The OPEN (C)ALL: TRUTH exhibition, which took place in fall 2017, featured the work of over 125 artists from BRIC’s Contemporary Artist Registry, each responding to the question “What is real and true for you?” The work exhibited explored the current political climate and social issues, interior realities, and truth within the spiritual and psychological dimensions of life.
During the run of the exhibition, over 350 visitors voted for their favorite work in the show, which determined the "Viewer's Choice" award. In the end, this prize was awarded to a collaborative duo, dancer and artistic director Oneika Phillips, and photographer James Petrozzello, for their work, The Magdalena Series: The Truth Hurts, 2016 (pictured above). Erin McDonald, a member of BRIC's Contemporary Art team, sat down with Oneika and Jim to discuss the story of their collaboration, the meaning behind their work, and their artistic process.
Erin McDonald (BRIC): So you two met on a set in a shoot in relation to the Broadway musical Fela! How long did it take you both to realize that perhaps you wanted to collaborate together?
Oneika Phillips: Well, the shoot that we did for Fela! was organized by a mutual friend, Rajecko, and she had the idea of sort of recreating images of Fela’s Queens (in the 70s, Fela married 27 women–many band members and dancers from his performances–in a Yoruba ceremony and they were all called “Queens”) and she was like “I know this great photographer [Jim] and he just has an idea for these things.” We wanted to do this as quickly as possible because it was a lot of women and Jim would call us out in rotation and there was just this one shot, … I remember we took a few of me in my costume and then there was a bit of a lull and I said to him “Would you mind just shooting, I have one more image in mind, would you mind shooting it?” and he was like “Sure!” That particular image ended up being my favorite and there was something about his willingness to sort of accommodate this request and then having it turn out just the way I had envisioned it in my head. They’re like gorgeous and to me, kind of timeless. That’s what I appreciate about [Jim’s] work and I think that’s where I first connected with what his eye sees and then from there it was a couple of other collaborations that ultimately led to AfroClassicism (a series of photographs they did together, one of which won the “Viewer’s Choice” Award in BRIC’s OPEN (C)ALL: Truth exhibition).
James Petrozzello (Jim): Yeah, I think for me that Fela! photo shoot is still one of my favorites that I’ve done. It was a really chaotic day, there were twelve of you to shoot … it was pouring down rain! We were in my friend’s studio which he leant me for the day, and I was doing individual portraits of everyone. And I remember, Oneika was just very passionate. She had this very specific idea of a pose that she wanted and I really love that when I’m working with somebody. When they come to me and they’ve got an idea and then we can collaborate and build on it. I just felt like right away we were able to work together very naturally and very easily and sort of build off of one another’s ideas. I didn’t know that we would sort of continue collaborating, but definitely there was an instant connection. And then I think I was giving a talk not too long after that at Book Court, and I remember she showed up, which was great. It really meant a lot to me and then we started collaborating after that. It’s always been this really sort of easy, fruitful collaboration.Oneika: He’s always game, so I’ll call him and say “I have an idea.” Once I have that idea and I offer it to him, I feel like the vision kind of comes to mind but then there’s this magic that kind of happens when we’re in the space. Because we might go in with “idea A” and then it morphs into something even more, so there’s a wonderful collaborative energy that helps us create. We start with a shared vision of something really spectacular we want, and then working together we are able to help each other create that.
Jim: Yeah, there’s an improvisation that I think happens, that’s sort of rooted in whatever we’ve discussed beforehand but like what you said, there’s just like this … metamorphosis that always tends to happen.
Erin: That’s so important obviously. If you’re going to work with someone, you’ve got to have that energy. What was the process of creating what used to be called the Magdalena series and is now called the AfroClassicism series? What was the process there?
Oneika: The AfroClassicism series for me was just attempting to put black and brown bodies in spaces that they’re usually excluded from, because of historical context. That’s where the idea first birthed from, actually stemming from the same Fela! series. The beautiful way in which an Africanness was presented. I just thought “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just appropriate these classical settings and put the African body, the black body, in it.”
