Intisar Abioto: I’m from Memphis, Tennessee, and I’ve been here for almost five years. I came here with my mom and my four sisters. I was out of college maybe a year, and at first we were going to move to California. But then somehow or another, we didn’t find what we wanted there and we ended up coming here instead. It wasn’t on the perspective of how people are coming here now. We didn’t know anything about this place really beyond that it had a lot of vegan food. My mom is a vegan food artist, so that was a draw. But yeah, that’s how I got here.
Duplex: Did you go to art school or did you go for something else?
IA: Yeah, in terms of school, I had an interesting school experience. I went to a boarding school in Vermont, which was kind of the opposite of Memphis. It was just on a farm, maybe 60 students in my class. And then after that, I went to a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, Spelman College. I was studying English and Dance and trying to find a dark room. After freshman year, I transferred to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where I studied also English and Dance. I didn’t go to art school; I went to liberal arts colleges and studied art. I started teaching myself photography when I was 14, so my three things are dance, photography, and writing. This whole visual art world, I didn’t so much learn it from the perspective of school. I just taught myself and read books, and took a few classes. It’s interesting. The way I learned art was both in the home and just learning. My father is a musician and an arts educator. My mom is writer and an attorney. The family is just very focused on civil rights and the history of the people in the African diaspora. In my home, as a child, and also just being around people in the community – dancers, musicians, storytellers, activists. So, I guess my arts practice, as it’s evolved, has been kind of an outpouring of that.
D: Do you see yourself as an arts activist?
IA: You know, I don’t see myself so much as an activist, but I see myself creating work around people and around the history and the present and future of people of the African Diaspora. Committed to that work of our lives and our dreams. So, a lot of my work stems out of that impulse for thriving and surviving. Actually, I want to say thriving, I don’t want to just survive. But I guess because my practices are interdisciplinary I feel like I’ve been working to make my form. Because it wasn’t always something I could go out there and find, seeing, you know, doing.
This is interesting to talk about because generally when people are asking these questions, they are asking me about my photography… but having a dance background where it is about my body… having an interest in writing and stories and myths. It’s really like a mash-up in an adventure that I’m making and you don’t see it out there made for you. It’s not like you can get people to co-sign, and be like, “oh, that’d be great to do.” You kind of have to just keep going a little bit and then through the process whatever person you are, whatever artist you are, becomes more real. Then people will see and then maybe like “oh, that makes sense.”
In terms of my practice, it’s very much about being a body in space. Allowing the information around me to come into my senses and also to craft a story from my body and from my dreams, from listening to the impulse of other people, and culture. The desire for culture or for dreams, not just what’s already available. So, that’s my impulse of like sensing things, this kind of embodied perspective because, this kind of embodied perspective of the photograph which is always some dream, some visual thing, and also a dance, which is also a visual practice. As a photographer, who’s moving around the space, that’s also dance. Sensing who could talk to me, who I could talk to, what the story is. And I’m probably still coming up with my own definition of what’s going on.
D: How much of your art practice is impulsive, and how much of it is planned or scripted?
IA: A lot of it is impulsive, and I’m learning the balance with this because now is when you just have random ideas—or actually, they’re not random, they’re often repetitive, trying to come out into the seen realm. I tend to be an improvisational artist in that dance can be improvisational. You sense what’s around you, you sense your impulse and you create something.
D: You just did a performance at Zena Zezza’s Soup and Tart, how much of that performance was preconceived?
IA: I must have come up with it in the previous hour or so. You have so many different aspects of yourself you’re trying to do. I’m doing this performance but the whole previous two weeks, I was running around town trying to shoot things and finish editing for the State of Black Oregon publication. Which is this more contract photography work, which isn’t as much performance with heady feelings, you know? I was literally coming off of a few weeks of all-nighters and quasi all-nighters. So what I brought was exactly what I had, which was my camera, my hard drives, the draft of a document, this bag. It was literally my life and—yeah, I just decided to use what I had. A lot of it is improvisational, but I’m also learning the limits of improv. Whether it’s in performance or it’s in the technical admin details of your life, that I want to be able to get more energy. I want the quality of my work to be better. I really desire that, and I do love improvisation, but I do know sometimes there’s a limit to the seasoning of your work. The preparation and giving things their due time to be great, you know?
D: It takes a lot of clarity and experience to acknowledge that. I wonder how things as you age and as you practice, how improv will become much more second nature. Just like anything else. Something that feels like improv in 30 years will be something you’ve been thinking about or you know second nature.
IA: Oh, interesting! Even that practice has to be practiced. I haven’t been dancing as much, but also, my improvisational dance felt more potent and better to me when I was in my teens and early 20’s. Sometimes you need to be dancing to even have the feeling for the information inside of you comes out. But it – improvisation – hasn’t felt as potent to me so, it hasn’t felt as of good quality. The body is also changing in ways you can’t expect. It’s just funny figuring that out. When you’re an improvisational artist and people don’t know you, no one knows you, and you’re just doing your thing, you’re making stuff. It can be whatever you want it to be because it’s just your process. There isn’t anything riding on what you’re doing beyond your own process. But then when people start to pay attention and also believe you, they ask you to do things, and they give their time and their resources, or this that and the other, there’s this really important level of accountability and planning that has to come to that process now because hey, people are believing in you. That’s been a lot of my growing pains this past year. It’s like two selves. There’s this self that’s improvisational and can come up with things and make stuff and research and all these things. But then there’s this self that almost has to be the rock or the parent. There’s something about that.
