To provide a more in-depth look at our June exhibition, Ima Mfon's "Nigerian Identity," Portland writer and scholar Derrais Carter recently interviewed artist Ima Mfon about the series, which is currently on view at Blue Sky through July 2, 2017.
Nigerian Identity: Untitled 17, 2015 © Ima Mfon. Courtesy of Rick Wester Fine Art, New York.
Derrais Carter: In your artist statement, you describe yourself as more than “just black.” How do you see that showing up in your work?
Ima Mfon: When I say “more than just black” I mean that being from Nigeria, I’m used to thinking about tribes, not race. In Nigeria, no one is really going to ask you about your ethnicity because we are all black. People are going to ask “what’s your tribe?” or “Are you Yoruba?” or “Are you Igbo?”
But, when you step outside of Nigeria, in America for instance, people don’t even ask you if you’re Nigerian. They just see you as African. And, even just seeing a black person as African is still kind of specific in American terms because you can also still generalize and be like “oh, the black guy.”
In America we tend to see things in terms of color. There’s black guys, white guys, Asian guys, Mexican guys. That’s kind of what I mean when I say I’m more than just black. There are so many levels to being black. I’m African, I’m Nigerian, ¼ Yoruba, ¼ Efik, ¼ Cameroonian, ¼ Ghanaian.
It shows up in my work through me talking about the things that I want to talk about, the things that are important to me. I think that a lot of people exploring African identity are going in certain directions, for instance they are going home to shoot landscapes or textiles and fabrics. What makes me “me” is what’s on the inside. I’m a very emotional person and I think that’s why my work is the way it is. I try to examine people and look at them, engage them…as people. I look into their eyes to see them and not simply reflect cultural things you might want to associate with them. I ask, “Who is this person?”
DC: I’m glad you say that. Since the homogenous cultural narrative we impose on African people often prevents us from seeing African people’s interior lives in meaningful ways, do you see yourself trying to create a space for intimacy in your work? If so, could you talk about the cultural work of black intimacy?
IM: To be honest, a lot of times I just go with how I feel. I’m not consciously trying to promote black intimacy or start a movement around that. I think I’m just saying, “this is me” and “this is how I see things.” As an artist, you do have the responsibility to delve deeper, to explore more. So maybe that’s something I can learn from a professor like you. You know, it would be great to read about people who have explored similar themes, but to be honest, I haven’t analyzed it to that level.
DC: I was also wondering about your use of the white background. I believe in your artist statement you say that the white background allows you to remove context from your black subjects. But, could you talk about how black skin brings context into the picture? You know what I mean?
IM: Yeah. You know, there’s only so much you can say in an artist statement, so you have to pick a cohesive thread, especially when you’re not there to clarify. The white background represents a lot of things. In the image, there’s white space with a black person occupying that white space. In a lot of ways, that’s me. That’s a lot of black people. I started my career in corporate America and a lot of times I would feel like a blot of black in a sea of white. So that was something that I wanted to figure out how to convey. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a place, just acting normal and having a good time. Then, all of a sudden, it dawns on me that I’m the only black person in the place.
I darken the skin in my work for two different reasons. One reason is that when you are a black person living in an all-black context, like Nigeria, you’re not conscious of your skin color. But when I’m in America, I begin to feel very conscious about my blackness. I feel more black. I don’t know if that makes any sense. You hear people talk about having to modulate their blackness, especially in the workplace. Even at parties. I think the idea of being so self-conscious of one’s skin color is something I wanted to convey.
Another reason is that I love black skin. I think that black skin is extremely beautiful and I wanted to portray that.
DC: Looking at your work made me think about Kerry James Marshall’s paintings in his Mastery exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Are there artists who have taken up black skin in their work that inform your practice?
IM: I haven’t been exposed to Kerry James Marshall’s paintings, but there’s a photographer called Valérie Belin. She’s done a lot of typology. I also like Jean-Paul Goude. Both Belin and Goude are photographers whose images are nice and clean to me. But there was something a little bit too objectifying in their work. I wanted to shoot black skin, but I didn’t want it to become a fetish. I didn’t want it to be objectifying people. I wanted some level of pride and dignity.
