This is the third in a series of stories about outstanding Oregon-based artists to follow on Instagram. The series focuses on accounts that are regularly updated with high-quality images that allow followers to engage with the content regardless of location. Curated by the artists themselves, Instagram accounts offer the opportunity to view completed and in-progress artwork and to get a glimpse into the artists’ ideas, process, and studio practices.
“We affirm our humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” This is just one of the many rallying points of Black Lives Matter, “a Black-centered political will and movement building project” that Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi founded in 2013. Current protests in support of Black Lives Matter have been going strong for a month, their momentum and visibility strengthening and expanding existing anti-racist critiques of many facets of society. In visual art, this often takes the form of challenging the power structures of art museums and galleries, arts publications, and the art departments of educational institutions.
Police violence ignited the current wave of protests, but more broadly, Black Lives Matter aims to dismantle all forms of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. It is about transforming society, including “creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy.” The Instagram accounts of Portland photographers Saman Haaji, Joseph Blake, and Mariah Harris are three spaces where the ideals of Black Lives Matter, the specificity of local protests, and the rich breadth of Black creativity converge.
Saman Haaji (@therapeuticshot) has lived in Portland for five years, and his experience as a refugee from East Africa taught him “that gratitude is key for happiness.” Haaji’s appreciation for the people and things around him grounds him in the present, a quality that shapes his photography. “When I go out and shoot, I don’t grab my camera first thing. I soak in the moment. That one second just makes a difference. That’s what I seek all the time.”
Haaji brings this mindfulness to the protests as well. Musing that, “the shot comes to you, you don’t get the shot,” he has captured everything from crowds outside the Justice Center in Do You See it Now? to a single protestor in front of the George Floyd mural. Unliberated Seed, taken at Pioneer Square, has more layers than initially meet the eye—and that is precisely the point. Two people standing in the center of the frame look directly at the camera, raising their fists while one holds a sign that reads “no justice no peace!” Haaji took this photo in part because he knew some of the protestors were, like himself, African emigrants. “I come from African roots but all of us are Black,” says Haji, “It was a moment of both intertwined together.”
For Haaji, protest images are a form of advocacy. “As an artist it’s our job to show what’s really happening there. . .the peacefulness of it, the diversity of it,” in contrast to the media’s disproportionate focus on violence. “Some people might not have the same view as what I have or see all the Black community, but me, being there and living as a Black person I could feel it and I could put it in a frame. . . it also brings feeling, brings connection. It might help a person understand the issue better.”
Joseph Blake (@pdxwulf_) also felt a sense of connection while documenting the June 2nd protest in Pioneer Square. From a vantage point behind a speaker with a raised megaphone, Blake puts the viewer into the palpable energy of the crowd packed into the square. He captioned the image, “This was one of the moments that changed it all for me.” He elaborated when we spoke: “before this, I never thought Portland would come together and have so many supporters of one cause. . . . seeing everybody put aside their egos and pride and just come together for one cause was eye-opening and just inspired me completely.”
Blake also documented CHOP, the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest area in Seattle. Inspired by the organization and mutual aid in CHOP, Blake said that Portland has work to do. He feels that until recently, “Portland has been very quiet on issues because people have this mindset that it doesn’t happen here, which it does, but it doesn’t get the media attention.”
A Portland protestor in one of Blake’s photos directly challenges the misconception that racism and police violence only happen elsewhere. The protestor holds a sign featuring a drawing of Quanice Hayes, a Black 17-year old fatally shot by Portland Police Officer Andrew Hearst in 2017. While the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are known nationally, the use of Hayes’ image at local protests is a reminder of this community’s history of racism and police violence. The sign is also testament to the role that art can play in protest. Beyond saying his name, the drawing of Hayes allows people to see his face as a powerful form of remembrance.
Blake recently began including personal reflections with his photographs. The protests empowered him to do so because they affirmed “that Black voices matter and Black experiences matter.” He hopes his photos will broaden viewpoints and counteract stereotypes. “I want people to come away with the idea that not every Black person is the same like the media says. We’re not this bad group of people out looking for destruction. We are human beings and we each have our own story. By me telling mine, maybe people who didn’t know before can get this notion and learn from my post.”
Like Haaji and Blake, Mariah Harris also sees documenting the protests as a form of storytelling that can educate and inspire. “We’ve been wanting change for 400 years but this is actually being told through the right narrative. It’s not just another person who’s telling our story. This is some real change. We are in control this time.” She wants viewers to feel “a real sense of hope” when they see her images.
