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In Conversation With Nakeya Brown

black over woman

woman over black

black over woman

woman over black

each night, I twist my two-strands – Nakeya Brown

Nakeya Brown is a photographer on the rise. Currently pursuing an MFA at George Washington University, her work addresses the complexities of Black female identity with a specific focus on hair politics. Her photography – both still life and portraiture – is deliberately rooted in a feminist praxis, blending soft color palettes with distinct markers of Black hair care . On the occasion of the opening of her solo show, In Private Moments, I talked with Nakeya via Google Hangouts about her writing, rituals, and community.

Jessica: There is naturally and deservedly, so much praise for your photography. Though I’m curious about this other muscle you flex as an artist – the writing muscle. Can we spend some time talking about this? What is your relationship to writing?

Nakeya: That is super interesting because I’ve never had anyone ask me about my writings. I think I’m a much better writer than I am speaker. What I like about writing is how it allows me to think in phrases, think in incomplete ways, and abstract ways. When I speak like that, it doesn’t always translate as poetically. Sometimes I ramble when I speak but when I write I feel as if my thoughts are communicated better. What I like about writing is the freedom to talk in pieces and express not fully formed ideas that can resonate as they are.

J: So then how would you describe the relationship between your photography and your poetry?

N: I feel as though photography has always been my strongest form of communication. My writing supports my photography.

J: When you do write what does your process look like?

N: I usually write in my phone. I keep the notes application open and write in that app. Most of the time I’m jotting down streams of thoughts and I re-work it and re-work them until I think the piece is finished. Sometimes, if I’m using a word and I think the word is bland, I’ll even go to the thesaurus to find a new word in order to make the piece more dynamic. Before school I was writing mainly short free- form poems loosely tied to womanhood and my sense of identity. Since being in grad school, I find that I’m now writing about my practice and how I feel about my work in a more in depth way.

J:That’s actually a great segue for my next question. You and I talk often about your work but not necessarily about the process. What is your approach to the practice of photography? How are you thinking about it before you even pick up the camera? And then once you’re in the midst of a project, what does the execution mean for you?

N: It depends on the project. Some projects like the “Refutation of Good Hair”  for example, require a certain level of production – picking out models, picking out the clothing, picking out the palette. I had a vision of what I wanted but I didn’t have a project statement or anything written down. Everything figured itself out. I like when things can happen naturally more or less. I feel like I’m organized all the way up until the moment before the photograph has to be taken and from there I just let it happen. I shot that series in a couple of days. However, for “If Nostalgia were Colored Brown,” the process was much slower. I was searching for pieces of the puzzle which took a lot of prop searching, going to different vintage stores, trying to piece together small scenes that made sense. For that project I made a photo, loved it and decided to try an make another photo. I shot everything over a couple of months, a much longer process.

J: Is there ever a moment, either in conception or execution, where you say to yourself “ this isn’t working out?” And if you have those moments, do you pivot or do you continue to work through them?

N: Those moments are tough for me. Making something, having a vision in your head and then going to execute it and watching it crumble is a really hard thing to digest. I take that shit really hard. I try my best to prep as much as I can before hand and let things work themselves out on set but I find that if I’m not loving what I’m doing, I have to step away from the work a little bit.

J: I think you raise a good point there. Sometimes, I have to decide that my writing isn’t working and I have to let it go. When you get in those moments, how do you determine what’s working for you or I guess a better question would be, what is a failed photo?

N: For me, a good photo is a one that raises more questions than it answers. I’m not interested in making something that only has one point of entry. I like to think all of the work I’ve made so far has multiple entry points. If the photograph doesn’t do that, it doesn’t work.

J: Do you think about your photography in relation to other practitioners?

N: I find that I’m most interested in thinking about myself in relation to practitioners who are my contemporaries. People, I’m in school with, who are my age. I’m interested in having conversations with them about the state of our work. You know, I love Carrie Mae Weems. I love Lorna Simpson. I love Renee Cox. But they have been making work for so long. I think my work is still in its infancy. It’s still growing. It’s still maturing so I find that I’m more interested in having conversations with artists who are also at this point in their careers – emerging artists. It doesn’t matter what the medium is.

J: Does that mean that you don’t place your practice within a larger tradition that artist like Lorna or Carrie come out of?

N: No. I definitely think that in terms of approach and content I’m following in the path they have already blazed. As a female photographer of color, I’m focusing on identity politics – how race and gender construct identity. I’m doing it through hair politics but there is definitely that sense of self- awareness through the work that I’d say we share. I’m working in that same vein. But in terms of who I’m looking at to turn to and speak to, I think it’s important for me to have contemporaries, a circle of artist who are speaking the same language as me because its hard to do this alone. It’s important to have a group of people you can bounce ideas off of. I Skype with other Black girls in MFA programs and we’re asking each other what crits are like, what our programs are like, what our institutions are like. That’s so necessary.

J:Who are some of these contemporaries that you are looking at?

N: All the women of Mambu Badu. I love Mickalene Thomas. Latoya Ruby Frazier. Deana Lawson. They’re all badass. There are so many really.

J: It’s a good feeling when you can find a community and know that community gets you and speak your language even if they aren’t coming the same point. You all can exist in the same space and be safe together.

N: Right, that’s so important.

J: Switching gears a bit. Beauty is obviously a prominent theme in your work but there is also this strong presence of ritual as a motif in your photography as well. What are some of the rituals you undertake as a mother, as a student, or simply as a fly ass Black woman?

N: [laughs] Ritual Number 1: When in the car put on Magic 102.3 or WBLS. In terms of hair rituals, it’s the two strand twists. That’s usually my go to style. I don’t do them every night because sometimes I’m so pooped I just decide to rock the regular fro’ the next day, no frills just a regular fro’. Some of the rituals Mia and I share? I love telling her to strike a pose. I’ll say strike a pose and she’ll give me the cutest face ever. And then, you know,  we have our hair moments. Some moments are crazier than others especially when she is not in the mood but usually it’s Elmo, food and doing her hair as quickly as possible.

In Private Moments opens today at Five Myles Gallery in Brooklyn and runs until Sunday April 12th.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Jessica Lynne is Co-Editor of ARTS.BLACK

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