Standing out in a city like Baltimore, which brims with creative talent, is a challenge for any artist. That makes photographer Akea Brionne Brown, who graduated with from MICA with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree last year and won the 14th annual Sondheim Artscape Prize this summer, all the more impressive.
The Sondheim, which includes a $25,000 fellowship and showcase opportunities at the Walters Art Museum, opens doors that many artists only dream of unlocking. She said at the time that she planned to use part of the award to further develop “Black Picket Fences,” a work that explores African Americans’ nuanced lives.
While that’s still the case, she said over an early September meal at Water for Chocolate in Fells Point that she’s “not really interested in showing work at galleries."
Towards the end of summer, Brown took on an ambitious project at the request of the Sun: photographing her Baltimore over 24 hours. The endeavor took her throughout the city, in neighborhoods ranging from Sandtown-Winchester to Locust Point. The photos she took offer a window into her creative and personal preoccupations, and the ways that her life (including growing up in a predominantly white suburb, feeling disconnected from most notions of “the typical experience” of being a black girl or woman) influence those ideas.
See the city through her eyes, and read her stories from the shoots, below:
“I was walking around Locust Point, looking for things that were interesting. I came across a sign for an estate sale. I kind of have an addiction to thrifting, so I went in and noticed that [Optel] had a lot of cameras. I started asking her why she was selling things. She said that her uncle just passed away, and his longtime partner used to be a photographer, so those were her cameras. I ended up purchasing three cameras from her. And she talked a bit more about her uncle’s partner, and I found out that she [Madeline Allen] used to shoot for The Baltimore Sun, which I found really, really interesting—I was walking around, doing this project for The Baltimore Sun, and out of all the people I stumbled across, this woman had these cameras. I thought that was the universe talking to me, in a way, so I photographed her in this space.”
“This was taken on the industrial side of Canton, closer to the edge of the city. I was really interested in the need to have a statement like this. That was a lot more interesting than the visual itself. I find that there are a lot of subtle ways that, in a way, you know that [the signage-makers are] commenting on specific people...I felt the need to say that there was nothing of value in there was probably one of the strongest statements that I’ve seen, in one of the quietest ways. "
“This is Clyde [Hill]. I met him about three years ago. I was walking through Sandtown-Winchester, on assignment for a class called ‘Socially Engaged Photography,’ which is taught by Colette Veasey-Cullors. Her main focus was to not come back with any photos of abandoned homes—we already have enough of those in Baltimore. I actually wasn’t even trying to find anyone, but I walked past and, actually, the shop looked a bit abandoned, I couldn’t really see anything inside. So I peered in and he actually opened the door, and told me to come in. And we ended up staying there for about two-and-a-half hours that day. For the next year and a half, I went back every single Wednesday. I just talked to him for hours, I got to know a lot of people in the surrounding areas, a lot of the kids, and it sort of has become another family for me. He is a huge figure to a lot of the kids in the community. He has them come and work there, teaches them a lot about running the shop, and is really important to a lot of people there. And within the shot itself, one thing I really love is, he has a bunch of frames—obviously, they’re not in focus here—but you can sort of see the cultural icons, not just for this place in particular, but really, for black communities in general."
“In these photos, I was really not so much focused on the middle-class black community, but communities of color that are doing work that I don’t feel is really being talked about. [This] is why I went to Strength to Love 2, which I used to volunteer at. It is an urban farm in the city, right off of Fulton Ave. near Mondawmin, close to Coppin State...This is Carlos and Ada, and they were harvesting some cilantro. [Strength to Love 2] actually gets to Woodberry Kitchen, a lot of places actually get produce and stuff from them. There’s this new movement for sustainability and conscious consumerism and, honestly, it’s been whitewashed to the point where there’s not been a lot of credit due to people that had to do this out of necessity, and not necessarily because it was trendy. I think it’s really important—especially in a city like Baltimore, where it’s segregated to the point where I don’t even think we can talk about the city without talking about the lack of equity in the accessibility to resources."
“This is in Lexington Market, at a stand called Jay’s Books. He had a copy of ‘Negroland,’ which is an incredible book and why I was drawn to the cart. So I got that from him, and I looked up and saw this sign. Right next to it, you can sort of see, [the portrait that reads] ‘Equality’ there. It’s a really interesting juxtaposition, especially looking at the location and a lot of the talks done to, in [some] way, revitalize Lexington Market. And they want to come back and take credit for it, which I find incredibly frustrating. To see that sign, also, was sort of a reminder of where we were, and the community that we’re in. I felt a bit of excitement and also frustration, the fact that that even needed to be a sign. To think about someone going to Lexington Market and getting a book to send to a loved one in prison was endearing, but also very sad...It’s really easy to theorize and talk about the impact of segregation and racism and institutionalized systematic oppression on black- you know, these terms. But to really be impacted in a way where it’s not something you have the privilege to sit around and theorize about, it’s your reality? It made me feel something a bit deeper.