In her three-part graduate series, Issaka navigates multiple notions of Blackness, while seeking out a space for self identification
Is race a physical phenomenon, or something ultimately indefinable? It can be easy to define race through the amount of melanin in one’s skin, the styling of one’s hair, or the shape of one’s face. But in actuality, race is far more complex. It is an interweaving network of memory, history, culture and society. Beyond the visual, race can take on many forms, forms which recent Royal College of Art graduate Melanie Issaka investigates in her latest three-part series: Locating The Personal, Dark & Lovely, and Blueprint: Black Skin, White Mask.
Each series explores the physical and conceptual nature of the Black body, and its relationship to photographic agency. Issaka describes the camera as “violent”, a tool historically used to subjugate, control, and “capture” Blackness. The photographer wanted to negate this, and capture her own image, on her own terms. “When I began to turn the camera on myself, I started to feel uncomfortable,” she remembers. “There was this feeling of performance, but [during the Covid-19 lockdown], I didn’t have anyone else to shoot. That’s when I decided to play with my representations, to change the meanings.”
Locating The Personal is grounded in Issaka’s interest in psychogeography: the study of space and its effects on the mind. This led her to investigate Black identity and its relationship to space. “I wanted to take up as much space as possible, and force myself out of my comfort zone,” she says. The artist spread photo-sensitive paper across her floor, laying on top of them. “Once we were restricted with lockdown, I wanted to get big, and take up space,” she explains. “It’s about the politics of leisure… Who gets to relax, who gets to lie down, and who has to keep moving?” Space to relax, to pause, and to allow the body to rest, are rarely afforded to Black bodies. Here, race manifests physically and spatially; through visualising the toll taken on the body. From the viral video of the death of George Floyd, to images of kneeling athletes, the varying positionalities of the Black body is on Issaka’s mind.
Dark & Lovely – which takes its name from a popular Black hair care brand – explores the political complexities of Black hair, attempting to remove it from its tangible nature, and into a more abstract form. “I went natural in 2016,” Issaka explains. “I never really cared about my hair before then, but as soon as I let my natural hair show, I felt the weight of the choice.” Issaka refers to the social difficulties linked to Black hair: invasive questions, prejudiced assumptions, and even non-consensual touching. “I wanted to think about what constitutes a portrait, and how my hair tells the story of my genetic makeup, my history, and where I am from. It tells so much more about me than a simple picture can,” she says. By abstracting her hair, Issaka removes it from these connotations, allowing it to exist outside societal expectations. The hair, a portrait of her Blackness, exists simultaneously as a physical object and a signifier of Black history and identity. “People have told me they see all sorts of things in these three-metre tall pictures. Someone even saw stars.”
In her final piece, Blueprint: Black Skin, White Mask, Issaka navigates the social and political contexts of Blackness and whiteness, and the space in between. “What does it mean to be a Black body in a white space?” she asks. “I was interested in what a blueprint is, especially in relation to identity,” she says. “Three years ago, I went to Ghana for the first time in 15 years, and people perceived me in proximity to [the concept of] whiteness,” she says. With an English accent and a postgraduate education, Issaka’s Blackness, and its relation to whiteness, was questioned. “People perceived me as an ‘other’ in the place I feel home, and when I returned to my other home, I was still the other.”
This dual experience of diasporic people is central to Issaka’s work. In Blueprint, she negates the body through cyanotype prints, presenting a void white shape. The body is simultaneously removed and displayed, mirroring the hypervisibility and invisibility afforded Black bodies, and allowing both artist and viewer to imprint their own meaning. Blackness tends to be viewed as a psychic phenomenon, something skin deep and bodily. In Blueprint, Issaka presents another Blackness, one existing beyond the skin.
Issaka’s self-portraits take ownership of her identity, and Blackness, through her own lens. Sankofa, the Ghanian symbol for retrieval, was an integral concept while producing the work. “We go back to find ourselves in ancestry, and we go back to collect. To understand who you are, you have to understand your past,” she says.
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.