Endia Beal is a North Carolina based artist, who is internationally known for her photographic narratives and video testimonies that examine the personal, yet contemporary stories of marginalized communities and individuals. Beal currently serves as the Director of Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State University and Associate Professor of Art. In 2013, Beal graduated from Yale School of Art, with a Master of Fine Arts in Photography. While attending Yale, she created a body of work that explores the relationship of minority women within the corporate space. Her work was fully developed during the artist-in-residence program at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. Beal aligns herself with artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson, who use stories as the vehicle to question conformity and gender norms. Beal is featured in several online editorials including NBC, BET, the Huffington Post, Slate Magazine, PDN, and the National Geographic. She also appeared in Essence and Marie Claire Magazine. Her work has been exhibited in several institutions such as the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit, Michigan, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture based in Charlotte, NC, the Aperture Foundation of New York, and the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at State University of New York at New Paltz.
We spoke by phone on May 3.
Paula: Thank you for taking the time to chat this morning.
Endia: I'm excited.
Paula: Your work largely focuses on the experience of women, particularly women of color, in corporate environments. What sparked your interest in this subject?
Endia: It really started when I started working in corporate spaces. When I was a grad student at Yale University getting my MFA in photography, I found myself working in their IT department because it paid the most money. It was like a cubicle farm. There were cubicles everywhere. And when I walked in on my first day, I also realized that it was mostly men, primarily white men.
My supervisor was a white woman, and I would come by every other day to get my assignments. One day, she came to me and said that one of her colleagues was fascinated with my hair. Now at the time, I had big cinnamon red hair, like an afro. At 5’11”, I'm already super tall but I also like to wear heels which made me something like 6’4” so you could see me floating over the cubicles in the office. My supervisor said, "You know Endia, I was talking to Paul the other day, and he is so fascinated with your hair, I mean he just wants to know what it feels like.” And even though I knew there was a certain sense of humor behind the comment, that they were just kind of joking, a part of me still felt uncomfortable. Because I never really interacted with Paul, so there was a conversation happening about me but I wasn't included in the dialogue. I felt like there was this elephant in the room that people could see, but didn’t speak to directly. At that point, I said, "Well, you know what? I am an artist, maybe I should do a project about this.” A lot of the work I do deals with discomfort— the idea of being uncomfortable in certain spaces and how to make yourself comfortable.
So, we set up two cameras in the middle of the office and I asked each man to participate in a project. There were about 17 of them. This didn’t occur in some back room, no, we were right in the middle of the cubicle farm. After the camera was set up, I said, “I want you to touch my hair.” No one objected; everybody wanted to do it. So then they touched my hair, I mean they really touched it. A week later, I came back and asked, “Well how was it? How did you like it?” Out of these conversations came the video “Office Scene.” Now in this kind of situation the power dynamic shifts. If you're giving someone something that they really desire, especially in a space that is very public, it builds a sense of discomfort within them and they don’t like talking about it. For me, it was the idea of making the comfortable uncomfortable. As a woman of color in that space, I was uncomfortable every day, but I had to deal with it. What happens when you flip that dynamic? That kind of sparked the idea for the work. I then did another series called “Can I Touch it?” which is a series of portraits of white women in what I might call traditional black hairstyles. I ended up getting a lot of feedback from women, over 2000 messages on Facebook from women all over the world, and I realized there was more to be said about this.
The "Am I What You're Looking For?" series actually started when I began working at an HBCU [historically black college and university] in Winston-Salem. My students were coming to my office and talking about their experiences during job interviews. They weren't visiting me to discuss academics. Many of them were seniors who were about to graduate, so they were in the process of applying for a job. One said, "You know, I went to this interview and the supervisor asked me, ‘How many children do you have and how old are they?’” Or, "The supervisor asked me, ‘Do you always wear your hair like that?’” Or, "I put all these resumes out and I hadn’t received any call backs because my name is Shakiya. When I changed my name, that's when I received call backs for jobs.”
I realized that my students were going through the same thing that I dealt with when I was working in a corporate space. It’s as if there is this need to alter ourselves in order to fit into spaces that were never designed for us in the first place.
The series sparked from hearing the thoughts, frustrations and insecurities of my students. Their families would tell them--my family did the same thing--that this is what you need to do in order to excel. But for my students, especially millennial women, there was a contradiction that was taking place. When do we stop giving in to this system that says that this is how I have to look in order to get this job? Wearing my hair in a ‘fro, or being named Shakiya, or any other thing that defines me as a person shouldn't dictate whether I get a job or whether I do that job effectively.
