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The State of Black Art and Life: A Conversation with Photographer Iris Dawn Parker

By Stephanie Shonekan, Contributing Editor, Art, Music, & Pop Culture

Throughout the month of November, the Praxis Center website is featuring the stunning photography of Iris Dawn Parker. An African American whose lens has been focused on the everyday lives of Black folk across the Diaspora, Parker has done more than just take the shots. She has embedded herself in the experiences of the people she cares most about, living in cities and townships, mentoring and engaging young Africans and African Americans to dig deeply into their identities to find the treasures that are essential to building self worth and collective freedom. Armed with the trappings of formal education—she has an MFA from Ohio University—and years of experience as a practicing artist, Parker is uniquely positioned to capture the evolving landscape of Black life. From her upbringing in North Carolina to her current life in Johannesburg, South Africa, she has documented many facets of Black life, including Zulu weddings, Mouride Muslims, South African musicians, and everyday life in a South African township. She was even able to photograph Nelson Mandela a few weeks before he passed away. In this interview, I had the chance to ask Iris about what drives her as an artist and as a human being.

Iris Parker

You have lived in South Africa twice–first in 1998, and then you moved back in 2009. Clearly, there is something that pulls you back there. Is it a cultural pull or is it spiritual? What is it about South Africa that you are attracted to?

I am one who believes that our journeys guide us to what we are here on this earth to do. There’s something about the South that beckons. I was born in the US South, in North Carolina where there were a whole bunch of black people visibly struggling for the empowerment and civil rights for minorities and for all people. And in South Africa the struggle is very similar. However in SA I am now a part of the majority. So my optimism around equality and equity for all is certainly higher with such odds.

There are many similarities between the two places for me; I grew up in very modest surroundings but with loads of love and a lot of room for dreaming. In the South, back then we were people that lived close to the earth. Our women made our world move by their words and actions. As a community, we relied on each other with great compassion. “Ubuntu” is what they call it in South Africa.

How has your experience in South Africa continued to influence your African and Diaspora consciousness and its expressions in your work? What are the relevant but not so obvious parallels?

I suppose that living in a foreign place is enough to make impressions or influence any artist’s work. Just look at what happened to the work of Picasso after he visited the continent of Africa, right?

As for me, I believe it has moved me from a place of naiveté to new revelations about freedom of expression and who really has the power to express. Through the years of living in South Africa, I have grown as an artist and my work has developed in ways that unfortunately were not happening for me when I lived in the US. Perhaps it was timing?

I have developed more discipline around my artistic practice and research for subject matter as well as different approaches in presenting images. Immediately I look for impactful ways that will help me with my visual expressions and help my viewer with the acquisition of knowledge.

Regardless though, I have always just worked. I don’t get too preoccupied with who accepts the images I make or the work I want to do in photography. Funding and support for artistic expression has never really been something black artists could rely on anyway, anywhere on the globe. This is particularly true when your work focuses on deconstructing untruths and assumptions about black people. Mainstream support is also illusive if your work seeks to build radical new understandings of human aesthetics that challenge traditional assumptions and stereotypes.

Other relevant parallels exist, for instance, it is difficult to come up with names of contemporary black artists who have their work in mainstream galleries and are not married to or managed by a white person. The acceptance of one’s work must be vetted through the white gaze or it’s not deemed acceptable. Ok you did say “not obvious” didn’t you?  Well, perhaps to some this trend is “not obvious.

woman wearing big floppy hat and printed pants
“no runway needed: I’m beautiful”

As a working artist, what is your take on the “art for art’s sake” tenet which argues that art can exist for itself, without necessarily having to send a message or respond to the prevailing context?

My take on art for art’s sake is that yes, perhaps art can exist for itself, but that is not why I create. I enjoy it when someone sees an image that I have taken and it engages them in some meaningful way.

The conception and dissemination of Western ideals of art has had a wide influence, globally defining how people of Africa and the Diaspora view themselves and their work. How has this affected black art and artists?

Living in South Africa has really made me more aware of the stronghold that western ideals have on the arts and many artists. What really breaks my heart is the power this has on some artists where they actually deny their own culture in exchange for short-lived gratification. You know, you attend an Artist Talk and hear a beautiful black woman talk about the cows in her work and ascribes the influences to European (Greek) myths, instead of acknowledging her upbringing in Swaziland, in a village where a cow crawl is the first thing one sees when you enter the village. This is problematic on many levels, and should be for anyone who witnessed it. But most people would accept her comments because in most minds, great work must be influenced by Europe, not by Africa.

black woman wearing headwear with beads and brightly colored jewelry.
“Xhosa smile”

I think if black Artists throughout the African Diaspora were given equal support and a level playing field – access to education, training, mentorship and room to explore–there would be very little attention even given to European Arts in the 21st century! Now that’s really how my consciousness has been influenced. I feel strongly that black artists have such untapped knowledge and creative expression, and it is a great loss to humanity that they do not get the attention they deserve.