I brought that idea up to Jim and it just so happened that this idea was spurning at a time (beginning of 2016) when I had to have a spinal fusion that put me off stage for about a year and a half. And 2016 was also just filled with a lot of high racial tension and a lot of social clashes and in my opinion, a political upheaval. So when we sat talking about this idea, that conversation also came up. I remember it led to a whole other conversation about how to represent this angst. AfroClassicism has numerous prongs - it is the umbrella title and the Magdalena Series is one prong within it. So the Magdalena series to me is like a personal translation of a sort of obsession with Mary Magdalene and just the way she, as a woman, in these Biblical stories is characterized. “Oh she’s a prostitute and hung around Jesus for the benefits.” This is me modernizing the text obviously, but one of the things that really struck me with the police killings of black men and women who are victims of police brutality, is that there’s also this mischaracterization of the person, even when diseased. And it extends to the people who love them, the people who stand up for them, and have a voice for them. “They’re angry, they want money from the State, they want…” I just sort of recognize that there’s no space given to their sadness, no space given to their grief and I had this idea to appropriate the Magdalena story and sort of place it with black bodies, including my own. It expressed my own sorrow and my own angst through imagery, still having it fall under the AfroClassicism umbrella because the idea sort of pulls off these religious images that we know as classical whether it’s Mary and Jesus, or the Suffering Virgin in the Garden. The one image that was in BRIC’s OPEN (C)ALL: TRUTH exhibition is one of about two hundred that we have. We continue to try to curate, and even that has proven difficult because there’s a story there. There’s a thru line.Jim: Yeah, Oneika presented it to me as something she was considering pursuing and she was kind of like “I have this idea of a project I want to work on, can I consult you? Get some ideas of how I’m supposed to move forward?” Then we met at the steps of the Brooklyn Museum and we were sitting there talking about it. The more she explained it to me, the more interested I got. And eventually I said “How about I do this with you? Let’s do this together!” To me, it just addressed all these issues of lack of representation, inequality, and injustice, but also the reactions to that and the totality of emotions. Not just anger and sorrow but healing and humanity. I think where we started was the bond between mother and child and it just so happens that the images we’ve executed so far have more to do with pain and the sorrow. But I think what we’re really after is to get a more holistic representation of these issues.
Oneika: The one that we really wanted to shoot was the recreation of the Pieta. Recreating the Pieta is actually a pretty popular thing, but I think our idea of how to represent that image is less pursued. It happened that the Magdalena series sort of grew out of that because we were test shooting what the Pieta image might look like. It was just Jim and I, we were just sort of working on poses and shooting. All that kept coming to mind was that there’s this sort of wonderful and sad aspect of it, you know, without the body there. What would be my reaction not just as a sister but as a mother? As a daughter? So that’s what the Magdalena series grew out of. We haven’t shot the Pieta image yet but the Magdalena series was born from that.
Jim: Yeah, we were testing and I just remember looking through the lense and you know we were just trying out ideas but she brought such emotion to it. There was such a tangible grief, frustration, and range of emotions that she was able to bring up and communicate that I think we both realized that it was something we should pursue. Then we got together not soon after, specifically for that, and we’re really happy with the results.
Erin: It is beautiful. What’s next after the Magdalena series? What do you plan on doing next with the AfroClassicism series?Oneika: Well, I am sort of really desperate to shoot this Pieta image. I have two models in mind, but it’s been difficult to get them in the same space at the same time. We did some test shots, even before the models came into it. I can’t even remember why the idea came to mind, but I said to Jim “Do you have any like thin rope? Or twine?” And he happened to have fishing twine, and I tried it on my hand. There was just this immediate distortion to the whole right hand. Just bits and pieces, curves and turns. It was sort of grotesque yet beautiful in terms of what the image could look like. Then it was sort of like this supernova in my brain, like when the model comes, let’s have some imagery of him with the twine. The same story of the clay on the face … anything that can represent a breaking, cracking, sort of, a restriction.
Jim: Something to struggle against.
