Reimagining Her Corporate Image
Endia Beal On The Job
Photographer Endia Beal has been awarded a Magnum Foundation emergency fund grant to complete her latest project. The Magnum Foundation is known for funding the telling of underrepresented stories, and Beal's "Am I What You're Looking For?" does this in a series of photographs portraying African American women making the transition from college to corporate careers. The grant begins in May 2016, and Beal plans to finish the work by October.
Beal is associate professor of art at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina and director of that HBCU's Diggs Gallery.
The Job Interview
Several of Beal's students had spoken with her about their experiences interviewing for corporate jobs. They told Beal about interviewers asking questions they probably would not ask a white or Asian. Students had been quizzed regarding hair styles and peculiar names. After complimenting one applicant for speaking good English, the interviewer was curious to know a bit more about her educational background. Questions would often have nothing to do with the woman's ability to do the job and were, to Beal, offensive and inappropriate. "I felt like nothing had changed from when I was applying for jobs, or when my mother was applying for jobs," says Beal. "My students are dealing with the same issues of feeling 'othered' during those interviews, feeling like those questions are geared toward certain stereotypes or certain ideas, prejudices — and not toward their resume or their performance thus far."
These conversations gave Beal the idea to collaborate with students to create a new photographic narrative series that would expand upon a theme she had explored before — how women of color fit into the workplaces of corporate America. Beal would photograph students posing for a "mock interview" set where they'd feel the most comfortable — their parents' house, the place they grew up. She instructed her subjects, "In my mock interview, you can be exactly who you want to be. Wear whatever you would love to wear to an interview. We're going to pretend you are waiting for your interview. I'm going to ask you how you feel in that moment. And that's when I'm going to take the picture."
Eleven of these images have already been published in the "Lens" blog of the New York Times.
Though the shoot takes place in the home of a student's parents, Beal installs an alien element within the frame of the photograph. Surrounded by the familiar, comforting objects of home, the subject is posed in front of a backdrop that creates the illusion that she is standing in a workplace hallway. That backdrop is an enlarged photo of a hallway in the Information Technology department of Yale University, where Beal had worked as a graduate student. "This is the same hallway that I used to walk down every day, where in many ways I felt like a spectacle," says Beal. "I was the only woman of color. I'm, tall, I had the large Afro, and I was 'othered' in that space."
Beal's experiences had brought her to a realization: "No matter how much I tried to alter myself when I was working in corporate, I was still 'othered'. It really didn't matter. It didn't matter whether my hair was in a 'fro or was straight. In conversations when I presented myself to colleagues, I was still 'othered', treated as a spectacle in some respects. Certain things were said in front of me that were inappropriate."
Agent of Change
To elevate a photograph from being a visual recording into being an artistic expression, Beal thinks an image must be relevant to the issues of its time. "These young women are experiencing things that are happening in the present. I want the work to speak to that urgency of change, the urgency of talking about these untold stories. I think it's important to talk about contemporary issues and using art as a vehicle to entice change, to ask those questions," Beal says.
Her "Nine To Five" video about corporate America utilized experienced older women. The "Am I What You're Looking For?" series extends and develops these earlier themes. "It feels like another chapter of that work," says Beal. "The previous work talked about conformity, how I had to conform to fit in the space. With these young women, what I'm doing is talking about that same idea — conformity — but coming from a Millennial perspective."
For her 2013 "Can I Touch It?" series, Beal posed white professional women wearing black hair styles. That work was first made available to the public in Slate's online magazine. David Rosenberg's article about "Can I Touch It?" was shared on Facebook over 100,000 times.
The idea for the “Can I Touch It” series stemmed from her own experience wearing a large ‘fro when, as a graduate student, she worked with mostly white males in the IT department at Yale University. The guys were curious about her hair and wanted to touch it. She organized a touch session for them as a form of social action art that pushes people out of their comfort zones and opens up conversation about sensitive topics.
"People who don't normally come into galleries or institutions had access to the work. The thing about the series is that you don't have to know about James van der Zee to understand it. All you need to know is that you have had a job one time, and you have felt judged one time, and you get it," says Beal.
"For my own personal work, it's important that the work speaks to everyday people. You don't have to have all this art historical knowledge. Now, if you do, it kind of adds more to the work, because I am influenced by James Van der Zee, I am influenced by Rineke Dijkstra or Lee Friedlander. I am thinking about these artists and the art historical context in making the work. But in that same breath, I'm also thinking about current issues that haven't been addressed. So when young people look at the "Am I What You're Looking For?" series, they get it. They don't necessarily need a lot of art historical knowledge to understand it. They just need to have worked on a job one time and have felt invisible one time."
Beal says balancing a demanding full-time gallery administrative position with teaching two courses (introduction to digital photography and advanced photography) and her own creative work is facilitated by these three roles complementing each other. "In the gallery I am able to bring in artists who are challenging and innovative and force our audience members to get to a place they have to rediscover even something in themselves. As an artist, I'm doing the same thing in my work. When I do studio visits and I'm going to meet other artists, these are often my colleagues, individuals that I have shared relationships with," she says.
During summer 2015, the Diggs Gallery showed Mario Moore's drawings of young women with their favorite novels. "He's talking about the stereotypes, but also art history and where the black female body played within our history and what it meant. My own students were able to relate to the young women, but also relate to the discussion of literature and the importance of how literature can be a reflection of your own intelligence and what you love and your own character," says Beal. "It is really wonderful to be in that position where not only can I make work through photography, but I am also making change through the exhibitions that we are creating here at the Diggs Gallery.”
The Diggs’ Fall 2015 exhibition was Flawlessly Feminine, Women Who Graced the Cover of JET Magazine and Works by Willie Cole. “At first glance, the commonality between the black female elegance portrayed on JET's covers and Cole's everyday objects may not be apparent. Like gold, however, the pure beauty, talent, and vision that each possessed was refined through intense heat,” says Beal.
The 2015 exhibition year began with Vibrations, Frequency and the Phenomenon of Relationship, Works by Vandorn Hinnant. North Carolina artist Hinnant investigates connections between visual geometry, mathematics and physics.
Under Endia Beal’s director, the Diggs Gallery continues to advance as a teaching facility, community center, art gallery that is not only outstanding among HBCU art venues. It’s also a leading gallery in the region. Beals’ immediate predecessor, Belinda Tate, is executive director of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Tate’s immediate predecessor Brooke Anderson is the executive director of the international contemporary art biennial, Prospect New Orleans.
Cliff Hocker is an independent writer who lives in Richmond VA.