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Nakeya Brown: Multivalent Visual Markers

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Nakeya Brown’s photographs adhere themselves to your memory and never let go. In Lovin’, Livin’, & Givin’, a two-toned, teal countertop hair dryer is featured prominently; a round sticker reading “AFRO KINKY BRAID” adorns the shiny plastic surface. On the wall above is a vintage Diana Ross album sleeve, the record partially pulled out, and below it sits a pastel tray painted with flowers, upon which seven rollers lay wrapped in brown hair affixed with a bobby pin. Part of Brown’s 2014 series If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown, this amalgamation of objects feels immediately familiar and reverent to me.

Brown’s staged photographs reflect a lineage of Black beauty culture and rituals that are shared throughout the diaspora. Like good advertisements, these artworks tell a story, beckoning the viewer to imagine themselves within the confines of the image and drawing up memories of past personal connections. Brown sources the objects for each visual story and reconfigures them into a sculptural still life that she then lights and photographs. She focuses on products and materials that she saw Black women using when she was a child, recalling her grandmother’s hair rollers or a headscarf and old photos of her mother and siblings with afro picks.

 

Lovin’, Livin’, & Givin’, 2014, from If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown series, 16 inches x 24 inches, Archival Inkjet Print
Pick-n-Pose, 2020, from X-pressions: Black Beauty Still Lifes series, 16 x 20 inches, Archival Inkjet Print

Some of the materials Brown uses are gifts or items inherited from others, while some she collects herself. Brown’s process involves gathering individual objects with readymade meanings, but she often adds her own to the composition. These works stand as symbols of a legacy she is leaving for her family and her audience: multivalent visual markers of hope and history, of the care she has for herself and her family, a celebration of her roots.

Born in California to a mother in the Army and a father in the Coast Guard, Brown lived in Texas and New Jersey as a child. After her parents divorced, she and her siblings moved with their mom to the Poconos of Pennsylvania, where she grew up. She studied photography at Rutgers University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2010, and went on to work in New York as a photo agent while still pursuing her own practice.

Brown credits the birth of her first daughter in 2012 as a major shift in her career. “I just had a moment where I thought, ‘What do I want my work to do for future young Black girls?’” she says. Brown thought about her legacy, wanting to create art that could speak to her daughter’s experiences. “That really helped me to decide that my work is going to be about Black girls, about how we define ourselves and how we move through the world. Motherhood really solidified that purpose for me.” She enrolled in a graduate program at George Washington University, where she met her husband, artist Larry Cook, and earned her MFA in 2017. The pair decided to remain planted in Maryland.

 

DMV Passions Part I, 2020, from X-pressions: Black Beauty Still Lifes series, 20 x 16. inches, Archival Inkjet Print

Black pop art iconography, like Jet magazine’s coverage and advertisements reflecting the 1960s Black is Beautiful movement and the Natural Hair Movement of the 2000s, are all influential to Brown’s photographs. If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown explores Black womanhood and girlhood and references white eurocentric standards of beauty that told Black women to straighten their hair and the hair of their daughters. In Sophisticated Lady, a vintage hair dryer covers the top corner of a Natalie Cole record like a crown. The singer smiles, her dress color a similar tone as the object, and in front of the record, a pair of glasses nests against a plastic comb. This image, like others in Brown’s oeuvre, could be a snapshot of the un-airconditioned beauty shop that I used to go to on the Southside in Fort Worth.

I consider Brown’s work an updated and hopeful take on traditional memento mori or vanitas paintings, works intended to remind the viewer of the inevitable nature of death. In their precise, soft-hued, balanced execution, Brown’s photos are reminders of the beauty of Black life and remembrance that legacies, stories, and histories live on. “I always start with the objects first,” she says, relying on their inherent cultural significance whether she is using pages from a magazine, clips from a hair catalog, or the contents of a perm kit. She arranges them on paper, satin, or patterned fabric, making many of the images in her own living room.

Brown’s work reinvigorates the still life form. “Historically still life hasn’t always been a genre that women were thought to work within,” Brown says. “Working at home, that flexibility has added a layer of meaning to my work.” It makes the work more intimate and specific, bringing in objects like lemons, hair curling rods, afro picks, and mirrors, and emphasizing things that bring her comfort and joy such as houseplants, glass jars for iced tea, and vinyl records.

The familiarity of Brown’s work is a testament to her ability to tap into the collective consciousness of Black women who share similar rituals across the diaspora. In early 2022, images from the series Façade Objects were included in Dispersive Archives Volume 2, curated by Joy Davis at Eubie Blake Cultural Center, hanging next to Brown’s 2021 video piece which featured a step-by-step guide to chemically relaxing hair. In each image, the contents of various perm kits are arranged in front of the boxes, obscuring the Black models’ faces and implying their beauty would only become visible after using the kit.

 

BB Pump It Up, 2015, from Façade Objects series, Archival Inkjet Print, 19 inches x 19 inches
Vitale #1 (Mo’Body), 2015, from Façade Objects series, Archival Inkjet Print, 19 inches x 19 inches
Free, 2014, from If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown series, 16 inches x 24 inches, Archival Inkjet Print
Like Natural, 2020, from X-pressions: Black Beauty Still Lifes series, 16 x 20 inches, Archival Inkjet Print

One image features an unboxed Volume Plus hair relaxer kit, with pops of pink against the turquoise background and package text. A wooden applicator leans against the vial of liquid activator, and a packet of volume-building conditioner anchors the composition on the right. Though the products hide the model’s face on the box, waves of her relaxed hair ripple beyond them. Directly above her head, on top of the box, rests a plastic container of no-lye conditioning relaxer creme. My mom used to use a similar kit on my own head, Justforme, and I remember dreading the days she would perm my hair, the chemical odor of the lye which would flatten my textured hair silky straight.

Brown was born in the ‘80s and grew up in the ‘90s and 2000s, and getting her hair permed was a big part of her upbringing. “If my mom was not perming my hair, then my best friend was perming my hair, or I was perming my hair,” she says. “It was definitely a part of my adolescence, part of my rites of passage and me sort of developing and growing into myself.” Although Brown does not perm her daughter’s hair and no longer perms her own hair, the ritual remains prevalent in her work. “I wanted to pull from that inability to resolve it,” she says. “I would cover the kits with the chemicals inside because it’s not fully resolved for me. I’m bringing lived moments through my own imagination with the camera.”

Familiar moments for Black women who grew up in the US and visited Black beauty shops are found throughout Brown’s work. In DMV Passions, Part II, from the X-pressions: Black Beauty Still Lifes series, three rows of Black women in braids, kinks, and curls are on display. Clustered in the center of the collaged image, against a vibrant crimson background, the beautiful models gaze, pose, look up, look away, look down—all showing that you too could be this beautiful with this hairstyle. I remember thumbing through the pages of Black hair care magazines as my mom got her hair done, and marveling at how beautiful everyone was. Could my hair be that beautiful as well?

Depicting Black female beauty and hair rituals, Brown transforms everyday mundane moments of Black girlhood and womanhood into something deeply spiritual. Rituals distinguish the everyday movement and hurry of our daily grinds and mark time as something wholly different; the purposeful arrangement of symbolic objects functions like an altar. Rituals of self-care enable us to pause as we honor ourselves and honor others. For Black women, the beauty shop is a sacred space for sacred time. As a mother, teacher, wife, and artist, Brown embodies the hope of Black creators of the past; her work is a testament to the inherent sanctity of Black life.

 

This story is from Issue 13: Collect, available here.

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