PHOTOGRAPHERS TO KNOW: FRANCENA OTTLEY
Dominican-American installation artist and photographer empowering women through solidarity and visual activism.
SHEER: Tell us a little about yourself. How does this influence your art?
FRANCENA OTTLEY: My name is Francena, I’m a Dominican-American, New York-based Photographer and Installation Artist. I'm currently completing my last semester of college at the School of Visual Arts. My work focuses on empowering women of color and using my art as a tool for visual activism. My personal experiences growing up definitely have an influence on my work because it's what connects me to my subjects. It empowers myself as well as my subjects to know that we are a community, a sisterhood, we all share similar experiences and can understand each other in a way that others might not. It also pushes me to know the importance of my work in today's political and social climate and help to bring about change.
SHEER: Is there any particular piece of art you've created that you're most proud of? Why?
FO: One of my installations that I'm most proud of is A Journey For She. It's a three wall installation that was exhibited at the SVA Chelsea Gallery for a group show. It combines three of my previous installations She Tells Me, The Rewrite, and A Morena's Story. This installation really puts the experience of being a women of color, particularly a Dominican-American on display. The viewers are able to enter a different environment thats very much immersive and focuses on highlighting ones culture and rooted history. I love this installation because you really see my craftiness. From the braided wall, to the braided chairs, to the hand made book sculptures, embroideries, the panty pillows, the photographs, and the billboard. It's also my favorite because its the first time I got to see my projects in relation to one another. In reality all of my work is under the same umbrella and my goal is to one day have a huge solo show combining every installation and making it a walk through experience.
SHEER: How do you choose the subjects in your work and how do you approach representing women of color in your artwork?
FO: Many of my subjects are either friends or women that I meet online when I post a casting. I'm really big on representation and photographing "real life girls." It's important for all women of color to be empowered and know that they don't have to be a professionally trained model to be in a photoshoot. It's also equally important to highlight their natural beauty and their skin. Society has conditioned women of color to think that you have to have clear skin, be a size two, have long blonde hair and light skin in order to be worthy. With my work, I want all women but most importantly women of color to be able to connect and relate to my subjects and love their natural beauty.
SHEER: What are the most impactful sources of inspiration for you?
FO: Most of my inspiration comes from everyday life experiences or just scrolling on Instagram. There's no set way that I get an idea for a new project but depending on what I'm doing at that time, I'll become inspired and all the pieces start coming together.
SHEER: What triggered you to begin making art/taking photos? Was it a natural start or specific instance/need in your life that opened the door to art for you?
FO: In a way, I've always been an artist, whether it be through dance, graphic design, or photography. It wasn’t until my Freshman year of college at the School of Visual Arts that I really discovered my purpose. I had saw Zanele Muholi's Somnyama Ngonyama, “Hail, the Dark Lioness” and Brave Beauties, and it was really life-changing for me. My entire perspective as not only a photographer but as an installation artist completely shifted. Her work confronts the politics of race and pigment as well as the discrimination against queer women in South Africa. I became really inspired by her visual activism and the way she uses photos to make a difference in the lives of people in Africa. This inspired my first installation for my series, Our Perceived Limitations, that focused on 13 women from different ages and backgrounds in styled African head wraps and told their stories of what it’s like to grow up in American society as a woman of color. It was from that series that I found a love for mixed media, installation, and activism.
SHEER: If you could collaborate with anyone (another artist, musician, influencer) or brand , who or what would it be?
FO: If I could collaborate with anyone it would probably be Mickalene Thomas, she's a legend and her installations are truly phenomenal. It would be interesting to see how her elaborate installations could bring my photography to life.
SHEER: What do you intend to achieve through your work?
FO: My goal is to always remain authentic. Meaning that I’m not trying to dramatize one’s experience or bring shame but to provide a platform for the audience to be able to connect with my subjects and my immersive environments. Also, its equally important for myself to connect to my subjects because it creates a sense of comfortability as well as strength that relays over to the viewers. Ultimately, I want to give a voice and platform to those that are unheard and unnoticed.