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Persephone Pioneers

Persephone Pioneers: Kameelah Rasheed

Kameelah Rasheed is a photographer, whose work is all about continually re-exploring history – her own and culture at large. “In many ways, my art practice is born from a fear of forgetting. I constantly photograph and collect audio because I don’t know my family’s history. It’s gone. Maybe I can never find it, but I can help others build and preserve their history,” she says in a statement on her site, where her works give evidence to the small, daily rituals interlinked with memory, history and micro-narrative.

When she isn’t creating beautiful photography, you can find her writing over at The Liberator Magazine, as well as editing interviews for Specter Literary Magazine. You can also catch her writing in a contributed essay for  I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, a collection of 40 stories of American Muslim women under the age of 40. A talented teacher, writer, artist and all around fantastic woman, Persephone Magazine, please welcome Kameelah Rasheed.

Kameelah Rasheed

Persephone Magazine: How did you get started in photography? Was it something you always gravitated to or was there sort of a “click” moment?

Kameelah Rasheed: I tell this story through three encounters. When I was seven years old, I gave my lunch to a homeless woman. The lunch had some my favorite snacks: an almond butter and honey sandwich on wheat bread, a pint of fruit punch, and a sour plum. I was in the parking lot of the QFI grocer in Redwood City, California with my mom. The sun was warm. I had pigtails. After I gave her my lunch, she turned and threw it away in this pebbled finished stone trashcan. I just stood there. I wasn’t angry, just confused. My mother took my hand and walked me way. This was my first encounter with homelessness.

My second encounter with homelessness was a boy at my school. He and his family were migrant workers. Now, I cannot remember his name, but he spoke very little English. His face was scratched and sunburned. Wrinkles formed around his eyes. His eyes were small slits and his eyelashes casted a shadow on his reddened skin. I remember his hands being calloused and dirty. He appeared much older than the rest of us nine-year-olds. He had the face of a tired man; he was a man–at least he labored like one. He often helped to clean up the cafeteria after lunch in the hopes of finding leftover food. One day he stole my lunch. I told my mom about it. I was upset but my mom began sending extra food with me to school. I distinctly remember her sending this popcorn he loved. I think it was organic cheddar popcorn. My third encounter with homelessness preceded a more intimate encounter.

Around the age of 10 years old, my family saw a family standing in a field of wilted dandelions and weeds in front of Sears. They had mustard yellow suitcases and a few boxes. We went home but I did not forget that family. I sat on my green carpet, pulled at the lint balls, saddened. Little did I know, that family standing in the field of dandelions would be my family years later.  At the age of 12, my family became homeless. In the process of moving around, many of our family photographs were lost and destroyed. While a few were salvaged, there are gaping holes in our family history; something was gone. From a young age, I grew fascinated with notions of memory and histories. Time travel emerged as a secret interest. I spent hours at garage sales and estate sales searching for pictures of black families. I evolved from a collector of orphaned photographs to a photographer.
Everything I do now is about building an archive–a memory base. Without memories we disappear. In many ways, my art practice is born from a fear of forgetting. I constantly photograph and collect audio because I don’t know my family’s history. It’s gone. Maybe I can never find it, but I can help others build and preserve their history. Less concerned with grand narratives, my photography focuses on intimate micro-narratives–families, small towns, and subcultures. A historian at my core, I am never without my Nikon cameras, a few rolls of film, an audio recorder, and a notepad. Memory, and temporality are central to my work. To this end, while portraiture is my main medium, I utilize and often merge various photographic approaches including documentary, found photography, re-photography, and collage to articulate my vision.
From the series South Africa (In and Around). Image courtesy of Kameelah Rasheed
PM: What is it about photography that you think can better communicate what you want to say? What do you perceive its strengths as? What about its weaknesses?

KR: Every message needs a very particular delivery. It isn’t so much that I think photography communicates better than say painting or printmaking; rather, it’s that for what I’ve wanted to communicate in the past and more recently, photography has been a great medium. On the other side of that, I also find photography limiting in that the lens can only capture what is in front of you. You can fabricate an environment, which is labor intensive. Another limiting aspect of photography, at least digital photography, is the instantaneous nature of it all. When I painted and sketched, I would work toward molding a piece over a few days or weeks. However, with digital photography, there is something quick and unsatisfying at times. When I am feeling like this, I take a break and switch back to film. With film, there is less predictability. I also feel a more intimate connection with all stages of the production–from manually focusing, to rewinding the roll, to playing in chemicals, and printing. Digital photography removes a level of intimacy. Intimacy is at the core of art. Well, at least it is for me.

