Artist of the Month: Rahim Fortune
Rahim Fortune is a history buff; the fact that he exists in a liminal space where many deep histories converge only makes his job even harder. Still, it doesn't seem like any difficulty could ever stop him from being up to the task. A modern artist, Rahim's primary medium is concept.
Rahim uses photography to express the inner and outer workings of his moment. He has developed numerous images of rural life, Shinnecock Nation experience, and has even photographed cultural icons such as Jaden Smith, Yara Shahidi, and the inimitable Angela Davis. We met with Rahim just east of I-35 in his hometown Austin, TX at dusk, a few hours after a handful of Juneteenth photos he made were published in Vogue. Our conversation spanned from punk rock influence, to family illness, to artistic legacy.
Rahim: The person who reached out to me, she’s really big on documentary photography. Vogue, they get most of their likes from like Kylie Jenner and shit. They’re not really too worried about posting the type of shit that I make. So having a photo like that is rare. Having a story like that, generally.
It’s been an intense day bro. I was with my nephews playing uncle and she was like “Can you have him submit it in 30 minutes?”
R: Deadlines just keep getting shorter and shorter. So I’ve just been on the go all fucking day.
Having that story run through Vogue was one of the most stressful shits I’ve ever done. Because it was something that was so precious to me. It wasn’t like ‘Hey, we want you to go take a photo of this one person.’ It was more like ‘Let me show the photos that are the most meaningful to me.’ Honestly, at first, I didn’t really want to have the photos run through Vogue. Those photos were so viable to me. But there was something about having them on that platform that was dope at the same time. I’ve just been moving so much today that it hasn’t really had time to settle in.
J: How long ago now did you move to New York?
R: Two years. But I come home very often. I try to come home every two or three months.
R: Yeah, family stuff. And just home. I feel like this is where I get inspired. That’s kind of how it all started you know? Just here on these streets trying to figure it out.
J: Well, the streets have changed a lot!
R: They really have man, I was like ‘Shit!’ All those buildings there are so new! I was thinking ‘Alright unless they moved Brew and Brew I think I know how to get there.’
J: I can imagine!
You know, I think the first time that I ever saw you was at a show at Treasure City Thrift…
J: How would you describe that show?
R: That was during a period when we were doing a collective – 512 Youth. It was me and a couple of other visual artists and recording artists. It was a visual, audio, and communal experience. People were getting to know each other; my little sister was there. That’s was that whole thing was about, people coming together and sharing art and music that they previously might have been nervous to show. Just kind of all of us zoning into one space and being like family. Nobody’s here to judge, there’s no bad energy.
I don’t know if that was the vibe you went in. It’s not one of those where it’s like ‘Lemme stand a certain way so they don’t think I’m not cool.’ No everybody was themselves. I’m really happy that that’s how you got to know me because now, that would probably been like four years ago!
J: There were really a lot of Austin O.G.s, I’m pretty sure Teeta was there, Euji was there. That was one of the first times I had really seen punk and rap overlaid that way. Can you speak a little bit on how both of those genres influence who you are as a person?
R: Yeah, the core of who I am is definitely influenced by hip-hop, rock-and-roll. Punk rock. Southern culture. Growing up in Austin, my older brother was always into Houston rap. Put it this way, when we would play Xbox, you know how you used to be able to upload your own soundtrack and then play it on the games? That was always Z-Ro, Trae, Houston rap. Then as I got a little bit older I started to get into Fuse TV and finding out about indie music and metal music. Punk rock, all of that stuff. Fast forward to that time in my life, I was playing in punk bands. I was known for playing house shows and stuff but I was also making rap music and just finding that middle ground to express myself. The genres definitely have crossover and trade-off constantly so I was always about emphasizing that part of the genre that you aren’t really able to put bounds on. That’s something I’m still interested in photographing. If I could only photograph cool black punk kids forever? If I could do anything forever, it would just be that.