Oneika: Yeah, something to struggle against doesn’t give you the voice that you know you have to express. And this was one of my frustrations. I remember attending a couple protests in relation to police killings associated with Black Lives Matter and I really appreciated it, yet it wasn’t really my voice, my expression of how to cope with the anxiety of it all. It just made me more anxious and I just realized that that particular outlet of expression wasn’t the most powerful voice, it isn’t *my* most powerful way of expression. Then we started to tie the twine around the model at the shoot, and all of a sudden there was the imagery. I thought to myself “I’m not the only one feeling this!” You don’t have to be a Black person to feel “I’m losing my voice,” “how do I express this?” I felt like I was up against something that I could not get out of, even if I wanted to, and the fish and twine represented that remarkably.
Erin: Would you all consider this project an exploration of trauma in the modern Black experience?
Oneika: Definitely! And I think that specifically what the Pieta and the Magdalena series is about is an appropriation of this sort of religious context of a mother who loses a child who was criminalized and dies brutally. How they deal with that sorrow. Who now has to continue without this person in their existence, it’s a co-op of that story but there’s a thru line that I see. The thing is, I’m not religious in the least, it’s just the story of these two women who loved someone so intensely that their sorrow was palpable in the stories. Every time I see a mother stand at a mic, having to attempt to hold all of that down in order to appear as strong or as forgiving or whatever else, it just really frustrates me. I think that for me, what the images made me realize through the twine and through the clay is that, that this is sort of a dodge at the whole “black don’t crack” thing. When I looked at the images with the clay in particular, I thought “well but it does.” Because it’s a stress that lives from going from a place of great independence, self-sufficiency, kingdoms, trading operations to now being dehumanized and living under a system that just sort of flexed and changed in different ways to still marginalize and hold down a particular group of people. Then you have things like Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement and even now in 2017, we’re still having these ridiculous conversations about equality and what people deserve. We should be more evolved than that. When we have a group of people who are saying that they’re just having a conversation with you of civil rights. Why is that a conversation? I remember one of the things I said to Jim was “I just want the work to be a place of healing.” So you present the images and you have people see grief and then have a conversation about - what is grief, what is pain, what is fear? And how do we address it as a community? And then people now have an opportunity to talk about what that is. They may now give themselves the space to feel it. There’s something about Black and Brown communities where that space is much smaller, the place to really express your angst, grief, and fear. It’s just smaller, it just has to be brushed over because you have to be stronger and bigger than it. And yes that’s true but if that’s continued for generations and generations, there’s a whole cavity that ends up being full of things that are not discussed and healing that has not taken place that eventually is going to crack. I mean it just has hurt too many people. So I just saw the images as an opportunity, it brought up the conversation of mental health and the way when you look at TV, you constantly see these reports that make you think “Oh my son might be in danger! My friend may be in danger! My husband or my wife might be in danger!” Simply because the racial construct. That weighs on you, every time your child leaves the house you have to worry about what could possibly happen when someone else wouldn’t even think about it. So it’s really an opportunity to talk about healing and the impact of mental health and why mental health is important to be discussed. An opportunity to do that through art and photography is really to me the role of the kind of work that we are attempting to do. That’s what art is supposed to do, right? It’s supposed to bring about conversation and ultimately bring about change of some kind.
Jim: Yeah I think when Oneika presented the project to me, when we were talking about it, the part that really kind of tied me in or drew me in was the mental health aspect of it and approaching it from a perspective of healing. I think that the representations of anger, frustration, and sorrow are really plentiful but in the experience of injustice and institutionalized racism, the history of this imagery, there are a lot of things that aren’t addressed. The humanity of who these people are and the familial bonds between a mother and a child. The way that a community is severed and affected by these things. These are maybe more subtle but definitely less represented, seeing this as an opportunity to address those things and specifically the way that ties into the AfroClassicism, you know where you have images that don’t represent certain communities there was a real parallel there. And also something that we’ve talked about, that we haven’t shot yet, you know for me, I’ve always been really struck by the way that our sense of history is really distorted. To me, in this context the historic archival images of lynchings are really important in that aspect, you know? And the fact that those episodes were outings. They were reasons for people to have picnics, have their pictures taken, and send postcards. We don’t understand that. That’s been lost through history. There really needs to be a reckoning of what that history truly is. I don’t know, I think at some point we will address that in some way with some images but definitely sort of giving people an opportunity to understand the roots of this and really try to understand something more than the story that we’ve been fed, you know? That’s a really important aspect of that as well.
