Photographer Naima Green Is Documenting the Afro-Queer Present

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Portrait of Naima Green Rowan Renee

Pride Spotlight: For Pride Month, Observer is celebrating a variety of queer creatives with a our Pride Spotlight series. Keep an eye out over the month for more profiles of artists, writers, and more. 

When Observer spoke with New York-based queer photographer Naima Green, we instantly agreed that strange times weren’t quite over. “Yesterday was the first flight I took when masks were optional, it was very scary,” she said, and a power cut in Richmond, Virginia, where she had traveled ahead of a new show, briefly interrupted our wifi connection.

But Naima Green keeps going. She has her eyes set on “I Keep Missing My Water” her new commission for the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Virginia Commonwealth University, opening in September. She describes water as a sign of transience and fluidity—a site of freedom and pleasure, both notions at the heart of who she is and what her art conveys. In this upcoming show, water, a reoccurring theme, incarnates in ocean and pools, in idiosyncratic bliss and tenderness, adding to the intimacy of her queer-celebrating portraits.  

“I learnt to swim before I could walk,” Green cheerfully remembers. “I love to be soaking, submerged, swimming, playing. I feel very connected to water,” she adds, recalling a day in 2021 when a friend drove her to Rockaway Beach, a summertime favorite. There, the artist felt a sense of peace for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Green captured the serenity of that day in Untitled (2021), a large-scale vinyl, part of her exhibition “A Sequence for Squeezing” upcoming at New York City’s Baxter St. from June 15 to July 23. In this quietly-rooted show, which includes double-exposures and seeks to convey dimensionality to real-life physicality and the seemingly mundane, Green investigates food as erotic corollary of love, and solitary ecstasy.

Green has been creating from a young age. She took her first photography lesson at the Harlem School of Arts when she was nine, making pin-hole cameras out of cardboard boxes, later acquiring an old Pentax from a family friend in high school. Green would photograph her friends, nature, and the places she would travel to. “Documenting,” she paused. “Friends have always been a source of inspiration,” and co-creation.

Her first project, “Jewels from the Hinterland” (2013-present) underscored simplicity, texture, and vulnerability, photographing diasporic Africans in urban green settings, challenging preconceived ideas about the spaces to which these bodies should so-called belong. This project illustrates Green’s expansive approach to community, Blackness, and belonging. “If you identify as someone belonging to the diaspora, then I want you to know that this project is for you, whether you’re from the continent or not, whether you grew up in America or not,” she explains, later sharing that communing was always part of her growing up.

I Am Tasting Myself, 2022 Naima Green Courtesy of Gallery

Green’s personal story starts on the continent. Her parents met in Tanzania and her first name traces to Swahili origins. She reminisces on her time in South Africa and Brazil, “one of the first times I felt so comfortable outside the US, people just treated me like I belong there.” Accepting people as they are, without pigeon-holing identities, is non-negotiable in her life.

Starting 2015, Green has been incorporating other subjects in her time-capsules, cold-emailing people to participate in her projects. Slowly, she has embraced documenting herself as much as others, exploring pleasure, desire, and delight in conversation with friends and collaborators.

“Every question I ask myself; I also ask other people,” she explains. “If I’m thinking of pleasure for myself I want to ask the person I’m photographing, what does pleasure look like for you,” she adds, weary of the role a camera can play in encouraging performance and artificiality. Genuineness permeates through the trust and intimacy she fosters, often intentionally documenting the same subjects for nearly 8 years.

In her work, Green often reveal the playfulness of queer friendships that often hinge on eroticism. She sees queerness is a way to experience the world at large. For Green, who self-identifies with this community, being queer is about building and cultivating a “truthful relationship” with oneself, allowing curiosity and fluidity, and not just towards physical attraction.

She has reflected on fluidity and being whole in a wider realm for some time, explaining queerness as “the world I’m trying to live in, a world that is adaptable, flexible, thoughtful, caring, and that makes space for people to shift and for people to be different.” While discussing conservative currents in the US and abroad against LGBTQ+ expressions and rights, Green recognizes that words and labels are important for representation and for people to be seen, yet they can also be a source of manipulation. (“it can also be weaponized against us.”)

As a New Yorker who has worked hard to cultivate friendships, Naima acknowledges how fortunate she is to have a community and a space. “I don’t need to prove or define or make excuses for who I was in the past, or even yesterday.”

This freedom and generosity find creative exteriority. In Pur•Suit (2019) Green reinterpreted Catherine Opie‘s mid-90s “Dyke Deck” reflecting on its visual resonance with contemporary Brooklyn, featuring joyful, proud womxn, trans, and gender non-conforming subjects. They are plural, named, and beautiful.

Brooklyn, NY – April 30, 2016: Doreen St. Félix, Prospect Park, 2016 Naima Green

Green started this project by issuing an open call. Most people who sat for the project were strangers to her to that point. 700 people also contributed to a crowdfunding campaign for Pur•Suit, a community-anchored effort that provides recognition and comfort. “A lot of young people reached out to me saying, I live in a place where I’m not recognized, I’m not allowed to be myself, and someone sent me the deck as a present, and I can look at it, and feel a sense of home, a sense of community, and not being alone. And that is the biggest gift.” 

As an artist living in community, the pandemic forced Green to reconsider what connection meant and how it can be conveyed when physically distancing and in imposed isolation.

“What happens when you haven’t hugged somebody in three months?” She started writing postcards, quoting words by John Cage, Yoko Ono, and other artists who offered her a “sense of possibility and the world beyond the moment.” She invited people on Instagram to share their address to send them a postcard, unable to further engage in Zoom-marathons and endless screen-time.

She remembers these first moments of constant online presence as “disembodied and dissociative.” And out of this longing and experience, her response was “Skin Contact” (2021), an online platform which Green describes as a “digital care package” that includes poems, playlists, self-love guides, and shared conversations.

“We’re all coming from different perspectives,” she said, taking the time to choose her words. “There are queer people who might not find any connection to my work and vice versa. It’s more about wanting to choose to celebrate the living and honor people while still living.” During a time that largely feels dominated by hate and despair, it’s an act of resistance. 

In documenting an Afro-queer present around her, Green bears witness to conjugated lives.

“I’m choosing to live in a world where queerness is celebrated and where we’re building each other up,” she said matter-of-factly. Green summarizes her work as creating an archive of the present for the future—hoping that it outlives her.

Green holds an MFA in Advanced Photographic Studies from the International Center of Photography ICP–Bard, where she was awarded the Director’s Fellowship, and an MA in Art and Art Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She’s also a teacher and her work is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Barnard College Library, and other institutions.

What does the future look like, Observer asked her. “Ideally it’s so different that we’re not fighting for so many basic human rights.”

Pride Spotlight: Photographer Naima Green Is Documenting the Afro-Queer Present

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