Every visual artist “breaks out” in their own way. Sometimes, part of that is breaking in.
Jovan Speller arrived in the Twin Cities in a way that didn’t quite make sense, but through all of the turmoil and unexpected change, a creative vision has emerged.
A recipient of the 2016-17 Jerome Foundation Emerging Artists grant, Speller has been using the funds to finish her photography series “Black Quiet,” which was connected to a traumatic experience she had while working at Rochester Art Center.
“Black Quiet” began with the striking photograph “And I shall call you home” (2016), a slide-projection image that shows a woman, back turned, hair wrapped in a head wrap and with a body chain across her back, perched nude on a wooden chair in the corner of a snow-covered landscape. It captured the sentiment she was experiencing during this upset to her life. Speller, who prefers to be behind the camera composing the story, began this series as a way to process.
Originally from Los Angeles and now living in Minneapolis, Speller arrived in rural Eyota, Minn., just east of Rochester, after she was offered land by a woman she met while taking a design course. She wound up working at Rochester Art Center, first as an art teacher at its summer camp in 2014, then as a curator in the arts and education department in 2015. But leadership soon shifted at the organization. Within a month after Megan Johnston became executive director that fall, Speller was asked to resign. She refused to do so, and was fired for “personality differences.” She was one of 10 full-time employees (out of 11) who quit or were dismissed before the center’s board fired Johnston last January amid a burgeoning budget deficit and allegations of a hostile work environment.
The experience led Speller to go inward. “I had to draw upon this reservoir for strength and self-knowledge and really start over again,” she said.
On a theoretical level, her “Black Quiet” series is closely aligned with what Kevin Quashie writes about in his book “The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture.”
“He references a lot of texts that go past a consciousness as doubleness,” said Speller. Double consciousness, a term coined by black civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBois, is something that many people of color experience — feeling as if one’s identity is divided into multiple parts. Comedian Issa Rae often deals with it in her HBO show “Insecure” — people of color have to shift between how they view themselves and how they might be perceived by white people.
Speller’s work moves beyond DuBois’ idea, and into the imagination and interiority of black identity. “The images in ‘Black Quiet’ attempt to aestheticize the wildness, magic and beauty of black imagination,” she said.
“Black Quiet” began out of the shift in perceptions she experienced after her split from the Rochester Arts Center affected her everyday life. “In a small community, when you are one of what, three black people — and I wasn’t affiliated with any church — the network I had was the art community,” she said.
Her original love was dance; she took ballet for 13 years. But she shifted her interest to photography as a teenager after attending a camp in Texas for theater and photography.
“That was my first experience in the darkroom,” she said. “There was something so magical and scientific about it. More than photography, I love the darkroom and light, and the way that light creates images more than the camera.”
Her work is old-school in that way, too, focused on the actual printing of the photograph. She only works with film; she is not interested in the fast pace of digital images. Speller’s love for the darkroom has led her to more experimental materials, including the use of plant dyes to develop prints. But, since there is no fixer in that, the images fade out.
“There is a subtlety and timelessness about Jovan’s photographs — one dare not refer to them as mere images — that is intrinsic to the darkroom processes and materials she uses,” said Kerry Morgan, Jerome Fellowships program director at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, which will exhibit Speller’s work along with four other Jerome fellows in a show opening Sept. 29.
“The fellowship jurors were clearly attracted to her adept use of these less-frequently-seen photographic methods,” said Morgan. “I think they were also struck by her arresting compositions that draw us into intimate spaces or relationships between people and landscapes. The form and content of these objects work together to tell a story of reverence and belonging that counters the slick, quick and still stereotypical representation of black bodies in the mass media.”
The images in “Black Quiet” are printed in either black-and-white or a deep-brown process called Van Dyke printing to tell an evolving story. Speller seeks to document what she calls the “intangible inner and private self of each subject.”
Each image contains a narrative all its own. In “An Offering” (2017), a black woman (actually Speller’s little sister) stands next to a white woman who offers her a small plant. The black woman, gazing at the camera, appears perturbed and annoyed, yet accepts the offering — a reference to the problematic politics of January’s Women’s March on Washington. The march originated with white women and many women of color were apprehensive about joining forces, because of white women’s frequent failure to understand the perspectives of women of color and their own white privilege. It’s a sentiment that Speller gracefully captures in her photo.