Five emerging Black artists explore their inner lives in INWARD: Reflections on Interiority

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Five emerging Black artists explore their inner lives in INWARD: Reflections on Interiority
Arielle Bobb-Willis, New Jersey 01, 2021. © Arielle Bobb-Willis.

NEW YORK, NY.- This fall, the International Center of Photography presents a new exhibition focusing on the work of five emerging Black artists who have turned the lens inward to explore and capture the “unseen” moments of their lives during a time of unprecedented change. INWARD: Reflections on Interiority features newly commissioned photographs by Djeneba Aduayom, Arielle Bobb-Willis, Quil Lemons, Brad Ogbonna, and Isaac West. On view September 24, 2021 through January 10, 2022, INWARD is curated by Isolde Brielmaier, PhD, ICP’s curator-at-large, and newlyappointed Deputy Director, the New Museum.

Although a number of the photographers have worked on assignment for major publications such as the New York Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair and Time, the exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see their artistic and personal work in their first museum exhibition. The photographers showcased in INWARD use a range of manual and digital image-making tools in their individual practices — for this exhibition, they have created the photographs using iPhone. The resulting images move beyond the endless scope of the constructed selfie to examine the intimate interactions and inner thoughts that make up their daily experiences as artists in a time of Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, and the 2020 U.S. election.

“The five artists featured in INWARD provide a thought-provoking window into their interior lives,” said curator Isolde Brielmaier. “The revealing new photographs explore intimate thoughts and personal relationships with great honesty, as the artists delve deep into the new reality and challenges of our contemporary lives at a time of global introspection.”

Smartphones have often been used to generate images of public space and events in the broader outside world. iPhone has democratized image-making, and more recently, has been widely utilized as an impactful outward-facing tool to capture the human side of this particular moment of upheaval and turmoil. In INWARD, the artists reverse the focus to document their inner lives, and in the process show the full potential of iPhone in a fine art setting.

Revealing deep self-reflection, the work of Djeneba Aduayom explores her inner thoughts and subjectivity. As an introvert, she was at ease at home, sitting still, and being quiet in the company of herself during the pandemic. This quiet confidence can be seen in her self-portraits, in which she poses for the camera and directly gazes at the viewer. These images are punctuated by smaller, more abstract “studies” of objects and the human form of the artist’s own body.

Much of Arielle Bobb-Willis’s work is born out of her experience battling depression from an early age. She manipulates color, shape, form, and light, giving way to abstract images that reference ideas of the beautiful, the strange, isolation, and belonging. Influenced by painting, her use of bright colors speaks to the artist’s desire to claim power and joy in the face of confusion, sadness, and uncertainty.

Quil Lemons presents self-portraits from his series entitled Daydreams, 2021, which document his very personal journey, a process of self-exploration and self-validation: “As a Black queer man, there is no space for me, so I constantly carve one,” he states. He confidently defines his racial and gender identity in ways that allow for the intertwined, co-existence of both. His work visually articulates both selfassurance and the ongoing vulnerability with which he contends.

The work of Brad Ogbonna is comprised of a broad series of portraits of family, friends, and himself. In the style of some of the most important historical West African portrait photographers, such as Malick Sidibé, Meissa Gaye, Seydou Keïta and others, he has created, in collaboration with his friends and family members, a series of intimate portraits that underscore family history and relationships with a strong reference to the artist’s Nigerian culture as well as his late father. “I didn’t think much about the past until my Dad died,” said Ogbonna. “Shortly thereafter I inherited his first photo album filled with photos from his youth spent in Nigeria. At the time those images felt like a portal to the not-so-distant past and left me with many more questions than answers. I was enthralled by the mystery of it all.”

Isaac West is inspired by his girlfriend Naima in his series entitled Love, 2021. He focuses on the small ways in which human interactions, gestures, and expressions both encapsulate and demonstrate larger ideas about love, intimacy, and care. Through his strikingly bold colors and stark lines and use of light, as well as the strong articulation and centering of Blackness, he highlights everyday acts of kindness— grooming, eating, playing—in order to underscore these ideas.

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