In their upcoming exhibition, The Future is (Black) Femme, opening Friday September 22nd at ATYPE gallery in New York City, curators Jessica Pettway, Josette Roberts, and Miranda Barnes celebrate the visual identity of fifteen young artists. “Within our communities as Black artists," they write, "we bare the honor (sometimes burden) of cultivating imagery that accompanies the rich spirit that lies within us all.” These words from the curators echo the strength of the imagery collected in the show. The exhibition, which includes works from Makeda Sandford, Loveis Wise, Jessica Spence, Asia Shelton, and others, are revelatory and excite in opportunity to see, engage, and explore. Independent curator and writer Efrem Zelony-Mindel spoke with Pettway to delve into her impressions and process.
Interview by Efrem Zelony-Mindell
Efrem Zelony-Mindell: The Future is (Black) Femme posts itself as a correction to mainstream trends in feminism and modern culture. In the shows statement it says: "The Future is (Black) Femme appropriates the marketing slogan." Could you talk a little more about that?
Jessica Pettway: Although the phrase “The Future is Female” was originally a feminist design by the first women’s bookstore in New YorK City - I feel that the design has resurfaced as a phrase that became an easy way for brands to quickly satisfy consumers' calls for equality. I think it’s very easy for a brand to scribble text like this on model’s chests in order to make sales to a generation that is demanding equality - and then in the same breath speak on how a model is a good fit because she’s “black - but not really black” or “black - but white”. It’s extremely easy for brands to throw the phrase on their social feeds as well as their best Lupita Nyong’o lookalike and feel like they have checked the equality box so they can move back to their regular programming. The Future is (Black) Femme takes the phrase and literally inserts Black Femmes back into the conversation. Authentic representation of our diverse communities is necessary for the future to truly be femme.
Zelony-Mindell: How did you gather the work for this show? What was the process like and do you feel like it ever took on a life of it's own?
Pettway: Josette, Miranda, and myself started to think about which black femme artists we knew within our own community and found that we didn’t know as many as we had hoped. From there we spent quite some time making extensive lists of the artists we found. Most of the artists that we didn’t already personally know we had either been stalking on social media for a bit or discovered them on social media through this process. I feel like I spent a gross amount of time scrolling on my phone and screenshotting different artists that that I wanted to meet. On one hand our goal was to celebrate work from varying experiences within the diaspora, but we also wanted an opportunity to meet more of these artists in real life and have the opportunity to build friendships with likeminded artists. Miranda and I followed each other on social media for a bit and then decided to meet solely based on the fact that we’re both black femme photographers and really craved expanding our immediate community of creatives that looked like us. In a way this show is a way for us to replicate that experience to facilitate more of these friendships amongst ourselves.
Zelony-Mindell: Speaking of meeting face to face and becoming intimately connected, there's a real presence of portraiture and direct eye contact with the camera in the works of the show. What significance does that hold for you as a curator?
Pettway: For me the eye contact illustrates a level of control over our own bodies and images. In every portrait it captivates viewers and demands attention and respect. Some portraits depict a gaze that is stern and confident, while others are soft and pensive, assertive, playful, or enchanting. The portraits collectively give an expansive peek into different black femme experiences. We’re far more than the angry black girl or the black girl magic disciple - we’re playful, we’re assertive, we’re unsure, we hide and we captivate. There are many facets to our experiences and these portraits are a window into them.
Zelony-Mindell: What do you think complicates being part of a society? And how do you see relationships interacting with culture?
Pettway: I think finding and creating strict definitions of groups and cultures within society can be divisive when those understandings are based on stereotypes or exclude how certain groups and cultures can relate to one another. Common ground builds relationships, which in turn builds culture and stronger communities. I think that is the point of intersectional feminism vs. the feminism that excludes minorities. As femmes we have these things that unite us and we’re supposedly working towards the same outcome so what is the purpose of excluding people that don’t look like you or live differently than you?
Zelony-Mindell: Is there any hope for a semblance of equality? What do you think that looks like?
Pettway: In the future equality might only be visible to a generation that grew up without it. It should blend into society as the norm and not something notable or press worthy. I hope that separate verticals, channels, publications etc. can continue to celebrate and highlight different cultures but by choice and not because it is the only opportunity to represent a culture.
Zelony-Mindell: I don’t want to say that hindsight is 20/20, but I will say that I hope the future will slap around the past a little bit. What is the future for The Future is (Black) Femme?
Pettway: The future is more iterations of this show. Miranda Barnes, Josette Roberts and myself want to create more opportunities to meet and celebrate black femmes doing amazing work! We really want to explore and celebrate more of the relationships and experiences we share within the African diaspora! This show felt like something that was needed to represent us within out fields and communities. We’re hoping that as equality becomes the norm, these celebrations will happen by choice and not out of necessity.
Jessica Pettway is a New York based visual artist and grilled cheese enthusiast. With a unique eye for color and playful compositions she creates surreal arrangements that that serve as a relaxing escape from everyday life.
Efrem Zelony-Mindell is an independent curator, writer, and painter. His curatorial endeavors include shows in NYC: n e w f l e s h, Are You Loathsome, and the International Center of Photography-Bard's 2017 MFA thesis show Familiar Strange. He writes about art and photography for Dear Dave magazine, Posture magazine, VICE, HuffPost, Baxter Street Camera Club of New York, Mossless, L’Oeil de la Photographie, and aCurator. He received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts.