Art, Race, and Liberation: A Conversation with Alliyah Allen

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit and chat with Alliyah Allen ‘18 about her project Me.Mae.I. Alliyah’s project is a series of photographs, writings, and perspective pieces with the aim of portraying liberation through art. Alliyah sent out a call for models to take photos for her photo series, Fruit. When I first entered the BCC, I was drawn in by the recreation of the space–Alliyah had a playlist dedicated to her photo shoot. Friends volunteered with lighting and other nuances of the shoot. Alliyah held conversations with her talents, and while they were laughing, joking, and dancing, she created her magic. After her shoot, I had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one and ask her some questions. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Alliyah Allen. Photo by Holden Blanco '17.

Alliyah Allen. Photo by Holden Blanco ’17.

Maurice: Hi Alliyah.

Alliyah: Hi.

Maurice: How about you just start by telling me what’s going on. Can you just start by telling me where this idea came from? What inspired it?

Alliyah: I started Me.Mae.I the photo diary as just taking pictures of my friends of what I’ve been seeing. First it was just a fun thing and a stress reliever. I love photography. Then I wanted to do a more serious shoot. I wanted this to be a portrait series. I was inspired by the Kris Graves exhibit at Bryn Mawr. It’s called the Testament Project. Really up-close photos of everyone[the project aims to “represent and explore blackness in contemporary America”].I just thought it was beautiful, it’s all about taking ownership of blackness and really redefining stereotypes, so I was thinking a lot about the portrait, being up close and personal, capturing intimate moments in that way. I was thinking of how I could bring that to Haverford. I wanted this shoot to be about defining liberation. I find that I’m always stressed out, I’m stuck with the things day to day, and not really enjoying the things that make me happy. I wanted to do a shoot where [black and brown people] could look care-free, can be happy, can feel liberated. We talk a lot about liberation in terms of activism but we don’t really talk about what that looks like, what makes us so special. So I wanted to highlight that with people on campus, and with my dad and Uncle Kenny. It’s all about highlighting our magic, our light, what really is liberation for us all. That’s the interview portion. I like to do poetry with my work, and we’re going to put it in a book.

Maurice: That’s awesome. Can you explain a bit about the process. What do you do when you bring a talent in?

Alliyah: I think everyone should have a camera, even if you’re not an artist or photographer. Just to document your life. You don’t need all this set-up to do this great work. Even on your phone… I wanted this to have a studio feel. Just to have a uniform white background. Clean-cut aesthetic. Thank you so much for the OMA, they helped me get the equipment through the diversity grant. And basically I had people come in, they could wear what they wanted to wear, girls, or guys, if you wanted to do your make-up, you could do that too. It’s all about just being present, coming in, and being your full self. I ask people to choose a song, what do you need to feel liberated? It’s just capturing candid, like you did. How your night went, what’s funny, we’ll talk about the picture because y’all look great(laughs). It’s a very natural process, nothing too heavy or stressful. It’s fun for me.

Jhoneidy Javier ’19. Photo courtesy of Alliyah Allen.

Maurice: So why photography as a medium? Do you have previous experience? Or is this something you just started?