That comes through a lot in the photos that I take now. A lot of the street portraits that I take, if you look closely there’s always something that has a punk sensibility. Always something that is alternative. As a black man growing up in America, that’s the part of us that I’m interested in showing. Growing up, I always heard people say “Oh, why are you listening to that music? That’s White music.” I’m like no, let’s be real. First, we invented most of this music, and second there’s no right or wrong music for us to be listening to.
J: It’s great that there is more voice to that experience now, with events like Afropunk or artists like Lil Uzi Vert or JuiceWRLD. And I also feel like another big impact on your work is the Southern experience. Specifically the rural Southern experience. And I feel like that’s also been brought into the limelight recently as well. It’s interesting to me that these corners of blackness are really your lived experience. How does the popularization of these cultures affect you? Do you feel more seen? Does it feel appropriative in a way?
R: Yeah, It’s an interesting conversation. And it still feels a limiting as far as the whole Yeehaw movement. (laughs)
R: But I’m not mad at it! I’m getting a little bit older now, I’m still young, I’m 25, but as far as being at the forefront of the culture, I’m not a kid, I’m not 19. I’m not going to sit here and be mad about what young people are doing. (laughs) I’m not going to go that route! But it’s interesting, I have a whole body of work that was shot at rodeos in Mississippi throughout 2016 and 2017 and that work was unreleased but once the Yeehaw moment started, I didn’t really put it out.
I feel like there are enough subtle nods and gestures to rural black life and cowboy culture in my work that people already kind of associate with me. Like ‘Oh, he’s like the rodeo guy’ or ‘the guy who shoots cowboys’ and I’m not really mad about that, but I wasn’t going to put a whole book out of [cowboys] in that moment because it felt contrived of the current trend. If anything though, it’s really cool. I remember when Lil Nas X first got denied off of the country charts, there was a thread on twitter of all black country artists, and I found some dope artists from that thread. I mean, I grew up in Oklahoma! That’s where a lot of my rural influence comes in. That’s where I grew up from 3rd to 8th grade, very formative years of my life. But as for the Yeehaw movement I’m here for it.
Last month it was rockstars, now its cowboys, I’m not mad about whatever they want to do. But at the same time, it’s not the whole story. May be more reason to focus on other parts of the narrative that are less represented!
J: You spoke on Oklahoma, were you on a reservation?
R: I wasn’t on a reservation, I was on a Native Territory. The Chickasaw Nation is where my family is from. All people on my mother’s side are Chickasaw tribal members and so we moved out there. Growing up in the tribal community, aware of the fact that I was native. I can’t bring up that story without mentioning that in Oklahoma, they are also very anti-black. Being that I was Chickasaw and Black it wasn’t this perfect experience. I was very much aware of the fact that I was black. It’s something I was proud of too. I was never going to let anyone diminish that part of who I was. I had to fight for who I was, my ancestors had to fight. It’s definitely a very layered experience. I feel like the best way to heal from it all was just to be in community with people who have similar experiences and to explore more parts of myself. Figure that out out loud, don’t internalize it.
Portraits by Rahim Fortune
J: You did some work with the Shinnecock Nation…
J: That was in Long Island?
J: What made you reach out to that community? Did it feel like home at all?
R: Yeah, so that was the largest Powwow on the East Coast. I had been going to all the Powwows after I moved to New York as a way of making extended community. It was cool having friends and other photographers to be friends with but my whole family lives in Texas, so being out in New York, I needed like an uncle figure, I needed people who were really going to hold me down when it comes down to it, you know? And also be able to lend advice. Your pops or your uncle they might be coming through [with advice] and like 40% of it is B.S. (laughs) Just some old head stuff. But then that 60% of the wisdom that sticks through – I’m very big on that.
Going to the Powwows was a way of reconnecting with people in the format that I knew. I already had regalia that my grandmother made me, I already had my tribal jacket, so when I went to the Powwow, I didn’t have the energy that said ‘Oh, this guy’s just trying to figure stuff out.’ People can read ‘Oh, this dude is in his element!’ Especially with people who are Afro-Indigenous, there are a lot of common threads. They look like my auntie or they may be a darker skinned black woman who just happens to have straight hair because she’s black and native. A lot of people will see me and think “He reminds me of my son, or my nephew.’ So with the Shinnecock nation, I just wanted to document and showcase.
