Nakeya Brown’s New Photo Exhibition Documents Black Womanhood

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Washington, D.C.based artist Nakeya Brown is fresh off of a big weekend in Brooklyn. Brown’s photo exhibition presented by Top Rank Magazine, “In Private Moments” was on display at Five Myles Gallery documenting the politics, beauty, and the culture that surrounds black womanhood. We attended her artist talk hosted by Black Contemporary Art‘s Kim Drew on Sunday and had the chance to catch up with Nakeya afterwards to discuss her work, motherhood, and connecting histories.

Saint Heron: For anyone that is not familiar with Nakeya Brown, how would you describe your work?
Nakeya Brown: My work is the exploration of blackness and womanhood through the politics of hair. I tend to use portraiture and still life work to really try and create a space where black female identity really shines through in the images.

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How did you come to photography as your medium and are there others that you use?
I took a photo class in high school and it was an Intro to Photography class. I just sort of stuck with it. After graduating from high school, my mom bought me a camera and I ended up spending the summer in Brooklyn. My senses were on overdrive because there was so much going on. I was constantly photographing my environments and I started photographing friends. I got a lot of compliments. People were saying that I had a great eye, so I stuck with it. I went through art school and that really injected importance of concept within the work. I’ve been doing it ever since. My best way of communicating how I feel and the issues that I’m concerned with.

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Speaking of concepts, for your show “In Private Moments”, you have three different series represented. How did you conceptualize each series?

The first series, “If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown” is about constructing black feminine spaces and using beauty objects to try to stage beauty, the products of beauty and the by-products of beauty through these classic, iconic black female figures from the 1970s and 80s. So Minnie Riperton, Melba Moore, LaBelle, Stephanie Mills, Denice Williams, Diana Ross. These very iconic women that shaped and formed the way in which mainstream america looked at black females. They are really pioneers in constructing black female images.

The next series, “The Refutation of Good Hair” is a project that explores these social and historical significance of the phrase “good hair”. He tries to recontextualize that definition into one that is more inclusive of various hairstyles. So you’ll a very striking image of the four subjects consuming kanekalon hair and that speaks to the way in which we consume these ideas and how other people shape the way we view ourselves. That project is about challenging racialized ideas and re present beauty in a way thats more inclusive.

The last project is “Hair Stories Untold” and its about recording the rituals and processes that are associated with black hair care. So thats a project about self care and really highlights each of the different acts that we undego to protect, take care, and do our hair.

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In discussing “Hair Stories Untold”, one thing that stood out in the artist talk was when you were discussing how a lot of these things happen in the kitchen. Doing your hair is such a personal and intimate thing and so is cooking. Could you further discuss that connection?
I’d like to think that my work is a representation of the places in which black women exist. Or women in general. The universal word of women in general. Of course, the ways in which the kitchen and the home and the salon are all sort of deeply tied together in which you can acts within each of them in the the spaces. They share tools. They share location. They share intimacy. They share shared womanhood. Im often interested in bringing those two locations together particularly through objects and even through the presence of soul food in the “refutation of good hair.” I think the woman’s role in the home and then they way in which her role in the home is a mirror of what happens in the salon is something that is really interesting to me. Growing up, hair was often done in the kitchen because you needed to get to the sink and the bathroom sink was too small, so you would do it in the kitchen. Seeing my family members growing up, my mother and grandmother, always in the kitchen, always cooking, you find a place where we exist. That was something that i really wanted to include in my work.

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So discussing your family and seeing that experience generationally, I know you have a daughter Mia. How does she inspire your work and how does your work inform how you raise her?

She’s going to be three, so we have conversations when i do her hair and she’s like “Mommy! look at my hair”. She shakes her hair. She loves to shake it. She will compliment other people about their hair as well. “Mommy, I love your hair! I like your hair.” So she’s definitely a very smart girl and she’s picking up on these visual cues at a very early age. so I knew once I had a little girl, that I wanted to use the work as a place and a space where I could show her and talk to her about all of the different processes. I think becoming a mom def shifted the framework of my practice. Before this, I did a lot of documentary work. I did extensive work shooting Newark, New York. I traveled to New Orleans and did a photo project there and it was all documentary based that circled around community and social justice. After becoming a mom, the inner intuition of needing to project and talk to her about the way society would view her, that is a very real thing. Especially when you have a little girl. I really wanted use my work as a way to give back to this part of my life that is so important to me and making sure that she feels that her identity and the way she comes to herself, there is some sort of visual tool for which she can do that. She’s natural and I’ll keep her natural and constantly reinforce her with positive images of young black girls, natural black girls, but the work is really for her. Her birth birthed a whole new body of work for me and I think that is really special.

