Friday #ArtCrush is a weekly blog series highlighting students in their final year at OCAD University. This Friday’s #ArtCrush is Kadijah Guillaume, a fourth year photography student in thesis.
In this series, Kadijah and Morgan talk about using the self as muse in photography, tackling identity politics and the subverting the gaze.
Who or what are your main photographic inspirations?
I just recently enlisted Stacey Tyrell as one of my photographic inspirations because she works with the themes of identity, race and heritage within post-colonial societies. My favourite works from her is Backra Bluid where she addressed the issue of “Whiteness” and “Blackness” within Western societies. The images and her artist statement blew me away. I find it extremely important to know that there are current Black artists who are not afraid to address issues of race and identity instead of keeping it hushed. It inspires me more to be a part of this movement and really shows that we are not afraid to speak up – especially in the Art world. Plus, Stacey is a graduate from OCAD!
What subject matter do you tend to spend the most time working on?
Majority of my conceptual work comes from my own personal life or from societal topics pertaining to the black race, the human body and womanhood. I feel as a young black artist, it is important to let others know that these topics are still very crucial and essential that hit close to home for me and for many others who choose not to openly address these through art.
Kadijah Guillaume, I Matter Too, Digital Inkjet Print, 2017
You have often used yourself in your work, what do you think are the differences of photographing yourself and photographing other people? What do you think is the value of inserting yourself into your work?
It all depends on what my work is about. Often times I use myself because it is easier to communicate what I want and how I want to visualize my concept in the photograph(s). Photographing others can be a bit of a challenge as it can be difficult finding time to photograph said person. However, on a bright note, photographing other people can be an interesting experience. Often times, I see great amount of potential in the person that they themselves don’t see. Sometimes the message comes out stronger when I photograph someone else, as it shows that the issue exists on another person other than myself. In addition, sometimes the work I am producing opens up a personal and intimate dialogue between the photographer and the model.
What body of work are you currently working on?
I am currently working on my thesis body of work, momentarily titled, “Where Does That Leave Black Women?” I am bouncing around different titles for this work but I am determined to come up with one successfully as soon as possible! This work was inspired by a question my friend, Tahjay, asked me in relations to black women lacking advantage and success because of their gender AND skin colour. I plan to research more on black artists who have done work relating to the topic of black womanhood. I am currently readings novels and articles that I believe to be of great help with building more ideas.
In your thesis you combine photography and text, which is a common theme in your work. What is your process of deciding how to incorporate text into/ on to your images?
That’s a good question. Whenever I use text, I want to make sure there is an equal visual balance between the photograph and the text. In my “I Matter (Too)” project, I used each model’s back as the canvas for the text to be placed on. I could’ve made the text take up the entire back but then the backs would be overshadowed, thus removing the presence of the black body. Overall, the use of text in my work is only essential if, once the text is removed, the concept of my work makes no sense without it. An example of this is my “Too Pretty to Be Darkskin” project where, without the racial slurs and derogatory insults written on pieces of tape that is then placed all over the model’s face and neck, the photographs just look like beautiful ethnic headshots – which contradicts my main concept.
Kadijah Guillaume, For Your Eyes Only, Digital Inkjet Print, 2017
You mentioned in your thesis work how you are aiming to confront Eurocentric beauty standards as well as how folks homogenize certain groups of people, in this case black people. While at the same time, as you mention, not trying to antagonize your audience. At what point does antagonizing do what you want it to; confront and boldly ‘call out’ your audience for their own preconceived notions of you as a black woman and artist?
The way I see it, people are both going to understand where you’re coming from and try to help out or hear it but continue on with their life. My work is predominantly attempting to tell the audience that we (the Black community) are tired of seeing one specific form of beauty and are tired of being shoved under one umbrella of what society thinks Black people are. We are fully aware that beauty is not one-sided and that we are fully aware that our beauty and our individualism matters. We just want the rest of the world to see it as well. If a person feels offended by this message, then my theory has proven a point.
In For Your Eyes Only, the work draws on photographic cues of traditional pin up images however playfully subverts the male heterosexual gaze by including raw meat and blood. The effect is jarring, amusing and confronts the viewers imagination of pin up. Can you speak to this subversion of the male gaze and using yourself as subject/object in these images? What has been the response from peers and instructors when you’ve shown this work?
This work was one of the most interesting experiences I ever had with photography. I remember looking at the “Starification Object Series” project by Hannah Wilke, where she posed topless with vulva-shaped gum stuck all over her body. It was quite fascinating how she was able to visually subvert the male gaze by adding something unappealing on top of it. That inspired me to come up with “For Your Eyes Only”. The female body, for decades, has always been sexualized and/or over-glamourized in society. For example, breasts are solely meant to feed our offspring – but in the media, they’re gawked at like sexual objects. And that’s what they were… sexual objects. I wanted to play around with this idea of making the male gaze an uncomfortable and conflicting satisfaction. And what better way to do it than to dress up and imitate a pin up or Playboy doll while holding raw meat in my mouth or hands while covered in blood! I chose to use myself because, going back in history (aka Slavery Era), Black Women were only seen as inferior sexual objects. Unfortunately, traces of that still remains in the media today. I remember when I first showed some of my work to my instructors, peers and friends, the feedback was astounding. There was a plethora of responses and reactions: shock, disgust, impressed, confused/conflicted, but overall very supportive of my bravery! Some people couldn’t look at the images for too long! Nonetheless, I was really grateful that everyone was very open-minded and supportive of the idea and work because it takes a lot of guts (no pun intended) to stuff unusual animal organs in your mouth for the sake of Photography, hahaha!
