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In MAMBU BADU’s current exhibit, “If We Come from Nowhere Here, Why Can’t we Go Somewhere There?” the collective has created what it most wanted to find: a place to highlight the photography of women of black and African descent.
“As three black women photographers who regularly went to gallery and museum shows, read publications about contemporary photography, and who were beginning to show our own work in exhibits,” said local co-founder Danielle Scruggs via email, “we realized that we weren’t seeing a lot of work that reflected us, specifically as emerging black women photographers.”
MAMBU BADU launched in 2010, but the seeds were planted two years prior, when founding photographers Allison McDaniel (the D.C.-based artist who goes by alice wonder) and Brooklyn-based Kameelah Rasheed started chatting on Twitter. Soon after, Scruggs connected with Rasheed on Flickr, and the three women bonded over their shared frustration with the lack of visibility of work by black female photographers.
“We started dreaming out loud about what kind of space we could create that would fulfill our desire to find, nurture, and expose other emerging black women photographers,” said Scruggs.
That space took the shape of MAMBU BADU, a collective of producers and artists that has since grown to include 41 female photographers all over the world. The collective published its first digital magazine, Memory, in May of 2011, which featured six photographers: Yodith Dammlash, Sheree Swann, Jen Everett, Nkechi Ebubedike, Nikita Gale, and Tonika Johnson.
In 2012, D.C.’s Dammlash joined the team and took on a crucial role in growing the next digital magazine, Open Call, which boasted the work of more than 30 artists. Part of the reason for the huge growth in participant number was that Open Call was just that—-a call for work without a specific thematic focus. Dammlash, McDaniel, Rasheed, and Scruggs shared their idea for the project widely through social media and word of mouth, and all sorts of conceptual photographic work came in from black female photographers from all over the U.S. and as far as South Africa and Haiti.
“What I think gets lost in conversations about blackness and black artists, and black women artists in particular, is how much diversity there is within that,” Scruggs said. “There are so many iterations of what it means to be all of those things.”
“If We Came From Nowhere Here, Why Can’t We Go Somewhere There?” is the collective’s first gallery exhibit, featuring nine artists’ work in a photo and multimedia showcase at Vivid Solutions Gallery in the Anacostia Arts Center.
MAMBU BADU’s call for submissions to the exhibit included a“Non-Exhaustive Index of Possible Concepts/Explorations” to inspire work from the photographers—-a list of more than 80 themes, including eschatology, rapture, portals, and syncretism. The exhibit’s title was taken from the song “Imagination” by jazz musician and Afrofuturist artist Sun Ra, and it’s a fitting inspiration for the critical, forward-looking pieces in the exhibit.
“What does the interior life of an individual black woman look like and feel like? What does the black woman body look like in pastoral settings? In domestic settings? When paired with archival photos? We asked each artist to imagine new histories and trajectories, and they responded in a tremendous way,” Scruggs said. The scope of the questions prompted diverse pieces that takes the exhibit’s visual flow from hyperrealistic to ethereal.
The exhibit’s three video installations have a markedly sexual undertone that escalates from the dreamy sensuality of Charmaine Nicole Bee‘s “Catching the Holy Ghost,” a short video that concludes with a woman’s nude profile in the forest, to the fraught physicality of “The way and the light,” a dance between artists Sonia Louise Davis and Ivan Forde in the halcyon glow of a marsh. Danielle Deadwyler‘s “Kitchen Installation #1 and #2” features a woman cleaning an oven and scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees, framed so all that appears is the suggestive thrusting of her leotard-clad hips. Deadwyler’s piece is the most striking evidence of the exhibit’s recontextualization of black womanhood.
Nakeya Brown‘s “‘Good’ Hair” photoset is a standout: The jarring tetralogy featuring photographs of black hair on a plate of soul food, being eaten, and wound around a fork in both its natural and straightened forms. The piece is a playful and evocative look at how beauty is defined and consumed by the black community; the photo of synthetic hair wound around a fork is, perhaps, most emblematic of how women ingest correctional beauty measures.
MAMBU BADU is making tentative plans to move the exhibit to other American cities to examine the act of creating art through curatorial talks and to widen its discussion of diversity in art.
The phrase MAMBU BADU is an adaptation of a Kiswahili idiom that means “the best has yet to come.” Judging by the ambition and energy behind the collective’s first exhibit, that may be a prescient descriptor.
“If We Came From Nowhere Here, Why Can’t We Go Somewhere There?” is on view at Vivid Solutions Gallery in the Anacostia Arts Center through June 27.
Top photo by Sienna Pinderhughes, bottom photo by Kali-Ma Nazarene.