Untitled Image from the series Collective (R)evolution. Image courtesy of Ksmeelah Rasheed.
PM: You are also part of Mambu Bandu, a collective of black/African female photographers lifting their inspiration from the loose translation of the site’s name: “The best has yet to come.” What does this phrase mean to you as a photographer? What are the benefits of having this community? 

KR: Mambu Badu is a bit of magic conjured up myself and fellow photographers/artists Danielle Scruggs and Allison McDaniel. It’s a reminder that we should constantly praise our elders for the work they’ve done and at the same time look forward to the new generation of Black female photographers. I like nurturing this community because the presence of Black female photographers in galleries and museums is limited, yet growing. Also, there are some amazing Black female photographers on these lovely internets whose work deserves attention and praise. We believe there is enough shine for everyone so we’ve published a web-based magazine featuring six photographers, are in the process of curating an exhibit slated for winter 2011, and are working on our second issue of the magazine.

Image from the series Collective (R)evolution. Image courtesy of Kameelah Rasheed


PM: One of the most thought provoking pieces (okay, I admit, one of my favorite) is your series called “Like a Virgin,” a series that unlike the work your known for, is text-based. Why did you approach this piece the way you did? What is it about virginity that captivates the attention of people, positive or negative?

KR: It’s funny that you selected this piece because it troubles me a bit; I am not entirely satisfied with it. I guess no artist is entirely satisfied. I wish it had more structural integrity and I am working through how to shift this piece from stark text to something more sculptural–something that boldly occupies a 3D space. Like a Virgin” is a series of text that addresses the varied technologies women and men have concocted to counterfeit virginity. From the dangerous insertion of vials of fish blood to the use of leeches on the labia, these technologies reflect countless contemporary news stories as well as European 11th and 17th century records that have documented the inventive yet dangerous measures women have taken to reconfigure their anatomy to match a desired level of morality.

The reason why I went for text is that I thought about all the other artistic conversations with virginity and many centered a human body. I wanted to move the conversation away from the corporeal because I do not feel like that is the real site of the conversation. Virginity is about contested language. What counts as a virgin? How do we prove virginity? How do we fake virginity? Does the definition of a virgin shift over time? The discourse takes a very scientific route full of technicalities and linguistic maneuvers. Given such, I chose text. Text was a desired medium because of one of my favorite poets, Harryette Mullen. Inspired by Harryette Mullen’s “Recyclopedia,”  in the pieces, original text from advertisements and letters is transmuted and (re)organized to create new meaning–meaning that is sometimes highly referential and difficult to decode but nonetheless explores the uncanny valuation of virginity.
As an artist, I’d hope that the viewer decide to “fight through” any obscurity in my work. I’d love for my work to be accessible enough to be understood at least marginally, but also contain references that are obscure enough to encourage independent research. There is something exhilarating about not knowing, then researching, then knowing something. Reading Harryette Mullen’s work always put me in that disorienting space of confusion of highly referential and abstruse texts. I like that space because it pushed me to do research; I like the challenge, the sense of frustration. I’d read her work, create my own footnotes, and be lead somewhere unexpected. Sometimes when I look at art, my work included, I feel like the artist has given “too much” to the viewer–the viewer does no “labor” to understand the piece… and if too much intellectual heavy lifting is required, the piece is dismissed as unnecessarily dense.

I think virginity captivates people because it’s seen a form of extreme deprivation. Now feels like the era of extreme indulgence. People view it as an anachronism–a relic of a past time. Also, I think we are just unhealthily preoccupied with the lives of others.

Image from the Like A Virgin Series. Image courtesy of Kameelah Rasheed
PM: Your work has also taken you to places like Cape Town and Johannesburg, both on notable fellowships. Why South Africa? What about places like Durban and Cape Town inspire you as a photographer, as well as tie in with the larger amount of work you are creating?

KR: At 19, I’d never left the state of California except for a high school trip up to Oregon for a Shakespeare festival. As a junior in college, I knew I wanted to go somewhere in Africa.
In high school, I read this short story entitled “Six Feet of the Country” by Nadine Gordimer and was hooked in by the politics of death, land ownership, and whiteness. I was intrigued by the spatial politics of South Africa. More so than any other colonized African country with a settler population, the apartheid project had far-reaching affects on the psychological and physical landscape of the people. I wanted to visit post-apartheid South Africa partially because I was skeptical of this notion of “post-apartheid”–it seemed prematurely celebratory. We have this tendency of adding these periodization labels– “pre” and “post”– with the assumption that a label delivers us into that reality. Kind of like this weird notion of “post-war” nations that are still suspended, somehow, in war. I read a lot about South Africa and I was done reading and wanted to experience the country myself.

