Jody Brand—artist, photographer, documentarian—is here to occupy space. Whether she is displaying a two-meter tall nude on the Stevenson gallery wall or injecting images of South African youth into the expanding visual culture of the blogosphere, Brand is bravely taking ownership over stories that might otherwise be swept under the rug. We got a chance to talk to the artist about the intersections of documentation and creativity, the visibility of black femme bodies, and the importance of community in a hegemonic art world
KEELY SHINNERS: Why the medium of photography? For you, is it a means of documentation, or creativity? Or a bit of both?
JODY BRAND: Definitely both. I had a very difficult journey to legitimize being an image-maker. That has to do with our history and our generation. Our parents worked very hard for us to be able to have an education. There’s a privilege in being an artist. It’s almost like you’re throwing all of that away. Initially, I wanted to do journalism. So, yes, it’s definitely documentation. That’s when I started taking pictures: I realised that I have to be a witness. Also, I was thinking about who writes history, who makes the decisions, who is included and who is excluded. At the same time, I am interested in what you can communicate through creativity, through visual culture. I don’t have an art education, so my visual culture comes from popular culture: the pleasure of reading images online, the things you can absorb, how you can feed that into your own life.
I also learned from working with a stylist/art director for a while. He was the one creating the entire image: the clothes, the set. Then, the photographer would come and take the image. Then, the photographer owns the image. That was a very important lesson for me, the whole idea of ownership. Photography is about ownership. In my photography, I want to own and control my own vision. If I create a vision, style the photograph, do everything, then I own that. It’s the same with documentation: documenting your own history is owning your history, determining the way it is interpreted and circulated.
KS: Your photography specifically seems to be toeing the line between worlds. It’s both creative and documentary, both personal and socially engaged, both historical and contemporary. How do you move in between those worlds? Do you see your work as something that can maybe bring seemingly disparate things into harmony?
JB: One hundred percent. They all feed into each other. If I want to take a picture of someone because I like their outfit, what I’m interested in, really, is not how it looks, but the context. That’s what I feed off of—context. It’s important to have the context of a culture rather than just a one-dimensional image. I want to know where it comes from.
KS: As your career is growing, you’re still keeping up with a free website where people can see your images. How do you toe the line between having a media platform that is free and accessible while also starting to garner a lot of gallery attention?
JB: I began putting my pictures on the Internet because I wanted them to be as accessible as possible. I am doing this work because these are images I wish I could have seen when I was a kid, so I want kids now to be able to access it. The power that has, potentially, is huge. At the same time, I want to move away from being seen as a ‘blogger.’ I don’t feel that what I’m doing is for other people. It’s not about consumption. I want to have more substance behind it. Creating online space is about occupying spaces differently. I’m not just occupying physical spaces, like an art gallery. I’m also occupying digital space. I’ve been running the blog since 2011, and the community is huge. How many kids think they’re curators right now because of their Tumblr page? Visual practice and visual education is growing. I wanted the work to be present in that growth. As much as all of the space the Internet allows, it’s very easy for people to get filtered out of those narratives.
KS: The Internet is still a part of dominant culture.
JB: One-hundred percent. It’s hegemonic. But dealing with art space is a whole other demon. As much as the Internet is a really fucked up space, dealing with art space is really difficult to process. Especially for a person of colour. That’s how galleries are. At the end of the day, art is about business and money. But when you’re creating work as a person of colour, ninety-percent of the time, this work is going to be very personal, very political. It’s going to be difficult to create. It’s a whole other challenge when you’re dealing with a white, capitalist institution.
KS: You go in and take up space. You do the good work. But it’s also really exhausting.
JB: There’s a lot of emotional labour that’s required. At the same time, you’re creating decolonial work in a space that is completely exclusive. It excludes the people you’re creating work for and who you’re creating work about. It’s a constant battle. I feel like what we’re trying to move towards, now, with a lot of the people I know who are practitioners of art and people of colour is, how can we make our art a standard? It’s going to take a lot of work. But there were people before us who had to do a lot of work for us to be here. Great, there’s no more apartheid, we’re ‘free,’ but there’s still so much work that needs to be done.
KS: In that vein, I want to ask you specifically about your work at the Stevenson for ‘The Quiet Violence of Dreams’ and occupying space. Since you are a photographer, the installation #SayHerName was very powerful. Instead of it being a two-dimensional print, with a passive viewer, this was taking up space, and the viewer had to confront it. What was the thought process behind that installation?
