celebrating people of color in the arts

Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Chester Higgins: Girl From Tamale

In photography on July 3, 2009 at 10:51 pm
Girl from Tamale, GhanaTamale, Ghana. 1973

of note continues its FOCUS series with photographer Chester Higgins, Jr

of note: Can you take us through this image? What was the story behind capturing it?

Chester Higgins: It was early one morning in the northern town of Tamale in Ghana. I took a walk to the local bus station. I lingered, leaning against the wall and watching the rush as people jumped into and off open busses. Using the camera lens, I scanned and waited, and then among the throng, this little young girl appeared. Using body language, I asked her to stop so that I could photograph her. She complied. Because of her age and spirit, she reminded me of my young daughter, Nataki, left behind in Brooklyn. When I noticed her plucked eyebrows, I suddenly imagined her at the center of a big loving family.

of note: Your work reveals that Africa has served as a catalyst for you—both personally and professionally. What first led you there?

Chester Higgins: Because of my relationship in the 1960s with African students at Tuskegee University and my involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, the idea of the need to travel to Africa became a reality. Taking that journey to travel so far from the shores of the United States and risk living among strangers seemed less frightening to a 25 year-old than remaining here. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that I was not traveling to Africa to see the animals. The change in physical setting gave me distance from the issues of race and allowed me the space to appreciate the fullness of African humanity.

Being from a small town, I realized I didn’t fit in urban settings and set out to travel alone into small villages. Instincts honed from my southern background came in handy when deciding which strangers to bring close to me and which ones to stay away from. My style of working was simply being a wandering student, making friends and living with people. All I wanted was to be a witness to daily routines, much like a fly on the wall.

of note: You believe that “a photograph never lies about the photographer.”  What truths do your images tell?

Chester Higgins: Behind every thing is an energy, a spirit, an essence that gives it existence. Photography is a means to appreciate the many manifestations of my collective self. The camera is my vehicle of exploration. In capturing images that make my heart smile, I’m collecting external mirrors of myself. 

This portrait, for me, highlights what is visually pleasing. Yet, I’m interested in more than what meets the eye. What I find most interesting is the spirit within. It is this spirit that I try to recognize and render. I seek to produce a photograph that presents the obvious, sometimes the ordinary, but goes further to reveal what’s hidden and makes the subject extraordinary. 

– Chester Higgins, Jr.



Women, Art and Islam

In art on July 3, 2009 at 7:49 pm



Perspectives: Women, Art and Islam at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) lives up to its title, aptly providing deep insight into five disparate lives shaped by Islam, the West, and everything in between. With roots in Bangladesh, Algeria, Pakistan, Morocco, and New York City, the artists utilize family photographs, spiritual poetry, Quranic verses, and personal accessories to shed insight into the personal conflicts of Muslim women who face religious pressures to fulfill social expectations at the expense of personal aspirations.

Terrorism and the treatment of women have largely defined Islam in public discourse in recent years. In response, Perspectives challenges the notion of Islam as a monolithic, misogynist, unimaginative and atavist faith. This is no small task, yet it is achieved with a remarkable fusion—from modern photography, painting, installation and video to traditional Islamic crafts like tilework, ceramics and calligraphy.

The exhibition space itself, a series of large rooms and intimate corners, provides disparate experiences. The artwork’s power may well be what it does not openly express, but perhaps, quietly hints.

Pakistani-American artist Mahwah Chisty dims the lighting of her wire-suspended installations and projects Kufi script through a pool of water. More subtle is Safaa Erruas’s (Morocco) spine-like wall installation of cotton and a thousand needles, “Moon Inside Me,” which bathes in whiteness and light. Next door, Brooklyn-born Nsenga Knight fills a corner with sounds of her video interviews of African-American Muslim women converts; the sounds and images bounce off a wall piece with silk-screened words from the writings of Ibrahim Abd ar-Rahman, a West African prince abducted into slavery.

Algerian Zoulokha Bouabdellah appears in a sequence of self-portrait photographs with couscous pots covering in turn her eyes, ears and mouth as if to say see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Finally, Chisty completes the full circle with a wall of colorful paintings displaying Islamic words and epigrams in interlaced calligraphic designs of the Kufi style. It is Chisty’s inclusion of materials, such as coral grains and glass, that push this traditional art into the present. 

– Mohamed Hassim Keita

Afghan Star: Mass Media versus Islamic Tradition

In film on July 1, 2009 at 11:13 pm


BY Troy Jeffrey Allen

Early in Afghan Stara young Pashtun boy briskly observes (despite missing an eye) that “If there were no songs…the world would be silent.” It is moments like these, little snippets of what happens when art influences life, that allow you to appreciate Afghan Star, despite its’ lack of delivery.

The documentary takes place in present day Afghanistan and while civil unrest and Taliban rule are not far behind, pop culture has returned to the populace—specifically, in the form of an ongoing television show called Afghan Star. The show follows the American Idol-model, pitting vocalist (and the unabashed) in a weekly sing-off. The program is a hit across the country, as it momentarily blurs lines of self-segregation, renovates the zeitgeist, and takes advantage of more modern forms of telecommunications (you have to cast your vote for each contestant via cell phone).

But what happens when mass media begins to clash with Islamic tradition? It’s a question that Setara Hussainzada, a contestant from Herat, has to answer. Outspoken and determined to become a household name, Setara is quick to shed her burqa, expose her hair and dance on stage for the cameras. Her actions, meant to inspire individualism, encourage only death threats and public disapproval from religious scholars and fellow competitors (specifically, Lema Sehar, who quietly uses her ties to the Taliban to advance as a finalist). 

It’s Setara’s real-life drama that proves to be the most interesting aspect of Afghan Star. Unfortunately, it’s presented as more of an aside than a personal crisis.

Director Havanah Marking sought out to disprove media stereotypes of Afghanistan while making this documentary. She has done that successfully but shows hesitance when pointing the camera on her subjects. Outside of Setara, none of the other contestants seem to have much of a back-story. Rafi Naabzada is just a pretty boy that can kind of sing, Lema Sehar is the obdurate bitch, and Hammeed Sakhizada is…just there.

Marking seems to think that having a camera in the room is enough to pull you into her documentary, but maybe she should have taken a queue from the same media she dejects  and delved deeper for drama (Then again, maybe that is a cultural contrast).

While the director does address the unavoidable issues of inequality, generational discord, American stereotypes, and democratic voting in a non-democratic country, there is a much larger over-arching idea at the heart of Afghan Star’s success that she seems to gloss over. When even in the face of guerilla warfare, foreign invaders, and civil war,  music (and other art forms) can certainly overcome —when does it go too far? When does pop culture stop becoming art and start to feel like corruption? It’s a question not lost on the Afghan Star documentary, but, like competitor Lema Sehar, the film feels more concerned with facts than ideology.