That sense of change is palpable in many of Harris’ images, but especially in her photograph of a protestor kneeling with his fist raised. Around the central figure, other protestors engage in a die in, lying prone for 8 minutes and 46 seconds—the amount of time initial reports stated that Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck. Combined in the frame, the die-in, the act of kneeling, the defiance of the raised fist, and the inverted flag signal the stakes of this fight: as long as Black lives are repeatedly subjected to violence, the U.S. is—and should be–in dire distress.
Harris’ image of protestors on the Hawthorne Bridge documents not just the surging crowd, but their signs affirming Black Lives Matter and calling on peers to vote, educate themselves, abolish policing, and make reparations. Harris has also photographed the 250 signs that comprise the Eastmoreland memorial, each naming a Black person killed in the U.S., most by police. Others, like Portlander Titi Gulley, died under suspicious circumstances. After it was reported that the Portland Police Bureau was not investigating, they put out a call for information about Gulley’s death.
Before Harris, Haaji, and Blake documented protests, their work celebrated the richness and diversity of Black life in Portland and beyond. Haaji’s series B L A C K E X C E L L E N C E, begun earlier this year and exhibited on Warner Pacific University’s campus, depicts Black students and faculty as a clear counter to racist stereotypes that deny Black achievement. Another work, Unapologetically Black, depicts a woman in silhouette, her head tilted upwards and her braids flying. Centered in the frame with her hair extending beyond it, she both literally and metaphorically takes up space and embodies strength and freedom. Haaji’s ongoing Instagram project My Hijab Is depicts Muslim women with their narratives of what the hijab means to them. He is working on a forthcoming project called Black Smiles Matter, which uses photography to address the lack of mental health resources in Black communities.
Blake’s body of work includes landscapes, portraits, music videos, and commercial work. In his portrait of Paul Knauls, Sr., the owner of the beauty shop Geneva’s Shear Perfection, sits in a barber’s chair, hands folded in his lap as he smiles warmly at the camera. Simultaneously at ease and regal, Knauls, now 89, perfectly fits his unofficial title: the Mayor of Northeast Portland. Knauls moved to Portland in 1963 and purchased the Cotton Club, one of the few West Coast jazz venues that featured Black performers like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Duke Ellington. Knauls and his wife opened Geneva’s Shear Perfection in the 1990s, but last month Knauls and his son announced permanent closure due to Covid-19. Blake’s portrait of Knauls, taken before the closure, has personal significance. Blake’s father worked at Geneva’s for 27 years, and Blake describes himself “as a kid who grew up in a barber shop.” Beyond the personal, the portrait also documents Knauls as an important community figure at a business that was, in the words of co-owner Paul Knauls, Jr., “a home for this community.”
Harris’ wider artistic practice includes charming family photos, quiet moments between couples, and unique individual portraits. Her portrait of Andriana, Ebonee, Marshawna captures the three women seated close together, their faces alight with a spontaneous burst of laughter. Harris describes protest photography as “a 180” from portraiture because the protests are so changeable and cannot be planned like a photoshoot. “Unfortunately, it’s not like my portrait work where I get to have that true connection with people . . . but this ignited a passion in me that I didn’t even know was there.” Yet it’s also a good fit for Harris, who has long championed diverse portfolios and whose experience as a portraitist helps her capture the emotions of the protests. She is currently balancing photojournalism, portrait photography, and her non-profit work assisting houseless Portlanders. Support for Harris’ art has been steadily growing, as is evident on Instagram: “I think I had 300 followers a month ago and now I have 4,000.” For Harris, this catalytic moment “is only the beginning.”
The activist Angela Davis recently told The Guardian: “What we are seeing now bears witness to the work that people have been doing that has not necessarily received media attention.” She was talking about the everyday, ongoing work of creating social change. The comment also applies to the art world, and the in-progress work of exposing its exclusion and tokenism in order to transform it into a more inclusive and equitable space. Haaji, Blake, and Harris have recently gained followers and attention because of their protest documentation. It is vital work, but it is not the totality of their artistic practices. Follow Haaji, Blake, and Harris, but not only for their protest images; follow for the personal reflections, the ongoing projects, the wealth of creativity, and the quality of the work. Follow because, as Harris says, “Black lives will always matter. They’re going to matter today, tomorrow, the next day,” and that means that the work of Black artists— in all its manifestations—matters, too, and immeasurably so.