Focusing on Race
Nicole Buchanan 15 PH is creating a powerful new series on students of color at RISD.
Standing on the manicured lawn at Providence’s historic John Brown House, photographer Nicole Buchanan 15 PH is composed while configuring her camera equipment. She’s satisfied with the natural light as she positions her subjects in the open courtyard and snaps their portraits for The Skin I'm In, an ongoing project chronicling the individual experiences of RISD students with African ancestry. The title of the project stems from her focus on a minority of 91 students among the 2,282 undergraduates and graduate students who were here when she started this body of work last year.
Buchanan’s thought-provoking work is now on view in Kindred, a new exhibition at the Gelman Student Exhibitions Gallery featuring work by students of African descent. She’s projecting five-foot-tall versions of her portraits on the gallery wall so that they dominate the space. “The images are right at viewers’ eye level, so they essentially ‘stare’ at you,” explains Buchanan. “You’ll be able to see the dust on their glasses and the pores on their skin. This way you can’t ignore their presence.”
For Buchanan the project has churned up complicated emotions. She’s shooting portraits of her peers against the backdrop of sites in Providence that formerly housed bustling slave markets. The artistic decision is a deliberate maneuver to kickstart dialogue around issues of race and power. After interviewing almost 60 of the 91 students of color now at RISD, she says that most have expressed feeling underrepresented, displaced and/or silenced at some point during their lives.
“The history of slavery in America affects how black students are viewed by contemporary society, whether they are international students or natural born citizens of the US,” notes Buchanan. “[When shooting the portraits], it felt like we were walking on graves—as if blood had been freshly spilled on the ground. I couldn't help but think about how society still views black men and women as either expendable, criminals or sexual objects.”
Buchanan’s portraits command attention. For example, a bold American flag makes up the entire background of a portrait featuring Terrance Harden 14 FAV sitting candidly in his living room. In another piece, Doreen Garner MFA 14 GL looks dead-on into the camera wearing a look of cool defiance. In addition to the imagery, Buchanan has asked her peers to write statements about their experiences. For instance, Jordan Seaberry 14 PT explains that he dropped out of RISD for a semester during his junior year because he felt an overwhelming sense of “otherness.”
“I grew up my whole life on the South Side of Chicago. So coming to RISD was a shock,” Seaberry writes. “It seemed like everyone came from a more affluent economic and cultural background. I still feel isolated—but I now use the feeling as motivation.”
Buchanan says that the feedback she has received through critiques has been mixed. Some find the series to be unflinchingly courageous while other make vague references to its cultural relevance. “It can be frustrating at times,” the senior says. “People say I should alter my work to be more palatable for viewers because we supposedly live in a post-racist era,” explains Buchanan. “First of all, racism does exist even though we have a black president. And second, my work is not about making people comfortable. I hope viewers can take a few moments to consider our worries—like if we’ll be a victim of police brutality.”
And though there are fellow voices in the crowd, Buchanan says there’s more work to be done to stir the public’s consciousness. “I worry about the future of our country,” she explains. “We can't get complacent when it comes to these matters.”
A solo exhibition at the RISD Museum takes viewers on the road with Photography Critic Jesse Burke MFA 05 PH and his young daughter.
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At a final critique in May, sophomores in Photography impressed faculty and guests with sophisticated new work.