Magnum Foundation funded the first 10 of the series and it was kind of experimental. I was thinking about artists like James Van Der Zee who photographed people in Harlem with beautiful backdrops. I was thinking about Rineke Dijkstra's transition photographs, her beach series where she was looking at the ideas of youth. And I was thinking about the concept of the backdrop in southern culture. In clubs in the south, there is a backdrop for photographs, often some kind of graffiti backdrop, and you stand in front of it and at this point you're performing. So I thought, "How about I print a photograph of the office I worked in at Yale?"
I told my students that I worked in this office, and it made me feel uncomfortable. I used to walk down this hallway every day with a big ‘fro. I made this my backdrop and I took it to their houses. If we did it in my studio, or someplace else, then they would be performing for my camera. I wanted them in a space where they felt comfortable to be themselves and vulnerable to talk about what it feels like to have to change. We went all over North Carolina.
Paula: I noticed in these pictures the backdrop is the same, but you do include on the margins some identifying objects or something that tells me that we're not in that space. That we are in a different space. You wanted to show the viewer that you were in the homes of these women.
Endia: Definitely. I grew up in a middle-class black family, and in photography, we don't see a lot of middle-class black families. There are extremes when you think about photography, either being in an urban landscape where there is a low socio-economic situation, or another form of poverty, or maybe even exploited in some way, or hyper-sexual. And so, for me, thinking about my own background growing up in a very middle-class home, what my home and the homes of many of my students looked like, I thought it was important for the viewer to understand the home structure of these women, even if it's just simple things like seeing a mother's wedding portrait, a father's navy portrait, or accolades and trophies from a gymnastic competition.
Giving a sense of where these women are coming from, and a sense of their home was important, and also to know that they are performing. It’s not just about seeing the environment, but also knowing that this backdrop is an office and when we go to work every day, we're performing in our professional selves. This is a performance that is taking place, and these women are kind of practicing before they go into the corporate space.
Paula: Tell me about the title,"Am I What You're Looking For?"
Endia: A lot of my titles are questions, such as "Can I Touch It?" I was thinking about this idea of inclusion. When I talk to corporations they're like, "We want more diversity and inclusion. We want more people of color, we want more women." But the problem is that many times this industry wants a certain type of person of color, or a certain type of woman that fits a mold that they are looking for. For my students and myself, I realized that no matter how much you try to fit into a space, you may not be exactly what they're looking for when they talk about diversity and inclusion within their corporation. The question was really geared towards hiring officers, or people who have certain perceptions of what it is to be professional to check their own biases. What is it about this young woman and the way she looks that you feel needs to change in order for her to fit this mold that you define as professional?
Paula: Back to the “Office Scene”project. Did that experience change your relationship with your coworkers?
Endia: Definitely. They ran down the hallway when they saw me. They were like “Oh my gosh. That girl. What is she going to have me do tomorrow?" We were actually closer afterwards, which was really funny. I think that when you make something together it brings you together in a way that you may not have imagined.
After the experience and having talked about it, I explained to my coworkers what the work was about. I think it was a first, especially among the white males. They said “I didn't even think about that, or even consider that.” Many had to find a way to access the work. For some it was through their wives. One would say, "Well, my wife would talk to me about some of the things that happened at her job." Another man mentioned being short and having insecurities about it. They were just trying to find a way to enter the work and understand it, and the fact that they were making that attempt was really interesting to me. Many of these coworkers follow me on Instagram to this day.
Paula: You gave a voice to something that's unspoken and opened a conversation in a creative way that felt safe for people. Tell me about your Yale experience. That's a renowned photography program. What did you take from it?
Endia: I think the Yale program puts you in a place where you have to challenge yourself. I was doing more street photography when I first entered the space, and I remember Tod Papageorge who was no longer the director of photography but acting as a professor at that point. He pulled me aside and he said, "Endia you know the photographs you're doing are beautifully boring." And I was like, “Really?"
I call Tod the best coach. I play basketball and the best coach is not only talented but also someone who knows what to say to players in order to get them to push themselves. Tod was saying that these photographs are beautiful, but they have nothing to do with you. They are not speaking to the essence and fabric of who you are. They don't have the life and spirit that you bring when you talk about your work. You have to figure out what's missing in these photographs in order to capture the essence of who you are as an artist, and what you want to leave behind. This was certainly what I needed to hear in order to realize that the experiences I had as a woman and as a person of color weren’t being told.
