Black women and media have a long and strained relationship. For every positive image of black women on television, in films or magazines there are at least a handful that counter them. There was a time when black women were visible, multi-dimensional and revered. Long gone is the era when Claire Huxtable shined in primetime, Beverly Johnson graced the covers of high fashion magazines and Naomi and Tyra dominated the runway. Now, black women serve as props, arm candy and sassy bullies.
Ijeoma D. Iheanacho is looking to change that. The New York based photographer is spearheading an online fundraising campaign for “The reImagining: Photographing the Unheard,” an art exhibit that will feature 100 black women portraying and defying stereotypes placed upon them. Loop 21 spoke with Iheanacho, 34, on her motivation, what images of black women upset her the most and what artists have influenced her photography.
I probably have the most mundane beginner story out there! I studied architecture in college. In order to preserve my work for my post-graduate portfolio, I started photographing my projects before my professors could get their hands on them. But the photography bug bit hard and soon I was pointing my lens at everything (and everyone) around me. I became fascinated between the truth of the subject and what I could actually capture and document. I have been photographing ever since, trying to bring those two extremes closer together with every project.
I have to say I am both a feminist and a realist on this issue. The feminist side of me does not feel the need to admonish any woman for the choices she makes, as long as she is ready to take responsibility for the consequences. The realist side of me does get more than a bit miffed at the steps backward those choices take us. I think before we admonish any woman for her choices, we need to be able to say that we were able to present her with all the choices available. I am sure there will always be video vixens, but given the chance, I am sure more women would rather be college graduates.
I wanted to create a project that spoke the truth about black women. What better way than to let them tell their own stories – and en masse? I picked the number 100 to demonstrate how varied and individual each women is. The reImagining is a 300 image photography exhibition focused on allowing the 100 “ordinary” women of African descent to not only stand up to the stereotypes they are forced to live with everyday, but to also actively work against them. The women in the project have bravely stepped forward to let the world know that they are present and worth being noticed. Every woman answered three questions:
- Who are you? (What are the stereotypes you feel are put upon you)
- Who are you, really? (What are the titles you choose to take on)
- How do you want the world to see you? (How do you want to define yourself to the world)
Each woman will have a stylized portrait of herself created based on the answer to each question. Both the text and the portraits will be turned into a traveling exhibition that will be shown nationally in partnership with local non-profits dedicated to bringing the arts to underrepresented communities. The creation of the project will also be used as a teaching moment. I will be giving studio visits and gallery tours to organizations that work with young at risk girls so they can begin learning the lessons of self-esteem and self determination. But before we can make all this happen, we need the support of the community! We are currently doing a kickstarter fundraising campaign to raise the funds needed to produce the project. The support of the community can make this happen. Please visit idistudios.com for more information on how you can help this watershed project become a reality.
I want to be able to allow as many people to take advantage of the exhibition as possible. In teaming up with non-profits that serve under-represented communities, I hope to bring not only this exhibition but also a link to the arts as a whole. I want the project to travel to all the major cities – New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Francisco, but I also want this project to be seen in places that are usually overlooked. I hope to be able to travel this exhibition for at least 18 months and make sure to get it to everyone that wants to see it. Upon the close of the exhibition, an exhibition catalog will be created to allow more people access to the themes of the project as well as to be used in a variety of educational settings. Finally, a dedicated website will be created to allow for documentation of the project as well as to create a forum and community that can begin to bring real solutions to the themes discussed in the project.
Every woman experiences every stereotype in her own way, but they really fall into a few categories. The best breakdown of this can be found in Patricia Hill Collins’ seminal book, “Black Feminist Thought”. She explains how the stereotypical images of “the mammy”, “the matriarch”, “the welfare mother”, “the black lady”, and “the jezebel” have shaped the way American culture defines and represents black women. Each woman in the project, and even myself, have felt the sting of more than a few of these labels. Most black women can tell you a story that parallels these false narratives and the consequences they have caused in her life. Each woman participating in the project is asked to lay these wounds bare in her first portrait to allow the viewer to recognize the false assertion and follow her journey to the real version of herself with the middle and final portraits.