Naima Green, A Collective Utterance @NYC Parks Arsenal Gallery

JTF (just the facts): A total of 41 color photographs, framed in white and matted or mounted unframed under glass, and hung against white walls in a single room gallery space on the third floor of the building. 17 of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2013 and 2018. These works are sized 13×19 (in editions of 5), 24×24 (in editions of 8), or 20×30 inches (in editions of 8) or reverse. The show also includes 24 Polaroids, made in 2015 or 2016, which are unique. The show was organized by Oluremi Onabanjo. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For urban dwellers, a city park is a particular kind of oasis. These small swaths of nature nestled within the larger flow of the metropolis represent a range of necessary escapes, their trees, greenery, and flowers offering a respite from the bustle and cacophony of the streets, and a slow walk along their paths or a rest on their grassy knolls providing a much needed counterpoint to the closed spaces of small apartments and airless offices. At their roots, parks are places of shared recreation, connection, rejuvenation, and even beauty, for all members of the local community.

So the fact that Naima Green’s portraits of various people of color from New York’s creative community posed in local parks feel unexpected should make us stop and think twice. These are collective spaces, paid for by all taxpayers, so why would using parks as a place for picture making be at all unusual? But when we step back and consider the history of city imagery of black and brown people, the setting is almost never a lush and verdant park; more often it is the hardness of the streets, often where neighborhoods are run down or decaying. So over time, we have built up stereotypes and cliches of representation that are largely unstated but no less insidious. We just don’t show people of color in parks or nature very often, and that bias creates durable imbalances in social perception.

Green’s park portraits attempt to forcefully reclaim this visual territory. In many ways, this is a similar aesthetic approach to one used by Kehinde Wiley in his paintings, where black people have been posed against elaborate floral wallpapers and backdrops, giving them the same regal treatment as monarchs and leaders of centuries past. Wiley’s recent portrait of Barack Obama is a notable example of this construction, placing the former president against an enveloping wall of green, with flowers alluding to different parts of his life blossoming from the leafy tapestry behind him and his feet tucked inside the gentle embrace of nature. The choice of setting is undeniably unexpected and almost confrontational, especially compared with the expected motifs of presidential portraiture.

This idea of putting sitters of color inside or within nature stands at the both the compositional and conceptual center of Green’s photographs. Each of her subjects poses in one of New York city’s parks (Central Park, Prospect Park, and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens among the many venues chosen), standing with confident ease among the surrounding natural environment. Importantly, Green doesn’t place these figures in front of nature or outside it, as though they were set apart or separated from its realm. Instead, she nestles her sitters in among the dense greenery, almost always with some foreground interruption of a branch or blossom emphasizing the physical placement of the person inside the larger natural space. Nadine stands in waist deep grasses, Jareline sits in among variegated ground covers, Lipton peeks out from the magnolia blossoms, and Collier stands among the evergreens, each portrait a conscious effort to reestablish a presence within that world.

We might expect that having a bunch of urban creative types (writers, musicians, artists, etc.) stand in the bushes might seem awkward or forced, but for the most part, Green’s images are patient enough to allow the sitters to relax and get comfortable. Shadows create dappled light and showy bushes provide splashes of color and texture, encouraging the sitters to interact. Paola pulls white blossoms over her shoulder, Sadatu steps back deep into a wash of waving grasses, and Jamil even lies down, seeming to build a hidden nest like a deer. These kinds of pictures, where the natural forms surround and envelop the sitter, are much more successful than a few of the more standard shots with a person simply standing near the edge of a clump of greenery, which feel more mannered and less convincingly vulnerable. Green is consciously making nature interactive, rather than using it like a flat painted backdrop in a studio, and the best of her images find the sitter and the setting actively working together.

What gives these portraits their understated punch is their sense of offering a quietly provocative alternate narrative. Collectively, Green’s pictures provide an intentional corrective to the prevailing tide of imagery of black and brown urban dwellers, confidently asserting that these tender portrayals are more valid than pervasive images of roughness, violence, and decay. Green’s photographs attempt to restore balance and complexity, undermining the simplicity of the available stereotypes. Salome, Jordan, Chukwumaa, Kimberly, Sara Elise, and the others captured here are already accomplished creative tastemakers and trend setters in our city; Green’s portraits further recalibrate and redirect their influence, using their insistent presence to open up a more nuanced and three dimensional understanding of the many people of color leading us forward.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 13×19 prints are $1650 each, while the 24×24 and 20×30 prints are $2500 each, with a portion of the sale price supporting the NYC Parks public art programming. Naima Green does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so interested collectors may wish to connect with her directly via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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