D: Do you feel like that with your photography as you’re practicing it more professionally, do you feel like there’s a certain limitation to what you can do at that point?
IA: Yes and no. Even with the Urban League. Doing that work, which is a dream job, people paying me to go do this stuff and find people. It does change the process. It changes it, and maybe that’s the growing process. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for months, but it changes it, and maybe that’s just growing up as an artist. Learning to fend for your imagination and your vision and keep it alive even as you’re putting your work out there in the world where resources and time and things are on the line. It does change it, so maybe it’s the two selves—the parent that protects the child and the child that inspires the parent. You kind of become two-pronged, three-pronged, or however many selves you need, and to not let either overtake another so that you can still create work that is imaginary, visionary, and you can go as far out into the imaginary field as you could possibly want. It’s like “yeah! We can do this!” you know? And then the older self, or whatever, that’s like “well, let’s pace this” and “let’s accomplish this before we do this.” I have definitely made some mistakes over the past year. And also when things scale, you make mistakes. Well, you make mistakes all along your life; you’re scaling your whole life. You’re scaling, not just projects. I’m learning how to be healthy. Even this project with the Urban League I was literally pushing myself to the max because people are depending on me, this is important. Now I’m in this let-me-get-back-healthy phase after running around ragged.
D: A lot of your work is the process of storytelling—whether it’s somebody else’s story or your own or your own body and your own movements. How do you start?
IA: I have notebooks and notebooks of writing and theory about storytelling from my early 20’s. I was doing a project, The People Could Fly Project, that’s based on this African Atlantic diasporic folktale about people who were brought over and captured from the continent and they could fly, they had wings. During the process they lost their wings and lost their flight, then eventually there’s a catalyst and they remember themselves and they fly back. Back or onward. These are all questions. Even changing the story. That story is in a lot of African Atlantic stories, in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Ishmael Reeves, I think his Flight to Canada, and there are also renditions of the story in Brazil.
Story is maybe the beginning of everything for me. It’s how I process everything, like the story resonance, stories that need to be revived, or people to be revived. How you season a story or image, how a story or image or impulse is affected by the stories and images that are next to it or in context to it. Stories in physical places, in imaginative places where all those things can meet. I’m always thinking about storytelling and man, that subject is so huge. But how stories can be more real than the physical realm, they can last longer than the physical realm. When you share them, they grow versus diminish in size. I just think it’s so powerful. I was doing a lot of theory in my writing about it. I was doing this writing before it became so much this “digital storytelling.” Before the proof of the storytelling medium was so apparent. I think now people are seeing, it’s become a little bit commodified, more than so. Things in our time become commodified where they can. But just the spirit of storytelling in its unaltered place. It’s so connected to just us being human.
D: Hearing you talk about storytelling and the way you talk about talking about storytelling sounds like such a beautiful way to frame our relationship with stories whether they’re nonfiction or traditional. Also relating to the portraits you take and what their stories are and how you adapt those into a larger narrative of human history.
IA: Yeah, it’s definitely about place and geography. Both with The People Could Fly, the project where I was traveling around the States, traveling to Africa, and talking to young people. I don’t necessarily have a religion, but I do feel super spiritual about storytelling and I just really believe in it. That word has so many meanings; people use it so many different ways. Thinking about what the wider story of your life is. I know this work of documenting or working with people of the African diaspora is my life’s work or one of my life’s works as a contribution to whatever this weird thing we’re in together is. This is the other thing, with these projects … because on the Internet you can share these projects and they’re based off of real life and they’re based on real things but that they could just go on and on, but you have an ending. How long does a project about something real go on?
D: How important is it that your story goes on?
IA: In The Black Portlanders?
D: No, just you, your own personal story.
IA: I think maybe it’s been on the back burner. Whether it’s dance, work, or personal work, it’s kind of been on the back burner. Just because it feels like a huge responsibility, this work, with The Black Portlanders, and just because of the way it grew. When you’re doing work that’s based around people, there’s this fear of doing something wrong. You want to respect people’s images and all these things and it feels so huge. I also didn’t want my own identity to be a part of it. Because the storyteller does have a sort of power, you know? I’m not the only storyteller; I don’t want to be known as the only storyteller. There’s this fear. Photos can serve but they can also exploit. But that’s also with any aspect of storytelling or anything. Words can serve and tell true stories but they can also exploit. So, it’s not just photography. But I’m super cautious around that, and sometimes maybe overly worried. With the scale of how things have been with this and with The Black Portlanders project, I’ve probably been on the back-burner.
