The Future Is (Black) Femme is a new show at ATYPE, the youth hub on New York's Lower East Side. From Rochelle Brock's psychedelic portraits to Ojima Abalaka and Jessica Spence's lighthearted vignettes, the exhibition spans different mediums and black experiences. Though these defiant artists have all led unique experiences within the African diaspora, similar themes of kinship, tenderness, and rejoicing run through all their works. Curated by Jessica Pettway, Josette Roberts, and Miranda Barnes, the exhibition celebrates black femmes, the culture they create, and the communities they foster. I spoke with co-curator Jessica Pettway on her motivations for this show:
VICE: Why is it important to highlight these artists now?
Jessica Pettway: Authentic representation is important in a time when it seems like those with power want to do everything possible to erase us. Our culture is constantly appropriated for profit and people outside of our communities are often called upon to tell our stories. It felt necessary to create an opportunity to celebrate and represent our unique experiences as black femmes.
I'd say a majority of the photo editors I know are female and it is, at least editorially, a pretty female-skewing career choice. I find that interesting given that this wave of inclusivity is somewhat recent.
Most of the photo editors I know are female as well. However, I think it can become really easy for an editor to call upon the same photographers they're familiar with instead of branching out to find photographers that represent the cultures and stories that they want to share. I think it also has to do with the simple fact that, oftentimes, if there is a problem that doesn't affect you or is something that you never experience, for most people it's not something that you're immediately conscious of or concerned with. If you're an editor who never feels marginalized, you might not immediately see the importance of hiring photographers from all different backgrounds and unique experiences to tell a wider range of stories.
What do you think about this trend of branded feminism and people co-opting the gaze to sell products?
When brands co-opt the gaze to profit off of feminism, it always looks really silly to me because I immediately read it as forced and inauthentic. It's irritating and hurtful to see brands that have no interest in effecting any real change leech off of people's pain and desire for authentic representation.
Who were some of the artists that you knew you had to include in this show?
One of the first artists that came to mind was Jade Purple Brown. We were following each other on Instagram for a bit and I really wanted an excuse to meet up! Similarly, Miranda [Barnes] was following Makeda Sandford for a while on Instagram as well. Miranda and I met through social media and wanted to meet up IRL because we were both black femme photographers looking to expand our community of artists. With this show, we wanted to recreate that moment on a larger scale with 12 other artists and everyone who is interested in supporting their work.
Who do you want this exhibition to reach?
This exhibition is primarily for black femmes to be able to connect with each other and feel supported by a larger community of artists with similar experiences.
I also want the exhibit to give people outside of our community a look into black femme experiences. We're far more than our usual representations as the angry black girl or the magical black girl. All of these artists have compelling and unique experiences as black femmes that shine through in their work.
Do you think exploitation is still possible under the female gaze?
Unfortunately, exploitation under the female gaze happens all the time—from female directors casting one dark skin model to fill a diversity quota to tone deaf Pepsi commercials. It literally happens too often to count. Not to mention the consistent number of Kardashian-level incidents of people exploiting another culture for profit while erasing the originators and being completely oblivious to the challenges they face.
What do you strive to do in your own photo practice?
I want my work to act as an escape from reality. In my practice, I'm not afraid to experiment, relax, and be my authentic self. I hope my work inspires others to do the same.