Tawny Chatmon on Reclaiming Black Identity
In this ninth part of our continuing series on artists in the diaspora who promote Black identity and pride through their work, we present African American artist Tawny Chatmon.
Chatmon is an artist based in the United States who combines traditional portraiture with digital collage, layering elements of antique patterns, vintage botanicals, and wildlife illustrations onto images of her children and other relatives. Once the images are printed, Chatmon often revisits the digital textures she has superimposed, physically adding layers of gold ornamental elements or paint. For her, photographs are the first layer, which she manipulates and unites with other artistic components. She often lends to her subjects older eyes and exaggerated hair.
Chatmon began her photography career 16 years ago and is self-taught. After receiving a scholarship for dramatic arts, she made the decision to pursue commercial photography. Not until taking photographs of her father (who was diagnosed with prostate cancer) did she decide to take a new approach to her work. She chose to make storytelling and cultural identity the main focus, especially because Black girls in her environment are discouraged from identifying with their culture because it is not the Eurocentric norm. In this interview with Omenka, Chatmon takes us through her journey, while also discussing her process and Black identity.
Born in Tokyo, you had the unique opportunity to experience cultures of three different continents all before the age of 12. How has this influenced your work?
I can’t say that I directly attribute my experience of being born in Japan and living in Germany to influencing my work, although I suspect it’s subconscious. In Germany, we lived on base and our school field trips were often to visit castles. I remember being drawn to the baroque frames and rich tones of the materials and decorative interior. I think it’s safe to assume that my interest in baroque and decorative frames may have begun there. Looking back, I, of course, never saw a face that represented who I was (a little Black girl) in any of the castles or museums, but it didn’t hit me until I became a mother myself and walked through museums with my own children. Consciously, the work has been influenced by my children, children like them, and what I’d like to see exist that rarely did.
Before delving into full-time practice as a photographer, you were a performer. After settling in the United States, your teenage years were spent performing in plays and attending acting workshops, prior to a brief enrolment in a dramatic arts conservatory and a role in an off-Broadway play. When did you decide to become a photographer, and what prompted your decision?
My heart wasn’t into pursuing a career in dramatic arts anymore. One minute, it was all I ever wanted to do, and the next, I had lost all interest. I wasn’t necessarily extraordinary at it, but I had a deep love for theatre, and then one day, the feeling left me. After deciding to no longer pursue a dramatic arts career, I had to find a way to creatively earn a living and turned to photography.
You were also a commercial photographer and worked on some projects with Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Until There’s a Cure, NEA, Vogue Bambini,Parenting Magazineand Babytalk Magazine. How do you react to purists who believe that as the moral compass of society, an artist should not be commercially driven?
I don’t react. While a part of me understands this sort of thinking, I feel that we are all just trying to find our way, and if we are lucky, one day we get to do what makes us feel fulfilled, whatever that may be. Each stage of my life has been led by my own circumstances and where I was at that specific point in my life. I am very grateful for the companies I was able to work with on any scale, and I am thankful for my journey that has allowed me to learn a lot about myself along the way. My experience with photography began as a means of earning a living and evolved over time into a way to communicate my joy, my frustrations, my happiness, my pain. Photographing my father’s battle with cancer was the most painful, yet pivotal moment for me. Only after did I begin to form a deeper realisation that there was more I could do with my camera—more than using it as a tool to earn an income.
You manipulate and transform photographs with layers of collage, paint, and hand-drawn illustrations to produce works that are considered a new photographic expression. Please take us through your creative process and how you were able to develop this concept over time.
I still look to photography as my first layer of communication, but I found that by combining various art practices, I am able to express myself in the way I would like. In 2016, when I really began this journey, I created with haste and out of extreme frustration and urgency, following no set of rules. Presently I am focusing on taking more time to plan each portrait and on refining my process. Daily I was reading about news of Black children being sent home from school for their hairstyles; Black women being chastised in the workplace for wearing their hair in natural styles; Black boys, women, and men killed with no regard; beautiful Black children being bullied because of their skin complexions, and so on. I felt I could do something more than just talk about it, cry about it, and share the stories on my social media. Eventually I began to create, pouring all of the grief into the work. I sat down at my computer and let my emotions lead the way, using materials that were available to me.
A portrait typically begins as someone that I am close to in some way—my children, goddaughter, nieces and nephews, friends, models I’ve worked with in the past, and so on—that then transforms into a new expression by combining various art practices: collage, digital collage, photo manipulation, acrylic paint, gold leaf. After completing a portrait session, I typically digitally manipulate my subjects. This often includes lending to them the eyes of someone their elder, appearing more knowing or wise. Most recently, I’ve begun incorporating my father’s eyes as a way for him to live on in my work. I almost always exaggerate their hair. Sometimes I superimpose antique patterns, textures, vintage botanical and wildlife illustrations, or hand-drawn/digital illustration. If I feel I have not yet said what I want to say in the work, after the portrait is refined and printed, I may then paint and/or add gold leaf or other ornamental elements. I don’t stop until I have a feeling of completion. Every layer has its own purpose, and every layer is intentional.
Congratulations on your ongoing group exhibition Blackface: A Reclamation of Beauty, Power, and Narrative, where you feature alongside Alfred Conteh, Jerell Gibbs, Jas Knight, Arvie Smith, Felandus Thames, and Karina Smith, each exploring contemporary notions of Black identity. Tell us about the body of work you are presenting.
