What follows is an excerpt of a conversation between artist Adama Delphine Fawundu; Carmen Hermo, Associate Curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum; and Niama Safia Sandy, cultural anthropologist, curator, and essayist.
Niama Safia Sandy: Hi everyone! Thank you so much for being here. We’re going to keep it loose and informal. Let’s talk about the color blue.
Adama Delphine Fawundu: So I’ll start by saying, my work is really intuitive, and sometimes things appear to me, and then it’s like, wow, this is really what you’re doing. And that’s how blue got into the work. When I see blue, then I realized, oh my goodness, I have all of this blue, and this blue directly relates to Mami Wata. The blue water bucket—I did intentionally want something that represented water, but then it just happened to be blue. I didn’t go out and buy that, that was there.
NSS: This picture’s in Lagos?
ADF: Yes. That’s definitely Lagos. The sky is blue, the bucket is blue. And then I definitely didn’t make the pot, the flower blue over there. I went to a thrift store to get the blue dresses, one is in Argentina right there, and then the other one, in Blue like Black in Argentina, the video. And I was like, I hope they have something blue. Because by this time, I’m hip to the blue. And I’m like, I hope they have something blue. And it just so happened, the two dresses that they had were blue.
NSS: So you got these dresses in Argentina?
ADF: In Argentina, a day before I decided to do the shoot in the location that I decided to do the shoot in. This is what happens. I feel like when you’re on this journey, things just come and appear to you. So here I am in Argentina, really talking about my film The Cleanse.
When I get there, the film festival is going on, so that keeps me really busy. But my interpreter, she was so nice and willing to take me around, and I was like, I wonder if you’ll come with me to do some shooting? And she said yes, let’s go walk around the town. And then we stumbled upon this place here, which is historic because it was a mansion that was owned by a very rich person in Argentina, back in those times, and I was like, this is the perfect location.
Downstairs there was a thrift store, and I’m like, I need to get a dress, something to perform in. And then these two dresses were in there! And they were $10 each! I was like, yes, this is it! And the next day, we did the shoot. So it was these things that just happen, and it was so magical how we were able to even create those photos.
It started off being something that I didn’t really think about using blue in the work, but then after a while, as I started seeing it appear, and I would look for it, without making too much of an effort, it would just show itself.
Carmen Hermo: I wonder if maybe you can expand on that in thinking about the new video, Deep Inside I’m Blue, which is right when you walk in at the entrance. This kind of continuation and jumping around of these coincidences in your work actually resonates in this bodily way. The idea that deep inside of yourself, you’re blue. The painting on your face as well.
ADF: Exactly, yeah. So I thought about the ritual, and I’m in Miami and this lady comes to me with this facial cleanser and it’s blue. I was like, I’m taking this with me to Nigeria, and this is what I’m going to use. Because I knew I wanted to do a performance and a ritual in front of the water. But I didn’t know that I was going to use something blue to put on my face. And then Deep Inside I’m Blue, now I’m thinking about, not being sad blue, but I have so much magic inside me, blue. You know?
Bringing that out, and that’s what that film is about. And it’s all over. Everywhere that I go in the world, I see a reflection of this spirit that’s moving around and waking up the ancestors and saying, you know what, if you just tap in a little bit, your power is within you and you can activate it. That’s what, really, this is about.
CH: So maybe we can pivot from that idea, the presence of the ancestors, and talk about some of the kind of women that are evoked within it, ideas of deities, or the power coming from water and playing with that. And how some of the titles in this show evoke specifically Mende ideas of beauty and where womanhood interacts with that. So maybe you could talk to whether some of these people are characters, are ancestors, are you? All of those things? And how your form figures into this.
ADF: It’s definitely a combination of all. It’s a combination of the ancestors, of the deities, of myself. One ancestor that actually inspired a lot of my thinking, which was one of the first pieces that I made that led to all of this, is The Cleanse that’s sitting behind there. I remember I was reading Sylvia Ardyn’s book, and it’s called The Radiance of the Waters. And she’s talking about the beauty in Mende, feminine beauty in Mende culture. And so I started reading this book, and I was just blown away by how each detail—what she did, is she was a graduate of Yale University. She’s the first African American to be tenured at Yale.
And what she was doing was particularly describing the people who were representative of that culture, of Mende culture. This hair needs to be watered, because it grows just like a tree grows, just like a flower grows. She was comparing, the Mende people were comparing their body parts to something in nature that grows, you know? Even the breast was compared to a calabash of water that’s nurturing.
