Photography by Anaka – Interview by Maya Wald
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Anaka is a 22-year-old artist and researcher from Portland, Oregan. Founder of the FAME Project and Silent Zine, Anaka has taken her work to Cape Town, South Africa, where she continues to research underground art and music and the people who are producing it.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. You recently graduated from USC in Los Angeles, what did you study and what made the biggest impact on you? How has what you studied in school guided you towards the work that you are doing now?
Peace peace peace peace. I just graduated! Hallelujah. I came in taking mostly African American History courses, Cinematic Arts and Analog Photography. These are all things that I am naturally interested in. I grew up in a very white part of the country (Portland, OR) so I never fully got to learn my history. One of my favorite classes was taking Islam in Black America because I didn’t know much about the Nation of Islam (or even Malcom X, gasp!). Learning about cultures I don’t know about yet is what gives me that special spark in life. Photography and film were things I made money through and experimented with in high school but I was ready to take it to a higher artistic level in college. My sophomore year I changed my major to American Studies & Ethnicity.
I think by purely going with my intuition on what I was interested in, I trusted that later in my college career the mix of film, photography and ethnography would make sense. Now it seems obvious to me, but before I was not sure how to create a “career” or whatever out of those three things. During my junior year at USC, I actively pieced together all my passions:I found that the act of documentation through photography, film, audio and collage is a form of ethnographic research! So, that’s what I do: I do social research but I use my art as my “data” with the purpose of archiving (in order to elevate current and future levels of consciousness).
Tell us a about the FAME project. When did you begin to work on the FAME project, and how did the idea come about? What are some of the main themes that the project revolves around?
The FAME project is an ethnographic archival research that focuses on studying the concept of fame as a social construction. Like race, class and gender, fame is completely constructed by its creators. We are in complete control of how the culture of fame is used, produced and spread across the world.
I began it my junior year at USC (so 2014). The idea came very naturally. I was lucky enough to shoot artists like Goldlink, Kali Uchis, Kehlani and more right before they became famous. I became interested in the ability of an artist to have a persona while also keep a healthy evolving identity. I expressed this intrigue to my photography professor at the time, and she encouraged me to keep shooting shows. Shooting solely on film, I was granted access to plenty of concerts and events in the LA area (I was going to at least four a week for months and months). As I got to know more people, I would be granted access to more backstage spaces. People simply wanted their growth as an artist to be documented, and I was there for those intimate moments.
Meanwhile, I also began taking a class on the concept of ethnographic research in my Junior year seminar. The moment I learned about Zora Neale Hurston’s work in the south during the 1920s, I knew that my photography project was an anthropological research. But, what makes the FAME project different is, I’m documenting while changing the culture myself as an artist, so it’s like I’m also reflexively studying myself as I document my “subjects”. This creates a unique lens; most social researchers do not fit into the same social circles as their subjects.
How has the FAME project evolved since you began it?
At the beginning, I framed the research as a study of how artists work with or without a persona, and how transparent one is with their “true” identity. Most up and coming artists are working toward a persona, but the levels of how connected it is with their identities vary.
I curated an independent research at USC with the professor who taught me about ethnographic research. The FAME project was both a personal project and an academic pursuit. I read about the concept of being an artist in society: how they are the truth seekers, the future projectors, yet also the rejects of capitalism. I wrote dissertations about how the artist in this era is changing the culture of what it means to find “success.” I also kept a journal of interactions and moments I experienced with other artists while shooting. I began to film visuals to juxtapose the diverse environments the FAME project was taking me to. Uhhhhm oh! I also showcased my first solo exhibition of the series in May 2015. My main goal with this was to show the photographs and not necessarily emphasize the academic research part as much, just to get people interested.
That summer I interned in New York City at Universal Music Group as their in-house photographer. I learned more about how a creative team curates the persona of a corporate artist, while also getting to know artists in the underground movements. I hosted my second solo show there in Brooklyn. During this show I posted an introduction to the research to showcase it’s more than just a series about artists.
After much experimentation and almost two years of working on the project I am in a phase where I feel like I could continue the research for the rest of my life. I have narrowed it down to documenting how artists in colonized/westernized areas of the world are using art in order to heal from societal oppression and genocide. This is important to document now in particular because of the ability to brand oneself on social media and gather resources through individual recognition. Plenty of artists are succeeding in making their passion a reality because of the rise in global internet access and the preference of collective over company. Rather than project an answer to my research, I give into the natural flow. I understand I am simply working toward documentation rather than certain fact. I am at the service of my artist peers who are working to elevate consciousness within their communities.
How has FAME been influenced by societal changes and issues of race that are portrayed in the media?