I have no doubt that black art would do very well on an international stage if the artists were given access, opportunity and support. But one has to be realistic about the current situation and challenges in the art world for black artists. The gatekeepers are very busy trying to keep many of us out of that privileged world. And we intend to keep pushing back because it will not always be the case that our work will be looked upon as secondary or an afterthought. This change may not happen for me or in my lifetime. But I pray that my work and actions, coupled with others alike, will bring about equality in the arts for Black artists and our children who desire to be artists in the years ahead.

As for right now, there really must be a renaissance for black arts and artists throughout the African Diaspora, an exposition and gathering of black intellectuals, creators, and artists coming together. Wow this sounds like our next 10-year project at the Arcus Center, and I’m certainly on board. Could you imagine? I sure can, but I am a

perpetual dreamer.

So, dreamer, will there ever be a time when African work can stand alone on the international stage and be judged for what it is without the parameters of western art?

African art without parameters of western art, yes! It did for many centuries past, just visit a few museums in Europe to see some of the works. Most of the powers that be in the arts are European and have very little experience in the Black World. Now that may sound like I am speaking about another galaxy “Black World” and to some degree you would be correct. But when works created by black artists are juried and reviewed through a European gaze there is only so much experience that these jurors can bring to the table. However, this is rarely a notion that is taken into consideration when our work is viewed. It’s usually viewed by folks that have one particular worldview and very little experience outside of their subjective world.

I mean really, would someone who has never visited a person’s home in the township of Alexander have knowledge and understanding or even compassion around the importance of images that record and document the interior lives of people living in such areas? Not likely.

Yet, nine times of ten, you will have panels of jurors from European countries selecting works of African artists and even then, the work selected most often will be that of other Europeans living in African countries. As my beloved Tupac says: “it’s a dirty game and as hard as I work, somebody need to tell me why I still ain’t got shit.”

two black men hold hands as they laugh
“In praise of you”

Among the Black artists in South Africa with whom you work, do you find a conscious urgency for art not only to be a source of livelihood but also to be an avenue for the expression of a shared cultural legacy of colonialism, slavery, exploitation, neo-colonialism and oppression?

I am fortunate enough to have constant engagement with all sorts of artists in South Africa. However, primarily I am mentoring black artists, first, because they happen to choose me; and second, because I know and understand the need for mentorship and modeling in our lives and that’s what usually brings us together.

Yes, we often have conversations around our black consciousness and desire to express ourselves freely, as well as the need for a platform that can bring more people together in these dialogues. The brilliant outcome of this is that we are starting to create these spaces for ourselves. Most institutions and places that are offered for such engagement do not address or allow us to freely address our concerns or needs as artists unless of course it is led or controlled by someone else. So essentially we become censored in a way.

Black girl with bright fitted blue uniform rides horse

Black people, yes, we need the strength and compassion of our communities. We need interventions that involve embracing and promotion of love, human worth and self-esteem. In order to counter the dominant promotion of Eurocentric notions of our arts, beauty, and our own futures, we must teach, promote and perpetuate loving ourselves and esteeming our Blackness.

Are there any institutional policies in place to ensure that artistic forms in South Africa can survive and be passed on? What are the support systems or lines of patronage for young artists?

The Department of Arts, Heritage and Culture has development and adopted what is called “Mzansi Golden Economy strategy” whose primary objective is to charge the arts and culture sector with job creation and economic development. Some of their key objectives are to enable transparency and evidenced-based good governance; increase and facilitate access to a broader participation in arts and culture through policy formulation, legislation and equitable funding. The challenge with this for most is that some of the very same individuals that were leaders and heads of the arts sector pre-1994 are either still in place leading the arts where they wish it to go or they have put in place their successors that understand “their agenda.” So this leads me to believe that it will continue to be a struggle for black artists to move through this mandate of true transformation into leadership roles in the arts in South Africa any time soon.

It’s such an unfortunate situation to be in, where arts in an African country is controlled and led by Europeans. It even sounds incongruous. Would one go to China and see a group of Europeans heading the arts? I think not.  Then why can’t this African country have Africans leading the arts? Blacks are the majority in South Africa, you know?

I know. But you are a perpetual optimist, or a dreamer. What can we hope for in the future of black art in a country like South Africa?

There is still a lot of work that has to be done to bring about positive and productive change in the lives of black artists and society as a whole. So you do what you can to help champion this. My personal aim, if I have not made it clear, is to share by example and to provide inspiration for a model of black love and empowerment.  My life has been a journey of loving people, black people. I love my black woman self, from the large nose on my face to the curly locks on my head. I love my entire being. I believe, by asking the right questions and sharing in solutions, art can allow us to truly consider the way our reality is being constructed.

My professional goal is to make sure contributions by black photographers and black people are represented in photography now and for future generations to come.

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