That was really inspiring to me, because it gave me another way to look at the body. So that inspired The Cleanse, and I thought, you know, I hear people say, oh, you know, what about my hair. Right? And I say, no. Wet the hair. Listen, wet that hair and see what happens. And then I thought, what happens if you wet the hair, and then watch it transform, you know? In slow motion. And then that idea just came to me, and I said, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to do a film.
But it was really looking at that work, and thinking about other ways of seeing the body. This body that has been so politicized, all over the world, really. I find that to be extremely problematic, that the way that a body is constructed could be something that is so political. I’m like, when could you just be? When could you just be this body, and all of these things are not placed upon it? So when I’m making my work, I’m thinking about that as well. This is just a being. This is a being. Just let it be.
And of course, I’m embodying some aspect of the deities. At the same time, as I said, I’m embodying my ancestors. I love the words of Ntozake Shange. I used her in The Cleanse. Some of the titles are referencing her. Her words are just amazing. These pieces were all inspired by her work. So I’m always looking at text, powerful texts and then interpreting them visually.
NSS: I want to maybe think a bit about the actual transformation of your practice, right? Because at this point, a lot of highly conceptual work. You started as a more documentary photographer and more kind of editorial and commercial. Then there’s Deconstructing SHE. So I just want to think about, in your mind, how did you get from there to this?
ADF: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I started doing photography back in the ‘90s. I was shooting hip-hop culture in New York City. So it’s no accident that when I’m making these sound pieces, I’m really inspired by hip-hop culture. I was so invested, and I still am invested, in hip-hop culture. And I realized that it’s because it was something that I could totally relate to.
NSS: It was accessible.
ADF: Exactly, right? And especially coming from a home where Creole was spoken all the time. And you could actually recognize, of course I didn’t know this back then, but now I could recognize the similarities of those cultures. So yeah, I started doing hip-hop culture back in the ‘90s, and then I really, to be honest, I did that and then I did a lot. I was just really finding myself as a photographer.
I did my first exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum through Committed to the Image, and it was something that was totally different from hip-hop culture, but what that did, so many people contacted me about this image of this beautiful, very dark-skinned woman, who was sitting on a white bathtub. The piece is called Patiently Waiting. And that was kind of the piece that got people to know who I was as a photographer. And never even really connected to the other stuff. Like people who know my hip-hop stuff, they know it from a different lens.
And it made me think about other ways to photograph. Like I really enjoyed making that. I loved creating this scene. And what happened is like, during the time, during that shift, thinking like early 2000s, I started not being so interested in editorial work anymore. I started saying, you know what, I’m just going to shoot for myself, and then just see what happens.
I did one project called Real Women. And that was just me photographing women, I didn’t even have to know what they looked like. I just wanted to photograph women. It’s a whole series of black and white, medium-format images. Different cultures, people from different racial backgrounds, everything. And I just photographed them all around New York City. And then I juxtaposed them.
To me, it was just like, this is what a body of a woman looks like. And it doesn’t, there’s no label of beauty and all of that. And then after that, I did another project—oh, there was all of this talk about down low brothers, and how, it was disturbing to me to know that a community of African American men, black men, were being blamed for the spread of HIV. And so I wanted to go into that community and interview people, make a series of photographs. And it was something I had to really talk to myself about. Because I didn’t want to be somebody who was invading a community, to kind of say, oh, this is going to be the book.
So I was really careful. I really actually made a lot of friends through this project. I spent a lot of time in the GMHC. And just broadening my perspective about who this community was. And to the point where I actually ended up giving the project to the GMHC and would bump into young people who would be like, did you do those photos at the GMHC? Because that changed my life. And to me, then it started making me look at photography in a whole different way.
And from that, they contacted me to do a project on women who were living with HIV. And so what I’m trying to say is that I would come up with these ideas, not really looking for money or anything like that, just because it was in me and it had to come out. And then somehow the return would be that, okay, here’s a project. Here’s a commission. You know? And I was exhibiting, little bits, here and there. Which led me to Africa, because I was like, I want to see, I’m not excited about this commercial way that hip-hop was going right now. But I was interested in this thing that was still so special, and when I heard that in Ghana and in Nigeria, this thing was booming, I had to go out there and document that.
So from 2008 to now, I have this long expansive connection, collection of African urban music that totally speaks to what I was doing. And it’s important for me to say this because I was so embedded in that project and I still am, that that’s what it was all about. Until one day I got a call from Dr. Deb to do a—
NSS: Deborah Willis.
