Jheyda McGarrell Is Taking the Future Into Their Own Hands

The Art Hoe Collective curator is behind the Black Image Center, which aims to make photography accessible to Black communities in Los Angeles.

by tavi gevinson
Jul 24 2020, 9:30am

Taking in the work of Afrochicanx multimedia artist Jheyda McGarrell asks one to slow down. One installation, inspired by the Mexican spiritual tradition of shrine-building, invites viewers to write a poem or prayer in a notebook. A photo series of queer lovers, blurred and entwined, rewards looking long enough to feel their subjects’ anxiety and bliss. Much of McGarrell’s work aims to honor, in their own words, “moments of freedom, of ‘Dolce Far Niente’ (the sweetness of doing nothing), where oppression can be momentarily invisible to us.” But along with capturing this sense of freedom, they strive to create it for others. As a curator of the Art Hoe Collective, McGarrell fosters space for artists of color, virtually and in galleries, and through grants. Last month, McGarrell announced that they were starting the Black Image Center in Los Angeles, which would provide workspace, equipment, resources, and mentorship to Black photographers. GARAGE spoke to McGarrell about how they’re staying creative and connected in the time of social distancing, and why now’s the time to take risks.

Looking at your photography while social distancing, I felt so aware of how much of it is about physical intimacy, or of your friends. How has your practice evolved the last few months? 
Everything in my work revolves around intimacy and connection. It’s been a lot harder in quarantine, especially because I have an auto-immune condition, so I haven't been able to hang out with a lot of people, or to protest. Because a lot of what's causing the virus is American individualism and not caring for each other, right now is about how we can continue to be a collective. I'm working on how I can, even at a distance, portray that. How can I use different mediums to create this vision of awakening and collective care?

How did the idea for the Black Image Center come about? 
I saw an Instagram for a Black farm that was crowdfunding. I was like, "You know what? They're right. We do need spaces of our own, to just experience." If we cannot come [physically] together for shows, what's the reason that we can't be like, "We will facilitate a center where you can learn to use a camera, where we'll give you a camera to use”? Regardless of what happens with the larger white dominant culture in this country, we can have space to create, that is open and full of love. It doesn't matter what you look like, or who follows you. What matters is your interest and your talent. You just need yourself.

We're envisioning a dark room, a computer lab, a studio, and a library. And we want to incorporate gallery space, but that's in a five year plan. It’s very important that we take a risk. This time of renewed radicalism is the time to take our chances. To really believe in ourselves.

You talk about using the camera to challenge its own history as a tool of colonialism and the ways Black and Brown people are depicted in media and in fine art. Is that why you started taking photos, or did it start in a different place? When I was really little, I would just take my parents’ cameras and mess around with them. When I started middle school, my mom bought me a Nikon. When I went into high school, it really dawned upon me, the way that the media influences people. People would tell my sister that she was prettier than me because she was light-skinned. My senior year of high school, I did a research paper about the media's negative effects on women. Around that same time, everything was happening with Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. And even within Rookie [ed. note, the website founded by Gevinson where McGarrell was a contributing photographer], noticing how femininity was portrayed with lightness and the femininity of Black women was not portrayed in the same way, or was sexualized in a different way. At NYU, I took a lot of photo theory classes, history of photography, African photography, and art history. These systems [taught me how] to look at people. [And now,] every single day is working towards unlearning. Why should we as a community, separate from media corporations and entities, continue to create their propaganda?

Are there artists whose work creates that feeling of freedom for you as a viewer?
Definitely my best friend, Munachi Osegbu, because he's very Afrofuturistic. When I was younger, Charles Bukowski was one of my favorite writers. Obviously, I don't want to glorify his alcoholism or his sexual abuse. But as a 14 year old, to read a book where someone can just be like, “I don't want to be here anymore,” and just can get up and leave and start a whole new life and then become a successful Hollywood writer and then have sex with all these beautiful women, even though he's ugly and old? He could do whatever he wanted and that's what I wanted so badly. I got a speeding ticket for not even actually speeding, and my mom was like, "It doesn't matter if everyone else is going 100, you will be going with speed limit, because you are not them." That put it into perspective for me. That is why when we do feel these moments of comfort, without anxiety, it's so heavenly and beautiful and divine, because it is what we deserve.

How has your work as a curator of the Art Hoe Collective informed your own artistic practice?
All the shows that we've had, the energy there has been so profound. Seeing other people come and communicate and make friends through art is so important to me because I have been in art spaces where it's a very professional, serious art space, and I'll be the youngest artist and the only Black artist, and then my friends will come and they'll be Black and then people will look at us sideways and treat us different and they'll have all their white collector friends on the other side of the room and everyone is segregated. Sometimes it's such an honor to be included in these shows, but then once I see the actual segregation inside of the space, it's painful and it hurts. We can't go into this art world unprepared, without community, because it feels scary, lonely, and othering. Art Hoe Collective has been, “We are Black, but this show isn't about being Black, it's about whatever you want it to be.” Obviously we want our Blackness acknowledged, but we don't want to be limited in the proceedings.

How does your spirituality shape your work?
When I was younger, like I said, all this stuff with Trayvon Martin really opened my eyes, and I got into really being Black. And then my mom was like, "Oh, well, Mexican people get killed almost the same as Black people in the United States." And so then I just thought about the actual inheriting of multiple identities and what it means in the United States. In other countries, people are mixed, and they're allowed to look whichever way. And to me, this spirituality is about maintaining all my multiple identities and staying connected to what I feel is my truth. I think that the beauty of the diaspora and living in a new land that I didn't choose because my family wanted better opportunity--it is my duty to maintain my culture in any way. When we do have a connection with our ancestral traditions and with our familial traditions, and we are so unashamed of sharing that with people—that, to me, is power.

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