Thursday, June 25, 2015

Black women, posing, and selfies

AALCI Fellows Ayesha, Fullamusu, and Tia, Take #1

AALCI Fellows Ayesha, Fullamusu, and Tia, Take #2

One of the cool, unexpected outcomes of AALCI this summer was getting to observe a few of the Fellows taking these varied approaches to selfies. Seems like a small, trivial matter, right? Actually, it was a serious medium for self and communal expression among these young sisters, especially Fullamusu, Bianca, and Tia.

Each of them had different, distinct styles for presenting themselves on their phones. Tia, a lyrical artist and rap enthusiast, would often pose with an exaggerated tough, mean look. Fullamusu was inclined to take on multiple, exuberant, hyped-up happy faces. Bianca sought to project a regal appearance; she would stand straight and poised, usually enlisting someone else to use her phone to snap the image.

Taken together, they produced a diverse mix of three photographer-photo subjects. I was glad to be a witness.

If I had not traveled with the group in New York, I would have missed that these Fellows had crafted these specific signature looks. And their looks were signature, likely developed over time, through trial, error, and experimentation. The young women struck their repertoire of distinct poses (or series of poses in the case of Fullamusu) on multiple occasions over the course of the trip.

Bianca chose a scene and asked her fellow AALCI Fellow Asia to take a photograph. 

For Bianca, the image was about placing herself in a particular scene. If she saw an object or larger background that she found appealing, she would pass her peers or me her cell phone and ask us to snap an image. Before snapping, she would ask questions and give directions. "Is the light right?" "Step up a little." "Am I in focus?" "You ready? Ok, you can take it." Now, Bianca is usually quiet in class discussions, so it was really something to watch her become such a leading, vocal presence as she directed the production of photographs. 

With Tia, it was that tough look. She'd grit her top teeth over her bottom lip and close one eye. Or, she'd squint both eyes and scrunch her nose. She'd have her hat pulled low. She never smiled. Her pose always communicated the messages: I'm bad. I'm coming for you

Fullamusu takes a selfie as she rides the escalator at the Museum of Modern Art. 

Fullamusu displays an assortment of facial gestures. Smiling with head tilted. Open mouth as if surprised to have her image taken. Tongue sticking out at the camera.  The poses are playful and wild. And if there are 5 or 10 or 15 shots taken in a sequence, she feels obligated to give a different expression for each one.

There's this moment in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man when the protagonist recalls a comment from one of his former teachers: "You're like one of those African sculptures, distorted in the interest of design." That's Tia and Fullamusu. They distort their faces in the interest of particular designs.

Bianca selected a scene in front of the Brooklyn Museum and asked Tia to take a photograph.

Bianca is somewhere else. She decides to channel aspects of the "phenomenal woman" that Maya Angelou had in mind. Bianca takes her style of posing seriously. As do Tia and Fullamusu.

For some years now, AALCI founder Joycelyn Moody and I have thought about how the Fellows respond to exhibits and landmarks in New York City. Observations about these recent selfies, however, prompt us to consider new questions, like: what signature poses are you inspired to project in NYC, and why? How do you use the language of self-portraits to chronicle your activities in unfamiliar places? 

AALCI 2015

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