Agency and reclamation of the Black, female body is at the heart of Jessica Gianelli’s new work

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As a first generation American Caribbean woman, Gianelli draws on her heritage, personal experience and response to the Black Lives Matter protests to create a new, fictional world where modern women express and represent themselves as they are

Born in New York, Jessica Gianelli’s upbringing was “very American”, but with a Caribbean heritage. Yet as she grew up, she began feeling that she “was not totally connected to [her] roots,” recognising that in the suburbs of Long Island, there weren’t many others that shared her background. Following an “identity crisis” of sorts, she moved to South London for her studies, and there found something unexpected. “I didn’t know anyone and it wasn’t my place but I felt so connected – to see so many other Caribbean people, just walking by the markets and hearing music on the street that was like what I would only hear at family parties,” she says. “In a sense I felt liberated that I could just be myself.”

Her latest work, titled Papiyon, draws on her personal experience, but also connects to something that is felt more universally – the legacy of colonialism on today’s generation. “I don’t like the idea of ostracising myself,” she says. “It was really important to me to think about how other people experience that as well.”

Image © Jessica Gianelli.
Image © Jessica Gianelli.

Gianelli, a recent graduate from Central Saint Martins – University of the Arts London, reached out to other women of colour, often through Instagram, and interviewed them about their lives and whether they felt affected by the colonial past and how. She also asked them about their connection to the Earth, and if certain natural elements, such as water or fire, felt more pertinent to their personal story. Their answers would later feed into their portraits, and how the women were depicted – through colour, clothed or nude, and where. One woman’s family – Souad, “the blue girl” – is from Senegambia, and she identified strongly with water. “It was very much a collage of the different aspects of what I understood from what she told me, and what she believes about herself and where she comes from,” the photographer says. The other women in the photographs have roots all over the world, including Nigeria and South Africa. Gianelli also includes self-portraits.

Papiyon is a project of collaboration, shot around London during the summer months of the pandemic in 2020, when socially distanced meetings were permitted. By working with the models to “craft their own narratives and tell their own truths”, Gianelli subverts the white, male ethnographic lens that has fetishised the Black body throughout photographic history. 

Image © Jessica Gianelli.

A few months into the project, in May 2020, the murder of George Floyd sparked outcry, and Black Lives Matter protests grew and multiplied all over the world. Suddenly, news and social media channels were inundated with conversations surrounding accountability and systematic racism. For Gianelli, who was already processing many of these issues at her own pace, it was a difficult moment but one that ultimately influenced her practice. “I was extremely overwhelmed,” she recalls. “Being in the UK and not being in the United States, it was hard to connect to everything.” By way of processing, the work evolved and Gianelli envisioned the series as constructing a “new world”, using her photography to create a new, fictional space for her and the women of Papiyon. “Each woman had that similar affinity towards colour and nature and expression, and the need to create her own world and step out of the narrative that has been pushed on us so many times.. It’s not even so much of an escape, but just making something new.

Image © Jessica Gianelli.
Image © Jessica Gianelli.

“As opposed to some guy coming and deciding how he wants any of us to look, and where he’s gonna show it, it’s like we’re saying, this is who we are; this is who we’re going to be, and we are going to tell you that and show you.”

Image © Jessica Gianelli.

“I remember sitting with my phone thinking, ‘maybe I should post something [on Instagram] because I need to be involved and I need to fight for people’ but at the same time I needed to pay attention to myself and my needs and my mental health, and maybe that means that I need to shut off everything and run around and dance and feel good – and that’s my right to do that.” She continues: “It was very painful, but for me it became about processing this experience in our own way and in a way that’s comfortable for us, and in a way that resonates with us as well.”

The work is accompanied by a short film, which brings together many ideas surrounding that representation and agency. “I guess it’s this kaleidoscopic vision of what we all are,” she explains. “All the different colours that piece together this story of reclamation and these women and myself. As opposed to some guy coming and deciding how he wants any of us to look, and where he’s gonna show it, it’s like we’re saying, this is who we are; this is who we’re going to be, and we are going to tell you that and show you.”

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.