Artist Interview Series: Sonia Louise Davis

Sonia Louise Davis speaks about her series tracing(s) belonging(s) on the same Harlem streets that inspired her photographs in the latest installment of our Artist Interview Series.

Tracing(s) belonging(s) is currently on view at Aguilar Library/NYPL as part of En Foco’s Touring Gallery Program through September 30, 2012. Join us Saturday, May 12 at 1pm for an opportunity to hear her thoughts about the series and ask questions about her work. The talk will be followed by a reception from 2-4pm.

Over the past year and a half I have been making images in and about Harlem with a 4×5 monorail camera. I’m drawn to the physical shooting process, moving slowly through the streets around my apartment in an attempt to weave my own story into the visual fabric of my neighborhood. I take Harlem as my subject and context, and my practice is both documentary and autobiographical. Drawing on collective memory and family history, I’m interested in framing the personal past in this mythic and everyday place. –Sonia Louise Davis

For more about the artist:

Exhibition Information:

February 1–September 30, 2012

Artist Talk:
Saturday, May 12 from 1:00 to 2:00pm

Opening Reception:
Saturday, May 12 from 2:00 to 4:00pm

Aguilar Library/NYPL
174 East 110th Street (between Lexington & Third Avenues)
New York, NY 10029
(212) 534-2930

M & W, 11:00-6:00pm; Tu & Th, 11:00-7:00pm;
Fri & Sat, 10:00-5:00pm


A lot of people enjoyed the article Lisa Henry wrote for a prior issue of Nueva Luz, and I certainly felt fortunate to have her as one of our reviewers during our Portfolio Review Sessions at Calumet (Sept 08).

© Sonya Lawyer
© Sonya Lawyer

So when she told me she was curating an exhibition in NYC and wanted to get in touch with some of the photographers she met at our event and saw on our website, I did a happy dance on their behalf. It is such great news to hear of lasting connections – which also made a suitable theme for her exhibition.

The photographers in the exhibition Connections opening at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in NY and San Francisco, were selected because they engage in a compelling dialogue between the past and the present,  the personal and  political, and most importantly between the artists and their subjects. They are tackling the complexities within race, gender, identity in America.

© Deborah Jack
© Deborah Jack

Within the show, which combines painting, works on paper and sculpture curated by gallery owner Karen Jenkins Johnson, emerges three central themes: works showcasing the techniques available to photographers today (from tintypes, to appropriation, to digital – as seen in Hank Willis Thomas, Sonya Lawyer or Keliy Anderson-Staley’s work); photographs that document a strong connection to a particular community (like Gerald Cyrus’ jazz musicians or Sheila Pree Bright’s Young Americans); and finally, images that draw our attention to the various landscapes, homes and places that we inhabit (seen in Deborah Jack, Hiroshi Watanabe and Felicia Megginson’s work).

© Sheila Pree Bright
© Sheila Pree Bright

Connections looks at photographic art from varied perspectives, hanging works by contemporary artists alongside those by older generations of photographers, including James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks. But what also strikes me about this exhibition, is that it includes artists of various ethnicities.  So I had to ask – how did she craft that into the gallery’s theme for Black History Month?

Guest Curator Lisa Henry speaks frankly about the curatorial process:

A black history month show in the age of Obama, is no longer ‘just’ about being black. Karen at the gallery brought me the idea of connections, and i thought, lets do more with that idea. One thing I really struggled with in this show, is that I didn’t want it to be a “Black History Month Photo Show”, even though it opens in February. Nor did I want it to be just a “We Are The World/Rainbow Coalition Photo Show.”

The idea of broadening the conversation about race, is

© Gerald Cyrus
© Gerald Cyrus

very similar to the work  published in the last issue of Nueva Luz, with Hank Willis Thomas’ work on the cover (Guest Edited by Darius Himes). We are a part of a larger community, and I like exploring and striving for inclusivity and dialogue; a serious acknowledgment of history as well as a celebration of new ideas.

I remember reading an interview by Suzan-Lori Parks (author of Topdog /Underdog, Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur grant winner) – what she said, always stuck with me:

” I was taking to Essence magazine about it being a black play”, she explains. “Someone said it’s not a black play. And I said yes it is. Let us expand the definition. If we can use the definition to box somebody in and limit somebody- if the definition is in use- then lets keep using the definition and realize what it really is. Maybe a black play [or in my case, a black photo show] is a play that includes everybody. You know what I mean? Maybe that’s what a black play is.

