Akea Brionne Brown isn’t afraid of uncomfortable conversations. This year’s 23-year-old Sondheim Prize winner explains, “As an artist I think I’m more willing to listen to the other side than a lot of other people are.” Brown’s installation and photography work, which asks her audience “to confront race and identity in modern terms,” challenges some viewers to recognize microaggressions they may not have previously considered. Brown questions if Baltimore, and specifically Baltimore’s art scene, which she identifies as “a primarily white community in a majority Black city,” is ready to have the kinds of honest conversations about race we need to have to grow into the fully representative community we hope to be.
A 2018 graduate of MICA’s Photography department, Brown is grateful for the opportunities and mentorship that the tight-knit department afforded her both during and after college. However, Brown is quick to point out that there are not a lot of professors of color in academia and that lack of representation is only going to shift if tough conversations begin to happen between white and Black people. Brown acknowledges that “a lot of people need to take a back seat that aren’t going to” and sees a long road ahead to achieve equity in higher education.
When she learned she had won the Sondheim earlier this year, Brown was surprised, not just because she loved all the work entered in the show but also because she feels that her art, with its focus on content and research, isn’t commercial in the traditional sense. After winning the Sondheim, a number of opportunities have been presented and Brown’s already-full calendar has been “scheduled up to the minute almost.” She now wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to make the most of her days of editing, marketing, researching, meeting with clients, and doing installs in the greater Baltimore/Washington, DC area. A founding member and writer for Shades Collective, a website and multidisciplinary partnership with Jennifer Ferretti, Brown is dedicated to creating space to have conversations about race and queerness she doesn’t see happening elsewhere.
A native of New Orleans who has called Baltimore home for about 15 years, Brown has always felt a little out of place. “I’ve always felt like I was born a few generations ago,” she explains. “I’ve always had an obsession with the past in part because I respect my grandparents so much, I try and take into context what it meant to be Black” when they were younger. Brown points out that integration had negative effects on the Black community, namely, “the dissolution of Black businesses and the collapse of strong Black education” still felt today.
She looks at what “fell apart to understand where” the Black community is now, with “a different level of opportunity” but “a lack of collective sense of self.” Drawing on what she has learned from her grandparents and their life-long friends in New Orleans, Brown asks her viewer to consider what it means to be African-American today. Brown qualifies that “being Black for me means something completely different” than it does for her grandparents’ generation. “I can talk about injustices all day, but to actually experience it in that way is something completely different, which I have had the privilege of not having to experience. So I try to not forget that as much as possible. It drives everything that I do.”
SUBJECT: Akea Brionne Brown, 23
WEARING: A vintage dress from Bottle of Bread, some thrifted vintage Rocket Dog platform shoes
PLACE: Mount Vernon
Suzy Kopf: You’re having an incredible year, winning the Sondheim Prize, becoming a Hamiltonian Fellow, and being awarded a Magenta Foundation award among other forms of recognition we can’t announce yet. Are you afraid at all of the sophomore slump?
Akea Brionne Brown: Not so much. I’m pretty self-motivated so I tend to keep myself going. It’s just my personality. I’m a Capricorn so I think it’s in my nature to always be doing stuff. But I had been considering grad school and I was originally planning to go next fall, which would mean I need to be applying now, but I think I am going to take another year.
What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read?
Reading has been almost as essential to my practice as the camera. There are three books that sum up how I navigate almost every situation in my life.
The first is The Social Practice That is Race, An Essay In Conversation by Dan S. Wang and Anthony Romero. They have such a rich perspective on what it means to be artists and educators navigating through fields of social practice and community engagement and they eloquently explore race through three overlapping frameworks: the political history, personal history, and the global context.
The second is African Americans in White Suburbia: Social Networks and Political Behavior by Ernest McGowen III. In the past couple years, I’ve become increasingly interested in understanding what it meant for me to grow up as a Black girl in a predominantly white suburban community. I’m always interested in those that look at things that are often overlooked, and I always felt that as a Black girl in suburbia, my experience and existence was overlooked.
Third and most important is Politics of Piety, by Saba Mahmood. It’s a beautifully done analysis of Islamist cultural politics, most specifically focusing on a piety movement among many women in the mosques of Cairo, Egypt. I think everyone who identifies as a feminist, or still questions the autonomy and strength of women of Islam need to read this book. It’s incredible how much power we take from Muslim women without truly understanding that our Western interpretation isn’t needed and is often wrong. It also addresses many of the opinions that the liberal community holds that actually continue to ignore the context of other cultures, other identities, and other ways of existing and reaching joy and wisdom.
What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best?
I don’t pay attention to the bad advice, so nothing comes to mind.
