Floating night sky with aurora borealis and unfamiliar constellations, a soulful atmosphere where people communicate on waves of sound vibration and colored lights. Exists only in the present moment. Harlem, USA, 2010.
As I wandered Harlem, I questioned its historical connection to Africa. I was born in Nairobi. My family is of Indian heritage and when I was nine, we immigrated to Canada. In my work, I question ideas of who I am and where I am from. Through this project, I walked and looked for signifiers that represent “Africa” for me. The icons of Africa are stereotyped and exoticized, and lose their cultural specificity. Safari culture can be a metaphor for identity; it was a part of my life in Kenya and after leaving, I viewed it through the veil of documentary film. While on safari in Harlem, I found a facade with two lions. By looking at the lions as signifiers for “Africa,” I question the notion of provenance—as a history of ownership and belonging—which does not exist for many African cultural objects. But they are still African, the lions are African, I am African.
I wanted to see the dream, the icons: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. I found powerful leaders gathered on a street corner giving directions. It was clichéd. The signposts have been photographed a million times, but I didn't care. They were new to me. The shining light of the signs against the dullness of office block and sky—it was prophetic.
I spent the rest of my time talking to people: at the Allah School, at a vintage clothes shop that sold skin care products, some people selling random Obama paraphernalia on street corners. I ate “soul food” at a diner and bought a book about a religion I had never heard of.
This image is of my neighbor's apartment door. She is a very kind-souled grandmother who loves everyone unconditionally and always greets us with her melodic "Hell-o Dahling," no matter how many times she sees us in a day. Her home is always full of blood kin and extended family members.
This Island Grandmother has a dynamic, down-home, uptown "LOVE BRAND" aesthetic of the richer natural tones—coral, turquoise and deep (soil-rich) browns—matched perfectly by her deep-cushioned sofas and carpets, and hugs as warm and comforting as her heart.
Everyone she cares for and nurtures is cultivated in this essence; it shows in the way they do things in the world.
For a more complete experience, I wish I could have captured the sound of adult and child voices, baby cries and laughter, music, game shows and evening news broadcasts, as well as the aroma of dinner, that all adorn the hallway and stairwell at sunset.
There's no place like Home in Harlem, no matter how humble.