As a photographer, there are several things I love about South Africa and it all goes back to land and geography. Anyone who first visits a city like Johannesburg, especially the CBD, will think “chaos.”  There is something beautiful about the ways that once-private space is made public, the way that once-non-Black space is reappropriated, and the intricate patterns people form on the streets while queueing for taxis or selling fruits. Okhai Ojeikere, the Nigerian photographer best known for his photographs of intricate hair styles has a son, Amaize, whose work focus on the intricate patterns of African cities. There is something lyrical and theatrical in the way that bodies and structures are arranged. I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and the area reminds of me Johannesburg CBD. If you spend 5 minutes on Utica and Eastern Parkway, it’s like being back in Johannesburg – the street vendors, the languages I somewhat understand, the smell of roasted meat, the littered streets, and the taxis.

Image from the series South Africa ( In and Around). Image courtesy of Kameelah Rasheed.
PM: Not only are you a photographer, but you are also a successful writer who has had her work published in places like The Nation, Change.org, and Wire Tap Magazine.  How do you balance these two? Does one take precedence over the other or is that cheapening the dedication you give to both? What got you started in writing?

KR: You are quite generous! I am an emerging writer with an interest in narrative journalism and more recently flash fiction. Success would be writing the “Findings” section in Harper’s or penning my own article.

Writing seemed like a natural home for me. I never clearly fit in with a peer group and at a certain point no longer cared. I was an early reader like all my siblings and in turn became an early writer. In fact, I organized my own home library from Bernstein Bears books and the RIF (Reading is Fundamental) program books other kids tossed out at school. In first grade our school built a publishing center and this let me transition from being a reader of stories to a creator of stories. This publishing center was a crowded section of a tiny portable building. There was a coil binding machine, card stock, and a type-writer. I think I wrote and illustrated over ten books by the time I finished second grade. In the “About Me” section of one of my earlier books, it read “My name is Kameelah Rasheed. I am seven years old and go to Flood School. Seven years old is very young but I like to read, write, and do art. I live in East Palo Alto. I’m in 2nd grade. I’m a good reader.” Another one mentions my grandfather dying– I wrote it in a disturbingly abrupt manner. Despite the slightly problematic parallel structure in the third sentence, I think these small pieces of writing illustrate that early on I felt limited by only expressing myself through words; I also needed visual arts.

Trying to balance being a photographer and a writer is not an easy task. Photography and writing are both about storytelling. I love to tell stories. They are my bread. There are some stories that can only blossom through prose–like you need that perfect cadence or adjective cluster to carry the story. Then there are some narratives that can only take flight through visual imagery–the deep color contrast give the story wings. I guess with that said, what’s more difficult than trying to balance being a photographer and writer is deciding which stories need words and which do not. And there are those times when I need both words and images. Then there is silence when nothing more is needed but stillness.
I remember someone saying very few photographers write as well as they photograph. I take it as a challenge; I want to write as well as I photograph… photograph as well as I write.
Image from the Ma'George Casting Session. Image courtesy of Kameelah Rasheed.
PM: What amazing work can we look forward from you in the future?

KR: I am usually quiet about these things, but I will share a bit. Sometimes I cannot sleep because I am thinking about my projects. Right now, the ideas that are keeping me awake are:

1. “Memory”: Co-curating an exhibit with Mambu Badu featuring the inaugural cohort of our photography collective.

2. “2.5 Square Miles”: Portraiture and audio project focused on my hometown of East Palo Alto, CA. East Palo Alto is a 2.5 square mile city with a population of about 30,000. An urban city with vestiges of a farming past, East Palo Alto during my upbringing was the nation’s murder capital and the center of the crack epidemic. Now undergoing stages of gentrification, the city has taken on a new shape while dealing with an upsurge in violence. This digital portraiture and audio project will focus on 25 youth in East Palo Alto, many of whom I taught while living in California. Special attention will be paid to the Polynesian youth, a growing immigrant population in East Palo Alto.

3. “Ritual”: Curating a cross-continental web-based magazine featuring the work of emerging U.S. and South-African visual artists.

4. “Bodies”: Self portraiture and text series centered on self-imaging that does not rely on the face as the indicator of identity.
5. Interview Series with Creatives: So far, I have interviewed Jamel ShabazzDread Scott, and Akintola Hanif. I am working on an experimental interview between two young points–one with roots in Somalia and the other with roots in Sudan as well as Egypt. I am lining up a few other interviews with some Brooklyn-based poets also.

And I am open to collaboration with writers as well as visual artists. Shoot me an email!

You can find more about Kameelah at her site, kameelahr.com and Mambu Badu. She can be contacted at kameelah.rasheed@gmail.com.

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