I am the most interested in how hype is controlled within this era of social media communication. I have experienced corporate worlds of being an artist, but my main clan resides in the underbelly. I am interested in how media controls our level of consciousness, and which artists get recognition. The FAME project seeks to elevate artists who are saying controversial, conscious messages within their art. Because controversial art is usually about people of melanin’s reality of being oppressed and through so much violence, white owned media outlets are not keen to publish these movements. Historically, if artists created art that challenged white supremacy, it would be too revolutionary—it could put their lives at risk if it was conscious enough. This concept still lives on today. Artists are the most powerful tools to changing the structure of society. But, when we challenge white supremacy and the other sicknesses that stem from it, we tend to not get any recognition on these larger media platforms. This is not a coincidence. It’s pretty obvious what’s BEEN going on…Our generation is the one that really is pushing against any sort of racist fuckery. We ain’t got time for all of that. We gotta elevate. People are able to gain followers by just being themselves and sharing their energy without a middleman. It’s easier for less represented racial groups to share their creations and gain positive connections. This is the revolution.
What made you decide to go to Cape Town, and what are working on while you are there?
One day, my boyfriend Avery was showing me a few musicians from South Africa. I am interested in places where conscious revolution is brewing, and I feel because of Apartheid being so recent, the people here are making art that really says something. Like America the injustice is so a part of the people’s every day lives, the social importance of the art currently being created needs to be documented. I am here to help archive what artists are doing here in order to give voice to the revolutionaries!
How (if at all) is taking this project to Cape Town, South Africa, changing the original themes that the project was based around?
Making the project global does not change the original themes. I am still here reaching out to artists who I feel an intuitive connection to, and finding their stories as I watch them create. Letting their art speak for themselves, and letting my photographs of them creating changing the course of the project. I haven’t been here long enough to see a huge difference.
What similarities and differences in artists and underground music and art scenes have you found thus far between Los Angeles and Cape Town?
There are so many similarities! People are creating with the same fiery faith. They are creating with urgency, because we have not much time to say everything that needs to be said. The music from the West has traveled easily to this southern tip of the world. The South African hip-hop artists that I’ve heard so far are very much influenced by American music. It’s opening my mind even further to how easy it is to communicate through art.
The main difference I’ve felt is that there is generally a different vibe and energy. There isn’t anything too negative or positive about it, but people are definitely more receptive to new work here than in Los Angeles. I believe in LA we are so used to having access to already hyped up artists, when we encounter newer, slept on artists there is a little hesitance. Here I haven’t experienced the same energy. Obviously I personally have a privilege of being foreign, so that makes me slightly more intriguing to people. But when someone performs at a club, there is automatic support. There is much more pride in being from Africa than America, but to me that’s obvious why. The energy of being on the Motherland is impossible to ignore.
How has your personal background influenced you to undertake this project, and how has it continued to influence the work that you produce?
Both of my parents are artists that had to sacrifice their artistic success for my sister and my well being. I grew up in a home full of music, visual art, dance and inspiration. I assisted my mother in teaching art to little kids from middle school through high school. Both of my parents are kind of “hippie” in the way that they are very open to me choosing my own path. They have always given me the space to create my own decisions, rather than just choose from ready-made options. I was taught that love is infinite while money is limited. I feel because they gave me so much of their time and effort, to the point where they had to put aside their art to make money and literally feed me, I have a huge determination to make this artist vocation manifest and flourish. My ancestors look after me with such care. The more I learn to manifest and create from what I have, the more I feel like the FAME project is related to my larger purpose.
Tell us a bit about Silent Zine. How does the platform of Silient Zine enhance the work that you are doing, and what have you found to be the benefits of creating this publication for the continuing project?
One day, I was thinking about how someone close to me recently had an article released on FADER. Because my friend isn’t quote on quote “famous” yet, the article was very poorly done: grammar errors, two typos, and the main photograph was not what they sent. It was such a flop. I tweeted, “IS THIS WHAT OUR PEOPLE DESERVE?” I am tired of our most listened to media platforms always promoting black artists but only the ones who have already been hyped up. It’s disrespectful not to treat all artists equally. Art is not capitalist, America is.
Anyways, before I really get started….(deep breath). Someone saw my ranting tweets (hahaha) and offered to help me publish a zine! Charlsey Kellen. She runs DogEared Records—plug plug plug.
So, yeah. Someone offering this opportunity got me very excited. I had ideas immediately about the artists I wanted to feature. I basically sent a mass email to all my favorite artists I know so far (by favorite I mean people who are creating from the SOUL in order to change the world!). But, instead of asking for what they are usually asked to do, I inquired that they send me a form of art that they find healing or meditative.
I believe each artist has multiple talents, but in capitalism we are forced to only be a professional in one category. I found when I started doing collage that the action of creating without any professional pressure was the most healing I’ve experienced in a while. So that was the main inspiration: what makes you feel alive, please share. I’mma put it in a dope ass zine and it doesn’t matter how famous you are.
This is obviously connected to the FAME project as a side lust because it showcases the people’s talents that I have been documenting in a physical book. The benefit of this for me has been to be able to connect with others just purely from taking the effort to do so for my peers. I am excited to see where the platform will go, but no pressure, because it’s for the love.
How has working with other artists inspired you and allowed your own work to evolve?
