Aja Joi Grant Can See What You Can’t See

Aja Joi Grant, Crossroads, digital and film composite photograph, 2021

Aja Joi Grant is a printmaker and photographer who uses digital media elements powered by spirituality and a commitment to The Community. Beginning with this issue of CAN Journal, she curates a street photography feature called Photo Poets, highlighting different photographers each quarter. We talk about her show at The Current, the photographer as G-d and Steely Dan. Also, the tummy-rub my cat Mathilda missed out on.

jimi izrael: You okay with moonshine?

Aja Joi Grant: (unshaken) Yeah, that’s fine.

JI: (sits down to pour) Tell me about the very first picture you took.

AJG: (takes a sip) The very first picture I took, well, I always took, like disposable cameras with me on road trips and stuff like that.

JI: That’s old-school old. (sips) How old are you?

AJG: 24, 25.

JI: (incredulous) You’re a baby. What do you know about disposable cameras?

AJG: I was growing up in the early 2000s, and I was still… A lot of things from the nineties were still carrying over. So I was using those a lot. And when I got to high school, that’s when I decided to pursue photography with the support of a lot of my teachers and professors as I moved through college and things like that. I didn’t always want to be visible. When I started to browse the art world, I realized that it was very white. A lot of white artists just doing anything and getting notoriety for it. So I was just like, oh, I don’t know if there’s room for me in this art scene.

So I kind of, my practice elevated with support from colleagues and family members and things like that. And building my own sense of community. And it’s interesting; I feel like as an artist, I have more control of my narrative because I have control about what I put out, and how I put my artist statements, and how I’ll write things on Instagram or how I’ll post anything that I decide to put out.

JI: So there had to be a moment when you took a picture, and you saw something, and you knew in your heart that you saw something that other people didn’t see.

AJG: I think it would be the picture that I… It wasn’t when I took it. It was more so when I edited it and finished composing all of the parts of it. From 2017, I believe it was called Oshun. I don’t have it showing anywhere right now, but—

It’s a picture of me sitting on my bed, and I edit in the river to cover up my whole bed. So it looks like I’m just in the middle of the river. And I got a lot of reactions from that. And I remember thinking that it came together really well. I never always have the idea of my composites when I’m taking the pieces of them. I kind of just see how the elements work together and see if it makes sense visually.

JI: I’m a layperson. To me, that just sounds like Photoshop. I mean, at what point is what you’re doing just Photoshop, and at what point is it art? I mean, which is art? Is it both and, or either or?

AJG: I think it’s both. And because I like to have my work be a little bit open-ended so people can have their own interpretation of it. But I also have, I tend to have a very spiritual process to my work and a very spiritual intention to the things that I’m doing. They tend to mirror the things that I’m working on, the things that I’m going through and understanding when it comes to my spiritual practice, things like that.

Aja Joi Grant, Nekhbet, digital photograph, 2020.

JI: Tell me about your spiritual practice.

AJG: So I practice in an African traditional religion—Kemetic science. So we do a lot of the parallels. I do study a lot of Yoruba teachings, but I’m mainly rooted in Kemetic practices and studies.

JI: And how does that manifest itself in your work?

AJG: A lot of the deities have their physical manifestation as animals or places in nature. The river would be Oshun. The woods are like different trees, different plants; they are like the earthly manifestations of the deities right. So I’ll try to have those mirrored in some of my work, either, whether it’s reflecting on the person or myself or certain things that are surrounding them. That’s what I try to align my work with.

See, I really want to photograph Black people in a way that honors them and shows their power and their influence. Because there’s not too many examples of that. And a lot of Black people don’t like having pictures taken of them because they don’t like how they look. And I think that there’s a deeper reason for that. We’re holding ourselves up to a white standard like I said before in this country. And that’s a lot more than just what we think about every day and what we do every day. I don’t think it’s as in our face, as we realize. I think a lot of white supremacy is really deeply rooted in our daily practices. So I want to challenge that with some of the ways I photograph my subjects.

JI: You see white supremacy in the way that Black people are photographed?

AJG: No. I see white supremacy and the way Black people view themselves.

JI: Talk about that.

AJG: So I think we don’t always see ourselves as just beautiful as we are. I feel like a lot of Black people feel like they have to step into a certain version of themselves to feel beautiful. But I like being able to photograph people just in their natural state. A lot of my spring portraits that I’m showing at The Current now are from just meeting up with people outside. Because we were still kind of getting back to being mixed in with people after COVID lockdown and stuff from last year. So I just really wanted people to feel their best again and feel honored and shown in a different light. Because a lot of people will tell me that I bring out things in them that they didn’t always see.

