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In the girl three-part graduate series, Issaka navigates multiple notions associated with Blackness, while seeking out a space for self identification
Is race a physical phenomenon, or even something ultimately indefinable? It can be easy to define race with the amount of melanin in your skin, the styling associated with one’s hair, or the shape of one’s face. But in certainty, race is far more complicated. It is an interweaving network of memory, history, tradition and society. Beyond the particular visual, race can take on many forms, forms which recent Royal College associated with Art graduate Melanie Issaka investigates in her latest three-part series: Locating The Private, Dark & Lovely, and Blueprint: Black Skin, White Mask.
Each collection explores the physical and conceptual nature of the Dark body, and its relationship to photographic agency. Issaka details the camera as “violent”, a tool historically used to subjugate, control, and “capture” Blackness. The photographer wanted to negate this, and capture her own image, on her own conditions. “When I began to turn the camera on myself, I started to feel uncomfortable, ” she remembers. “There was this feeling of performance, but [during the Covid-19 lockdown], I didn’t have anybody else to shoot. That’s when I decided to play with my representations, to change the meanings. ”
Locating The Personal can be grounded in Issaka’s interest in psychogeography: the study of room and its effects on the brain. This led her to investigate Black identity and its romantic relationship to space. “I wanted to take up as much space as possible, and force myself from my comfort zone, ” she says. The artist distribute photo-sensitive paper across the girl floor, laying on top of all of them. “Once we were restricted along with lockdown, I wanted to get big, and take up space, ” she explains. “It’s in regards to the politics of leisure… Which gets to relax, who reaches lie down, and who has to help keep moving? ” Space to unwind, to pause, and to permit the body to rest, are rarely afforded to Black body. Here, race manifests physically and spatially; through imagining the toll taken for the body. From the viral video clip of the death of George Floyd, to images associated with kneeling athletes, the various positionalities of the Black body is on Issaka’s mind.
Dark & Beautiful – which takes its name from a popular Black curly hair care brand – explores the political complexities associated with Black hair, attempting to remove it from its tangible nature, plus into a more abstract type. “I went natural in 2016, ” Issaka describes. “I never really cared regarding my hair before after that, but as soon as I allow my natural hair display, I felt the weight of the choice. ” Issaka describes the social difficulties associated with Black hair: invasive questions, prejudiced assumptions, and even non-consensual touching. “I wanted to think about what constitutes a portrait, and how my hair tells the storyplot of my genetic makeup, my history, and exactly where I am from. It informs so much more about me than a simple picture can, ” she says. By abstracting her hair, Issaka eliminates it from these connotations, letting it exist outside societal targets. The hair, a portrait associated with her Blackness, exists at the same time as a physical object and a signifier of Black background and identity. “People have told me they see all sorts of things in these three-metre tall photos. Someone even saw stars. ”
In her last piece, Blueprint: Black Epidermis, White Mask , Issaka navigates the particular social and political contexts of Blackness and whiteness, and the space in between. “What does it mean to be a Dark body in a white area? ” she asks. “I was interested in what a formula is, especially in relation to identification, ” she says. “Three years ago, I went to Ghana for the first time in 15 years, and people perceived me within proximity to [the concept of] whiteness, ” the lady says. With an English accessory and a postgraduate education, Issaka’s Blackness, and its relation to whiteness, was questioned. “People recognized me as an ‘other’ in the place I feel home, so when I returned to my some other home, I was still another. ”
This dual experience of diasporic people is central in order to Issaka’s work. In Formula , she negates the body through cyanotype prints, presenting a void white shape. The body is concurrently removed and displayed, mirroring the hypervisibility and invisibility afforded Black bodies, plus allowing both artist and viewer to imprint their own meaning . Blackness tends to be viewed as a psychic sensation, something skin deep plus bodily. In Blueprint , Issaka presents another Blackness, one existing beyond the skin.
Issaka’s self-portraits take ownership of her identity, and Blackness, through her own lens. Sankofa, the Ghanian symbol for retrieval, was an integral concept while producing the work. “We get back to find ourselves in ancestry, and we go back to collect. To understand who you are, you have to understand your own past, ” she says.