Oneika: And I think you know, talking about it being a project of many prongs there’s a whole other aspect to this that is just about what is beautiful, right? That’s really where the first idea came from and much of it was inspired by those Fela! images and thinking to myself “I don’t see enough of THIS, of THIS beauty and strength.” And so the various prongs of it will grow from a discussion of sorrow, grief, and the impact, all the way to the potential of who we are and who we can be and why we have a right to juxtapose ourselves into images and places where we were not before. Because for some reason the line is drawn in the sand, like okay if we are gonna shoot something past the 1800s, then your role is very specific as a Black or Brown person. So why shoot it? Why create an image that is not historically correct? And I just completely disagree with that. We wouldn’t have fairy tales and stories if that were the case. We have the right to create our own stories too. We don’t have to live by one linear thing, nowadays, as you said, that history is sort of like “the conqueror gets to tell the history.”
Jim: Yeah, the notion of what is historically correct needs to be examined because….
Oneika: Exactly! I am happy to shoot images that make someone say “Yeah but that wasn’t the case.” and I’m happy to respond “Why does that matter? If it empowers, why does it matter?”
Erin: So what made you guys decide to submit to BRIC’s OPEN (C)ALL:TRUTH exhibition?
Oneika: You know the truth is I love this space (BRIC House). I have walked into it so many times and have seen our images here. We actually applied for ArtFP to exhibit our work in the Project Room, but unfortunately didn’t get it. When the OPEN (C)ALL exhibition came up, I shot it over to Jim because I applied to it sort of in a hurry. It was two days before the deadline…and I think he was traveling. I just thought it was an opportunity that BRIC was giving to artists who really would like a space to show their work but maybe haven’t had the chance to. And Jim is a professional photographer, he’s had more opportunities than I have in this realm of exhibiting but I read the parameters and I thought we could really have an opportunity here. And then we got the wonderful news that it was accepted. The opportunity to participate in this exhibition at BRIC was an awesome learning experience for me, because now when we have the chance to do something bigger we’ll have the ground lines for timeline, costs, sizing, and so on. It’s like whoever you are, you have work you want to share, and here’s an opportunity to do it. I was really impressed and moved by the program.
Jim: I also have frequently been at this space for exhibitions, film festivals, or even to just to sit in the cafe. I appreciate it as a great resource to the community as well. We worked really hard on the ArtFP submission for the Project Room, which I think was really helpful because it really helped us round out and articulate a lot of our ideas so that when the opportunity for the OPEN (C)ALL: TRUTH exhibition came up, we could fire off an application really quickly.
Erin: Jim, since you do have a plethora of work from commercial to personal, how do you think that your photography has evolved over time?
Jim: I’ve always been interested in a lot of different kinds of photography. I started off most interested in street photography, just kind of wandering around with a camera and never really wanted to be cornered into one genre. So you know I think everything that I approach sort of comes from the same place. It’s a curiosity about people, an attempt to address whatever the subject is honestly and a technical approach that is appropriate and honors whatever the subject is. I think it is always evolving. I am always trying to challenge myself with new projects, whenever I feel I’ve been doing one thing for too long I try to think of how I can break out of that. I was doing a lot of work for one client where I had to shoot things from a very specific perspective and I thought, I want to do another long term project where I have complete autonomy. I started doing a project on the West Indian Day parade here in Brooklyn because I knew it was close by. I could revisit it, build relationships, and I could do it however I wanted. I started doing tintypes because I had always loved that process and wanted to kind of get away from digital and get back into a dark room or analog based photography using you know large format cameras and working very slowly. I think that really helped with our project because it really made me slow down and consider one image at a time. We shot together and I remember just the time of having to really look through the camera and work on a pose. Just the slowness of that, … really working with someone where they see an image come up, it really allows for a collaboration and that’s something I always strive for as well, to find passionate people and dip into that and collaborate together. I think with photography it’s always just working further and further towards personal vision, you know? And trying to get to that.