JB: The show is based on a novel by K. Sello Duiker. Reading the book for the show, this story was haunting me – the story of Nokuphila Kumalo. In the process of writing the proposal, I was breaking down how patriarchy has affected femme bodies. Then, it became important to me to bring in the story of Nokuphila Kumalo. I’m an artist; Mthethwa’s an artist. We’re essentially in the same community. But the whole thing is talked about in such a way because they want it to disappear, and it will. It will disappear without the work of SWEAT. For me, I wanted to pierce a hole. As an artist, I want to say that this is unacceptable. We won’t be quiet about it. That’s how I was occupying space with the installation. It was about Nokuphila, the trial.
I came across a recent interview with the mother, which was the inspiration of the flowers. Her mother has basically given up on the case; she can’t afford it. She has a job decorating cakes. She lives in a shack in the townships. It’s fucking disgusting. She went to lay these flowers where her daughter was murdered.
The idea of it is crazy – a woman doesn’t have ownership over her own body? She should have control and ownership over the labor of her body. It’s deep how patriarchy affects every layer of our society. The people that I document say no to those things through subversive, guerrilla tactics. That’s difficult to do. It’s important for me to document that and inspire other people. That’s what I want to focus on: not just the brutalisation that femme bodies have to experience. What is it that gives them the power to overcome violence? That’s what I’m interested in.
KS: That reminds me of the photo you exhibited alongside the #SayHerName project. It was this amazing, huge photo taking up space in the gallery that is fundamentally patriarchal. And you had this body that wasn’t on display, but was confronting people. Is it a way to remind people of stories that have been forgotten?
JB: It re-directed the gaze, for sure. A lot of people really don’t want to do work that is political. There’s this idea that art has to be pretty. I don’t care for it. It’s not an easy thing to do, to be making yourself and the people you work with vulnerable to a lot of violence. But it’s necessary and urgent. That’s why we do it.
KS: Visibility is super important. Making sure that people are talking about it.
JB: There’s really no way I can make sure. At the opening, it was very difficult for me to watch the clientele of the gallery – mostly old, white people – consume my work with disregard. Even the way the whole conversation about Nokuphila was framed as ‘This tribute for a prostitute.’ Her name was never mentioned because of the danger of bringing up his name, the potential controversy or whatever. That was very difficult, but I was able to do the walkabout with SWEAT and show people what we are talking about. They have staged protests outside of court every time there’s a trial so that there is media attention. That’s the only way, they feel, she will get justice – if this is in the media. For centuries, we have been oppressing black femme bodies. Her death means nothing to most people, especially the men who killed her, his lawyer, his gallery who were auctioning his work the days he was in court. Her life means nothing.
KS: So you have to do the work.
JB: You have to. It’s urgent. People are dying. It’s that important. People died.
KS: Do you feel that making work now is especially exigent? Is it a particularly lit time, with student protests, with people being angry and seeking justice? Or has it been around for a long time and it’s just changing form?
JB: It’s changed in our personal consciousness. It hasn’t changed in the way that people have been treated or understood. It’s how we see ourselves and how we see power, if we have any power. I don’t know if I’m actually going to do anything with my work. That’s something that I have to deal with all the time. What am I actually doing? Am I hurting people doing this also? It’s a difficult decision. You just have to believe.
KS: And stay mindful of the work you’re making.
KS: I can tell that you’re grappling with so many conflicting things all the time.
JB: Also, dealing with my own privilege, who am I to be pro-black when I am very light–skinned and white-passing? How can I be present in conversations that are pro-ho and sex positive when I’m not in the economic position where I have to sell my body to survive? There’s lots to deal with.
KS: I read an interview you did in 2014 for 10 and 5 where they asked what you were working on, and you said ‘Revolution.’ How is it going?
JB: It’s going well. This is a lit time. It’s amazing that a fucking hashtag can destroy Rhodes. I felt that I have a responsibility to my sisters, my community, my creative community. How are we actually going to effect change? It’s family – a collective of people, not just one person. That’s why shit’s happening – people are actually coming together. I’m an agent of that, and I have to live it in everything I do. Community is super important – online and in real life. They are equally strong.