There’s a very special connection between Naima Green and water. “I learned to swim before I could walk, so I love being in and around water,” she shares with EBONY. It’s not too much of a surprise that her latest exhibition, I Keep Missing My Water, features bodies bathed among waves across the nation. Currently on display at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, Green uses framed photographs, custom vinyl wallpaper and an installation wall, her latest medium, to continue her exploration of Black and queer communities and intimacy.

As an artist and educator, Green lectures about photography and digital media at Smith College in Massachusetts. She sees the symbiotic relationship between student and teacher. “Students are able to experiment and be curious and fail,” she explains, noting how that freedom reaps huge rewards, like when a student makes that first print or shoots the first roll of film. "I love being there for those moments,” she says, noting how her outreach to others has helped define her own search for expression.

I Missing My Water, Exhibition View, Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. Image: David Hale.

EBONY: Your exhibit I Keep Missing My Water is mesmerizing. What was your motivation for the exhibition?

Naima Green: I am always thinking about what are the sites that feel most grounded or allow for a sense of freedom and pleasure. Early In the pandemic, going to the ocean was one of the only places where I felt like I could breathe. I started thinking about water, which has always been such an important force and energy. Thinking about places of community and play, I wanted to look at sites across the U.S. that have significance for me and weave that together through pictures and portraits that are intimate and also revealing without giving too much away.

Do you have a favorite piece in your exhibition, one that emotionally speaks to you differently than the others do?

I think the installation wall is something I really gravitate towards because it's something completely new for me. Allowing my ideas that have the mundane moments of life to be layered with video, photographs and writings, that has been really inspirational to me. It’s allowing a place for all of these things to live together. I’m really interested in how work can live together; how a poem might live next to a photograph and how that might live next to a video. The installation wall is really special to me in that way.

How are you redefining the Black LGBTQ+ experience through your work?

There are these historical, queer tropes that can be conscious or unconscious. Growing up, I associated queerness or gayness with whiteness. I am really interested in adding to different narratives and also really disrupting that. My work is about wanting to create and portray spaces for other people to perceive and receive Blackness, Brownness and queerness, which is nuanced and specific to each person.

When did you realize that you needed to express yourself as an artist?

I was always encouraged to be in the arts and to take classes, but when I started teaching 10 years ago—and prior to that I hadn't even considered that being a visual arts teacher professor was an option—about four years in I knew I needed to give myself some time to also be a full-time artist. That's when I went back to school to get my MFA. 

You also share your gift by teaching others.

When I'm teaching, it's very different than when I'm making art myself. I'm really invested in sharing something new in a nonjudgmental space. I didn't have a Black professor until I was in college. I've had students who don't take art classes come and say, “Can I just sit in the studio for a little bit? It's so nice that you're here.” At Smith, there are Black students who are majoring in Econ asking if I can be their advisor. Students really are craving Black faculty and a sense of connection.

Are you working on a new installation or exhibit? What is motivating your next work? 

The show at VCU was two years in the making, so now I'm taking a moment to pause. So much of my inspiration comes from living and from being in the world. When I have time to travel, and that doesn't have to mean somewhere far away, but when I have more brain space, that's when I start to think about making the next picture or seeing what different places and experiences bring up for me. All of my work is about intimacy, so I'm continuing to think about that and pleasure and the many forms in which they can exist. I'm also interested in continuing to work across mediums. Doing this installation wall sparked something new for me. I want to push that a little bit more.

I Keep Missing My Water is on display at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University through February 5, 2023.