ADF: Dr. Deborah Willis, yes, who was doing a show, and it was called Girl Talk. And she was like, we need some images of some women. I was like, huh, what am I going to do for this? And I had been listening to Nina Simone. And so I was like, you know, I’m going to make a series based on Nina Simone’s Four Women.
I’m getting to Deconstructing SHE. I was like, I need to shoot four women. And I’m going to interpret this into that. And then I’m like, who am I going to find? And you know, I’m trying to parent and teach, and I don’t have time to be finding models and all of this stuff. So I was like, I’m going to use myself. And that was really scary. But I ended up doing it. I had my sister who’s a artist, a visual artist, she painted my back. And I made Aunt Sarah with all of these words on my back. And I made myself into four women.
That was the gateway into Deconstructing SHE. Even after doing that, I didn’t know I was going to continue. But then I was like, you know, I think it was the new year leading into 2014 or ’15. I made a decision, I was like, I’m just going to experiment with something new. I’m going to continuously photograph myself. And I’m going to start a Tumblr site and then just make this a practice and just continue to do it. And that’s how that started. And then from that, I was like, you know, I want to get more into this type of thing. I’m going to go get my MFA. [laughter]
But now I’m at this point where I feel like everything is making sense together, you know? It’s all making sense.
NSS: You just living. You just living.
ADF: Who knows what’s going to come out next, you know? But this assemblage is something that I’m so excited about. I didn’t get a chance to show any of it. I thought I was going to show some of it in the room. But over the summer and fall, I made some new works that were no photographs and it’s all assemblaging, like of hair and fabric. The fabrics are really important to me because my grandmother, that was her tradition. She hand-made batik fabrics. And those fabrics, and her picture, when you leave if you see there’s a picture outside of her face and my face kind of facing her.
NSS: I think we can also continue the discussion about masking, because that’s something that you’re working through actively with this work here. It didn’t occur to me until you said it the other day, that your intention was to produce a mask with this work.
ADF: I wanted to make masks that were not traditional masks that you put over your face, right? It’s like a symbolic mask, or even using non-traditional, like a shower curtain would be my mask. I’d keep looking at this, you know, when it was in my studio, I kept looking at it and I’m like, do I see a eye there?
CH: It’s just kind of this idea of layering, textiles, patterns. I really think through that as a metaphor for the way that your body overlaps with the costumes you’ve created, and with these histories. With even some tools that sort of seem to appear to me. Like the brushes or the raffia construction above that, and how those can, you can see that image of the chicken, which is just fabulous, and you can see that visual resonance of the scalloped patterns on that dress, on that textile, and see it reflected in the feathers, and understand your deep respect for nature. But once you have this construction on top of it that points to these rituals, it creates different responsibility in the viewer, than just seeing a photograph and being able to look at it and take it in. There’s kind of a real-life quotient when you actually see the way that you assemble and then compare these artworks. So you’re talking about the new project with assemblage, is that sort of that direction?
ADF: Yes, and more like, this is less constructed than the new works, which is kind of actually physically using my hands to sew things together, which I love doing. Working with the textiles, using some paint, and adhesives, and all types of stuff. Which is really fun and therapeutic. And still making masks of what comes out. They don’t look like traditional masks, but they come out to be these masks. And also, I’ve been very interested in the idea that even these, the histories that these museums are building their legacies on were also inspired by these foundational masks that somehow got to the America, by way of Europe. You know? And then the placement of them within the museums, which is a disconnect.
It’s a very exciting project I’m starting to research more. But really making my point that, you know, we know where Picasso got that idea from. You know what I mean? So I don’t need to now go to Picasso. I could go to the source.
CH: I think a lot about, in the work, the kind of networks of support, and how that’s reflected in black feminist theory. And then even the idea of collectivity, even while you’ve been speaking, you’re the artist but you could talk about your subjects if you will, your relationship to them, their histories, the people you met who helped you find books and recommend things, and just those networks of people. So maybe from that, you can jump into the idea of collectivity in your work, and maybe a little bit about MFON and your collaborations.
ADF: Definitely, definitely. So I have a book and a journal that I co-authored and edited called MFON, and that’s women photographers of the African diaspora. So when you asked me, who’s my work for? For the kids. That’s definitely the collective, right? And then, so at some point, I’m like, you know, Laylah, who is the person who I co-authored the book with, we sat down and we said, we need to put out something that has this voice. It’s a collective voice, but it’s not one voice, you know? This is the thing that goes back to the ancestry. This goes back to, if I see, we’re a community, we’re a collective, like this is just a way of being.
And even in doing the personal work, it’s also for the sake of the collective, at the same time it’s for the sake of me. So it’s kind of like it’s the same, you know? One to me means