We were born into a world designed for us to suffer. Although there are many pleasures to be had while spending time on this earth, it’s pretty shitty that vast majorities of people will never experience or understand that the possibility of joy is real or sustainable. My life as a black man automatically makes me a member of a global diasporic struggle that require us to constantly balance two sides of an unfairly skewed scale; the unnecessary pains and unfathomable triumphs of being black. I’ve established a personal balance by living a life off the scales, in a sense hovering over the middle of these two truths. This vantage point has provided me insight into a myriad of causes preventing our collective ability to see over the mountains of pain we inherit at birth.
Each day that we look out into the world we were “given” there is only pain to see. The conditions of the shelters we make homes, the ruins of what we call neighborhoods, the images that reflect sadistic conditions of our daily lives reinforce feelings of insurmountable pain that inevitably become our thoughts. It is then we will be forced to use thoughts lacking proper context to make decisions about how to create what is best for the people we love. Sadly, many of us won’t even try to do better. When the moment becomes clear to us that there will be no cavalry to show us the way or provide answers that reduce the cycle of pain, what is there to do?
“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.”
In order for us to move towards doing more for ourselves and those around us, we must see the beauty in our daily existence. I think observation and understanding of the world around us is the first step in self determined creation of the joy and hope needed for this existence we inherit. For as long as I can remember I have been piecing together the world around with a skeptical, but optimistic lens. I seek out the beauty of our existence in its many iterations because although I have been told many times, all kinda ways, why I should hate myself and everyone around me, I never believed that to be the way. I decided to study my own people and develop personal research I could use to form what I feel is an accurate understanding of my people and our place in the world. Since 2010 I have been documenting diasporic communities globally, creating thousands of moving and still images with the goal of creatively adding to a landscape of black imagery highlighting our beauty and genius.
My only “rule” was to focus on my own communities. For so long it has been told to us that we can only be one way; only angry, only ignorant, only ugly. We have been made to believe there is only room for the few to do exceptional and fly shit, to be exceptionally skilled or beautiful or both. These micro blows to our ever evolving self esteem, manifest self inflicted damage on your spirit and mentality. This thought process served as the genesis for this currently evolving body of photographic work I have titled “Antithesis”.
“This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
My process is a combination of ethnographic film and photojournalistic techniques. Growing up as a child of Hip Hop culture helped create my road map for exploration of various niches in my community through what I have heard about in a song or seen in corresponding music videos and news articles.
When I first moved to Atlanta in 2004, freshly graduated from Tuskegee University, I took myself on a strip club tour based off the lyrics of the Yin Yang Twins “Whistle While You Twerk”, those nights influenced me to create the first web based docu-series on strip club culture eight years later. My work as a member of the DTP Records/ Def Jam South street team also contributed to my ending up in a bunch of interesting places for varying periods of time. I first began doing street team work, assisting my uncle on various marketing accounts in 1999 my senior year of high school. I continued doing an evolved version of that work as my first job out of college, traveling nationally to help coordinate other field marketing teams. When I think back on that work it created a foundation for how I would interact with and observe the world around me, while quickly adapting to it’s changes. The essential components of street team work was rooted in ethnographic research which primarily included driving everywhere to visit communities outside of our own and recording information about the people in each market to understand their habits and way of life better. We had to take photos and write reports about what we did in the field, which in retrospect was hella important although I wasn’t a fan of the music industry and it’s culture at times.
Hip Hop culture’s establishment as a global influence was made possible by The Harlem Renaissance, a period in time that like Hip Hop was manifested from struggle. Each of these eras are linked by the fact hundreds of creative people realized that taking self determined steps to motivate and uplift their communities was the best course of action for advancement of any kind. It was imperative that we worked together to showcase our talents, because outside of our communities, the image of black people was constantly being distorted in the media. Our pain has historically been sensationalized, reproduced and shared without deeper context or the desire to show balance in our lives. The Harlem Renaissance introduced the world to filmmakers, musicians, performing artists, photographers, fine artists and writers working to counteract those harmful narratives, while creating a legacy and template for cultural photosynthesis. The period ended in the mid 1930s but shone light on a path the developing artistic vanguard would cultivate for contemporary artists such as myself. Three artists who lived during that era represent my core influences:
Roy Decarava was born in 1919, raised in Harlem, NY a year after the Spanish Flu Pandemic changed the world in 1918. He grew up during the Great Depression and came of age as a key member of the creative vanguard birthed during The Harlem Renaissance period. Decarava was the first black photographer to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship, which provided a platform to produce his seminal literary collaboration with Langston Hughes “The Sweet Flypaper of Life”; a book dedicated to capturing the spirit of Harlem from the perspective of it’s residents. By the 1960s he became the first director of the Kamoinge Photo Collective, a safe space created for other black photographers to learn and grow together as artists.
Gordon Parks was born in a small town called Fort Scott, KS in 1912. He used his polymathic talents as a composer, an athlete, a photographer, a painter and a filmmaker to create opportunities for himself to excel in every field he worked in. His work as a photographer would help the stories of other artists and the communities they came from reach audiences globally through his work with Life Magazine. His influence bridged the gap from The Harlem Renaissance into the Black Power Era, providing a new generation of artists an evolution of the template created by the man recognized as the first black auteur and owner of an independent film company…
….Oscar Micheuax was born the year 1884 in Metropolis, IL. He grew up during the Progressive Era; a time where political reform and social activism became widespread in the U.S. By 1919 he had established his film company, a goal he came to realize from the need to be his own boss. Prior to becoming a film director and producer, Micheuax was a Pullman Porter and author. He learned business and gained a network of wealthy contacts from traveling and working in the service industry. These skills and resources helped him self-fund and create the stories that would become his films. Micheaux made what were called race films such as “The Homesteader”, a slightly autobiographical film telling a story about a black man who kept falling in love with white women, but would not marry one because of loyalty to his race. He produced over 44 films between 1919-1948.
“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
Learning about the way artists born in these time periods were able to create with the available resources and technology helped me understand the biggest component of creating self determined work, is showing up no matter the circumstances. All members of the diaspora have lived a similar protracted struggle. The influence of these three artists helped me to learn my craft through a lineage of storytellers dedicated to advancing our personal understanding of self. Their personal contributions of black beauty and genius helped establish a family tree of artists contributing to an ever evolving photo album. Black people have fought for every civic freedom there is to have and the ability to create art as a global citizen, is a privilege I appreciate and take seriously. Having the ability to visit and photograph in over 40 domestic territories and across 4 continents, is honestly the life my ancestors wanted me to have. In 2021 the sight of prosperity on the horizon isn’t easy to see, but with my art I intend to help my community see that suffering is always temporary and we do not have to be ruled by its presence.
Thanks for reading! Visit this link to support the work of Artemus Jenkins by purchasing prints from the “Antithesis” virtual exhibition. Each print is 1 of 1, signed and numbered by Artemus Jenkins.