Visually Speaking: Women Image Makers

On Monday April 29th, 2013 the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture held a panel called, “Visually Speaking: Women Image Makers,” co-presented by En Foco. Led by Grace Aneiza Ali, Founder and Editorial Director at Of Note Magazine, the panel consisted of four influential women in today’s art world: Lauri Lyons, Dephine Fawundu, Lalyah Amatullah Barrayn, and En Foco’s Executive Director, Miriam Romais.

All four women are not only photographers and image-makers; they are editors, founders, educators, mentors, students, non-profit leaders and barrier breakers. Each of them have explored a variety of concepts relating to identity, race, class, nationalism both within and outside the US, human experience, spirituality and have traveled the world creating and inspiring others along the way.

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L to R: Grace Aneiza Ali, Lauri Lyons, Lalyah Amatullah Barrayn, Miriam Romais and Dephine Fawundu. Photo © Ray Llanos

The night began with a short introduction by Grace Aneiza Ali but quickly turned to each artist so that the audience was able to get to know them and the work they do.

Dephine Fawundu, who describes herself as a cultural anthropologist at heart, discussed her series, Nina’s Four Women: An Interpretation, which examines Nina Simone’s song, “Four Women.” In this series she creates different images of black women today, addressing a few questions: How are we as black women portrayed? What do these images we see daily mean to us? What context are we placed in? Who are these women? And what are their histories?

Delphine Fawundu talking about her piece, Aunt Sara. Photo © Dani Cattan
Delphine Fawundu talking about Aunt Sara from the Nina’s Four Women series. Photo © Dani Cattan

Through self-portraiture, she examines four different portrayals of women- Aunt Sara, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches. Fawundu transforms herself as multiple representations of racially categorized women- all based on an outward identity that isn’t necessarily based in truth. The main goal of her series is to provoke the audience to look beyond the image, look beyond the media and search for the truth, the real histories and the real stories of these black women today.

Miriam Romais, the Executive Director of En Foco and the Editor of En Foco’s photographic journal, Nueva Luz, describes two different series. The first series, Paríba Sugar, is a documentation about the lives of workers in the sugar refineries in Northern Brazil. This series is not only meant to shed light on their day to day, but also on the fragility of human life in comparison to the massive machines they work with. She aims to bring visibility to them and appreciation of these worker’s stories, as they produce a world sought commodity. It is also about engaging in conversation the issues these workers face and provide some insight into a life that most in this country will never experience.

Her second series, Painted Voices, is, in comparison, very different then Paríba Sugar, as the physical human presence is absent – but the evidence of human life (ie, mural over a garage door) evoke a subtle sense of place, affirming that the murals are part of someone’s daily life, not art confined to museum walls.  Painted Voices is a documentation of murals in the mission district of San Francisco. These murals assert the voice of their painters, along with the community’s collective political and cultural significance as well as hope and suffering and emotions that evoke and make up life. They are a daily part of the community’s lives and while somewhat temporary (as they get defaced and tagged) these are living and breathing parts of that community.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn’s series, Her Word As Witness: Women Writers of African Diaspora, which premiered at the Restoration Plaza Gallery in Bedford Stuyvesant and NYU, consists of portraits of women writers of all genres (journalists, novelists, songwriters). The women have been witnesses to life around them and acknowledgers of  people’s movement, thoughts and daily lives. It is an intergenerational series, created as Laylah states, “a love letter to these writers” for their work and inspiration they have instilled in Laylah personally, as well as to many followers in all of their fields.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn discussing her work. Photo © Terrance Jennings
Laylah Amatullah Barrayn discussing her work. Photo © Terrence Jennings

Lauri Lyons discussed multiple series, including how she started out with a goal of creating images from around the world and here in the USA. She wants to investigate around the planet, document, be a part of it, and then bring her work back to share with others. For her series, Flag: An American Story (featured as an En Foco Touring Gallery exhibition in 2008), she traveled around the USA by train for five years, gaining an in-depth understanding of how people really felt about the American flag and its significance.

She would start a conversation with someone on the street, ask them to write down how they truly felt about the USA flag and then photograph each participate with the flag, in any way that that person felt comfortable with. This series was especially powerful as the book, Flag: An American Storycame out only one month after September 11th, a time of heighted USA nationalism and sensitivity. Several years later, she continued the series this time in Europe, which led to her second book, Flag International.

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Lauri Lyons explaining one of her images. Photo © Dani Cattan

After we got to know the panelists and their work, the audience was given some advice and insight into what they are working on – besides image making. Lauri Lyons shared information on her online publication, Nomads, an online travel magazine, featuring stories and images by world renowned artists and journalists. Miriam Romais shared information regarding En Foco’s photographic journal Nueva Luz, the New Works Photography Fellowship Awards Program, and how the En Foco programs become a stepping stone to help further a photographer’s path. LaToya Ruby Frazier’s work was displayed as an example, as via the New Works program En Foco became the first place to believe in, and exhibit her work. Since then she has exhibited internationally, and has a current show at the Brooklyn Museum.

Miriam Romais explaining En Foco's photographic journal, Nueva Luz. Photo © Dani Cattan
Miriam Romais explaining En Foco’s photographic journal, Nueva Luz. Photo © Dani Cattan

Lauri also had some great advice for photographers in general, “As you’re pursuing the creative side, don’t forget to study business (and not the art business) on the side – as a photographer, the reality is you are a self employed business person. Expand yourself. Put yourself out there to people who are outside of your comfort zone, because you’ll get new perspectives, and create a stronger foundation for yourself.”

The last question posed to the panelists was, “What does it mean to be passionately committed to the image?” The answers were ones of inspiration and heart.

While the panelists seem to build upon each others responses, they all stated a few key points.

Being committed to the image is about a preservation of culture and story telling for the future. It’s about communication at this point, building dialogues with people around the world and it’s about the human connection. Communicating that through the arts and media is empowering and inspiring, and the beauty of it is that it lives on even once you’ve passed. Being passionately committed to one’s image making means being the best at your craft, using it to empower your subjects and being committed to their stories. Images play a huge role in the way we perceive people. To leave documentation of images and words of people, a legacy that is a realistic version of that, is what it truly means to be committed.

All four of these women are not only inspirational in their words, but the work they create is a clear representation of their commitment to their communities, to this world and to the art of image making.

The Schomburg Center will be posting highlights from the event in the next coming weeks, so be sure to check it out on  their YouTube channel.

The Visually Speaking program is a conversation series highlighting the works of select photographers, whose images bear witness to myriad cultures, scenarios, and mindsets, moderated by Grace Aneiza Ali and curated by photographer Terrence Jennings. For future topics and dates, please visit nypl.org

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