Carla Aaron Lopez’s Rebellion My(black)American Life
Black is the new cool. With the superstar status of Obama and suburban youth still bumpin’ hip hop in their Volvos, black identity continues to be redefined and appropriated by mainstream consumer culture. And as we all weather the Matrix, burgeoning photographer Carla Aaron- Lopez captures the grace and under-appreciated complexity of black folks with her visual playground My (black)American Life. From showcasing the southern fried crunk of Atlanta’s underground club scene to reframing black female beauty with a tinge of feminism, Lopez is destined to secure an international bandwagon. In this exclusive reasoning session with Ed Garnes, Lopez tackles what it means to be human, Obama’s impact on cultural production, and why black identity is in need of a remix.
peep more of Lopez’s work @ www.whoiscarla.com
Your work has often seemed to display the complexities of black identity as opposed to monolithic “they all eat chicken” depictions. Speak to your major aim with the hard hitting show My (black)American Life.
CARLA: I’ve always been a little confused and inquisitive. Growing up I didn’t know if I wanted to be a normal black kid or a replication of a british punk in America. Now with that at hand, I often heard the phrase “black people don’t do that. Black people do this…” It’s driven me crazy since then because I do believe that black people can do anything. I wanted the show to be based around the black people that come across my life that I find interesting. We should no longer continue putting ourselves in boxes of what black is and instead embrace our culture and allow it to incorporate into our personal identities. Just as black people (and minorities) come in different shades, so do our personalities. There are some goths, afropunks, nerds, geeks, preps, hustlers, pimps, preachers, teachers, hipster black folks and the list goes on and on. As an artist, when you begin to take your craft and issues seriously, you’ll start to view the world a little differently. I believe there is no difference between myself and the next black man or woman. We all go through the same conditioned American/(black)American issues everyday. The subcultures we tag ourselves with may be quite different but at the end of the day we’re all one group of people coexisting in America. With progress comes change and I hope that we can begin to build better lives for ourselves instead of wishing to be the next MySpace rap superstar, video vixens or drug/gang related media mogul. We are so much more than that to the point where we should start reconnecting with ourselves.
I want to change the way America is currently viewing Black America. And all I want to start with is a few photographs and conversation of change. When I grow up, I’m going to be the next leading black intellectual because our issues are important to me to discuss and solve. I just use art as a vehicle of communication to discuss our problems instead of submitting to them.
We often talk about the one sided deception of black women in the media. But you often seem to stretch the boundaries to create modern day she-roes. Do you feel a personal sense of obligation to rep for women as a self professed third wave feminist?
I do indeed. I have many women that influence me to be who I am and a lot of them are regular normal day to day women. Women that are free to be women instead of having to succumb to what the “learned” definition of woman. We’re all she-roes with enough hugs, confidence and intelligence. These things make women sexy. We’ve come a long way as women to where we now have a choice of staying home to care for our children, live life like a young woman or transition into corporate life assuming power. These things are great and needed because women provide nurturing love, a bit of sensuality and a business mindset when needed. The portraits in my show are of a few women that I respect and seem to break a mold of the contemporary “Sex and the City” or “Desperate Housewives” young woman. That is unrealistic to me. Women perform more hard-hitting tasks than groundbreaking television shows could ever imagine. We should be able to speak up for who we are instead of submitting to definition of who we should be.
If we are these so-called independent women getting our goals accomplished then we should fulfill them and accept the responsibilities that come with being 21st century women. It’s a hard life out here but when you’re a woman you should be able to take life and give it a refreshed outlook while being able to still approach it realistically.
You gain a lot of inspiration from Atlanta night life. What called you to document Atlanta’s vibrant underground club scene?
