Fans of Black art, take note: New York’s International Center of Photography is hosting a new exhibition focusing on the introspective work of five emerging Black artists. 

INWARD: Reflections on Interiority is comprised of work made in the midst of the current global pandemic, when quarantine lockdowns, mask mandates, social distance, and isolation have changed our very way of life. 

Curated by Isolde Brielmaier, PhD, curator-at-large at ICP and newly-appointed Deputy Director at the New Museum, INWARD has the artists turning the lens toward the self to explore the unseen moments of life lived in a new normal. Created exclusively via iPhone, the featured works from Quil Lemons, Arielle Bobb-Willis, Djeneba Aduayom, Brad Ogbonna, and Isaac West focus on intimate interactions and inner thoughts that made up their day-to-day experiences as artists in a tumultuous timeframe impacted by Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, and the 2020 U.S. election simultaneously.

“I was thinking a lot about the way in which we use phones, as sort of a public image-making tool,” said Brielmaier of the origins of the exhibit. “During the [early days of the] pandemic, we were isolated and yet still getting a lot of [outside] images and awareness from the phone. I wondered what would happen if you turned that lens inward? If you asked [these artists] to meditate and think on their inner lives, what would those images look like?” 

“An exhibition like this is in general quite relevant because the iPhone is such an extroverted tool,” Brielmaier said. “It’s interesting since we’re all human beings and have these interior lives that we don’t necessarily make public. A constructed selfie is something very different. You can tell, each artist had a very different interpretation of the theme.”

The result: musings on the immense value of seemingly banal forms of affection and appreciation from loved ones from West, raw expressions of fluidity and full self-acceptance from Lemons, colorful expressions of defiant joy through depressive episodes from Bobb-Willis, a focus on family and legacy from Ogbonna, and confident comfort in the beauty of solitude from Aduayom.

For Aduayom, a self-described introvert, the solitude of social distancing was an easy, welcome time. But the turmoil of the outside world still seeped inside. 

“It was great because I didn’t have to deal with all the people around,” she said. “But what happened in the world actually traumatized me in a way. The riot – all the stuff is so much for me to take. I’m an introvert but I’m also an empath, so when that happened I almost felt crazy – not because of being isolated, but because of what humans were doing to other humans. In that case, I create.” 

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For Bobb-Willis, the other female artist featured in the exhibit, the quarantine time became an opportunity to reconnect with her foundation. 

“I moved to LA in July of 2020. When I received word of this show, I was honestly feeling pretty lost and wondering ‘what am I doing here?’ So for this, thinking about moving inward, I went back to my roots,” she said. Her photos in the exhibit were taken in New Orleans, her mother’s place of origin, and New Jersey, her father’s home.

“It’s going back to myself. It’s also important for me to showcase Black women in places where I feel my most beautiful self, and most self.”

For Lemons, who recently made history as the youngest person ever to photograph the cover image for Vanity Fair, the assignment to look inward was a process of finding healing and hope found via self-exploration and self-validation through an intensely dark time. 

“The pandemic was really hard in the beginning. Just the uncertainty, and also being Black in this space, it was just like ‘fuck, does this now mean that there’s no more time and no more space for us?’” he said. “Then there was just a lot of death. I lost a lot of people through the pandemic.” 

“It’s been a hard year, but it put a lot into perspective in terms of what I wanted my life to look like as I move forward and where I just want to go as a person and who I want to be.”

On view September 24, 2021 through January 10, 2022, INWARD is not only the first museum exhibition for each of these burgeoning Black artists, but also one of the first exhibits featuring artworks shot entirely with iPhone. Not only does this solidify the iPhone’s camera as a professional tool, but it opens up the possibilities for younger, amateur, or aspiring photographers who may not yet have access to expensive professional equipment. 

You can grab your tickets to see these works and more in person HERE.