In a series of interviews and digital photographs, Abdullah has created a medium for Black women to be presented in an honest form— beautiful and vulnerable, unadulterated by popular media or trends in representation.
Nominated and accepted into the Wind Fellows, Hazziza Abdullah does not shy away from pushing the boundaries of representation, and uses her photography to investigate and elevate voices and culture that often goes unheard, unseen. In her latest series, Abdullah subverts the narrative surrounding Black women, and sheds new light on what it means to be Black, powerful, and beautiful.
Doria Wohler: What made you decide to pursue art/photography? What drew you to Philadelphia?
Hazziza Abdullah: From a young age I was quite artistic. I went to a program on Saturday’s called the Junior Scholar’s at the Schomburg Center in Harlem from middle to high school. They had several “groups” you could choose from; dance, media theater, visual arts, etc. I of course joined the visual arts group as I have always been naturally drawn to art and creating. In that group, the instructor, M. Scott Johnson who is a sculptor, was also a photographer. Most of the work we did and produced in that program involved the use of and learning photography. I was fascinated with the way a photograph can say and make a person feel different emotions. There’s a story behind every photo, from just a quick snapshot in time. It’s almost like how a certain scent can immediately bring back a memory and all of the feelings or thoughts associated with that memory. Photography is powerful in the way it can change a persons mood and the way they think. I always knew that when I became a photographer, I would want to say something; make people think with my photographs and I needed a powerful tool to do that. The camera is that tool for me.
Philadelphia has become a second home to me. I did undergrad at Lincoln University, which is about 30-45min from Philadelphia. Being that Visual Arts was my major, we would often come to Philadelphia for classes at the Barnes Museum, the Fabric Workshop and Museum, and visit many other museums and galleries in Philadelphia. I loved the art culture in Philadelphia. You can not escape it, there’s literally art everywhere you go in Philly between the beautiful murals, graffiti, and amazing artists. Although New York is also a great city for artists as well, I have always found myself back in Philadelphia. When I got accepted into the graduate photography program at Tyler School of Art & Architecture, it was a no brainer for me. Philadelphia was somewhere that I was not only familiar with, but comfortable and I could see myself thriving artistically. It always felt like a place a was supposed to be.
D.W.:[To quote your artist’s statement],“In early 19th century photography, there was no consistent visual record of Black female self representation.” How do you think that the lack of representation, specifically in arts & photography, has negatively impacted Black women as a community in the 21st century?
H.A.: Just as the history of Black women, especially post transatlantic slavery is unique – the representation of Black women in photography has been unique as well. Early 19th century photography featured Black women in various servant roles such as mammies, breastfeeding and caring for white children – often of no fault of their own neglecting their own Black children. This presentation of Black women as servants, as beings who take care of others is art imitating life but unfortunately has become life imitating art as well. Imagery strongly influences how people are treated. In the case of Black women, photographic imagery has promoted us not as females but not ladies – girls but not children – never damsels in distress but women to rescue others from distress.
D.W.: What would you define as “the talk” between a Black mother and daughter? How do you feel the representation of the Black woman’s identity in your work, combats the pillars of these “talks”?
H.A.: “The talk” is the talk that takes place between mothers and daughters to transition Black girls into Black womanhood. This “talk” is not necessarily one sit down conversation; it may be a series of dictates or warnings that Black girls need to know that they will not be regarded in the world as other races/ethnicities of females are.
My work gives Black women a chance to be presented as women who are beautiful, who love themselves, and the women they gave birth to; women who are capable through their vulnerabilities. My photography along with the accompanying interviews give Black women a chance to expand their own presentation – not just be subjects of a point someone else is trying to prove.
D.W.: How does the style of your work, specifically the manipulation of darkness and light, support the themes of your exhibition and your body of work?
H.A.: The style of my work allows the viewer to see the nuances, the complexities of the women. My style invites the viewer to look from a variety of angles, to “get into” the art that is Black women which is emphasized with the use of metallic paper. The manipulation of darkness and lights is to highlight the women as they are; allowing them to tell people what their stories are and not the other way around.
D.W.: What are some projects you see yourself working on in the future? What other narratives do you hope to explore?
H.A.: In the future I’d like to do more photographic journalism exploring the stories of Black women around the globe. I’d like to expand the presentation of the mother/daughter relationships but also relationships with fathers, employees, sons, etc. I would also like to further investigate Black women in terms of pregnancy and childbearing specifically concerning healthcare during that time.