The best advice I’ve ever received is to focus on what makes me unique. Most of us worry about our disadvantages (whether financial, social, geographic) instead of looking at those as the very things that make you special. That also resulted in me doing a different form of resource mapping beyond the equipment and art materials. It made me think of resources as people, relationships, and even how well I know the back streets in a neighborhood. I would not have been able to complete or participate in a lot of opportunities had it not been for certain people and relationships that have continued to support me. I think everyone has a purpose in life, and you never know when someone’s purpose in your life will reveal itself.
But more than that, the best piece of advice I’ve received is to always pay attention to who shows up for you time after time, and to give back as much as you receive.
Is teaching a goal for you?
Teaching has been a goal of mine for a really long time. I’m reconsidering that a little bit now. A lot of institutions I feel have really shifted focus to the administrative side. It’s very hard to get a full-time position now as a professor and I don’t want to support the lack of equity within the adjunct system right now. So I’m trying to figure out where that will go. But I’m okay sort of going the independent route, which I think I’ve sort of been doing in a way. I actually really just loved school and I really want to go back.
Reflecting on my time in school, I’ve realized the importance of my professors of color, which I only had two of my entire collegiate career. So that’s made me want to stay in academia mainly because I realize the importance of those two women. I want to stay in academia specifically because I didn’t have as much of a support system and it was a lot of labor on the professors of color because there’s just not enough of them. They’re doing so much work to compensate for that, so I just think there needs to be more. So maybe!
What did you think about MICA President Sammy Hoi’s February 21st, 2019 letter acknowledging the college’s racist past?
I was excited to see it, I think it was really necessary. I mean, I can’t really recall any institutions that have been pretty honest about the fact that their history is disgusting, so I really appreciated that from him. I thought it was very bold. I also think at this time it is almost a trend right now to say what people want to hear. I’ve always imagined myself at a higher institution for the rest of my career. But that seems to be shifting a little bit more as I see the back end of it.
If you couldn’t live in Baltimore, would you live in either New York City or Los Angeles? Another city?
The thing I love about Baltimore is that you’re close enough to the action, but you don’t have to be consumed by it. New York is a great city, but it’s not my city. I’ve lived in the Bay Area, which is a completely different vibe from Southern California, but I have enough friends in LA and value the landscape that I think I could do it for a year or two. But in all honesty, place is so important to me and my work, yet I’ve never felt like a place has claimed me. I’m definitely a nomad at heart, and I’m afraid of routine, So I’ve never been sure of where to consider living if I leave Baltimore because I know it’ll just be my next stop, not my destination.
I’ve been throwing around Albuquerque (where my momma is from), returning to New Orleans for a bit, heading west back to California, and honestly just leaving America all together. I’d love to live in many places before I settle down, so we’ll see where the universe carries me next. Though Baltimore, at this point, will always feel like a home base.
Did you have a favorite toy as a child? Do you remember what happened to it?
I had a lot of toys, but I can’t remember most of them. I do however, remember my CD-ROM games. I used to play a lot of Barbie CD-ROM games, and I really enjoyed the spy game and the fashion designer game. I would design clothes and runways, and turn around and try to solve a mystery in Paris right after my fashion show. I had a gigantic computer but no internet so I played CD games. Though the internet wasn’t what it is now, so I guess that was really my only option. But it is interesting thinking of all the critiques that Barbie has gotten as I’ve gotten older, because my understanding of Barbie was actually very empowering and inspiring. I had a lot of Barbie dolls, but my real understanding of Barbie came from the CD games I played, which helped to spur my interest in creativity and solving things.
Who do you admire? Why? Do you think they know they’re a role model to you and would they be surprised?
I really admire my family. I admire my mother for not necessarily wanting the role of “mom” but doing an amazing job regardless. She has always been my biggest supporter and I remember her telling me on the drive to school every day to repeat aloud, “I am smart. I am beautiful. I can do all things through Christ.” She always told me I didn’t have to have kids if I didn’t want to. I didn’t need to get married if I didn’t want to. But that I should go after what made me happy, and she never made me feel bad for doing that. She never let me believe I wasn’t beautiful or smart, and she never let me make excuses for myself.
It’s only been recently that I’ve begun to understand why she was hard on me, but I honestly am so grateful for it because my work ethic and my confidence and every professional/financial skill that I have was the result of my mother. And it wasn’t until I got older that I realized there was a lot of love involved in preparing me for the world she knew I would face, and she made sure I was prepared for it (even for the days she won’t be here any longer). I also really admire my grandparents and my great uncle. In their own ways, they’ve all been supportive of me even if they don’t understand what I’m doing. I also appreciate what their struggles and hard work have enabled me to do with my own life. I would not be here if it weren’t for the combined effort of them all. I appreciate the time they grew up in (especially down in Mississippi and Louisiana, deep in the south) and despite everything they were up against, they flourished. So I think my biggest inspiration will always be the four of them.
