I have crushes on interesting, intelligent, strong, super-women all the time. My latest: Diana Perez Ramirez, Chandra L. Narcia and Barni Axmed Qaasim from Culture Is Life Woman of Color Media Arts Collective.
I ran into Diana last week at Giant Coffee by the Library. I was trying out a new joint, she was getting her daily fix. I’ve known Diana since high school and she’s always doing different things, so it’s hard to keep up. We got to talking, (or more like I crashed her coffee break) and she told me about her newest endeavor, Culture is Life, and a really cool project they’re working on: Faces of Garfield.
Culture is Life Collective creates art and uses it as a tool to empower communities and bring them together to make art of their own that reflects their values and creates a more just society. They also seek to create a space that organizers who are fighting to tackle community issues can use and call their own.
With their current project, they look at Phoenix’s Garfield Historic District – probably one of the most marginalized areas of the city – take portraits of the people who live in the community, and upload them onto Instagram with the hashtag facesofgarfield. They also encourage people who live and hang out there to upload their own pictures using the hashtag. The purpose is to create art for and about the community, engaging them in being part of that creative process and showing the rest of us outsiders what the Garfield District looks like from within, from their own perspective.
As I’m talking to Diana and drinking my mentholy green tea concoction, I’m thinking, “freakin A, this girl is the shit.” Como dirían en mi rancho, una viva chingonería. So I asked her if I could tag along during one of their picture-taking sessions and do a short interview.
I met them on a Tuesday at 3 p.m. at the offices of Puente. Diana, Chandra and Barni were making silk screens of a Faces of Garfield poster pa’ engrudarlos en las calles. Chandra is the pro at this silk screening thing, Diana and Barni were helping. I was ineptly watching them work, thinking of the extreme coolness of their Somali/Native American/Latino convergence. I started my interview with a cliché set of questions “so tell me about your project, what it is, how it started, why it started…” blah blah blah.
Chandra (graphic designer and photographer): “This is the place that we live, we see, we work and there’s a lot of art around downtown Phoenix but you don’t necessarily see the community connected to it. We as artists go out, we take pictures, we do creative little time lapses but then you see all these people, beautiful people walking around and a lot of times you only hear negative things about certain neighborhoods. So we’re taking the positive rather than the negative and asking people questions about what makes them happy, what makes them prideful about their community.”
Barni (documentary filmmaker): And the Garfield District bumps right up to Roosevelt Row and it’s a beautiful community; it’s not one that you should displace to create a vibrant arts community. It should be part of it. Art belongs to everybody. So we want to do a project in which, not only are we taking portraits of everybody in the neighborhood, but we ask them questions about their thoughts on community and creativity.
Nuvia: It’s a project where you go out and take pictures of the people in the community but you also have them upload pictures of themselves right?
B: So if you visit #facesofgarfield on Instagram it’s not just our photos.
C: It’s like getting the community interacting with the project so it’s their project too. It’s not us saying, “oh here are some beautiful photos, here’s what you can see at a gallery.” It’s actually their words and even their own art, if they want to go out and use the hashtag. It’ll all go into a big feed of what we’re taking and what they’re taking.
N: And the questions that you ask, where do you put the answers to those questions, or do you construct a story around them?
Diana (community organizer): So we plan to exhibit some of the photos that we have taken and we want to have a description of the photos and tell the story behind them…a small story because that’s not the full story right? So it’ll be a small story about who that person is, how they feel in their neighborhood. But right now on Instagram we share their age and how long they’ve been living here; trying to show that these people have been here for a long time and they should be included in the arts world. When we do the exhibit, we want it to be inside the Garfield District and we want it to be in a space where everybody feels comfortable and it’s easy to get to.
B: And that’s when we’ll get to hear the feedback and the thoughts of the community. That’s one of the coolest parts; it’s to hear what they say. There are a lot of very insightful, thoughtful, great…ideas; there are a lot of amazing people here.
D: There are a lot of artists that might not be in Roosevelt Row but they are here in the community. We’ve heard from jewelry makers to metal workers to seamstresses that have been here for thirty years and they just do it out of their house, it’s pretty cool.
N: What have been some of your favorite stories?
D: For me it was one of the first pictures we took, the paletero, and we put his picture in our flyer because we saw a link there. He’s been selling paletas in Garfield for over 25 years so as soon as you give a flyer to someone who has been living here for a long time they automatically know who he is, they grew up buying paletas from him. And it could be people that live on opposite ends of the neighborhood but they have this person in common.
C: I think the guy, his name is Derrick and he has HoodRide. He fixes bikes out of his back yard and the cool thing about him is that he has all these kids over there and he teaches them how to fix up bikes so it’s kind of like an after school thing. That’s pretty cool, some kids that are over there just want something to do after school without getting into trouble, they’re just chillin’ and learning how to make bikes, you know?
B: My favorite is Beverly, she makes jewelry and she told us that what she likes about it is that maybe if you’re feeling low self-esteem, you look at something you just made and you think, “I just made that.” With filmmaking, which is what I do, it’s a little different but she put words to something that I feel.
Para estas guerreras de La Phoenikera, hearing people’s stories is amazing enough but it’s also a way for them to get to know the people they see every day but don’t necessarily get to talk to. “One of the experiences I liked the most was when we were taking pictures of the Fonseca Family and they were just calling the neighbors ‘hey vengan!’ and they all came,” Says Diana laughing. “We ended up staying there for a good 45 minutes and took pictures of a lot of people in the block.”
After the “formal” interview, we hit the streets. The girls took a picture of Deseray who has lived in Garfield for 4 years since she moved there from the South Side. They tried to get a picture of Coach Evans who works the crosswalk at ASU Prep Academy after school but he needed permission from them.
At the park, Barni kicked around a soccer ball with two ASU students named Anthony (Tony 1 and Tony 2) who’ve been living in the District since the beginning of the school semester. Then, they snapped shots of Cyrus and his dog Zora (named after the aquatic creatures in Zelda). Before I had to leave to my next engagement of the day, we (as if I somehow became part of the project by that point) took pictures of three kids: 4-year-old Brayan (“se escribe en español” me dijo su mamá), 12-year-old Giovani and 5-year-old America. Brayan and Giovani are brothers; their family has lived in Garfield for over 12 years.
The night and experience with Faces of Garfield ended serendipitously. I was reading for Banned Plays that night (If you don’t know about this either, your phoenician-ness is highly questionable), which takes place at the Phoenix Hostel in the Garfield District. Diana, Chandra and Barni went up to speak before the crowd because the proceeds of the play reading were being donated to their project. And right there, 105 people were told to take out their phones, take a picture and upload it to Instagram with the project’s hashtag. Art, about the people, for the people, by the people.