OtherPeoplesPixels: Have you always been a photographer? Tell us briefly about your artistic trajectory.
Keisha Scarville: Photography has been my passion for a very long time. At this point in my life, it's hard to imagine a moment when photography wasn't at the forefront of my artistic practice. I grew up wanting to become a writer. I was a voracious reader and always fascinated by the expressive power of the written word. However, things changed when I took a darkroom photography elective in high school. My whole view of life changed the moment I developed my first roll of film. It was a wonderfully magical moment for me. Over the years, I have engaged with sculpture and installations but photography remains my primary mode of visual expression.
OPP: Let’s start with older work first. Who is the young man in Passports? Your repeated manipulation of this photograph seems to fluctuate between revealing hidden aspects of the psyche, playing dress up and hiding one’s identity. How do you think about your action of creating variations of the same image through embellishment, drawing and collage?
KS: The series Passports is an ongoing project where I repeatedly reinterpret my father's earliest passport photo. My father migrated to the United States in the late 1960s from Guyana, South America. I am interested in the aesthetics of a passport photo as a signifier of subjecthood and citizenship, but also the guidelines that inform how one positions and presents oneself within the frame. I employ various mediums—including collage, paint, drawing, glitter—to reveal unseen narratives, latent histories and future aspirations embedded within the archival image. In each piece, I respond to the transformative effects of immigration and my own personal history.
OPP: I get the impression the scale might be a big player in The Placelessness of Echoes (and kinship of shadows) (2016-2018). How large are these works? What are we missing if we only see this work online?
KS: The prints vary in scale. The largest prints are about 50” x 36.” I think what often is overlooked when viewing the images online is the subtly of dark tones within the prints.
Placelessness of Echoes (and kinship of shadows) is a series that locates itself within the spatial, temporal, and visual ambiguity of night. I draw inspiration from the densely metaphorical writings of the late Guyanese author Wilson Harris, whose first novel, Palace of the Peacock, informed my approach to the images and imagining of new spaces. I mine his philosophies on the “possessed, living landscapes” to contextualize the metaphysics of becoming and variable existences. I am seeking to construct a new topographic understanding of the landscape, which blurs the specificity between the body and the terrain.
OPP: Can you talk about your choice to obscure the identity of the individual with the clothing in your series Mama’s Clothes? What is the role of the figure in relation to the garments?
KS: Mama’s Clothes is a visual and conceptual exploration of the materiality of absence. I began the project after my mother passed away in 2015 after a yearlong battle with cancer. I was inundated with remnants of her presence, specifically her clothing. I became interested in photography’s role—as memorial and as evidence—in the preservation and representation of the body in death. Drawing inspiration from various sources that include spirit photography and the figure of the Egungun, I use my late mother’s clothes and fabrics to visually reconstitute her presence within the pictorial space. The clothing is transformed into a residual surrogate skin and an abstraction of the body. In the series, my hope is to create a visual space where I can conjure her presence while using my body as a medium.
OPP: When I first looked at these photographs, I was thinking about the very direct effect of grief on the individual and about how people sometimes cling to the clothing of their loved ones after death because they still have their scent. I also thought about how our parents' legacies can be an emotional burden, or maybe that grief is a physical burden. What are your thoughts on my interpretation?
KS: These were all things that I processed while doing the project. While it is an utterly overwhelming experience to lose a parent (particularly when you're very close), the project wasn't born of grief or a sense of burden. Primarily, I was interested in thinking of ways to allow my mother's presence to persist, or even rethinking how I live with the presence of my mother in a different form.
KS: I enjoy the way in which black & white distills an image. I was looking to visually blend the patterns together, and in some cases, collapse a sense of depth in the images. I loved the way in which these aspects began to percolate in the black & white rendering.
OPP: This reminds me of what you said about the blurring of the "specificity between the body and the terrain." Does your interest in the relationship between the body and the landscape bridge these two bodies of work?
KS: I am constantly reflecting on the interconnectivity of body and landscape in my work. How do various environmental forces shape our sense of self, security and address questions of belonging? How do we engage the body and place as sites to unearth latent narratives? There's a focus on spatiality and materiality in a lot of my work, and I believe that has become my primary avenue to explore these ideas.
To see more of Keisha's work, please visit keishascarville.com.