You’re an activist as well as an artist. What does activism mean to you and how are the two practices intertwined for you?
For me, art is my way of understanding and dealing with the world as it is, has been, and will be. It’s the only way that I can make some sort of understanding of it all. For a lot of people, art is their escape, it’s where they don’t have to confront the harsh realities of life. For me, it’s always been the opposite. It’s the space where I feel I have the strength to confront the hard reality of being, and then try to make some sense of it through the work that I create. Activism has just naturally fallen within that because my identity is attacked at every corner. How do I not address that in my work? It’s impossible. I make work about my reality and my reality often coincides with many social and political movements that focus on giving me and others visibility and the space of vulnerability. For me, they’re not separate practices, they’re one and the same.
To have the power to speak up is something I will never take for granted, nor will I allow myself to be silenced because I have something to say (whether people like it or not.) If that makes me an activist, then sure, that’s groovy I guess. But I don’t do what I do to get the title of “activist,” I do it because I’m passionate about making sure my voice is heard, valued, and enacted and I want the same for other people of color, for other queer and trans-identifying individuals, indigenous communities, immigrants, first-generation Americans and first-gen college students, and disabled individuals, because we deserve it. This is how I contribute.
If “artist” wasn’t a career that you could have chosen to pursue, is there another career path you think you would have excelled at with your skill set?
For a short time, I was considering studying chemistry or environmental science (and I genuinely find both fields fascinating). I came from a school system where the enthusiasm (and funding) was within sports and STEM. My uncle was an engineer, my grandfather was a physicist, my grandmother was a nurse, and my mother was in finance and business. So I also had not much guidance on how to create a life out of the arts and what that looked like. The majority of my friends’ parents were doctors, engineers, scientists, or they worked for the government (and many had stay-at-home moms). I was conflicted with considering the financial freedom my future career path would give me, and if I’d be able to sustain the life I experienced within the financial bracket of where I grew up. So I thought practical careers like chem and environmental science would be good, but I wasn’t engaged enough to pursue studying it for six to eight years. I was actually very good at chemistry, I had a D in math but an A in chemistry, which was always strange to me. I really liked it, but I didn’t love it, and I knew I didn’t want to invest time pretending I could stick to a career that I’d lose interest in sooner than I could afford. I knew that if I didn’t live for what I was doing, I would never succeed.
One consideration I took more seriously however was psychology. I was actually torn between going to art school and going to school for psychology. I was always really interested in psychology, but I couldn’t focus long enough to get through the curriculum. Now that I’m older and have been teaching for some time, I realized the school system at large doesn’t cater education towards individuals, it’s about the whole, even more about the test scores. And I never felt like I could keep up with everyone else, at least not in the way that was required of me, so I had a really hard time deciding what to do. It wasn’t until I got to college and never took a test again, that I realized I was learning so much more because I was able to do it in a way that actually retained my attention and interest, and it ended up being self-driven to sustain the level of work that I got before college. I’m still very much interested in psychology and it still manifests its way into my practice, especially my research tactics. I’m always interested in the “why” and what makes people do something, what makes them think a certain way, why, why, why? I always want to know why. So I feel like I did pursue psychology, but it didn’t manifest the way I thought it had to.
What’s the best local restaurant and what is your go-to order?
I wouldn’t say there’s just one restaurant that’s the “best,” there’s a lot of really great places tucked away. But in terms of the place that I crave more than any, it’s Clavel. I always order queso fundido, two Luchador tacos, and two flan (one for there and one to take home because I’m obsessed with flan) and I always get a Tecate, which is for some reason one of my favorite beers.
Looking at your Instagram, you have an incredible sense of fashion. Who or what has influenced your style?
I really love thrifting. I find myself really drawn to styles from the ‘90s. I was born in the mid-90s and my momma was in her early to mid-twenties in the ‘90s, so I’ve always been interested in the styles of her youth and what I saw her and my aunt wear. Which incidentally has become the style of my twenties.
Clothing isn’t made the same way anymore, so I love finding pieces with history. I also try to not participate in the fast fashion industry because it’s not sustainable, so my hobby became a necessity. If I need a new sweater for the season, the first place I go is always the thrift store, then I’ll check out pricier but sustainably and ethically produced clothing brands I follow, then I’ll check discount stores (because I like to keep my coins and grew up scouring these places with my uncle and stepdad), and the last place I’ll look is a fast fashion company (though I also find those brands at the thrift, so they’re primarily purchased second-hand anyway).
I began thrifting in high school because it was cheap and vintage high-waisted pants were the only ones that actually fit my body type (this was during the low-rise jean period that I hope never returns). Once I moved to California to finish high school, I moved to a community and school where I became aware of the environmental impact of the fashion industry and the food industry. Since then I shifted to thrifting as my main source of clothing, shoes, books, music, movies, and even cameras. I began to get almost everything at the thrift because I began to understand that the planet couldn’t support a careless life of consumption much longer, and I knew that my generation would most likely begin to encounter this issue in larger ways than just where we buy our clothes.
