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Photo Essay: Asia Kenney’s I Am Woman Because…

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The series I Am Woman Because… stems from a personal journey to define my own version of womanhood. About two years ago, I was writing a screenplay called Mother which prompted me to question what my own mother instilled in me about womanhood. And at the time, I had no idea what it meant to be a woman. As I shared this sense of uncertainty with other women around me, I saw that they had no idea either—we’re all just trying to figure it out. In my late 20s, I was asking myself all these questions: What does it mean to be a woman? How do I become a woman? And eventually, Why am I a woman?

I’m finding that I have to reaffirm the answer to that question every day. We are who we are, even if we are still working towards understanding. I discovered my version of womanhood through healing, writing and reflecting on some of the painful parts of my relationship with my mother. In order to forgive that relationship and move forward, I had to think of my mother as a woman with her own life and her own experiences. That helped get me onto this continuous journey that is still teaching me about myself. Reflecting on all of this now, I see a completely different person than I was a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. To me, that means I am growing into who I am.

About a year ago, my partner Cheyanne Givens curated an event called Alpha Female Fest, designed to celebrate Baltimore-based women and foster a kind of sisterhood. As part of the event, we filmed interviews and talked with these artists, poets, musicians, teachers, business owners, athletes, and more about what they do, who they are, and how they got to where they are. Each time someone came into our home for an interview, it felt amazing to be around these women who carry so much in their own unique ways. 

Each woman who sits in the chair finds at least an ounce of healing and self-reflection. A few women have cried, feeling the experience as a vulnerable release.

Eventually, I started using photography to play with this idea of womanhood—how am I walking in it, how am I being in it—and that led to the physical manifestation of the I Am Woman Because… series, which is ongoing. So far I have photographed 15 women in a setup at my home, and as the project progresses I hope to photograph at least 300. The series is a way to memorialize Black women, not just for our beauty but for our inner identities too. This work allows us to take up space while healing. It is my modern take on royal portraiture. 

My goal in this project is to reach a kind of clarity, to provide calmness, peace, and stillness for Black women especially. As much as it is an experience for a viewer to encounter one of these portraits, it is also an experience for every woman who comes into my home and sits in that chair, against the soft fabric backdrop, framed in some way by the palm tree. Each woman who sits in the chair finds at least an ounce of healing and self-reflection. A few women have cried, feeling the experience as a vulnerable release. 

There is something very beautiful about film photography: It has breath, life and feeling, motion and depth. In each photo, the woman is the center of focus, but as I’m pressing the shutter, there’s this special physicality to the process. And when I get the film developed, I find the images feel so different from digital photos. Through the lens, I start to see those women as who they are at their core. It’s a good moment. It’s magic.

This is my first time really taking pictures of people in this way—I’m used to taking pictures of things. In life, I am this big personality. As an artist, I am very quiet, reserved, watchful, and observant. I only shoot in color because my life is in color. We don’t see our world in black and white, we see our world in all of these different shades. I want our kids and grandkids to see how lively our life was.

Shae McCoy: “I embody ambition, wit, and exude strength”
Auntie Leesh: “My ability to be multidimensional and multifaceted”
Jupiter Poteát: “Even with no physical children of my own, eye am still a mother to so many. Within my matriarch, eye am the only one living physically”
Jenné Afiya: “I am a woman. I am a black woman. I marvel at my lineage, ancestral and cultural. That gave me the power, the say so, to embody, create and conjure. For my present, future, and beyond”
Hira Batool: “I’ve chosen to decolonize my spirituality”
Destinii Williams: “I am everything and everything is nothing without me”
Ebony Kenney: “When I close my eyes, and listen carefully I can feel the universe rhythm, sense of purpose and source of all utterances”
Danyell Scott: “Of this”
Ciera Woods: “Not only am I blessed to create life, I’m able to embrace other beings with my divine light”
Lauren ‘Bemi’ Byrd: “I am Venus represented here on earth. I’m a Taurus woman. It feels natural and comfortable to express my femininity”
BriAunya Marsh: “I am strong and dominate but lack masculinity”
Bobbi Rush: “My forgiveness has depth”
Ericka Harrington: “Without me there wouldn’t be a universe. We keep this shit going round because without us you couldn’t procreate”
Alise Curtis: “I am like a flower. I blossom with beauty and grace and plant my seeds to grow stronger to sprout a creative stem”
Aliya Muhammad: “The sun lives inside of me and shines through the love I give and give birth to”
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