A Photographic Reimagining of Black Past and Black Future with Shawn Theodore
By Scarlett Davis
“Shawn Theodore represents the new generation of contemporary visual artists who are using their gifts to combat negative stereotypes and foster images that reaffirm and empower. In use of his third eye, he makes his subjects who are all too often deemed invisible, not only visible, but relevant in a world where people of color are projected as unimportant, and irrelevant. His mastery of light and composition are evident in all of his stunning and insightful creations.” — Jamel Shabazz, October 2016
Philadelphia-based, Shawn Theodore has been making his bones in street photography since 2008, but has quickly risen to prominence, joining the ranks in a larger tradition of black art, philosophy, spiritualism, and thought, rubbing various elbows with the likes of revolutionaries like Frederick Douglas to his mentor, Jamel Shabazz. Shawn Theodore is a multidisciplinary artist in photography, video, and collage and as such his work is deeply-rooted in the ephemeral of black culture and the black collective conscious, but is as equally critical as it is hopeful in offering a new trajectory, while exploring the fragmented African American and African diaspora identities. If you have not already, be sure to visit Shawn Theodore’s Instagram@,_xst (pronounced exist).
Scarlett Davis: You have accredited Jamel Shabazz as a profound influence for your delve into street photography who also gave you high praise in 2016, noting the aforementioned quotation. Could you describe your connection to photography and how you were influenced by Shabazz and his techniques? Also, what is it like to have your work currently being showcased astride Shabazz at the Snap! Gallery in Orlando, Florida?
Shawn Theodore: Yes, Jamel Shabazz will always have the honor of being my first mentor, but it’s certainly more complex than that. When I speak about our connection and relationship to people, many times people have said they’ve imagined that the two of us are always talking, particularly about our craft. The fact is, even though I approached him and asked for his guidance in photography, we’ve never really had moments where the camera or technical knowledge takes center stage. So, with that said, there was a time, roughly 8 years ago or so, I was looking at Shabazz’s portfolio that he always has on him. As I flipped page after page, he knew everyone’s story. He remembered every name. He recalled every location. It wasn’t about the camera, the film, or the lens. His passion was all about the people. That’s what my mentor taught me.
For the journey to bring us back together ten years later, to share this exhibition, is absolutely mind-blowing. Last year my first museum show, Church of Broken Pieces premiered next to Dawoud Bey’s seminal work Harlem 1975 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. When my exhibition opened again at Richard Beavers Gallery in Brooklyn, Shabazz came to see the work, and shared with me how proud he was of my accomplishments — that was a humbling moment. We spoke about doing a show together, perhaps in the latter half of 2018, but as opportunity had it, Snap! Orlando made it happen way sooner than expected.
SD: I was inspired by your approach to ask people on the street to be photographed where you have said that you like to “disarm with love.” What has it been like to connect with everyday people and what have you taken away from the experience?
ST: This gets to the heart of what my mentor taught me, which is to approach people with love. It seems like such a simple thing when I say it right now, but on the street, the camera can either be a wall or a door - not everyone is immediately receptive to the idea of a portrait by a stranger. It takes a certain innate knowledge to pick up on a person’s perception of you from body language, verbal cues, reading a smile properly. It takes time to know when and how to take a portrait of someone you’ve never met.
And, the thing to remember is that once you have this portrait, you have the moment that you and this person met —often for the first time, to show and share with the world. That’s a special bond. I don’t have many photos of the first time I met some of my closest friends but I have this ever-growing collection of portraits connecting me to thousands of people; some I know I’ll see again and there are those I’ll never see again. These moments really change you on an emotional level. You become more conscientious and considerate, keenly empathetic - to be more specific. Many of the people I’ve met while shooting street portraits have become dear and close friends over time.
SD: One of your more recent projects, Future Antebellum, is a fascinating historicizing of the present in which you offer a trajectory for black America and the collective black consciousness, which delineates a ‘black apostasy.’ As the title would imply, the country is on the precipice of a kind of second civil war. Could you elaborate more on the thoughts and the intent that went into the imagining of this project?
ST: Thank you for asking about Future Antebellum (FA). It was April 2017 when I started placing my research into photographic scenes for FA. The thing that prompted me to consider making a body of work like this came from the overwhelmingly monolithic and overly optimistic interpretations of contemporary black culture as viewed through a narrow interpretive model of Afrofuturism. Not to say that I think Afrofuturism is flawed, but the proper dialogue, useful interpretation and (most importantly) a healthy critique of this specific philosophy isn’t happening broadly across the black community.
I needed to address this lack of critical discussion — I believe that a vulnerability in our collective black consciousness formed where ‘Afrofuturism’ solves for any X. What becomes of a culture fueled by a strict intellectual diet of self-aggrandizing thought, where the imagery is driven by social media interaction and attention seeking, all expressed through flawed interpretive thinking? There was plenty of work grounded on and around our tragic past, but not enough attention on the focused, honest discourse on where we were going. The concept of ‘black apostasy’ was born out of my research of the works of Afro-Pessimistic thinkers and authors. It was a joyous moment during this phase to arrive at this enriching school of thought. From this point forward, I felt confident about the intent of the work.