“I used to play it safe and just take pictures of buildings and landscape shots, less conceptual. I was always nervous about making work that would spark too much of a conversation – a negative one to be exact. Over time, I began talking to other peers and teachers who weren’t afraid to push the boundaries and make controversial work and it was from that moment on that I become influenced to spark conversation with my work.”
In your work, I Matter Too, confronts systemic racism as well as challenging (mostly non-black people) to think critically about the ways in which they can homogenize certain groups where the effect can be violent. The work also speaks to stereotypes on blackness and the idea of being ‘not enough’ both for folks who are black and non-black. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on this idea of not being ‘enough,’ responses you have had to this series and where the project drove from.
Not being “Black enough” is a phrase that’s used to determine “Blackness” solely based off stereotypes and certain standards for what a black person should be, look like, sound like, act like or dress like. It’s extremely damaging because it not only pins certain black people against society, but it pins black people against each other. This relates to me personally because I have been in situations where I was told I don’t speak “black” (aka ghetto or overusing slang in my sentences) by non-black people or “Why do you speak white?” by fellow black people. Every person that is involved in this project can tell you that they have been in situations where they would surprise someone when they defy common black stereotypes. For example, one of my friends, a dark skin man, said to me that people would look at him differently because he listens to rock music. Prior to executing this series, I sat down and had discussions about the topic of “not being black enough” with many different black men and women. It was fascinating listening to their stories about ways their Blackness was challenged or “questioned”. But it was also sad to hear that their Blackness was questioned BECAUSE of these preconceived assumptions and standards of what a black person is. My project is a personal project, not just to myself, but also to those involved and to any other black person who can relate to it.
What is your process from when you get an idea, to shooting, and presenting the work to peers? Is research part of your process?
When I develop an idea, I like to do a bit more research through articles, books, artists’ websites and my own personal experience(s). I often think about how this idea relates to me or relates to current events happening within modern day society. I find works that relate to either one are easier and more successful for me to execute. That’s the easy part. The challenging part is the execution: finding a place to shoot, finding someone to shoot (if I am not using myself) and gathering the items/tools needed to bring this work to life (i.e: props). Speaking to those who I believe can relate to my work on a personal level is really important because the reality of the topic becomes very apparent and authentic.
Kadijah Guillaume, I Matter Too, Digital Inkjet Print, 2017
Is there anyone who you would like to work with in the future?
I would definitely like to work with more people from the Black community because I think it’s really significant to hear different people’s stories and applying it into my work. I believe their stories will influence more of my work and bring forth more awareness of the Black body in the art world. Although I have not thought about working with a specific artist per se, I do want to work with more PoC artists who use their work and practices to address the topics of race, identity and Womanhood within their culture. Minorities have a voice and it can become a very powerful one when we put our voices together, especially in a world that often mutes our mouths.
How do you think your process and art practice has changed over time?
I definitely can say my work as changed a lot since I started getting into Photography. I used to play it safe and just take pictures of buildings and landscape shots, less conceptual. I was always nervous about making work that would spark too much of a conversation – a negative one to be exact. Over time, I began talking to other peers and teachers who weren’t afraid to push the boundaries and make controversial work and it was from that moment on that I become influenced to spark conversation with my work. I have grown a new attachment and love towards conceptual work. I love a photographic project that allows me to look at it and think or have a serious discussion with another person because photography is not just about taking pictures of landscapes anymore to be on the “safe” side. A lot of my work is conceptually based off my personal life and current social issues that I was once too afraid to openly talk about.
Are their any specific OCAD U Faculty who have influenced your work? A specific discipline or course?
I would say any of the courses I have taken where I had to use the body as the subject or make conceptual work definitely has influenced my work. A few examples are: Body and the Lens, Conceptual Photography, Light and Studio, Colour as Meaning, Face Forward, just to name a few. These courses allowed me to push boundaries and try things I have never done before in regards to ideas and concepts.
Kadijah Guillaume, For Your Eyes Only, Digital Inkjet Print, 2016
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone starting out in photography?
Be prepared to spend a fortune on equipment! Hahaha. But in all seriousness, do not hold back on what you want to photograph or how you want to photograph your idea. I am speaking from a conceptual point of view. Not everyone will understand your work or your practice and that is 100% okay. At the end of the day, it’s about YOU. It’s about your satisfaction and how YOU want to achieve your work. Your work isn’t meant for everyone and that is something I learned throughout my years studying photography. I have had people try to persuade me into a different direction of their liking, but I didn’t let them because my work wasn’t trying to impress them.
From a general point of view, learn the history of photography before you go into it. I find a lot of people go straight into digital photography but have never even touched a film camera (no, not an instant polaroid camera) or knew what Photography began with. It’s similar to that episode of Big Bang Theory where Penny wanted Sheldon to teach her about Leonard’s work but Sheldon couldn’t do so without first explaining the history of Physics. I find learning about the history of photography and the development of it over the decades will allow a person to appreciate Photography and its practice a lot more.
Other than that, just keep shooting. Never stop shooting. Even walking around with a camera on you is always good because you never know when you might need it or when you’ll discover the type of Photography you want to practice in.
Check out Kadijah’s Instagram, and view her work at OCAD’s Graduate Exhibition in May!
Friday #ArtCrush is a weekly blog series highlighting students in their final year at OCAD University.
Interview by Morgan Sears-Williams
About the writer: Morgan is a photo alumni and runs the Friday #ArtCrush series on the OCAD U Photography Blog. She loves speaking to other artists about social justice, how to break barriers within artist communities and nurturing the arts in alternative non-institutional spaces. She is the Art Co-ordinator for The RUDE Collective, and has done workshops on intersectionality and allyship relating to LGBTQ folks. To see more, you can visit her website or her instagram.