Photography for me has always been a way to do that. Photography allows me to make those moments. And then also to document things from my perspective. A lot of our history books are written from the White gaze. Maybe even 20 years from now people might look back and say ‘Did you hear about that one dude? He documented this stuff in a really cool way.’ At first I just had a series and then it ended up being a show at MoMA PS1. A lot of people reached out to me. A lot of people were very happy, making the images their Facebook photos. Some people requested prints so I was getting them done at a local photo lab. That’s the part that’s outside of art. That’s representation. That’s what a photo is. It’s what your family will remember you by. Especially as we move further and further away from the formal portrait. I mean smartphones and stuff are cool, but I shoot images on film that are going to live for a long, long time, it’s all in a physical form. I just think it’s really important for people to be immortalized in that way.
I had a couple people who were trying to question my ethics behind the project. Like ‘What gives you the right to take these photos?’ At the end of the day, it ended up being a very good dialogue we had. Everyone saw where I was coming from but there is that kind of tension around photographs of Native people. Historically people have been able to come into that community and take photographs of that regalia, clothing that they’ve worked on for so long and that has been passed down with this history that they’ve fought to keep alive – and then they go sell those photos an make a lot of money. But I haven’t made any money off of those photos and I never intend to. And any money that I do make would go back to the people who are in those photos. It’s funny one of the people I was having those conversations with – we ended up becoming really good friends, now we consider each other like cousins. I’m trying to think of ways that are more abstract – to make work around identity. I feel like the work grows with you – your work will only go as deep as you go with yourself. At first the work was like ‘Look, we exist!’ Now that I’ve created that basis, I want to find other ways of speaking about it that aren’t so literal. Ways of deepening the conversation and not playing on the same repetitive form.
J: You mentioned that when you were living in the Chickasaw Nation, there was some anti-black sentiment. Did you also experience that in the Shinnecock Nation?
R: No, completely different. Shinnecock nation is mostly Afro-Indigenous people. So people who are mixed Black, Caribbean, Latin, Indigenous [American]. Chickasaw Nation has its own history because Chickasaw Nation was located in Oklahoma, they were a part of the Confederacy, and the tribe was a slave-holding tribe. There are Black Chickasaw people as well but they are descendants of people enslaved by the Chickasaw nation. A lot of this stuff is not as old as it seems. My grandfather five times removed was on the Trail of Tears. You can still feel that in the land. The difference between being in New York and being in Oklahoma – that’s the difference between those two settings.
J: Ah I see. That’s fascinating.
R: It’s a really complex and loaded topic to make work about. There’s a lot of trauma. Even with that, I don’t know how much of that I even want to go into the blog because I’ve had some of these conversations with people, and just to nail the right language around speaking about some of these things – it’s so difficult. Everyone’s coming with their own trauma, you can’t represent everybody, everyone has different experiences. Luckliy, for me a lot of the work I’ve made has come from being connected with a certain community. I’m cool with a group called the Silver Cloud Drum Circle. They actually came and played at the museum and did a ceremony to bless the space that I was showing the photos in. Even ‘til now, when I go to powwows, if I take a photo, I’ll ask one of the elders or someone who is well known in that community to introduce me. And then it’s a super simple process.
J: What made you want to go to New York and study sociology? Was that all one big decision for you?
R: It was kind of just a transitional period. I was going through some stuff here in Austin that wasn’t really good for my growth. I was dealing with some workplace discrimination things. My very firsts photos were of black people in Austin. Just trying to make sense of what it means living in a city where you don’t really see yourself represented in many places. You don’t even see black folks working in restaurants but if you were to go to the East side, four out of five homeless people would be black men. I started making photographs as a way to understand all of that. Then I had an opportunity to move to New York and I took it. It was kind of a spur of the moment thing.
