The Self Portrait: How often do we get to see so many portraits of Black women artists?

Christina Nwabugo

In November 2020, photographer Ronan Mckenzie launched HOME: a north London creative hub encompassing a gallery space, open workspace and library, with a keen focus on championing the work of BIPOC artists. The space is now home to The Self Portrait, an exhibition in collaboration with WePresent that sees 13 Black women photographers present a self-portrait. Kemi Alemoru speaks to Ronan Mckenzie and the photographers about HOME and the themes of self-appreciation and self-representation that are present within it.

During the 2020 lockdown, with so much time spent indoors, photographer Ronan Mckenzie began taking a series of self-portraits, documenting both herself and her partner. She noticed many others – friends and fellow photographers who usually remained unseen – turning their lenses on themselves.

Ronan reached out to 12 other artists she admired, and asked them to take self-portraits for an exhibition in her new gallery and creative space, HOME. Her own process of self-documentation and the openness of the artists involved got Ronan thinking about why it is that we are so rarely afforded the opportunity of self-representation. Why do we so rarely see behind the lenses of the Black women who are often at the forefront of creating valuable archives documenting our lives? The Self Portrait became a space for the photographers to celebrate and support one another in what was, for many of them, a first – the act of photographing themselves.

Ronan’s own photography has made its mark on the fashion industry for its intimacy and her knack for expertly capturing the personality and character of her subjects. Naturally, this exhibit invites viewers’ insight into the character of new and established Black women artists like herself. In partnership with WePresent, the series entitled The Self Portrait will be shown in the space from May 13 to June 27. The intergenerational show explores the power of self-representation for a demographic that is often stereotyped, fetishized and imitated by the world at large.

Situated in north London, the space, which opened its doors physically in December, boasts a library, creative workspace, and of course a gallery space to exhibit the work of BIPOC creatives. “There are hardly any Black-owned art spaces in London,” Ronan explains over video call. “And it’s important to invest in ourselves, so I’m putting my money where my mouth is.” Motivated to use her resources and skills to foster solidarity among London’s diverse creative scene, she hopes her free-to-use space can be a hub where people can come together and feel at peace. “It was important to create a space where people can just be, somewhere that encourages creativity and artistic practice,” she adds.

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