Thank you very much! Blackface in general, as you know, is rooted in racial stereotypes and oppression. The work I am presenting is bringing to the forefront the very things blackface attempts to undermine: Black hair, features, identity, and pride. On view are works from my series ‘The Redemption’ and ‘The Awakening.’ Both are reminiscent of 19th-century artworks with the specific intent of celebrating the often under-celebrated in this style of work.
The exhibition statement reads as follows, “In asserting the beauty of the black body, affirming its power—and societal and historical place—curators Myrtis Bedolla and Jessica Stafford Davis offer a counter narrative to the racist archetypes that evolved from 18th century minstrelsy, and its negative stereotyping of African Americans that prevails today.”
Loosely inspired by the work of Austrian painter Marianne Stokes, ‘The Awakening’ focuses on familial bonds, motherhood, and a celebration of childhood. How did the idea of this project come about, and is it informed by personal experience?
‘The Awakening’ is a celebration of Black childhood, motherhood/familial bonds, and African/African American traditions and hairstyles and is most certainly personal. An observance of childhood bonding shown through portraits of breastfeeding, hair plaiting and styling, and the intricacies of protecting and raising a child. I’d had the paintings of Marianne Stokes saved on my mood board for some time and looked to them as inspiration for the wardrobe. I was particularly inspired by the floor-length garments and the rich tones and fine details of the fabrics.
Your work characteristically depicts children of various ages, but in your detailed bio you state photographing children never crossed your mind before becoming a mother. However, following the birth of your son, “[your] life naturally became about documenting his life.” Why the acute interest in children?
The interest may actually lie in motherhood. Bringing a life into the world and becoming a mother was one of the first pivotal moments in my life. I enjoyed documenting every moment of my son’s life. It was new, it was real, it was precious and life changing. But further than that, the more I matured, the more my eyes opened to the world I was raising children in. I became driven to contribute something important to the world I wanted my children and other children like them to thrive in. This included putting out into the world the things I wanted to see and what I wanted them to see exist (more). We don’t live forever, but sometimes our messages will, if powerful enough. I began to understand that a conversation or debate I have with someone about the disparities that continue to affect Black people worldwide can be forgotten over time, but something tangible that we can see and touch and that also touches us has the power to live on. Art in any form has a way of doing that. After it’s all said and done, artwork, writing, photographs, and so on are often the things looked to when trying to decipher the past. So, I think that the interest may lie less in photographing children and more in protecting them.
Inspired by the National Archives project ‘Africa through the Lens,’ your series ‘Deeply Embedded’ details children with overlays of the National Archives’ imagery of African women wearing various hairstyles. How relevant is this project to young girls today, who favour wigs and hair straightening? And what social impact do you hope to have with this series?
This specific project and a large part of my recent work is a direct response to the many stories of Black women and children being chastised, pulled from class, suspended from extracurricular activities, sent home from school, fired, and so on for wearing their hair in natural Black hairstyles and/or Black styles deemed unacceptable by Western standards. In schools across the world, there are rules set in place banning hairstyles specifically targeting Black children. No cornrows, no extensions, no haircut designs, no hair beads, no afros, no dreadlocks. And what’s more, in some instances when these styles were worn by white children at these schools, they went unpunished. Parents of the children had yearbook photos to prove their point. In the workplace, similar regulations exist, forcing women to conform to these standards in order to access opportunities professionally. In response, I’ve chosen to celebrate Black hairstyles in various ways throughout my work.
I feel the question is a bit heavy, and it has taken me a bit of time to carefully reflect on it. I think that focusing on how this project is relevant only to girls that favour wigs and hair straightening feels somewhat like a judgement of their hair choices, and I don’t want to feed into that. In the same way that straight hair should not be considered synonymous with “looking professional,” I feel we also shouldn’t assume that all Black women and girls who wear wigs or straighten their hair “dislike” their natural hair. So, perhaps the focus should be on how the project relates to young girls who favour hair straightening because of bullying and chastising by others for their natural hair? With that being said, I am grateful for the women and girls who have reached out to me to express how my work has inspired them to embrace their natural hair more. It’s my overall hope that the policing of Black hair and hairstyles comes to an end. Black girls (and women/men/boys) should never have to answer to or explain their hair choices and most definitely should never be punished for wearing their hair how it naturally grows from their scalps.
‘The Redemption’ is vaguely reminiscent of the work of Gustav Klimt. Evoking organic forms of the Art Nouveau style, the series also recalls “the conflict between two-and-three-dimensionality intrinsic to the work of Degas and other modernists.” Does this decorative quality bear any significance besides the aesthetic? What other artists have influenced your evolution?
The painted dresses and clothing are directly inspired by his work, and I wanted the connection to be made immediately. Visually, the decorative quality of his works from his Golden Phase and the feeling those qualities evoke when viewing them are the only significance as it relates to ‘The Redemption’ or any of my work that mirrors a similar aesthetic. The emotion those works brought about in me when I first discovered them are the same feelings I’m looking to evoke in the viewer of this project—with the exception of my subjects and message being the complete opposite of his.
I would say that life itself has influenced my evolution. And I’m still learning, still refining, still evolving.
How would you react to observations that your embrace of golden baroque frames and use of gold leaf, recalling the medieval era, may present a dichotomy between formal aesthetics and meaning in your contemporary photography?
I would love for one to view the work from a feet-on-the-ground standpoint, with openness, as that’s how I have approached it. In understanding that Black faces were rarely placed in these frames, I take joy in asserting them where “they were not supposed to be” and celebrating us in ways we weren’t traditionally celebrated. I think that I have and will always continue to question our tropes and formal expectations of what is and what’s supposed to be.
June 21, 2021