In Conversation with Ayana V. Jackson
“We are imagery’s biggest victims”
The Angola AIR (Artist-In-Residence) project, organized and sponsored by the ELA (Luanda Art Space) gallery, has invited American artist Ayana V. Jackson, who is in Luanda for a collaborative residency with Angolan artist, craftsman and fashion designer, Muambi Wassaki. In an interview, Jackson describes aspects related to her personal development and career, as well as her experience participating in this project in Angola.
18. July 2019
C&AL: Could you talk about the transition you made from sociology to the art world?
Ayana V. Jackson: When I was studying sociology, my thesis was on race relations in Latin America. With regard to this I wanted to understand the differences between countries of a more Afro-Latin, Euro-Latin and Mestizo Latin influence. While I was working on this, I learned about Afro-Mexicans. Not a lot had been written about them. I studied abroad in the Dominican Republic, then Argentina. I was unable to study in Mexico or Central America, however it was in that research period that I learned about Afro-Mexicans. At the time, not a lot had been written about them. So I went to Mexico, and as soon as I got off the bus at La Costa Chica, I saw people who could easily be my uncles, aunts, cousins. They looked just like you and me. It was a different register: really seeing the face of a black Mexican changed everything for me. Then I realized how the combination of words and images get etched, burned into our brains. The power of imagery is so great that I felt like this would be the right way to convey my message, my research and my studies.
As far as my personal activism and the global black community: we are some of imagery’s biggest victims. Most of the existing content about our bodies starts from colonial records and illustrations. Much of the visual content about Africa and South America was related to colonialism. We weren’t necessarily seen as human beings, we were objects to be studied. Early depictions of our body are directly linked to colonialism. So I thought that maybe I could use photography to deconstruct this, to illustrate my focus of interest, but also using the media power of photography as a counterpoint to the violence it has inflicted on our own bodies.
C&AL: All the residencies and projects you’ve participated in have been based on the same idea or ideological line of thinking, addressing themes such as gender, perception of the black body, stereotypes in relation to the black body…
AVJ: Yes, definitely! My goal goes beyond aesthetics. Much more than taking beautiful photographs, much more than making money and paying my bills, I fit perfectly in the space that is art-vismo (art + activism). For starters, Africans and blacks have always been making contemporary art. Traditional art itself and what we consider to be traditional, like masks and sculptures, are consecrated as contemporary art, to a certain extent. The idea of distinguishing traditional art from contemporary art, with regard to the black community or African art, is somewhat naive.
I don’t mean that a black artist is unable to make something “non-political”, but I come from generations of artists who have used creativity for political purposes. I chose to use my creativity in this way and I don’t envision a day when it won’t be necessary to talk about these themes: gender, racism, neocolonialism, global apartheid. I don’t believe these problems will come to and end anytime soon. I use my residencies to create spaces for dialogue between artists like myself and those from other parts of the world. So yes, these themes are part of this residency and probably will be for all those to come.
C&AL: How has your professional experience and your stay in Angola been?
AVJ: Working in Angola, in Luanda, was challenging, but in the end it was an experience for which I’m very grateful. I didn’t know much about the specificities of Portuguese-speaking countries. During my stay, I was able to learn about Angolan history, the civil conflict and the elements that formed it, the MPLA. I learned a lot about this country’s history working with Muambi. He did a few studies, bringing in some information about kianda, about spirituality and the history of this part of the world. So I was able to learn and collect the materials I wanted to use and the stories I wanted to add.
Besides Muambi, there were a number of other artists with whom I had the opportunity to interact. It was really nice. I think that in the contemporary art world we have a strong presence in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, West Africa, but I felt like I didn’t know much about what was going on in Angola. So when I was invited to Angola AIR, I was very excited to have the chance to come here. This program created the possibility and I benefited from the fact that Angola is more receptive, open to bringing more international artists. Thanks to that I was able to come. My experience has been wonderful. The residency itself has been phenomenal. I feel like Luanda is part of my story, as are all the other references I have from Africa or the Diaspora. And I feel like I have something to say about this part of the world and I am deeply proud of the opportunity.
Ayana V. Jackson is a photographer and filmmaker, with a BA in Sociology from Spelman College in Atlanta Georgia. Her work examines the complexities of photographic representation and the role of the camera in the construction of identity. Using studio portraits, her practice can be seen as a map of ethical considerations and relationships involving the photographer, the subject, and the viewer. With particular interest in the representation of black bodies from the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jackson delves into the world of visual arts and its reference materials as a way of questioning the role of the history of photography and art in the construction of race and gender stereotypes.
Nadine Morais is a 22-year-old Angolan poet, sociology student, feminist, and cultural activist.