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Natural hair is a huge trend now.  Seeing how we celebrate natural hair, I like that you include hair that is not in your work. For example, in “The Refutation of Good Hair”, there is a subject with straightened hair. In “Hair Stories Untold,” you document the processes for straightened hair and weaves.  I appreciate that how you include that in the story because a lot of times, permed sisters or natural sisters that wear their hair straight or rock weaves, are left out of the conversation. Was that conscious?
Yes, it was a conscious decision that happened accidentally through the ref of good hair. The girls showed up in their own skin and their own hairstyle however they wanted to be photographed. One of the subjects has her straight, but she’s actually natural. It also brings into the conversation, protective styles and how you decide to wear and protect your hair. I thought that was a really interesting part of the conversation and I didn’t want to leave out that part of my experience because it’s a lot of other girl’s experience. I showed [during the artist talk] the images of myself to show the evolution of my hair. i’ve only been natural for five years, but before that there is a whole other hair history that’s a part of this story.So I’m working through all of that in the work and not wanting to erase that from history and erase that from the work because it’s very much a part of a lot of girl’s stories. So that was a conscious decision because I think it’s very easy for hair to become a very divisive thing, so I wanted to try and include the fullness black hair. That it exists in so many different forms.

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In the talk, you said that you wanted to show the multiplicity of hair in your work, which I thought was important because the thing that I love about natural hair is that it can be manipulated any way you want to. I’ve been natural for most of my life and people assumed it was because I was making a political statement, but it was because I have more styling options with my hair in its natural state.

Moving along, after this show, what else do you have coming down the pipeline?
I have a book coming out called “Babe” that is curated by Petra Collins. It is a collection of contemporary women artists and I’ll be in that. That is coming out in June. In addition to the book, I’m also working on an online exhibition with Pelican Bomb, based out of New Orleans. They are a nonprofit art organization. They’re working on a big show about hair, so they’re going to present “The Refutation of Good Hair” on their website.

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Speaking about contemporary artists you’ll be highlighting in “Babe”, who are some young black female artists that you love as well as your personal heroes?
I have a very close-knit artistic family. I would like to talk about my sister. she’s an incredible painter, video artists, animation artist, writer. Her name is Llanakila. She does a lot of very beautiful large scale paintings on wood depicting depicting strong black women. My little cousin is also very talented photographer. Her name is Adriel Barnett, she goes by Addy. She’s exploring feminity, fashion and portraiture through her work. I/ would love to shout out those two women because they are my biggest supporters and they’re also working. They are two very very talented young women who I think people should look at their work.

For established black female artists, I could go on. I love Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson. I love Xaviera Simmons. Maxine Walker. Ingrid Pollard. Renee Cox. Dana Lawson. I’m naming a whole bunch of photographers right now because you’ve got to give female photographers some love.

Will you be continuing the current series or moving to another conversation?
I’m working on new projects right now, but there is still a part of beauty culture, black beauty culture and exploring that. I would love to do some more rituals for “Hair Stories Untold”. I think that project has more room to breathe and grow, so I’d love to continue doing that.

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Through your work, what story do you want to tell and what do you want viewers to walk away with?
I want people to walk away with an understanding that hair is a very powerful signifier and a very powerful form of identity. I think it’s something that you have to be very careful of when talking about and describing, but conversations need to be had about hair because there is still a lot of different opinions about it. It’s still a very divisive concept to take on. Though it all, if i can unite women of color and really build on the shared sisterhood and womanhood that is really constructed through hair, I feel that would be a successful thing for my audience to take away from my work. Knowing that through hair, even thought its divisive, it’s something we can use to talk about and heal and really grow together and come together to communicate and share stories.

To keep tabs on Nakeya Brown, see more of her work, and get information on how to purchase, head over to her Tumblr.

This entry was posted in Art & Culture, Featured.