With its lush tones and lavish florals, the Golden Age of Dutch Masters painting is an inspiration to us at Fleurs de Villes. But for American artist, Alanna Airitam, her emotional response to the same era is starkly different. As she spent hours in museums admiring the lighting and techniques of these European Renaissance paintings, she was haunted by the glaring omission of history. There were no people of colour, no one who looked anything like her, recorded anywhere.
European art history is viewed through the lens of predominantly white men who have generally minimized other cultures. This tradition has held sway over the broader culture landscape for hundreds of years. Born and raised in Queens, New York, Airitam, 50, has devoted her life’s work as a photographer to pay tribute to Black culture by addressing how her ancestors have been omitted from art history as a whole. Her approach is to create contemporary photographs that reference this accepted history of racial inequality.
Airitam notes that “Queen Mary “The Queen” is the only one in the series whose name isn’t a direct link to Harlem, but in this series she is almost like the punctuation at the end of a sentence. When exhibited, she is often shown last because once you receive all the offerings from all the other portraits, you’ll find her holding a key. This is the key to all you are being offered – the abundance, wealth, love, beauty, creativity, joy, life… she is saying you already have the key to all of this inside of you. You do not need to look externally for any of this. You are already all of this and more. She is a reflection of you. And I hope all who see her can see themselves in her.”
“Saint Monroe is named after one of the main streets in Harlem,” says Airitiam. “He extends out an offering of flowers symbolizing abundance, wealth, beauty, and love. His perfect balance of masculine strength and softness shows a side of Black men we rarely get to see in the media. His gaze is compassionate and welcoming and invites a relationship with the viewer. So often Black men do not get the respect of being looked at in the eyes and I wanted to create a safe environment for the experience. I invite you to gaze into his eyes for as long as you can hold it.”
“To my very core, I’m an activist,” says Airitam. “I believe if we don’t tell our own stories, someone else will. I also believe art is powerful and can move people. I use photography as my medium to share stories, generate action, and most specifically to empower and remind people of who they really are despite how history or the media may omit, skew or manipulate our stories to form false narratives about our humanity.”
Working from her studio apartment, Airitam reached out to friends and acquaintances in 2017 to pose for a new series that would attempt to change the narrative in favour of a more balanced and realistic approach. “They are all incredible people representing so many versions of what it means to be a Black American,” she says. “They are all accomplished in their field - authors, journalists, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, actors, museum professionals, and military. They represent a multitude of intersectionality and diversity of sexual identities and racial makeup. It is powerful to see such diversity within Blackness through this project as so many often equate Blackness to be one-dimensional and monolithic.”
As she began imagining the process, she was drawn to the connection between two time periods - the 17th century Haarlem Renaissance (the Golden Age of Dutch portraiture that she admired) and the 1920s and 30s Harlem Renaissance of her ancestry (the Golden Age of African American intellectual and artistic achievement). The Dutch Renaissance was rooted in Haarlem, Netherlands from the Eighty Years War with Spain. By contrast, the Harlem Renaissance took off in New York City, in the aftermath of the Civil War and Great Migration of Blacks north. Tying the two time periods together created a modern realism series, inspired by the Dutch artistic approach, that Airitam called The Golden Age. She named her limited edition portraits as saints along with a Harlem street name or landmark to elevate them and commemorate the significance of the time.
Airitam emulated the formal Dutch portraiture with rich hues and warm light. Her subjects wore vintage garments or simple layers of cloth, adorned with flowers and fruits (used by the Dutch to symbolize wealth and abundance). Her final archival pigment photo prints were hand finished with varnish which gives a painterly look of brush strokes. The series of stunning dramatic photographs start the conversation about the exclusion of people of colour in fine art, and go further to challenge systemic racism in general.
And because Fleurs de Villes is passionate about flowers, we asked Airitam about her favourite peony blooms: “Peonies are commonly thought of to bring prosperity and good fortune, riches, honor, and compassion and so it became an easy flower to incorporate into this work. As the portraits extend out offerings of abundance and beauty and love and wealth, peonies just had to be in there. I use flowers and plants a lot in my work as symbolism or simply as aesthetic and the types of flowers depends on the narrative. I’ve used cotton, roses, wheat, tobacco leaves, assorted weeds – some dead, some alive, some fake. I have a whole series of florals on black. I just love photographing them.”
“Saint Sugar Hill is named after the historic district in Harlem,” says Airitam. “Sugar Hill got its name in the 1920s as a popular place for the wealthy and creative African Americans to live during the Harlem Renaissance. People like W. E. B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and many others resided in Sugar Hill. Langston Hughes wrote a poem called Harlem Sweeties referencing Sugar Hill paying homage to the beautiful women of Harlem. And when I see this portrait, it’s like he wrote the poem about her.”
Airitam’s work has been exhibited in galleries throughout the United States, most recently at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center as part of the Month of Photography Denver Festival, and she was recently awarded a 2020 Michael Reichmann Project Grant Award to develop her next project. She was also part of the top 50 of Photolucida’s Critical Mass 2020 - an American photography platform with a 200 person jury of top museum curators, publishers, media and gallerists.
Airitam was set to spend time in North Carolina working on a project related to her ancestors but that has been put on hold due to the pandemic. 2020 ended up being really busy with gallery shows and museum exhibitions - an exhibit at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center in Denver recently wrapped. “(The pandemic) did pull my thoughts inward quite a bit,” she says. “Like many, I was deeply affected by the murder of George Floyd and the inevitable protests that followed. I created a triptych around that moment called White Privilege which depicts the cancer of white supremacy and white privilege on our society and the negative impact it has on everyone. But of course, it’s easy for some to turn away from it and not have to look at it.”
“Black Lives Matter is a movement but being Black is my life,” she says. “It will always be my life and I believe I matter so it’s not a trend for me. It’s my very existence. And because of that, it hasn’t impacted my work in one way or the other. As long as we continue to live in countries based on white supremacy and fueled by patriarchy that separates, divides, conquers, murders, and oppresses people, I will continue to speak out about it and make work about it.”
Hear Alanna Airitam’s story in her own words in this short film by David and Barbarella Fokos
Photos courtesy of Alanna Airitam