In 1966, in the midst of a burgeoning Black Power Movement which began to cause noise like thunder, poet Amiri Baraka realized that you cannot have thunder without lightning; that a movement of Black Power is incomplete without a Black Arts Movement striking alongside it. With an urgency he wrote in his poem “Black Art” that Black poems, and Black art as well, should “shoot, come at you, love what you are.” It is in this same vein of urgency and cultural importance that the work of Minneapolis–based photographer Bobby Rogers strikes you—as lightning at first, strong and electric, then as a subtle love nestled into the details.
If photography is an indicator of anything at all, it is that the role of the photographer is not only to capture and to document, but to define and reimagine. This is what Bobby Rogers does with a camera: he uses his lens to define images of Blackness on his own terms, and on the terms of empowering representation, and he reimagines Blackness into a space of pride. Rogers draws upon myth and crafts narrative to make this happen and uses not only vivid colors but the creation of a cohesive cultural aesthetic to lure you in. In his series “The Blacker the Berry,” for example, viewers are introduced to a world where the models’ Blackness is not hidden and does not compete with the dazzling prints draped on their bodies; rather it is the base for all beauty. Natural and proud hair sits above crowns and tribal face paint which, as imagined in Rogers’s world, could itself be another type of crown, and the viewer is filled with wonder at the sight of the grey-glossed eyes.
“We know that our Blackness is up for debate, and everyone has a decision to make on Blackness besides us,” Rogers told me over the phone. “But with a series like ‘Blacker the Berry,’ we’re reclaiming narratives and transferring the direction of photography to use it to document. My way of documentation is less common, because I want to document my reality without saturating the market.” Indeed, this documentation of his reality is the vivid, and typically melanated, allure that in his own words is “a balance between relevancy and a lens that is specific.”
The crux of Rogers’s alluring and stimulating work, which he attributes influence to artists like Lorna Simpson, Nabil Elderkin, and Kehinde Wiley, is that the myth and narrative are co-constructed with reality. The inspiration is concise, and we are not asked to suspend disbelief to engage it; rather the pride and beauty of Blackness is presented to us as fact, and we accept it. It is probable that Rogers’s own identity as a Black Muslim in America infuses this offering of mythos and Blackness as fact, and acts as an inspirational starting point within much of his work. His wonderful series “Fill the Void” and “Origins: Spirit of Eve” series, for example, gives viewers a presentation of regality in jewels and furs that clashes with the modest fashion of head wraps and what can only be an appeal to Islamic culture.
Rogers’s popular “Being Black and Muslim” series may be the ultimate example of this co-construction of reality and myth, because he is attempting to challenge both of those things. Subjects are presented simply, with a visual crispness that remains throughout all of his work, and the diverseness of their own features speaks volumes. The photos show humanity through their intentional lack of embellishment, and accompanying each figure are quotes, found on Twitter through the #BeingBlackandMuslim hashtag, that dispel myths and share the experiences, both good and bad, that come with being Black Muslims. And in doing this, Rogers infuses his identity, the identity of a community, with humanity, reality, and myth.
The myth lies both in the beauty of the work itself, as well as in what is being challenged through Rogers’s work. And the reality lies in the artist’s immense ability to define, to create a newly imagined aesthetic for people as old as time, and in his ability to “love what you are.” When placed in the hands of the Black artist, myth and the harshness of what has been our reality are not a simply historic occurrences, but a rush of wind propelling us forward into newly imagined futures.
Lamenting the lack of proper Black representation in art’s history, Rogers told Juxtapoz Magazine in a 2017 interview that his response to this historical art injustice wasn’t to “document the struggle of black people or the underrepresentation of them in art history” but to create anew, independent of reactionary sentiment. “Instead of always being in reaction, I wanted to pivot to something positive, a celebration,” he says, and thus the celebration of Blackness in his work is born, and a history of lack is projected into an afrofuturist magnificence.
Recently, Rogers was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to photograph jazz innovators Anthony Cox, Hamid Drake, Douglas Ewart, Oliver Lake, Roscoe Mitchell, and Wadada Leo Smith for the Sonic Universe Project. The lightning is still present in these images.
“Whenever I think about black-and-white photos, there’s a legendary and timeless quality that you can’t always capture in color,” Rogers says. “So in capturing them I moved away from a lot of my normal techniques, wanted it to be very minimal, and placed them in black and white so the images could have that aspect of timelessness to them.”
We’re drawn to appreciate the melanin, focus on the eyes, and notice the differing emotions across the faces of these jazz icons, those who were at the helm of the Black Arts Movement that largely paved the way for a Bobby Rogers to exist—and for me to be writing about his exquisite eye. And Rogers recognizes this, hence the care and intention placed into the photos. “I wanted to focus on who these legends were as individuals rather than on me as an artist,” he said. “Black and white is more prevalent to me when thinking of historic photos of great figures, so I wanted to create photos that would still have a timeless, legendary feeling to them even years from now.”
And it is in this that a feeling of a baton passing arises, as if these Black arts and Black excellence heavyweights are, even if unspoken, recognizing the new Black Arts Movement being created within Rogers’s work. His working with them is further proof that if myth and reality are visually co-constructed in his work, and pride is draped across Black identities explored, allowing him to define a space of cultural and political aesthetic on his own terms, then that urgency and power Baraka spoke must be present as well.