“You are not alive to please the aesthetic of the colonized eyes.” With these powerful words from West African writer Ijeoma Umebinyuo serving as inspiration, photographer Amanda López and multidisciplinary artist Tanya Melendez created Adornment – a striking photo series that doubles as a love letter to women of color.
The project makes something as universal as braids – which transcend cultures and time – the focal point, but it’s unmistakably honoring women from marginalized communities. That much is instantly clear from the fliers promoting the photos, which are on exhibit at an unnamed Los Angeles gallery until April 1. Set against a bright blue backdrop, a woman – who has her back to the camera – sports several braids, exposing slightly wobbly lines of scalp. Running all down the plaits – starting from the crown of the head and extending far past the nape – are about 15 door knocker earrings of varying sizes. For decades, these flickering earrings have made a statement. But that message changes depending on who you ask.
“You are not alive to please the aesthetic of the colonized eyes.”
“They’re seen as ghetto or you know the larger the hoop, then the more promiscuous you are, the more sexualized you are,” said Melendez, a Boricua jewelry designer/collector who meticulously styled the women. “Not until high fashion – not until they get their hands on it and they make it hip and cool or trendy [is it acceptable.] We’ve been using these adornments to elevate ourselves, to say that we are worthy, to say that we we have status, we have class. And in a way, it connects us to our ancestry. Adorning yourself with all this gold to shine bright to say that yes I’m a queen. I’m a goddess. I am important. I am somebody. And so we wanted to flip that and work with door knockers basically to reclaim it and to elevate it.”
Recently, at Pitzer College, Alegria Martínez, Jacquelyn Aguilera, and Estefanía Gallo-González tagged a free speech wall with the words, “white girls take off your hoops.” Many brushed it off an aggressive assertion that only women of color can wear hoops. Instead, as the women explained to Latino Rebels, the piece was an indictment of how POCs must assimilate – e.g. take off their earrings – in order to be accepted at institutions of higher education and other spaces. White women don’t face this same stigma.
Adornment is about unapologetically embracing ourselves – whether it’s through braiding traditions passed down from generation to generation to the most ornate, shoulder-grazing hoop earrings. “We wanted to shine light on where we come from and to say that we are still here – even though … we look differently, our style is different from that of our ancestors,” Tanya added. “But they’re still present. They’re present in our features, they’re present in the work that we do, they’re present in our voices – in our hair, specifically.”
The jewelry featured comes from Tanya’s personal stash – she has bags on bags on bags of earrings. But the influences for Adornment are more far reaching. The duo looked to women in north and southeast Africa, the Philippines, and many other islands – places connected by bodies of water, which is one reason that rivers also play a role in this series.
“We wanted to shine light on where we come from.”
At its core, the project weaves together the stories of women of color – and this is even truer for Amanda and Tanya. The two first met in 2007 and admired each other’s work, but had few opportunities to collaborate. They teamed up to photograph and style Kali Uchis in 2016 for LA Weekly, but Adornment didn’t come with the same kind of urgency. Spread out over months, they were able to take their time.
“I think it’s much better to work that way,” Amanda said. “You have the time to do stuff. It’s definitely a process: the hair takes some time, the photo shoots take some time, post production takes a little bit of time, too. I feel like that’s just a metaphor for life. Everything takes times, and it’s good not to rush things and let them kind of happen.”
With this exhibition, their friendship also comes full circle. It’s through Sol García – the woman who runs the gallery space showing Adornment – that Tanya and Amanda first met. She also gave Amanda her first solo show in Los Angeles, and she’s betting on her once again. For the next two weeks you can check out the exhibit and know that, like the three strands of a braid, this collection speaks about our past, present, and future.
Adornment is on display at 977 1/2 Chung King Road from March 18 to April 1. An opening reception will take place on March 18 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.