‘Black Apostasy’, needed to have a ‘bookend' so to speak. I chose two of the most popular hashtags being used in black social media discussions; ‘black boy joy’ which dismantles hypermasculine constructs, but infantilizes adult African American male happiness. In a similar fashion, ‘black girl magic’, posits itself around the vernacular use of ‘girl’ as a unifying, deeply encoded word employed by black women, yet the hashtagged phrase often falsely valorizes anything labeled ‘black and feminist’. Similarly, I took into account extremes like hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity with regard to the trajectories of conceptualizations of black personality traits, domestic behaviors, occupations, and physical appearances. I positioned these ideas as absolute principles to frame my process. Lastly, I decided to place this afromythological storyline twenty years into the future rather than express a contemporary, albeit fictional, chain of events. I asked myself a series of questions while planning my shoots for FA: What if hashtags could evolve into philosophical maxims, and then, in turn, the foundation of a future community’s morals and ideas? What does actual black girl magic look like in a world where black feminism evolved into a religious system? What does black male joy look like in a world governed by black feminism? How connected are we to our ancestors, is there a distinction between how one would communicate with someone in the spiritual world vs the physical/real one? Would there be a division between these spaces? What then, is a ‘safe space’ in this world, what happens there?
In the time and space where FA takes place, this particular portrayal of black consciousness would be heightened and hyper-connected with spiritual divinity. In our current times, to be Black and Feminist is to be on the front lines of all socio-political change. If Black Feminism evolved into a religion, and then, somehow, aligned us with our ability to distill communication with our ancestors, I believe it would be possible to share space, perhaps even interacting with them in the physical world, as one sees in the photos of FA.
My condemnation of ‘ornamental blackness’ comes from the negative influence rooted in the aesthetics of 18th century Blackamoor decorate arts - the blackamoor has seriously problematic racist connotations, with its association to colonialism and slavery. When you see a subject in my photo who is painted all black (as an evolution of my silhouette works), this is not a happy nod to blackamoor works, I am reclaiming the absolute blackness and dynamic physical and spiritual power of trapped in these figures, recasting them as an African or African American ancestor or hypothesized deity.
However, most importantly within FA, my greatest personal task was to create a visual narrative to empower people, specifically women, whenever and wherever it would be viewed across space or time. I wanted to capture images of a group of people who found a way to express their agency and culture despite the duress of the policies and vile backwardness we are experiencing today. In a lot of ways, I’m also sending a message into the future for my daughter Ghazi, who turns four this year. I want her to remember that she was a part of the magic creating these images, and to always protect her own magic and that of others.
SD: In your body of work, notably in The Avenues and Church of Broken Pieces you employ a vibrant use of color mirroring a kind of psychology embedded in the environment and the subject. In trying to steer away from some of the stereotypical images or “poverty porn” of older communities in wake of gentrification in cities like Philadelphia and Brooklyn, you open up a broader conversation of the role of the photographer, as well as others in their shaping of black imagery? Could you expand upon your process as a photographer in this age of #hashtags?
ST: As important as hashtags may be, humanity, morals and ethics should be at the root of the work. With that said, the public figure who drives my thinking when I’m using a camera to create my art or to capture a moment, is Frederick Douglass. In the book Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American, one discovers his convictions regarding the importance of photography. As an early advocate and theorist of the technology and a student of its social impact of the power, and he posed for hundreds of different portraits. He was one of the first to consider the fixed image as a public relations instrument and believed fervently that he could represent the dignity of his race, inspiring others, and expanding the visual vocabulary of mass culture. I believe the power of portraying dignity begets dignity. I’m not advocating turning a blind eye to the ills of the world, but for the most part, what good springs forth from a vast majority of the photography that qualifies as ‘poverty porn’? What social changes occur? I believe people simply flip past these images, mostly unaffected. I hope to make work that halts people in a positive way.
SD: What does ‘soul’ mean for the older communities? How is it changing and what does that mean for later generations?
ST: ‘Soul’ will always have the same roots; it has a recognizable sound, look, flavor, feel. I think what changes about ‘soul’ is how the younger generations add to ‘soul’, whether knowingly or not. What the younger generation calls ‘the wave’ is just the pulse of our collective. It’s the heartbeat that keeps us in groove. Soul needs the wave, and vice versa. Getting the older generation to make room for the wave, that’s the fight that defines the changes and shift in culture. Changes, but not a disconnect. I believe that the connection is stronger than ever. In times of rebellion, all we have is ‘soul’. In that sense, I believe soul is more of a place or a space than anything else.
SD: Lastly, as a multidisciplinary artist your work is heavily relevant in a kind of zeitgeist of music, art, literature, and culture, noting you heavy presence on Instagram. What have been some of your guiding influences of your work? And have the Muses brought anything for the future horizon?
ST: The most important guiding influences on my work emerges from the people I spend the most time with, the books we share, the articles, dissertations. I spend a lot of time locked in conversations between curators, artists of all disciplines, historians. I do spend a great deal of time going around the country to museums, large and small, to sit with the works on exhibition. Photography has been an amazing vehicle for my life. I get to express my artistic feelings, it’s allowed me to be in conversation with my contemporaries, I’m seeing my work placed in the canon as an ‘emerging’ talent. It’s humbling and wondrous all at once.
Shawn Theodore attended Tyler School of Art and received his BA in Journalism, Public Relations and Advertising from Temple University.
His solo exhibition highlights include: Future Antebellum ’17, Art Sanctuary ; Church of Broken Pieces ’17, African American Museum in Philadelphia; The Avenues ’16, Painted Bride Art Center; The Avenues, G-Town and Uptown ‘14, Imperfect Gallery and Scribe Video Center; The Avenues, North and West Philly ‘14, and he has exhibited in several group shows.