© Keliy Anderson-Staley
© Keliy Anderson-Staley

A black play is a play that is inclusive. A black play is a play that allows for all kinds of manifestations and freedom for all kinds of different people. Maybe that’s what a black play is. I don’t know. The traditional definition is a black play has black actors written by a black writer that deals with things of race and slavery. That can’t  [always] be true. 365Days/365Pays doesn’t deal with that.”

This statement made such an impression on me. In many ways this is how I see myself as a black photography curator, not a “BLACK” photography curator. So as you can see, I am really still dealing with these issues as a curator who loves photography  – and not just black photography but PHOTOGRAPHY. I also want a more diverse group of people to get a shot at big solo shows and all that. I just don’t want all my shows to only be about race – no matter who is behind the camera…

© Hiroshi Watanabe
© Hiroshi Watanabe

As we welcome newly inaugurated President Barack Obama and his hopeful vision for our country, Connections shares that vision, striving for inclusivity and dialogue, a serious acknowledgment of history, as well as a celebration of new ideas. This is a new day. The photo-based works in this exhibition embrace a range of identities and ideas, from both in front of and behind the camera’s lens.

© Felicia Megginson
© Felicia Megginson

Connections opens on Saturday, February 7th with a Reception from 6-8pm. Other artists in the show include: Carrie Mae Weems, Emilio Bañuelos, Qiana Mestrich, Carla Williams & Deirdre Visser, Lorna Simpson, and many others. Both the  NYC and San Francisco exhibitions run through March 28.

Jenkins Johnson Gallery

521 West 26th Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY

464 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA

Race and The Golden Rule

As the new issue of Nueva Luz arrives at the newsstands, we’re excited to hear and see the comments. It was guest edited by Darius Himes, and features photographs by Hank Willis Thomas (his Aperture book is out!), Nontsikelelo Veleko, Ian Ramirez and Sanaz Mazinani.

Nueva Luz cover, by Hank Willis Thomas

Darius’s article, Here Am I: Reflections of Race and the Golden Rule, has already spurred responses – which is exactly what we’ve hoped for. He gives us an open and honest discussion about race at an incredible time in our history (in the past few days we have become a country wrapped in a sense of hope, rather than fear – with Obama as president).

He discusses it a bit further in his BLOG, and we also thought you’d like to see one of our reader’s responses:

“Black America and White America (who are genetically tied) have a big need for this conversation. Everything about “post-race” that I hear always comes back to take roots in the painful history of colonialization, and slavery (or so it seems). And so getting beyond race seems so needed. But for me, race is not about that *but then again, I’m not black and i’m not white… I’m even a new American.

What race means to me is not the very bitter and decisive separations of difference, but rather the celebrations of them. Yes, we are all human, we are interrelated, sure. That is 98% of the puzzle.  But the 2% of difference is that we possess cultural, physical and even biological distinctions. And something about the human experience is very tied into what is distinctive, how the experience is different.  Especially in art.

How many Arabs or Palestinians do you see exhibiting their work internationally? How many names do you know besides Mona Hatoum, Emily Jacir and Sherin Neshat (and she’s not even Arab). Only a few have really been allowed in the gates, most of us are hovering around the gates, hoping to get picked. And just as soon as we began to articulate these experiences, just as soon as we are given a platform,  someone says we need to get beyond this. And for me, the writer himself didn’t get beyond it.

The fact is, a black man can’t make an image about eating at Wendy’s with his likeness in the image without the viewer inherently reading the racial overtones in it. No one would describe the image without stating the man’s blackness. Somehow, his blackness would be central to how ever that image would be read.

Ask me how many times in my life someone described someone a person (a friend, lover, teacher, etc) and used the word white? Maybe only by a few black friends. But mostly I’ll get the height, eye color, sex and so forth. White is not one of the descriptions, and perhaps it is easier for whites to think they can get beyond race because of that. Hmmm?

For my husband [who is African American], he likes the article because he believes black people need to get beyond race, because race was used to harm them, and they benefit the least from being tied to a race. Race implies limitations to him. I believe race is the 2% of difference that is everything. And difference is good, healthy even. My two cents on the 2%.”

To debate or discuss the full picture (pun intended), be sure to get your very own issue of Nueva Luz (…you know you want to!)

Join the discussion, we look forward to hearing from you!