Photos by Vania Evangelique
Evangeline Mensah-Agyekum is a Pittsburgh-based multidisciplinary artist originally from Massachusetts. As a self-taught photographer and stylist, her hybrid genre lends itself well to portraying undaunted characters through their vulnerability. Most of her work aims to capture individuals in part by transforming them through creative expression.
Mensah-Agyekum, a Carnegie Mellon graduate, also explores film as a storytelling medium to probe the temporal aspect of identity. She draws inspiration from Black experiences, worlds she traverses by recontextualizing the banalities of daily life. Her experimental short film “Don’t We Look Pretty?” centered around the relationship between unnaturally colored afros and blackface in clowning history.
In this interview, Mensah-Agyekum discusses her latest film project, the why behind her work, facilitating holistic development, and the intersection of art and technology.
Q: What projects were top of mind for you during your BOOM residency? How did the opportunity help you advance your work?
EMA: I was really excited about the opportunity to complete the BOOM residency. Right now I’m still in the planning stage with a lot of different projects. It has been super helpful to have discussions with BOOM about how to leverage them and really get them out there in the ways that I want to. The resources enabled me to approach projects with a long-term lens and help me reach a wider audience.
I’m working on a documentary film called “No Age in Beauty” about the challenges Black women experience with aging. As a Ghanaian-American, my goal with this project is to highlight the beauty of going gray and the changes that come with getting older. I also intend to explore the cultural differences regarding aging and our perspectives on elders within our society. I want to bring the topic into a neutral space where it’s acceptable to exist as you are.
That is an example of something you’ve talked about in the past – being inspired by Black experiences and the challenges that come along with it. How do you portray that inspiration through your work? How do you use your art as a medium to make that recontextualization come to life?
I really love to just build worlds and have control over every subtle detail in my photos. Like the makeup, the clothes, the set — they all play their own role in conveying the message I’m trying to get across. So for me, it’s really about thinking through what it is that I want to say and then doing it in a way that still aligns with how I want to express myself creatively.
With that said, how would you define “the why” behind the work you do every day? What is your mission with your art?
Well, to speak to the photography aspect of things, when I initially started it was because I wanted to do fashion styling. I’ve always had a passion for fashion. Like when I was younger, maybe 8 years old, my dream was to be a fashion designer. In 2018, I had a photoshoot idea but I didn’t really know anybody who I could shoot with for it. I wasn’t in the Pittsburgh creative scene to know what was happening. So I just picked up the camera myself and ended up not being too bad at it. Learning photography was another medium or way to explore fashion.
That evolved into the current stage I’m in with my work, where I’m transitioning into more storytelling components. I’m figuring out what it is that I want to say and how I can say it through creative expression. My why is a desire to create art and to share the ideas in my head. I want to let them out!
Q: As a self-taught photographer, how did you facilitate the holistic development process? Like, after you first picked up that camera and realized you were pretty good at it, from that point on how did you continue to refine your skills to where they are today?
EMA: A big part of that whole process was that I was going through some major changes in my life around the time I started. There were a bunch of negative things impacting my life and the creation was a form of escape in a way. It was also a more affordable avenue for me to create. With fashion design, it can sometimes get expensive to purchase everything that goes into making the actual clothes, mostly because of the extent to which I wanted to create, and I just wasn’t in a position to do that. So I borrowed an older camera from my parents and went to Youtube university (laughs). That’s pretty much how I learned to photograph and edit.
I tried to be as resourceful as possible during that process. Even when it came to getting clothes, I would buy them for a shoot and then return them afterward. For set designs, I was always thinking about what I could use. There was one shoot we did outside and I needed a leveled platform, and so I just borrowed some pallets from a store and went to the shooting location. I was always on Facebook Marketplace looking for things. It was all about being resourceful. I never wanted a lack of resources to limit me from what I could do.
The biggest thing was learning how to edit in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom so that even if my camera was old and the photo quality wasn’t as strong, I was still able to get it in a good place with the coloring and everything. I was allowing myself to explore and would just continue to push through and edit. A lot of people say they’re intimidated by Photoshop and I was too at first. But now I’m like, “Oh yeah, this is cool.”
Your story is a perfect example of the importance for young artists to be resourceful. Is that a key form of advice you’d share knowing what you know now? Especially for kids growing up in BIPOC communities who may lack access to equipment or supplies, how important is a resourceful mindset to overcoming the privilege gap?
It’s crucial. And being resourceful also means looking at the creatives who are around you and tapping them to work or create with. For me, I had an opportunity where I was able to get access to a camera early on. But everybody has phones now, so even just using your phone is a good starting point. Being as resourceful as you can in those early stages helps amplify your creativity and expands what you’re able to do later down the line. If you’re able to shoot and edit with your phone and get it to that level that you want, then imagine what you can do once you have more resources at your disposal.
How did you leverage your technology background for your art? You said you meant you fuse interactive physical objects within certain pieces of work? Like how do you use that to amplify your storytelling?
I studied mechanical engineering at CMU and ended up creating my own major that was like half of the mechanical engineering curriculum, plus design and business classes. I leverage my technology background most when it comes to planning my shoots and or how I’m able to bring things together and set them up – basically translating technical skills into art.
My first time in a gallery was with an interactive physical piece titled “an Extension of Us” that was essentially braids combined with technological components that became communication devices. I’ve done some projects here and there but I haven’t been able to explore that medium as much. However, later down the line it will be interesting to see how my technology background and artistic creation can be fused together for further storytelling. Physical objects add another element of creativity when it comes to how the viewer engages with your work.
Given your tech background, what is your opinion on the role of artificial intelligence in art? It has also become a somewhat controversial topic in the art and music space for good reason – (NYT article: AI-Generated Art Won a Prize. Artists Aren’t Happy. – The New York Times (nytimes.com). Where do you stand on it?
When I initially heard about generative AI and everything, I was scared about what that could look like for the future of art and creators. But I’m heading toward a place where I’m trying to learn more about it and understand it better so that I know how it will affect me as an artist. I think that AI can have a lot of benefits, especially for those who may not have the budget to do certain things as well. But then on the other hand too, artists have a hard time getting certain gigs or getting paid their worth, right? So there’s different sides to it.
Artist organizations are also starting to incorporate it. For example, Photovogue just had a competition specifically for AI-based art. It will be interesting to see how that progresses and the opportunities it could create. It came on quickly, at least from my perspective in regards to its general acceptance within art, and is already a part of the larger art world.
Are there any local events you’ll be showing some of your new work?
On May 9, 2024, I’ll be showing new work at Brew House Gallery for the Distillery Residency group show. I’m excited to be showing photography, installation, and sculptural work for the first time at this show.