Alliyah: Yeah photography has always been in my life in one way or another. The funny thing about art with me is growing up, I’ve never really felt like I was an artist, but I love art. My mom had black art all around the house. I just thought it was beautiful. As I got older and I was going through a hard time, in my personal and school life, I found myself in a museum or gallery, or maybe just looking at a music video, just appreciating the process. It was never work for me.  Like my promo video with Diomand? I used to always play with video, audio and pictures when I was a kid. This summer I got my first camera, the Nikon, it was my dad’s and he wasn’t using it. I asked if I could burrow his camera until I could save up enough money and buy my own. So he gave it to me. I worked at the Village of Arts and Humanities this summer and we went to see Ms. Diane. She’s like a community wonder woman. I don’t even want to use that term since that’s a bad thing to put on black women… I’m ranting right now but this story is really important to me. We were bringing one of her artists to meet her (get name) since he was studying trauma as part of his residency project, and a lot of BlackLivesMatter and police brutality was affecting the community, and he was from Nigeria, so he was seeing this [for the first time] so we took him to Ms. Diane in North Philly. She just helps people all the time. She’ll watch kids.  There’s a lot of violence in the community. She’s seen people get shot. She’s taken people to the hospital. She’s comforted people and their families. She’s lost family… I was just an intern and asked to go along since we had to take pictures to document this event. And just hearing this woman talk. It was mind-blowing. She wasn’t using uplifting language. She was just so passionate. She was just like, “We gotta stop. This city needs to do better. Like for these children. I care for these kids. I don’t want them to continue to shoot each other. All these murders. I want to see the end of it.” She was saying grief in North Philly is very real. People stigmatize it to a point… that is real, people are hurting there is trauma there. I wasn’t even talking, I was taking pictures, and I looked at the pictures and was like “wow”. I have to do this now. So that’s how I got into photography. I’ve always loved art, and now i can show people what I see. Sometimes words don’t do it for me, and I feel like art has so much more power. Especially in the activism that we do. Art has to be apart of it. We’re not in the 60s. We can’t do the same things they were doing. They fought already. We have to reenvision what we are doing now. They weren’t able to walk around. The BCC didn’t exist. So why not exercise that right on this campus? I hope my work goes beyond Haverford.

Tania Ortega '19. Photo courtesy of Alliyah Allen.

Tania Ortega ’19. Photo courtesy of Alliyah Allen.

Maurice: Is there anything more specifically you want people to know about your project?

Alliyah: Just support it. I’m not looking for 10 million followers on Instagram or anything like that. My friend asked me what are my aspirations? I told her I’m not looking to be super rich, super famous, no. I just want for the people I care about and close to, and even people I don’t know to look at the work and appreciate it. Support it so I can grow. Give feedback. If you don’t like a picture tell me. We can talk about it. If you want to do a project, tell me. I want people to see me through the work. I feel like everyone is fighting to be seen. And everyone is fighting to be heard. So be seen be heard. Let’s talk about it. I want people to really connect to it and to connect to me through it.

Maurice: What’s the next step for you after this?

Alliyah: This is just the shoot portion. I have post it notes and chart paper all over my room. So after I get all my pictures I edit, I’m gonna create the book online. Hopefully I can get some prints, and then I have three exhibits that I’m planning that I’m going to be in, which is a little scary. I’m trying to do one just at Haverford that shows the work. It’s gonna be just mine, something small, something intimate, sometime in December. Then in January I’m showcasing some of my work for my class “Exhibiting Africa.” Then in February for Black History month, I’m working with some friends from Bryn Mawr to do a Black Artist exhibit showcase, so similar work will be there too. So developing, prints, getting books to people, and actually showcasing the work, and highlighting it.

Maurice: Thank you so much! Where can people see Me.Mae.I?

Alliyah: The tumbler: Me.Mae.I.tumblr.com (I feel like I’m on radio right now…) or on Facebook or Instagram. I’ll have links to the actual books there.

Maurice Rippel '19. Photo courtesy of Alliyah Allen.

Maurice Rippel ’19. Photo courtesy of Alliyah Allen.

Alliyah took my pictures, and I have to admit I had a blast. I’ve never modeled before, but Alliyah managed to make me look like a pro. As I consider the current political climate of the country, I cannot think of a more important project to undertake. After the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Alliyah writes, “They don’t want us to love ourselves, and be here. The evidence is in how they shoot us down.” This sentiment, I think, also reflects the recent election of President-elect Donald Trump. Alliyah’s work is more important than ever. Alliyah’s gallery encourages me, as a man of color, that to find beauty, love, and liberation, I don’t have to look far–I just have to look within.

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