Nakeya Brown is a practicing photographic artist and mother, currently living and working in the D.C. Metropolitan Area. Since receiving her Bachelor of Arts from Rutgers University, Brown has generated a vast body of work that explores race, beauty politics, and gender.
Interview by Julia Nemfield
Transcribed by Dylan Courville
FN: How did you get started with photography?
NB: My initial introduction was when I took a photography elective in high school. Then, I studied journalism, media studies, and visual art with a concentration in photography at Rutgers University as an undergraduate. After I finished school, I did a bunch of internships. I found a job as an office manager for a photography agency, working my way up to a rep over the course of four years. I was promoting photographers, growing their businesses and doing some production. Whatever was needed to make these photographers’ lives and careers grow.
FN: All that experience, helping other people establish their practice must be so useful for you.
NB: It totally set me up to know how to send out an email blast, run my website, how to write about my work and talk about my work. I also became a mom in between work and graduate school, and honestly, motherhood is really what changed everything. It changed the way I approached my work, it changed what my work was about, and it changed how I started talking about photography.
FN: What was it that prompted you to go to back to school?
NB: Going to graduate school was something I always wanted to do, and the timing just felt right. I felt very inspired, and I had a new way of working that I wanted to explore on a deeper level. I felt that graduate school gave me the time and the space to do that. Once I starting going I just could not stop; I was showing a lot, traveling, and I did a residency.
FN: What do you want to express through your work? What do you want people to take away?
NB: I am the type of artist where I want people to see that there is no one set of rules to represent what your interests are. I want to put the black women’s experience at the centre of my work, but in a way that is slightly unconventional. How do I represent that through objects or through staging, through my imagination combined with my experiences? Images of women do not have to be beautiful. You can make uncomfortable portraits of someone eating hair, and that can be moving and important as well.
FN: I agree with that. There is such a plurality of female experiences that have been so misrepresented in the past. Just the fact that you have work out in the world is influential. The hope is that it makes a big difference.
NB: It definitely is. I have come to understand that one person cannot change the way we think. There need to be multiple women artists, and even male artists, who are thinking about the way in which they make their work. As diverse as I want my perspective to be, it is still based on a very singular experience. I think it is important that we have a large number of people that are making work that is being recognized, validated, shared, and talked about.
FN: It is just about creating work and hoping that other people see it and want to create work that responds to it. It is an interesting position that you’re in. Can you go into explaining an artistic process that you went through in creating If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown?
NB: It started in 2014 when I purchased a retro Lady Schick blow dryer. It was old and this beautiful powdery blue, but it was kind of aged and yellow, and had these really wonderful curves. I was doing a lot of collecting at that time, picking up objects that were related to female experiences and also representing black imagery, like records or old magazines.
I would shoot Sunday mornings in my house. I was interacting with the imagery and palettes of the collected items and combining that with real life materials and tools I had in my house. I was interested in my small corner of the world that represented a black feminist space. A black space that other women could see themselves in.
FN: So, the work that you’re making is obviously personal to you and the space you’re in. Do you consider yourself a storyteller in that way?
NB: In If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown, I am interested in talking about black beauty, self-care, and creating spaces of love. Whereas, The Refutation of “Good” Hair is more about exploring power and how language can be used to make women feel less beautiful based on their hair type or texture. I think each work is speaking in a different way, to a different theme, but I do not necessarily think of myself as a storyteller in terms of whether I am making a photo essay. Each image has its own agency and speaks in its own way, but they are a part of a larger family.
FN: The art industry appears to be a tight circle, you have to fight to get into it, and certain people have fewer tools to get into that circle. How do you think we can be less exclusive?
NB: There is a lot happening in the art world. I think I enjoy the Internet so much because it has made the art world more accessible. I started putting my work on Tumblr and it just started to go viral. It was millennials on the Internet who made that work what it was. It was not a curator, it was not a huge gallery, and it was not a book. It was literally just the clicks, the eyes, and the hearts of viewers that I had captured through a photograph that really gave the work its currency.
FN: Now you have been out of school for a year, and you are teaching and producing, what else would you like to do?
NB: I am really interested in looking at what other photographers my age are doing, and thinking about how we’re using the medium in new ways, exploring how are we using the medium to our advantage.
FN: If you wanted to give advice to photography students coming out of their undergraduate programs, what would you tell them to do?
NB: Coming out, you have to hit the ground running and see where you can get opportunities and build experience. Whether that is through a fellowship or doing an internship. You have to go out there, fall on your butt, get back up again, and just know that it is not easy. You just have to be your best self and keep moving forward, and believe in the work that you are making.
View Nakeya’s work here.