Photographer Celebrates Women Scribes with New Art Exhibit

Laylah Barrayn highlights several female writers in her one-woman art exhibit, Her Word as Witness

Image: Laylah Barrayn

writer Tayari Jones


For the most part, was the entire project funded out of pocket?

Tracy Capers, who is the Vice President of Development and Special Programs at Bed-Stuy Restoration Plaza, took a leap of faith and funded the exhibition first. I also got some money from Columbia University, which I used for promotional stuff and I used some of that money for traveling because I had to go to Miami, Philly, Boston and Connecticut [for some of the shoots]. It was a grant through Columbia University in the research in African American studies and they have a project called for the Intellectual History of Black Women, and they wanted to come under me for the project because it fits right in with them, and so they helped out with that. I had a little bit of money to do those types of things and then I had a little bit of money for the videographer, because on some of the shoots I brought someone to videotape the women speaking. So I had a little bit of money and then the gallery paid for the rest of the stuff.

How did you end up getting the word out for people to find you?

I did this project in isolation during the summer. When I was shooting it I didn’t say anything I just went and did it, so all this stuff happened at the end of the project. When I was 90% done I started talking about the project. I was like, “I’m shooting this project on Black women writers.” That would be my Facebook status and somebody from NYU thought it sounded good and they told me they had some new gallery space and asked if I wanted to show my project there. They wanted to do it right away but I told them I had to put it in Skylight Gallery first. So they have to wait. But they want it at NYU immediately after Skylight.

What do you want people to take away from this exhibit?

I want them to see the faces of some of the writers that they’ve been reading for so long. I want them to see a room full of very brilliant Black women who are confident and who are in a range of varieties and shapes, colors and nationalities and I want them to see all of that with that one thing in common that these women are writers. I want them to come away with a positive feeling and I want them to be inspired by some of the stories that the writers have. They’ve triumphed in getting published and getting their work out. I want people to see how far we have come because at one point in this country it was illegal to read and write, and here’s this room full of women who have thrived on writing and have made professional careers through writing. They have supported themselves and educated themselves through writing. This is how far we’ve come and we have an amazing literary cannon of women like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. And there are people who are carrying on that tradition so nicely. This is our legacy and our history and we should be proud that this was here for evidence. Here are the women; here are the current writers that stand in that tradition.

What’s next for Her Word as Witness?

Her Word as Witness is traveling. It’s going to Philly and going to Atlanta in 2013 and I would love to publish it as a coffee table book. I’m still shooting writers for the project as well. I kind of want it to be like I Dream a World, a book that came out in the ’80s of phenomenal Black women. I think that book has 70 people in it and my show has 76. Hopefully there were some people that I can reshoot. Like, I shot Terry McMillan but I didn’t approve her photo because it wasn’t shot in natural light and all the others were. I didn’t think the photos had that spark that I wanted to see so I have to reshoot her. She says we can reshoot so I’m starting reshoots and getting panels and discussions together. So that’s the gist of it all.

What advice do you have for artists who are seeking grant money?

My whole thing is that I’m so determined that when I think to do something, a grant becomes secondary. If I want to do it, it’s going to get done. This show was going to get done regardless. I was about to save up for the show, because otherwise I have to wait for other people to validate me. I have to wait for these people to believe in me. I still applied for grants but that’s something that could be hit or miss so I was determined to do this whether I got a grant or not. I did another solo show before this one. It was on jazz and I didn’t use any grants. I funded it 100% on my own because I really believed in myself and I believed in the work I did and I didn’t I have time to wait. I’m not waiting for anybody.

Click here to see photo gallery excerpts from Barrayn’s Her Word as Witness exhibit

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