Rebecca Arthur Reimagines Black Identity

As someone who has grown up as a biracial person, I feel that understanding my black identity is a lifelong pursuit of mine.I was raised by a white mother who filled her house with books by black authors, collected dolls like me and my siblings, and complimented films such as Purple and Crooklin. However, being one of those kids who were considered “too white” rather than black, I felt there was a big disconnect between the identity I presented to the outside world and the identity I acquired at home. While my identity oscillates between the two worlds, I can always feel a certain sense of security in my darkness, and I am always there for comfort—even in the face of hatred.

While pursuing my BA in Photography at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, I was interested in family-related themes of identity and how or what people define “home.” Photography is the medium I turn to to understand my existence under these two umbrellas. To explore them more deeply, I photographed my family in our childhood home, studying the dynamics we had.

In the process, I came to recognize the ways in which history can be told through individuals and their relationships within the spaces they inhabit. Without words, their presence in the environment speaks an unspoken critical language that honors their humanity.

“Catherine smoking break.” Rebecca Arthur

related: Chinelle Rojas rediscovers her identity in self-portrait series

Reimagining Black Identity

This work allowed me to develop Reimagining Black Identity, a project I completed during my Fulbright-Harriet Hale Woolley joint fellowship in Paris, France. My goal is to explore the way Blackness works across cultures. I’m trying to examine the types of safety and language that take place in other dynamics where blackness is central to the lived experience but exists outside of my personal context.

After the invention of photography, the medium became a fundamental source for considering and thinking about our different identities. Yet it is at the same time an accurate mirror that, when held in the hands of the dominant gaze, projects a prejudiced view – distorting our perception of our claimed identity throughout family seasons and history.

In my research, I examined a set of images taken by JT Zealy, a photographer for Swiss-born American biologist Louis Agassiz, who collected material for his study of anatomical variation specific to African races. While his experiments aimed to identify differences between black and white Africans, the secondary goal was to demonstrate the superiority of whites.

Collage of her mother's Rebecca Arthur
“Untitled.” Rebecca Arthur

However, as the medium became more accessible to black image-makers of the time, photography helped to take back that gaze and re-imagine black identities, empowering distorted communities with ownership and autonomy through the archival and perpetual practice of image-making .

Witnessing and experiencing the black experience abroad

As a black girl who has never left America, I faced deep non-stitching upon arriving in France. I feel like the self-awareness I’ve developed has to do with how I feel about being black, and that self-awareness has disappeared from me. In the origins of the work, I did not consider that I would change my view of my identity in the new landscape, accepting my own American identity outside the context of my personal black experience.

After arriving in Paris, I wanted to hide. I felt uncomfortable and longed to go back to America, but I felt it was important to get over that discomfort and answer some of my questions. I persisted in connecting with the black and African community in Paris, sharing conversations on the subject of identity, and finding parallels in our personal narratives and the new feelings I was going through. These conversations foster a mutually safe exchange and allow me to photograph everyone in a way they have never seen before.

Rebecca Arthur, Reimagining Black Identity Fulbright
“Stella is in her room,” Paris, France. Rebecca Arthur

In places like France, engaging in discussions about themes of race and identity often does not dominate the daily lives of non-Black French people. The use of art and writing to highlight racial topics related to French identity in the public eye is considered taboo. However, with some deliberation, I was able to create a mirror that reflected what was familiar but unknown to the person I was photographing.

that is boundless

Back in America, I became very holy about my blackness. Suffering in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McLean (to name a few), we have witnessed a clear call to action and experienced a public outcry to the Black community. Caring, these communities are in a period of intense violence and uncertainty.

At the moment, thinking back to my time in France, I have a feeling that identity, especially in Blackness, is infinite and abstract. It’s not so blatantly depicted in a single photo or story, but better understood through the slowness of intent and inner caring, only really known when a mirror of the same hand is placed in front of it.

Rebecca Arthur, Reimagining Black Identity Fulbright
“Tiffany at Châtelet-Les-Halles,” Paris, France. Rebecca Arthur

I’ve been thinking about how we can understand who we are by creating images. I love the way the black is boundless, as is the emotion the image carries. While the subjects present may not present themselves to the audience in their entirety, their gaze, or lack thereof, still touches the brink of influence and attaches themselves to the audience in unique ways.

I’m interested in this attachment, I’m interested in this movement communication that happens. It has changed the way I understand the power of photography and how to use it as a tool for thinking about our relationships with others. I will continue to delve into the historical life of the media and come back to the surface in new ways to describe and think about how we want to be seen, and how this exploration affects movements beyond our personal experience.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: