. This includes showcasing the portfolios of three young photographers who work in similar inventive ways – at the nexus of fashion and activism. For the curation, we limited our selections to Brathwaite’s work alongside three contemporary photographers. It is important to illustrate each artist’s broader practice and create context for the work they create in detail. If this was a more expansive group exhibition – with only one or two pieces from many practitioners – it would be easy to read that work in isolation rather than as a whole. Each of the young photographers selected – Micaiah Carter, Dana Scruggs and Arielle Bobb-Willis – is prolific in their practice. They each have very personal inspirations that motivate their work, and these are key to how they operate in the wider world.

A: How do their works connect and contrast with one another in the space? How have you organised the exhibition – structurally, thematically or formally? 

AD: The exhibition begins with Brathwaite’s work, which is hung loosely in chronological order, from the 1963 photograph of the Wigs Parisian protest to the 1970s portrait of Marvin Gaye, in order to illustrate the cultural context of the more widely seen studio portraits of the Grandassa Models. Whilst Micaiah Carter’s aesthetic influence stems from his father’s scrapbook from the 1970s, there are echoes of Brathwaite’s work that are exciting to include in the same gallery space – as if the two generations are speaking directly to one another. The middle gallery contains Carter’s new video, Baby Boy, which is projected on a wall opposite images by Arielle Bobb-Willis and Dana Scruggs. Bobb-Willis and Scruggs are both focused on gestural, emotive bodies. Bobb-Willis’ figures highlight the multiplicity of the subject and the tension between what is presented to the world and what is felt inside. Scruggs’ portfolio celebrates the nude form in dancer-like compositions. The viewer moves from a very historical creative context into very contemporary interpretation of visibility and artistic output – from the editorial to the conceptual.

A: Though Brathwaite has been widely revered for his work, it was not until May 2019 that his images were brought together with a major book and exhibition release with Aperture Foundation. How does Tools of Revolution sit within this timeline? Why is the show particularly important at this point now? 

AD: Tools of Revolution is part of a wider attempt to expand on this important publication and retrospective exhibition. We are putting Brathwaite’s work in conversation with a new generation of photographers who are similarly pushing back against the status quo and breaking down barriers in the fashion and editorial industries. Brathwaite’s legacy is not over, and that’s important to understand. It’s easy to look at historical photographs and reflect on how far we think we have come. However, when we consider these images and really interrogate the present moment, it becomes clear what work there still is to do, and, more importantly, that this work will never end as we continue to grow and shift as a society.

A: How are Bobb-Willis, Carter and Scruggs responding to Brathwaite’s legacy – offering new ways of decolonising fashion and the image and engaging with political rhetoric across both personal and editorial projects? 

AD: All the artists in Tools of Revolution are reclaiming the construction and portrayal of the black body to the black gaze – a place of collaboration between the black photographer and the black subject. Carter’s work is the most obvious in its political nature – in part because many of his subjects are well-known activists in the fashion industry, such as Ebonee Davis and Devin-Norelle. Bobb-Willis has a unique approach that feels collage-like in its composition – which can be interpreted in many ways. For me, it speaks to notions of intersectionality and the multiplicity of identity – the tension between that which is public and that which is private. She looks at what we project outwards and what we keep inwards. Her practice charts its own path, rather than presenting viewers with something familiar. Meanwhile, Scruggs presents a clever defiance of the industry. She found it difficult to get editors to notice her images, so she started producing an eponymous publication. By doing this, she was able to speak to representatives as a fellow member of the press – giving herself a platform to be seen. The images on display are embodied with that assertive willpower.

A: Scruggs was has shot covers for Rolling Stone and ESPN’s The Body Issue – featuring bodies in motion. How does this exhibition mark the idea of the physical self?

AD: I would not say this exhibition marks the idea of the physical self, per se; however, it does highlight the power and importance of self-presentation as a form of resistance and the body as a site for political expression.  

A: Carter’s images directly relate to the Black Power movement and its legacy overseas in the 1970s – taking influence from his father’s scrapbook during the Vietnam War. How can we see this inspiration in his works? How do Carter’s works sit within the contemporary world – with rising social and political tensions? 

AD: It’s difficult for me to speak on behalf of Carter in this regard, as his father’s scrapbook of photographs is deeply personal. Carter cites the book as a major influence, partly because of the sense of openness and vulnerability of the subject in front of the lens. The images offer an intimate connection between the photographer and the subject – which is, in turn, a thread which runs throughout all the pieces in this exhibition. It’s one thing to portray blackness. It’s another to portray blackness through the black gaze, which is what Tools of Revolution achieves. This show is about reclaiming one’s image, and that reclamation is not constructed for a white gaze; it’s more complicated and more authentic.

A: How do you think these photographers demonstrate the power and potential of the image – through an online presence and physically within the gallery? 

AD: All of these artists have built far-reaching platforms for themselves online – these have become a way to circulate their portfolios and build connections. Especially on the revolutionary application of Instagram, the image is paramount – viewers either respond to it or they don’t, and then they move on. In a gallery space, however, there’s a unique opportunity to present pieces in a way that encourages a slower process of looking – because of the physical relationship between the photograph and the viewer. Audiences cannot quickly make the image disappear with a swipe of a screen. The most successful images, regardless of their subject matter, are those that lure viewers in through their formal capacities – colour, line, shape and light – and hold these elements in a conversation with the subject matter and what it represents. Especially in this exhibition – which is vibrating with colour, gesture, gaze, and a sense of music and movement – it’s difficult to want to look away at all. The wider collection becomes so alluring that the viewer wants to find out more and to dig deeper. For me, that’s one of the hallmarks of a powerful image, or indeed, exhibition.

A: What, for you, are some of the most important works in Tools of Revolution? How do they stand out to you?

AD: I would have to say Brathwaite’s portrait of his wife, Untitled (Sikolo Brathwaite with Headpiece designed by Carolee Prince) from 1968. It is commanding in its gripping sense of beauty as well as its relationship to community collaboration. Also, Micaiah Carter’s Armoni Boone and Darron Clarke for Kenneth Nicholson (May 2017) has such power. Two sets of eyes stare back at us from different moments in time.

A: What do you hope audiences take away from the show?  

AD: Fashion is about visibility. Visibility is political. Activism comes in many forms – from the wider organisation of communities to the decisions made when we get dressed daily.

Kate Simpson

Tools of Revolution, Houston Center for Photography, until 10 May.