Whose work would you want in your home or to wear on your body? Specific piece?
In all honesty, as much as I value the work of other artists, I’ve never felt a strong desire to collect work. In terms of photography, the easiest way for me to attain the work of others has been through photo books, but that has declined with my self-imposed crackdown on sustainability in a more holistic way.
In terms of something to wear, I tend to splurge a bit more on really groovy pieces (which tend to be shoes) more than anything. But I’ve actually been preparing to purchase pieces from Helena Manzano and House of Sunny. They’re both really great brands that I love and am excited by! I rarely get excited by designers anymore, but both of them are very interesting to me. Before I considered photography, I wanted to be a fashion designer for basically the entirety of my childhood and pre-teens. So I follow fashion a lot more than it probably seems, but they’re very specific designers that are primarily concentrated in the UK, Spain, and South Africa.
If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the show you’d curate or the series of work you’d make.
I really want to curate a show around “Blackness” but what it looks like universally. I’ve been focusing so much on the Black American experience, which is a very unique one. Though the more I travel overseas, and even discuss with Blacks in America that aren’t descendents of slavery, I realize we need to widen the conversation about what Black means based on where you are. My understanding of Black is not the same understanding of Black in South Africa, nor in France, nor in Japan. I’m interested in all of our experiences. It would definitely be a show with a heavy emphasis on photography, but would include all mediums including poetry and writing.
Do you have a typical day or not right now? Do you wish you had a routine if you don’t, or do you thrive on change?
I don’t have a typical day. I’m self-employed, so everyday is different based on what clients I’m working with or if I’m working on my personal work. Though, without fail, I start my day around 5:30 a.m. everyday, answering emails, going through my planner, editing images. I’m a morning person, so I’m most productive and efficient before the sun comes up when the world is quiet. But I don’t wish I had a routine. I hate routine and anything that makes my life feel mundane. So, while it’s exhausting, I’m grateful to never know what kind of day I’ll have.
Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just a load of crap?
You know, for the longest time, I was in denial that I was a true Capricorn. I was born two weeks late; my due date was actually for December of ‘95 but I ended up being born two weeks late, during the first week of January in ‘96. So I could have been a Sagittarius and believed I was one for most of my teens. I know some people think it’s a load of crap, but they’re entitled to that opinion and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Though the more I delve into astrology and the day of my birth, the time, where I was born… it’s hard to deny that it’s real. I believe in my connection to the universe, so much that I’ve been able to manifest the life I’ve always imagined. I strongly believe that we’re all beings existing within the universe, so in my mind, there is absolutely no way for us to exist separate from it.
Is there a show you’ve seen in the last five years that you are still thinking about? Why do you think that is?
It’s a random show, but yes. I loved the show Revolution which was on HBO. It got cancelled after a couple seasons (just like every TV show I actually end up liking). It’s basically looking at the United States 15 years after a global blackout where the entire world no longer has electricity. Civilization as we know it collapses, and time tends to go backwards in terms of what life becomes. I’ve always felt that it was one of the more believable possibilities that could break down our civilization and I’ve always been fascinated in how the performance of being “civilized” breaks down when we no longer have the convenient commodities that have essentially left us ignorant to what it means to really exist without them.
What was the most memorable assignment you were given in school? What did you make?
I can’t actually remember any of the assignments, I only remember what I made in response to them. But I’m still really proud of a small series I made in my Black & White Photography class during my sophomore year of college. It was a series on film exploring my ability to pull off another identity in the same way that Cindy Sherman had done. I put on a white wig and photographed myself a few different ways, and one of my favorite photographs of mine manifested from that project. It was a huge turning point for me and my work. I remember that being one of the first projects that I was proud of.
What would your teenage self think of you today?
My teenage self would think I’m pretty groovy and would probably want to strive to do what I’m doing now, which is a series of goals I set when I was a teenager, so that’s cool.
Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?
My very first job on the books was in high school, and I worked as a barista at the Panera at the mall in my town. I didn’t love it but I also didn’t hate it. I was only 16, so I just wanted extra money after school. I worked with pretty cool people, got to smell bread all day (I love carbs) and it also gave me insight to what it was like to work not only in the food industry, but in a mall. I don’t think I’ve ever had a job that I regretted. I’ve worked in so many fields, from food to childcare to teaching to farming to welding to research centers to archives and nonprofits and I can tell you that each one of them has benefited me in SO many ways that I’m grateful for. I have a greater level of respect for people and what they do, because I’ve been able to see firsthand the work that goes into it and the lack of respect people give based on your “job.”
Photos by Jill Fannon