naima green’s quietly radical portraits of people of color in parks
Through photographs of black and brown creatives in green spaces, 'Jewels from the Hinterland' questions caricatures and complicates stereotypes.
"My backyard is not the typical narrative associated with blackness," says photographer Naima Green, who grew up in Westchester County, a lush suburb 25 minutes from New York City, where dwarf irises and aromatic herbs populated her yard. "I longed to see my experience reflected in mainstream media, but never did." Instead, Naima noticed that minorities were often depicted in cold, concrete spaces, which suggested desolation and decay. In order to share her own narrative, and present more comprehensive views of black experiences, Naima started photographing creative people of color in green spaces around New York City in 2013. Her Jewels from the Hinterland series now includes more than 80 portraits, including one of a rosy-lipped beauty with long braids lounging in wild grass, and a bearded man with bedroom eyes enfolded by a flowering tulip tree. "The idea of leisure is very important here," Naima explains in the following interview with i-D. "From my experience, people have a hard time with the quietude of blackness and this tension is what I'm exploring."
Why do you think American audiences are more comfortable with seeing black people as stereotypes or in stereotypical environments?That's a big question. When you can reduce someone to a stereotype, to an idea, you remove the humanity from his or her being. This lack of perceived humanity is what makes violence against black bodies and black people so much easier to take part in. One stereotype around blackness is that of incredible strength-and to be able to withstand so much violence one must be strong. However, that trope trickles through so many parts of society. I remember reading about a study earlier this year at UVA where researchers found that white medical students thought black people felt less pain. This is one example of the many ways stereotypes and racial bias impact black and brown people daily.
So you started Jewels of the Hinterland to more accurately reflect your experience, and others' experiences, as black in America? Is this why you took the portraits in nature?
Yes, natural green spaces have always been place of leisure and comfort for me- places where I play, exercise, read, meditate, relax and more. The idea of leisure is very important here. I've had a few people say that they can't understand my photographs because, for them, being black in nature conjures up images of slavery. I also met someone who admitted they had never thought about black people in nature as a place of comfort or leisure. That is incredible. And these are just the folks that are bold enough to say this in 2016. I'm sure others have thought it. I'm currently in an MFA program and a faculty member told me that the images were not "charged up enough." I continue to wonder and think about the notion that blackness can only be loud or flamboyant, and while it can be and is those things, blackness can also be quiet and subtle. From my experience, people have a hard time with the quietude of blackness and this tension is what I'm exploring. So yes, I created these portraits to reflect my experience and the experience of many, many others.
Regarding the people you photographed for this series, what have been their reactions?
Participant reactions are definitely a highlight in doing this work. People have told me that they've never seen a "more beautiful image" of themselves. It is affirming to see yourself and others pictured in a way that honors our beauty and strength and creativity. It is the feeling that brought me to tears when I walked through Kerry James Marshall's show, Mastry, at the MCA in Chicago. The visualization of blackness that is complex and nuanced and broad. It is incredible to see people view themselves as art objects and as something that is worthy of being preserved forever.
Which other artists are you inspired by that are also rejecting one-dimensional representations of black people and presenting them in more nuanced ways?
Barkley L. Hendricks, Dawoud Bey, Deana Lawson, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Mickalene Thomas and Wangechi Mutu are huge influences. Gordon Parks, Romare Bearden, James Van Der Zee and Alonzo Adams are artists I grew up learning about at home. Thinking about it now, I almost never learned about any artists dealing with the black experience in school until I got to college.
What is the next step in this series?
I am traveling to South Africa later this month to present my research on Jewels from the Hinterland at the 'Black Portraitures' conference. While away, I am going to shoot friends who are either from Johannesburg or Cape Town or who have histories and memories in those cities. I spent some time in Cape Town studying housing disparities years ago. I'm interested in revisiting different spaces and seeing the way black bodies are framed within green environments in these cities. I am approaching this trip very open to discovering things I did not expect.
What is more important: a beautiful photograph or a photograph that says something?
I can't say that I value one over the other, because an image has to be well crafted. In my mind, an image has to be beautiful; it has to be something that people want to look at. A professor of mine once introduced me to the rhizomatic theory, the idea that teaching and art-making need to have multiple entry and exit points. For me, the entry point into my work is often beauty. I am photographing stunning humans who people want to look at. And after the viewer is captured by beauty, I want them to think. I want the viewer to consider what my message is, to challenge their own perceptions of blackness and brownness, and to spend time with the picture. The photograph must say something and elicit a reaction, even if it is subtle, but equally so, aesthetics are paramount in my photographic process.
Text Zio Baritaux
Photography Naima Green