Richard Avedon in probably one of my biggest photographic inspirations. For one, he always shot with a white background and he was good a conveying emotion. He could do anything with anyone. Whenever he shot someone, he could give you a glimpse into their soul. And that is something that I strive for in my photography. There’s also the Nigerian photographer J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere. He does a typology of women’s hairstyles. He shot hundreds of Nigerian women’s hairstyles. He’s one of my favorites. When you look at my work, you might see some similarities. He shot his subjects from the back to emphasize the hairstyles, but I shoot the front to highlight the person.
DC: Could you say a bit about emotion in your work? I like the stark contrast you create between the white background and your rendering of black skin. That contrast, for me, creates an opportunity for viewers to think about the nuances of black expression. Were there particular emotions that you wanted your subjects to convey or did you leave it up to them?
IM: I pretty much left it up to the subject. I told them what I was doing and what the project was about. I shared a few experiences with them and we shared stories for a bit so that they would be comfortable. Then I would take their pictures.
For the most part I would tell people “whatever you want to express, try to do it through your eyes.” I didn’t want people laughing or crying. I didn’t want extreme emotion. But whatever emotion they chose, I wanted them to convey it with their eyes. That was the direction I gave. Beyond that, it was all about what they felt.
DC: As somebody who is historically-minded and often works in archives, I’m wondering if you kept records of your interactions with each subject, even in the form of a cache of written material related to these interactions that won’t ever be published with the photographs? Or did you just meet your subjects, have them sit for you, and part ways?
IM: I think there’s a mix of both. For people who I already know well (roughly 40% of the people in the pictures) the documentation process was less formal. They are my friends and relatives. For the people I was just getting to know, I conducted interviews with a voice recorder to learn more about them. I don’t know that the material will be published, though. I don’t think I’m organized enough to publish it the way I want to, but I thought it would be nice to do a book with stories and thoughts related to the project.
DC: I’m really struck by your comment about wanting your subjects to communicate through their eyes. What do you want that communication to do for your viewers?
IM: I don’t want to say confrontation, because that’s not the right word. But, when it comes to the black experience, there is always something that is left unsaid. In a way, these portraits are all self-portraits of me. A lot of them reflect my experience. There are a lot of ways that we respond to situations. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I know a lot of people, including me, who have these moments when somebody says something racist to you or makes ignorant assumptions about you. I tend to let it go, let it fly. Keep my head down.
With the photographs, I get to look back. I return the gaze. When making the photographs I went back to the feeling of being the only black person in the room and having all of these eyes on me. The photographs allow me to look back.
DC: Your subjects reflect various genders and ages. Thinking about “Nigerian Identity” as self-portraits of you, the artist, what do you want to communicate through this range of gender and ages?
IM: One key aspect of Nigerian identity is about being part of a larger community, a support system. I don’t know if you have any Nigerian friends, but we tend to support each other on the sole basis of being Nigerian. No other reason. With the ages and genders, I wanted to convey a sense of family, a sense that we are all in this together.
DC: This final question is a bit of a departure. If “Nigerian Identity” had a soundtrack, what three songs would you choose to include?
IM: That’s tough, in part because I toyed with the idea of having music as part of the exhibition. I wondered if the music would be Afrobeat or emotional. I know I would have something by Fela Kuti. Yeah, Fela would be on the list for sure. I’d also pick some jazz, like Miles Davis or Charlie Parker. I’d also add “Shades” by Wale (featuring Chrisette Michele).
Dr. Derrais (pronounced like Paris) Carter is an assistant professor of Black Studies at Portland State University. His research interests include 20th century African American history, gender and sexuality studies, and black cultural studies.. He is currently writing Obscene Material, a book examining black girlhood and scandal in 1919 Washington, D.C.
Ima Mfon is an editorial and fine-art photographer based in Lagos, Nigeria. He also spends a great deal of time in New York City, where he recently earned his MFA in Photography at the School of Visual Arts. Mfon was a recipient of the 2015 Lensculture Emerging Talents Award and he has exhibited at the Klompching Gallery and Rick Wester Fine Art in New York City, San Francisco Camerawork Gallery, and the Detroit Center for Contemporary Photography. Mfon also periodically collaborates with Bloomberg, covering stories that showcase less reported aspects of Nigerian culture.
Nigerian Identity is part of the Embodied: Asserting Self exhibition series that is generously supported by Arlene Schnitzer and Jordan Schnitzer