But since I’ve moved there, I’ve been able to sustain myself with photography. I’m learning sociology because I’m more interested in studying people and learning about people and doing that in an ethical way than I am about the techniques of the camera. That can be learned on its own through trial and error, but I think that the art of sociology is actually what I’m more interested in, as far as conducting proper research. Being informed by tradition and the legacy of artists and scholars who have come before you. Instead of thinking ‘Oh, I have this idea, I’m probably the first person to think this.’ No, there’s probably a long line of people whose life work has been that very same question. Out of respect I want to be aware of the work that others have done that make it possible for me to do this work.
J: That is… I love that answer. So for you then, the camera is more of a means to an end?
R: Yeah, I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely a nerd when it comes to photography. I love the history of photography. I go back and forth with it. Sometimes I feel like documentary photography is exploitative, but I also think that a lot of documentary photography has allowed a lot of us to be seen in this society, and seen in a way that is informative to people. That’s something that’s important for me. I want my work to be accessible. I don’t want my work to be sold for a hundred thousand dollars or whatever, I want my work to be in school libraries. If money comes with it, yeah the lights gotta stay on, I do have a family, but that’s just so much more rewarding to me. Having the work be accessible to people who wouldn’t necessarily have had access.
Photography really helped me. People like Dawoud Bey, LaToya Frazier, really fundamental influences on learning to be okay with who I am. Photography is just the medium that makes it the easiest for me to do that. If I could paint, I’d probably be painting, but I enjoy the camera. I also work in the darkroom so I enjoy the chemistry element. Everything you do has to be carried out very tediously. The air that you process your film in can affect making a clean negative which can produce a clean print. I enjoy that process, there’s just a lot of intention.
I’m interested in transitioning more into writing as well. I think that photography and writing are very beautiful when married together.
Portraits by Rahim Fortune
J: Dawoud Bey and LaToya Frazier! Who are the artists who have impacted you the most?
R: First is Eli Reed. I got to meet Eli Reed, he’s a professor here at University of Texas. He came into Precision Photo where I used to work and he’s literally a legend, the man has photographed Tupac, all of these conflicts in Beirut. This heavier set black man, in conflict, shooting the best photos.
When I got to New York I didn’t know what my voice was. I had always been taking phoos where I’m from, and then I saw Dawoud Bey’s work, that was really informative to me.
Last year, my father was diagnosed with ALS. It was something that happened very quickly. I went from my father being very healthy to my dad being very ill. LaToya Frazier, her work deals a lot with passing of time – family illness, and the true complexities of a black family in America. I’m all for projecting positive narratives but at the same time we need to talk about the shit that goes on too. We can’t sweep that under the rug. She’s done a very beautiful job of speaking on the pain and nuance in a way that is healing, and that isn’t trauma porn. She battles with Lupus so she has her own things that she goes through. For her to be a tenured professor and a MacArthur grant winner, and a Black woman with Lupus? She’s a big inspiration.
Over the past year, I’ve been working with a couple of photographers, one of whom is Gioncarlo Valentine. He’s based in the Bronx, from Baltimore. And then also Wayne Lawrence, who is from St. Kitts, based in Brooklyn. He’s become like a mentor to me, and just a good friend. The same way they’ve helped me, I want to help the next person. I want to have their back. I never want to be out of reach.
J: You mentioned you’d want to get more into writing - when you say writing, what do you mean? what kind of writing?
R: Photo essay, I eventually would love to do a novel. Just not putting a limit on myself. That’s one thing that New York and a lot of people have showed me, the limits are as big as you make them. The first thing is having the goal. Once you figure that out and put it into words, you’ll figure out the details later.
I never could have imagined that I’d have my photos in a museum. It just takes work. It’s all about the work that you put in when no one is looking. Just go out there and make the vision and people will see it. If it’s not, make it better or keep doing it until people understand. A lot of big opportunities come because you do things for love. People see that and they’ll give you an opportunity. I made the Shinnecock nation photos because I loved it. The photos I just had published, I had no intention of having those published, I was just doing it because I loved it.