JI: Is that good or bad?

AJG: I think it’s a good thing. They never say it in a negative way. Sometimes people are surprised and sometimes people are just like, “Wow, I haven’t seen myself like that in a long time.”

JI: So you meet a subject, you approach a subject looking for something different?

AJG: Yes and no. Yes, I do look for that piece of individuality. But I also did a lot of work studying how to photograph Black features in a flattering way. I think Black people are so used to being in pictures and not like how their face looks, not recognize themselves, the angle or the lighting isn’t flattering. So they don’t think that they look good or that they’re photogenic. And I want Black people to feel more photogenic just naturally. I want them to know that they can look good in a picture and look like a piece of art.

JI: Tell me about the show. And tell me, did you feel inclined to have any of these conversations about your work? So first of all, where was it? Where was your show?

AJG: My show was at Current Cleveland on West 78th Street. It’s a stand-alone gallery before you pull in the parking lot to the main campus. But it’s a show called Community Reverence. And it goes back to some of my old work, but a lot of the work that I made of 2020, and earlier this year photographing my community. A lot of the people that were very supportive of me going through COVID and all the things last year and how we were really able to build some solid relationships and just form a very strong sense of community, which is a goal I really wanted to do, especially with Black people in Cleveland. Because we can be very siloed and segmented off and kind of cliquey in Cleveland.

JI: I’m not going to ask you to name your favorite, but there certainly must be a few highlight pieces that really get to the vision that you’re chasing as a visual artist.

AJG: One of my God-sister, named Nekhbet. And I think the one other one I’m talking about is Crossroads.

JI: Nekhbet—what does that mean?

AJG: Nekhbet is an Egyptian deity. That’s the one that she embodies personally in her practice. It’s like a vulture deity. It’s a goddess kind of similar to Oshun. And if you know that energy, because you know that Oshun has several different paths.

JI: When people look at your work, what do you want them to see?

AJG: I want them to see Black people as individuals and as unique people, and as multifaceted people. I want them to see them as people with goals and dreams and different things that might not make sense to them. But that’s not their business.

JI: Sure. I think we all, we all want to be seen. We all want to control how we’re seen. And I think life is about figuring out how we’re going to be… How we can control how we’re seen.

AJG: Yeah.

JI: And also looking for someone that sees us the way we would like to be seen baby our friends, our lover, our cat (looks around). I don’t know where my cat is, by the way. I promised you a [tummy-rub] with *Mathilda. I don’t know where she is. (shrugs) But I think as a photographer, it’s almost like you’re a deity. Because you’re brokering in this thing where you’re the keeper of how people are seeing you. You have power. You have a special power. You cosign that?

AJG: Yeah. I mean, yeah, I do.

JI: So you’re a God, you’re a deity. I just… I just want to make sure I have that right. You’re—

AJG: I mean, I just want everyone to see the beauty and potential in Black people that I see.

JI: Just like God. (drinks to that)

AJG: Yeah. (ibid)

JI: (quizzically) Is it je-WAA, or /JOI/?

AJG: (visibly annoyed) /JOI/.

JI: Because I met… there was a singer named Joi, and I called her /joi/, and she’s all like “My NAME is je-WAA!” So, I saw your name, and I was like, “First of all, you got Asia spelled wrong…”

AJG: (PREGNANT PAUSE) What do you mean “spelled wrong?”

JI: Shout out to your parents for giving you A-J-A as opposed to a more conventional spelling, like A-S-I-A.

AJG: They were inspired by Steely Dan’s album.

JI: The what?

AJG: The Steely Dan record, Aja.

JI: Your parents named you after a Steely Dan record? They couldn’t name you after Ohio Players or Parliament Funkadelic record? You know, they could’ve named you after a Christopher Cross record. But I mean, they named you after—

AJG: I mean, it’s not a bad song. The song is good, you know? It sounds nice. I’m surprised you haven’t heard it before.

JI: Yeah. Because I’m so old, right? (rolls eyes)

Anyway, you a REAL one, fuckin’ wit this moonshine. Shout out to your parents (they both drink to that).

*Mathilda, the house tabby, flops on her back to solicit tummy-rubs from strangers.