Before her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Maryland-based artist Tawny Chatmon counted herself pretty content with her life as a commercial photographer. But everything changed when she picked up her camera and began photographing him in the throes of the illness that later claimed his life.
"After that, I started feeling like all of my other work wasn't saying anything important," she says. "I felt lost. I began focusing more on the message I wanted to leave behind."
For Tawny, that meant drawing inspiration from her roots and experimenting with her medium, manipulating the images in Photoshop to add digital flourishes and doodles. "I had been doing that for some time, but never sharing it really," she said. "I sometimes used them as photography promos or posted them on my blog when I had one, but honestly didn't know or even consider that there was a place for this kind of work; I was just messing around."
The series Not Buried, Planted and Deeply Embedded are the products of Chatmon's newfound drive. She transforms photographs of young black girls with layers of collage, paint, and hand-drawn illustration. In Chatmon's world, flowers burst from afros and embroider themselves into clothing, and black girls look like Renaissance figurines and Klimt-style beauties.
"I am the mother of three amazing children," she says. "I want them to know how beautiful they are, how beautiful we are, because we can't leave it to the history books to show us."
A case in point is Deeply Embedded, which overlays faded National Archives imagery of African women over her subjects' natural hair. "It was created during a time where I kept coming across so much negativity focused around natural black hair and black hairstyles," Chatmon explains. "Black children being sent home from school for wearing their hair in natural styles that had been deemed unacceptable and women being reprimanded in the workplace for wearing their hair in its natural state. I got angry, then sad and frustrated about it and needed a way to refocus that energy into creating something to speak for me.
When she came across the vintage photography of black women in the National Archives project Africa Through The Lens, she felt the jolt of an instant connection.
"I felt they represented a sort of message, a reminder of our grace from our ancestors," she says, "and I decided to superimpose them into my subjects' hair."
The response, she says, has been "amazing." In September, she'll be exhibiting her work at The Art of Blackness in downtown Chicago, a long-running exhibit that has highlighted the best of African-American art and design for the last six years.
"Once I started saying what I wanted to be said through my work, it's amazing how many people received the message without me having to use many words to explain," Chatmon says.
What does she hope black women—and girls—see when they look at the work exhibited? "I just hope they know how exceptional they are, I just want them to see themselves in one of these portraits and know that I intentionally created it for them."
Tawny Chatmon will be exhibiting her work as part of The Art of Blackness in Chicago at Block 37 on September 22.