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As Nakeya Brown straightens up the rolls of bright green paper and clumps of hair in her George Washington University graduate student art studio, she says that it’s like she’s cleaning her own house. It’s almost the truth for the photographer, who calls the studio her second home, but the very personal space has been in all manner of newspapers, blogs, and magazines since 2014.
A couple of weeks ago, Brown closed her solo exhibition, “In Private Moments,” at Brooklyn’s Five Myles Gallery. She’s also working toward a master’s in fine arts at GW and booking more shows at galleries in New York, New Orleans, Michigan, and Chicago. (Last year, she exhibited at Anacostia’s Vivid Solutions Gallery with MAMBU BADU, too.) Her eye-catching work has shown up across the pond in the U.K.’s Tone Lit and Hysteria magazines. Brown, 27, is time-crunched.
“I had an interview leading up the exhibit with NYLON, and then I had three interviews at the exhibit,” she says. “And then right now, I just finished an interview before you came. And then now I’m doing your interview. There was also an artist talk; the audience was interviewing me. And then I did a private tour with some people who came in—just like art producers, people working in the art field who couldn’t come to the opening but were interested in the show so I did. Like a private tour while the show is up. It’s been very busy.”
Brown makes disarming portrayals of black female beauty. With frames of black women eating hair, weaves hanging out to dry on a clothesline, and soul food plates sitting next to a tuft of hair wrapped around a silver fork, she puts the complexities of black beauty front and center.
“I’m making the work for other women of color,” Brown says. “This is our archive, this is our work, this is our story. This is—I’m doing this for us, ultimately.”
Self-determination is at the heart of photos like a woman with natural dreads holding a flowing weave between her teeth. Brown says black women have lost much agency in mainstream society: In past generations, they’ve had to fight for the right to vote, own property, and marry outside of their race. Much of their current fight is against microaggressions and racist standards of appearance: the desirability of straight, European hair, fair skin, and waif-like bodies. By holding a mirror, or a fork, to these issues, Brown encourages other women to claim their natural selves as beautiful.
Fans of Brown’s work from London, Finland, South Africa, and the U.S. have reached out to show their gratitude. “They’re saying ‘thank you’ because I’m creating a space for us,” Brown says. “…It really highlights our struggles, but also celebrates our aesthetics, and it celebrates all of the different intricacies of being a black woman and really in terms of how you identify yourself through your hair, and I think that that’s something that a lot of black women deal with.”
As a child, Brown found inspiration in books and travel. In high school, during a summer in New York, she fell in love with digital photography, taking street portraits and photographing urban landscapes in Brooklyn and Newark. She posted her photos to Myspace and Flickr, and the comments she received have stuck with her: “You have such a good eye;” “You have a great way of framing things;” “You see things that we don’t see.”
“That’s something that always touched me and just encouraged me to continue making work,” Brown says. “My vision is not like your vision, but through my photography I can make my vision visible and it can touch a number of different people.”
Inspired by Solange Knowles’ sophisticated fro and her own financial strictures as a broke college student, Brown cut off all of her hair in 2008. For Brown, who’d used chemical straighteners on her hair since she was 6 years old, going natural was a shock. She channeled her lock evolution into her first photo series dedicated to black hair, “The Refutation of ‘Good’ Hair.”
“It’s a mind-blowing experience. It’s like waking up one day and thinking your eyes have been blue or black your whole life, and then [you] wake up [and they’re] green,” Brown says. “You’re just kind of like, ‘What just happened here?’”
Mia, Brown’s soon-to-be 3-year-old daughter gave her another perspective on how black hair norms and politics affect women at any age. While in the process of creating “The Refutation of ‘Good’ Hair,” Brown looked at how people might view her daughter’s locks, even the thickness of it. Brown started to wonder what Mia’s hair stories would be and if ideals of black beauty and black hair would change by the time she grew up.
Brown says Mia already understands how much time black women spend on their hair, and how much appreciation they have for it. Mia showers female relatives with compliments like “I love your hair.” But Brown says that she also notices how her hair is different. Sometimes Mia complains when her hair won’t move, but Brown assures her that it’s okay for her hair to be the way it is.
“Hearing things like that as a mother, hearing your daughter say ‘I want my hair to move’—I mean, I could totally be projecting my own thoughts on it in terms of ‘Well why did she want her hair to move?’ Is it because like she’s seeing things on the TV or just in general, the mass media, just anywhere like long flowing hair?” Brown says. “Does she feel like she’s supposed to have that?”
Brown wants her work to create a space for black women to confront their own self-images, but even more importantly, she wants it to give Mia a sense of pride.
“I really wanted to make a body of work that…was for her and that she could come to, because I think that it’s important that we are making things for one another,” Brown says. “Because if we don’t, who else will?”