Erin: Why do you feel this specific photo spoke so much to the people who attended and voted during the OPEN (C)ALL exhibition?
Oneika: First of all it’s one of the images that spoke most to us about what we were attempting to express. In shooting there was this moment where I started to tear up and Jim was there and again, even that invasion is representative of what I was feeling and it’s just a moment. That one image is part of a series and yet we kept going back to that one image in the series that just evoked, not just sadness, but honest grief. There’s a heartbreak behind it, a breaking of self and there’s something about that particular image that I felt while we couldn’t submit the whole series, that that one could represent the whole series well. Whether it was an aesthetic aspect - really showcasing the clay, or just the thru line of the story, we just felt that image was the best one to select. Then upon getting it framed and the names on the frame and the blurring of the names. Because that’s the construct of the image, it’s a frame that has the names of people that have been killed unjustly, then those names are smudged because this is what happens, you just forget the names of these people, it becomes so many and you sort of forget their names. But what you don’t forget is the feelings and the impact of that.
Jim: And I think, you know, it’s an undeniable image and the emotion is so powerful, so tangible. But at the same time, as tangible as that is and as much as you could look at it and say oh okay that’s a woman who is really experiencing some extreme sadness and pain, it’s really a mysterious image with the lighting and the clay, what’s happening with her skin is really mysterious. Then even the frame with the smudged text – it makes one really curious about what that is, and what it says. I think it’s a really interesting juxtaposition.
Oneika: I had a really wonderful sort of serendipitous moment in viewing the piece at BRIC. Finally there was a day when I could go in there and look at the image hung as part of the exhibition. On that day, a teacher had brought students over from Mark Morris and they were doing a tour here and the teacher was talking to them and I went to her and said “I’m one of the artists here, would you like me to say anything to the kids?” and she was like “That would be amazing.” So I just brought them to the image and asked them “What did they see?” and kids being kids, their reactions were “sadness, sorrow, pain” so then I had an opportunity to have a conversation with these kids about what these images were and they had some really poignant questions, that even challenged me about how to respond to young Black and Brown children in having this conversation about injustice and criminalization.
Erin: How do you feel that being an artist in Brooklyn has influenced your creative practice?
Jim: I mean, for me, this is where I became a photographer, where I became an artist … walking around the streets of Brooklyn taking pictures, observing people. I remember when I first came here I just walked through Fulton Mall that area and I used to just love it there. It was just such a trip to see the people there; it’s different now, like everything in New York it changes, but it was reminiscent of the vitality of the borough and all the people here. Like the fact that we can just get together so easily and sit on the steps at the Brooklyn Museum, brainstorm and come up with this project. Yeah, there are just so many people here who are so creative, so talented and so many venues and opportunities to sort of feed that part of your mind and grow and cultivate that artistic part of you. I don’t know how many places there are like that.
Oneika: Yeah, I completely agree. I think there’s a vibrancy and an edge to Brooklyn that is specifically this borough. It’s exactly that, you walk down the street and you see something that spurs an idea, you see the way a person walks or you hear a conversation or the colors of the graffiti. There’s just something, a unique vibrancy, about Brooklyn. I’ve been to every other borough and they of course have their own unique aspects but Brooklyn just holds a sort of pepper-pot of artistry that impacts you and influences you in just about everything that you do. The way that you talk, the way that you react, the way that you share your work. It’s really true. We met on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum and from there this idea grew, just from the environment around us. It was all to me fertilizer for these images, I just honestly think that’s unique to Brooklyn. It’s not like, let’s meet in the city and talk about this. As two Brooklyn artist let’s meet in Brooklyn and talk about it.
Interview conducted and compiled by Erin McDonald.