All the artists I reach out to that I want to work with are people I look up to. This pushes me to create beyond any other imagery I have made before. The use of collaboration as a form of growth is real. My work evolves by sharing energies with others and motivation to tell the story of the gifts that my peers are bringing into the Earth.
What artists have inspired you the most for this project? Has working with certain artists made you change direction in your work in any way, especially with your FAME project?
I’m the most inspired by my friends that I’ve seen grow with their art. Watching their growth and how it weaves in and out of collaboration with each other is so beautiful. They are my family as well as people I respect and create with. My work is flowing with their ability to inspire me to push for more and dream beyond what I can see in front of me. Conversations with those I consider my family is the most inspiring. Just sitting and speaking about the world and then creating together.
As for artists I don’t know personally, I think working on set with Kendrick Lamar back in May 2015 was inspiring because the crew was almost all USC students. It gave me a reality check that our generation is really more in control than it may seem. We are in the position to be powerfully pushing our messages out into the world. Working with people who have a large following is inspiring to see, but I am even more inspired by my friends who are running the underground.
To what extent do you view your work to be journalistic/documentary? To what extent do you believe it to be of aesthetic value or in a fine art context?
My work is heavily documentary, and naturally fine art. I come with the purpose to document and archive moments that will soon be part of our history. Using art as a medium for this naturally creates an aesthetic value. I don’t really believe there is a definition for “fine art”. I’m creating art that is socially important and more than just a portrait of someone.
I see through your Instagram that you often promote festivals and events that regard arts and culture? How do you see these events as being pertinent to your work and why do you believe you can connect to and relate to these events?
Yes yes I very often like to promote the shows my friends are in. Most of the artists I hang with and shoot are musicians! I’m not sure why, probably because I am in love with one and he connected me with his artist family. But even before I met him, I found musicians the most interesting. They go through their artistic phases faster than everyone else—when they finally release something, they’re already onto the next phase. But live shows, LIVE. SHOWS. They are so powerful. That is where you really find the energy of community and, well…life. That’s why I don’t like to post most of my work from the FAME project online. I want people to come in PERSON and really SEE the work. Really feel the vibrations that I felt when I captured that moment. That’s why I love live shows; especially with people I love performing. To feel their energy in person as they give it is such a gift that can never be recreated.
How do you become involved with other social causes? What causes are important to you and how through your work do you attempt to expose the things that you believe to be injustices?
It is an injustice that for as long as we have been forced into being “civilized” people of color have lost almost all sense of representation and right to being a part of history. I don’t want my children growing up in a school where they only learn about white people and “conquerors” who in fact committed horrible, horrible genocide. Just by being black and creating I am part of multiple social causes—the fight to be heard, seen and regarded equally in the world. I purposefully don’t put that I am particularly interested in shooting artists of color in my description of the FAME project because I want to normalize being of color. No one says, “White artist, Jennifer Aniston writes a book,” do they? No. But, plenty of publications DO emphasize when the artist is not white. This is white normalization. None of that.
OOP sorry went on a tangent. Let me revisit the question.
My biggest passion for my path to learning and shaping my sense of self is to deconstruct everything I have been told and be able to perceive the world openly. I am down for the cause of healing my people so we can reconnect with the powers our ancestors are giving us in this life. I am down to project the natural beauties of my people (whoever you are, no matter what color) with the right energy and mindset who will be ready to elevate into the next realm once Trump becomes president.
Haha, just kidding.
What is your spirit animal?
My spirit animal is Based God AKA Lil B.
What advice do you have for other young artists trying to make it?
Oh, we all tryna make it honey! Just surround yourself with your tribe, family, clan. Whatever you want to call it. Find the people you connect with here (points to third eye) and here (points to heart). Those are the people who will feed you, ground you to the Earth and give you a roof over your head if you need it. They believe in your vision and they know you are also here to elevate the consciousness of this fucked up world!
Advice for myself as well as upcoming artists—if you’re feeling lost, or unsure, that’s okay! I wasn’t really sure what I was doing until four years after saying I was a photographer, haha. I still sometimes question what I am. Labels are fucking with us. Move away from labels and open yourself up to all the possible ways you can express yourself in order to HEAL and ELEVATE.
Where do you plan to go with this project in the short and long term, and what do you hope the reactions of your followers will be to the work that you are doing?
This project is what will help me travel and meet the most conscious artists around the world! I plan to go to London, Brazil, Cuba…anywhere that has been formerly conquered by Europeans to see how people are fighting back through art. I’m thinking of starting a specific grant for this project in order to help me continue it. So far you can donate at gofundme.com/Anaka J
Long term, I want to put together a large archive of the photographs, film and audio I’ve taken for the project. I also want the archive to double as a social media platform strictly for conscious artists to network. No one will have followers, but you can contact each other if you are a part of my archive.
I don’t really focus on what the reactions of my followers will be as I continue my work. I just want people who vibe with what I’m working toward to know it’s gong on! And to know they can be a part of it if they feel drawn to the cause.
Thanks so much for joining us, Anaka!