I’m a night person honestly. I like going people watching and I like to hear music very loud. You can feel the bass better that way. I ended starting in Magic City first as far as documenting Atlanta night life. From there I moved to various clubs across Atlanta then finally MJQ Concourse. I just like going out and partying. I am a party person but I am responsible all at the same time if that makes sense. I want to go out and have fun but I also want to return home in one piece. Sometimes, a camera is a good friend to have because Atlanta can be so much more than what is seen on television. I love the locals more than Black Hollywood transplants. They seem to be very conscious of how they’re partying while the locals want to relax after a tough day or week at work. They’re themselves and that the kind of environment I would like to be in to shoot. East Atlanta Village, Broke & Boujee at 5 Spot and MJQ Concourse are those things for me including whatever strange ordeals may happen throughout the night.
With folks like yourself, Shannon McCollum, Marcia Jones, Fahamu Pecou, and Radcliffe Bailey having artistic roots in Atlanta, do you see the city as a new black renaissance for the visual arts?
Possibly, I suppose. There’s a flush of new music artists, there are writers like you, Ed, and the artwork coming from people like Fahamu Pecou and Marcia Jones is unremarkable to me. However, I honestly think that if many creative people in Atlanta got off their high-horse addiction to celebrity and/or status, the artistic communities of Atlanta could be a lot better. At the end of the day, I do agree with art as a business vehicle, a connection of networks for bigger and better exposure and a way to understand and reconstruct life. In other words, cut the attitude and pull off more group exhibitions as visual and performance artists. You’re voices will be louder which is why I appreciate and support City of Ink’s constant group shows. Some of the images I like and some I don’t like but I appreciate seeing whose also creating new and conscious work.
Sonia Sanchez often states that great art details what it means to be human. How does your work answer this essential question?
Dope question. I like to shoot because I’m scared of forgetting a moment. It could the most mundane part of my day but the fact that I’m alive and having experiences with people is exciting to me. I know in the bigger scheme of things I may never become a famous artist like Damien Hirst or Nan Goldin. What I honestly wish for is the ability to provide a groundwork for other people out there like me. I want to have photographs that not so average black kids could look at and have the ability to identify with the images. There will always be different definitions of what black is and what black ain’t. I have been in and out of every counterculture movement since being a skater was cool because of movies like Clueless. I’m interested in so many things that people have deliberately said weren’t black to the point where I participated to say black people are punks because I’m black and I’m a punk as an example. I want my work to reflect this notion. I would like to progress to more in your face portraits of black people breaking the mold, period. For right now, my work is my life. I have ups and downs and severe curve balls thrown at me that show through my work. I don’t think I could even begin to understand how art isn’t a detail to human life. They both respond to one another because they reflect one another. That is why I chose to become an artist. I needed to create imagery in a way that I could show what was going on in my life to learn important lessons or get over the small stuff I encounter.
Ok, I tried to avoid the proverbial Obama question. But, what will be the impact of his Presidency on future cultural productions (art, music, literature, etc)?
Man! I don’t know! I love how Shepard Fairey of Obey Giant fame made him a poster child that turned into a graphic revolution across the world. I don’t know what to think of this question besides the fact that I should step my game up! I hope more and more black culture will come to the top instead of continuing to be reduced to a mainstream marketing ploy. That’s disgusting how advertising companies have done that to black people. It makes me wonder about our stance here in America. We all seem to love Kool-Aid, McDonald’s and rap music. F*ck outta here. I would like to see a cultural upheavel. A revival of the arts, if you will. I want to see better writers, way better musicians, more performing arts en lieu of an upgrade as strong as Obama.
Award winning writer, educator, counselor, and activist Edward M. Garnes, Jr. is the founder of From Afros to Shelltoes: Art, Action, and Conversation, a nationally acclaimed series of cultural productions confronting the social divide between elders and hip hop heads, and holds a B.A. in English Writing from DePauw University and a M.A. in Counseling from Michigan State University . His seminal essay, ” Sweet Tea Ethics: Black Luv, Healthcare, and Cultural Mistrust,” currently appears in Not In My Family: AIDS in the African American Community, a 2007 NAACP Image Award nominated collection edited by Gil Robertson. (www.afrostoshelltoes.com).