Leading up to our exhibition Know South / No South on June 8, APG's Esther Griffin will be talking with the participating artists about their entries to the show and the idea of a Southern identity. First up is Akea Brown. Born in New Orleans, LA, Brown currently resides in Baltimore, MD and received her BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Photography and Integrated Humanistic Studies in 2018. Brown was chosen by juror Richard McCabe as one of seven artists to be included in Know South / No South.
When did you first become interested in photography?
I first became interested in photography during my freshman year of high school. I had always been making art, however, I knew that I wasn’t interested in drawing or painting, at least not interested in creating work in those mediums myself. That’s when I discovered the photography elective in high school, and as soon as I discovered it, I knew that was the medium I was meant to work with. I eventually filled half of my courses with photography courses and became the teaching aide my senior year. I asked my grandfather and my great uncle if they had any 35mm cameras when I was fourteen, and they both gave me their cameras (which I still shoot with occasionally) and then I began taking photography classes at school, and eventually majored in Photography in college. So, I guess you could say I never looked back.
You have worked for non-profits since you were a child, and you feel a responsibility towards and passion for community work. What impact does that have on your photography?
When I have my camera, everyone wants to know what’s going on; they’re suddenly much more willing to talk to me. It’s a lot different here in Baltimore than in New Orleans, and even in Atlanta. Down there, everyone wants to talk. Everyone says hello, and it doesn’t matter what color you are. Here, that’s not so much the case. Exchanges are very cold, unless you know one another. But as soon as I bring out my camera, that shifts. Suddenly people think I have something to say, even when I don’t. This has made me more aware of what my photographs are communicating, and how they are doing that. I want to make sure that when I’m working in these communities it’s clear that I’m not speaking for them, but I will always advocate for and listen to them. It’s a constant collaboration. It took me a while to learn that. In short, it’s made me acknowledge that while my photos are my way of communicating, they have implications that go beyond the world of art and truly impact the way in which these communities are seen. I can’t always control what that interpretation is, but I can control my level of awareness and understanding about the power of representation.
Your series Black Picket Fences is an examination of the suburban black middle class. Some of the photos in the upcoming exhibition are from that series. How do these photos relate to your interpretation of the South? What does the South mean to you?
The South, as a place, has always been an interesting concept to me, because it’s largely undefined. It’s always changing based on the social and political climate of the country, your proximity to and placement within radicalized experiences, and your understanding of American history. The South represents the land of my ancestors and all of their experiences. I feel at home when I’m in the South and often feel out of place in other areas of the country. But something I’ve noticed is that no matter where I am, whether it be Maryland, Georgia, Mississippi, or Louisiana, I can always find a sense of home when I enter the houses of other black families. There’s a feeling of familiarity, and it’s something I witnessed when photographing this series. One of the main questions I receive is, "Were these photos taken in the same house?” And the answer is always no. But that is something that comes to mind when people look at the photographs, and it’s the same feeling of familiarity I have when I move across the southern landscape and encounter different people: a sense of home. In short, the South represents family, heritage, and pride in my personal history, which is entirely wrapped up in the southern landscape; my love for it is undeniable.
But being in Maryland shifts that slightly. I often forget that Maryland is considered the South, as we mainly refer to it as the east coast or the mid-Atlantic. I often find those outside of the urban center, who truly claim the south and their southern heritage are those who know nothing else or were rooted in that experience during their upbringing. Outside of that realm, at least from my experiences in Maryland, the South tends to become vilified and represents a scary, inaccessible place to liberals and minorities; although I don’t find that to be true. I’ve had more racist encounters in New York than in Louisiana, but it’s all about perspective.
Is there any picture chosen for the exhibition that has special meaning to you?
“Jakie” is probably one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. I showed up unannounced to take a photograph of her. She was in her pajamas and was getting ready to go to bed, yet she welcomed me in. She was focused on one thing: that no matter what happens to her and this photo she wants to make sure her kids see it. She wants to make sure they’re proud of her. Just after she said that, she showed me her photograph on the archives of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Somehow a photo of her in high school had ended up in the Smithsonian’s archives! But she still wanted to make sure her kids saw MY photo. She wanted them to be proud of her. And I thought, Why would they not be proud of you? How could they not be? Look at all that you’ve done! And oddly enough, this photo is one of the pictures that I am most proud of. It’s funny how that works, but I think about that every time I look at this photograph, and somehow it makes it really special to me, to realize I’m not only taking portraits but capturing personal legacies.
Do you have a dream project or subject you would like to photograph?
I would love to photograph portraits of African Americans in the American Southwest. My momma and aunt were both born and raised in New Mexico. I’ve always been fascinated with the implications of growing up black, in a place where the culture is predominantly Native American, Mexican, and white, and almost void of any black representation. I began researching the history of Blackdom, the first all black settlement in New Mexico, and became very interested in the contemporary presence of blacks in the southwest, as it’s a fact of my family life. But I have yet to see any representation about our presence in the Southwest. I’m very interested in exploring how the presence of different minority groups can disrupt the ethos of a landscape.
Do you collect art, yourself? What hangs on your walls?
I like to collect exhibition catalogues and even post cards that feature small prints of the work. I’ve moved around a lot in the past few years, so I have a tendency to collect smaller items from museums. But I managed to get a print from Angolan artist, Edson Chagas, from his exhibition at the Zeitz MOCAA that I viewed in Cape Town this past January. I also have some work by Zanele Muholi, Tania Bruguera, Tomáš Gabzdil Libertíny, Omar Victor Diop, and IB Kamara. I also have a couple pieces by some of my classmates from undergrad: Sydney Cook’s 191 Bittersweet and a lovely photo by Angelo Ries. But I primarily have archival scans of photos I inherited from my grandparents, photos of their parents, aunts, uncles, and their homes back in New Orleans, LA, Columbus, MS, and Albuquerque, NM.