D: What was your experience approaching people on the street and asking to take their pictures? Did you get any resistant, were people excited? I’m always just curious about stranger interactions. I don’t even want to ask for directions half the time, so when people have the courage to talk to strangers and incorporate them into their own art practice, how did that feel when you were beginning?
IA: It’s funny; I’m still figuring that out. I still get shy, there are still people I see on the street and I’m still a little scared to ask them if I can take their picture. That can be on the street context, but it can also be in the photojournalism context of maybe you’re shooting someone who’s a celebrity, or noted or something. You still get shy. I was thinking about this yesterday, or the day before—what is the nature of being star struck? You know? It’s weird. It’s like a contagion.
D: When you see them and it’s almost like out of body. That person exists in real life. They’re smaller or they’re bigger or they’re something different when they’re in person. All of a sudden you’re taken out of that realm.
IA: It can be people that you already know about or maybe even admire, but it can also be people who are somehow appreciated by others you know, but who maybe even you haven’t really looked at—you know? I’ve had a few of those experiences lately and I’m like, “what is this strange thing?” This shyness, which also makes me think about who people are. The vision of people and images of people who you think are strangers or you think no one knows versus the people you think people know or you think you know. I still get shy, and I’m recognizing that, and I’m learning how to be bolder all the time.
D: That’s a performative aspect to it, too. You get in front of people and can dance and make a performance, and I feel like approaching a stranger is almost the same process.
IA: Yeah, it is! It can be, especially depending on changing or maybe modulating your presence based on whom you even think someone is from his or her appearance. But generally people say yes to me, sometimes they say no more when I am not in the best space. Either if I’m too tired or didn’t take care of myself well enough over the past few days. People can read certainty and stability.
D: Do you have any other projects coming up?
IA: I don’t, because I’ve just been trying to clear my calendar so I can do this aspect of The Black Portlanders where I’m talking to people who have left here whether it was during Vanport or at any point because of the environment. I’m interested in (revelatory laughter) this is the first time I’ve ever even thought about this! Maybe I’m interested in a Black Portland diaspora. What would that mean? And like, where did they go, what are they doing, and why did they leave, and are they still connected?
D: I like that as the next evolution.
IA: Yeah, I’m interested in that. That and I need to take care of myself. That’s a project. That and I need to eat and do all these things so I can be a human being.
D: So you can be charged, so they can say yes.
IA: Yeah, that kind of thing. This year probably took a little toll on me, but I’m still here. I want to get back to exploring my own imagination and dreams and practice. That’s maybe the base layer of what’s going on, that feeds everything else. And I want to, I need to, fulfill a lot of my expectations and ground The Black Portlanders and get stuff steady and solid. I’m really committed to that, so I’m just trying to get that together. Other than that, those are my three things: myself, my self-artwork, The Black Portlanders. I have a few other exciting things that have to be a surprise.
D: Do you ever think you’ll expand the Black Portlanders to include other photographers?
IA: Yeah, I have to figure that out. Sometimes I’m afraid a little bit because I, and this is sometimes the limits of the practice, not the limits of the practice, it’s just more of how you feel comfortable. As a photographer I feel protective. I feel protective of the artwork because it’s still my artwork, it’s still my practice, it’s still my photographs, it’s still my vision, but it’s other people. I’m protective of the caliber of the work, and I’m also protective of the process. I’m protective, the same way I’m kind of worried about not doing something wrong and really respecting people’s images. It makes me kind of afraid sometimes to open it up because it’s like diplomacy. How you approach someone on the street, being respectful and kind, not exploitative. I’m afraid of things like that. I could open it up, but how would that affect the work? I’m a little afraid, honestly.
D: I think you’d know. You’d know when to do what.
IA: But it’s like I don’t want to be the only one. I want to be within a community of many, but sometimes, you just want to do your art in the way you’re doing it. It will become a whole other thing. I will have to become an administrator and a manager and there would be more questions. When you work with people, there’s sometimes conflict and that’s actually one of my moral burden questions. That’s not to say I would never open it up, but it’s just like I don’t want to have a monopoly, I’m not even claiming all of these words. Actually, that’s another thing I hate a little bit; people are trademarking cultural phrases and stuff. These are collective cultural artifacts. Words are. People trademarking “I can’t breathe” from Eric Garner’s death for the purposes of making t-shirts. Terrible. Words are in my mind collectively owned cultural artifacts. These words didn’t come from us; we shouldn’t keep them from others. I don’t believe in that. I’m trying to figure out how to do things in a moral, good fashion.
D: Where do you envision the story going for your Duplex show?
IA: I guess I see stories as things that can revive people, and help people remember or identify who they are. That’s why I love them. Coming in and talking about my practice helps me know more about what I want to show. It wouldn’t just be portraits of Black Portlanders. It may just be about storytelling in regards to this kind of narrative how we become ourselves from our dreams. That’s even what the Black Portlanders is about, this identity and how we eventually become ourselves and stay ourselves and have ourselves. I’m sure it will have some aspect of me. Who knows, maybe I’ll do some kind of performance on the opening night—that could be fun.
Intisar will give a short performance in the gallery ay 7pm during her opening.