I think this is the one thing Yale taught me. Instead of trying to capture stories that are already known to the world, it's time to capture the ones that make me feel uncomfortable, those that I am afraid to discuss. These are the stories that will be universally translated and they are the ones that will move an audience. People will cry when they see them because they see themselves in what you're doing. I would say that overall, the experience that I had at Yale was to be pushed to the point where I had to figure out how to create my own answers. There is a lot of trial and error in the process, but in the end you come out a little stronger and maybe with some thicker skin to take risks in your work and in your life.
Paula: Look at the results. This is extraordinary.
Endia: Yeah, thank you.
Paula: Now you are doing some teaching. Tell me about that experience.
Endia: When I was at Yale, I was the only black person in my class, and among a very limited number of people of color who had graduated from the program. There aren’t very many people of color in photography. We have Dawoud Bey and a few other artists. Hannah Price came out of the program. For me, now being at an HBCU where most of my students are students of color, I feel like there is an opportunity to provide a network that is normally not there, and give access to a world that just isn't designed for artists of color. Being here at Winston-Salem State has been rewarding in a way that I can't even really put to words. In addition to teaching, I’m also the director of the art gallery. When I started I was only 28, and I really questioned what I had to offer. I said, "Well, do I need more experience? How I can I guide my students to become artists when I am still figuring that out for myself?" Then as the semester went on, I realized I had a lot to offer by just being here and exposing students to other artists. In curating shows, I can bring other artists to the space, so I’m not just exposing students to my own craft, but also to the craft of my peers. It’s been really rewarding. I teach occasionally, but the gallery has been my main job here. It’s a blessing to meet in this space and bring down renowned artists, who are really my friends, and see what they are working on.
Paula: Do you sense that there are some new themes or ideas that the next generation is thinking about, or struggling with, or working on?
Endia: Totally. I think that every great movement in art started with young people. You know Julian Bond was an undergrad when he dropped out and joined Martin Luther King. He was only in his 20s or 30s. People like him were fairly young when they decided to make these changes, and I think my students have that same kind of energy and desire to make change within the world and within the industry.
I use the example of Sabrina and Katrina. When I went to Charlotte to photograph in their home, their parents were there, which was the case for many of the students photographed. It became this kind of testimonial with their parents and their experiences with their jobs while we were shooting photographs. Sabrina said something that was really profound to me. She said, "This is how I look, and if an employer doesn't like the way I look, I don't want to work for them," which I think is a very millennial mindset. It’s entrepreneurial in many ways like, “I'm going to start my own stuff.” It's essential what she and her sister are doing. They work with other people, but they are definitely building their own brand. I think there is a very different mindset about how much conformity young people are willing to accept in order to deliver a job, and whether that conformity is even necessary.
Paula: You talked about your own parents telling you about how to succeed in a corporate workplace and how you have to fit in. That is a big change.
Did Yale make you talk about your work a lot? You do it in such a beautiful way and not everyone has that skill. Is that just you and your enthusiasm coming through or is that something that is practiced and taught?
Endia: My mother, I call her my wildflower. She used to do the morning announcements at church, and the night before she would practice with us. I have two sisters, and we would sit around her bed and she would practice the morning announcements, and do it over and over again. It was not just an announcement, it was a performance, and the church loved it. She would give these inspirational quotes and just went into full performance character. When it was time for us to do performances or presentations in school, she would make us practice in front of her, over and over again to the point where basically we had it memorized. She would tell us that people put their pants on just like we do, one leg after the other, so there was no reason for us to be intimidated by anyone. I learned from that.
Paula: That's a great story. Why did you choose photography in the first place? Is it something that interested you from a young age? Did you work with other media?
Endia: I was doing painting before, and then when I went to Italy, my instructor there said that photography is painting with light. There was also something about painting that was much more solitary. You were just alone in the space and in your own thoughts and feelings. Photography gave me the opportunity to get into the world, and it also gave me a way to communicate what I was trying to say as a painter, but more quickly. I found that I liked the interactions of photographing strangers and meeting new people. For instance, in “Am I What You’re Looking For?” I was going to these women's homes where I had never been. I was meeting their parents, moving their furniture around and vacuuming, just trying to get the space right. There was something about that relationship-building that was missing when I was making painting. Photography gave me the access to build the relationships in a different way that was much more fulfilling for me.
Paula: Are you working on any new projects that you want to talk about?
Endia: Magnum Foundation helped me do the first 10 or so of the "Am I What You're Looking For?" series, and The New York Times published those first ones. I’ve now received an Open Society Foundation Grant that’s allowed me to create an exhibition and catalog, to print the full series, which is now 27, and also to do a new video that sums up the theme of corporate spaces. I've been working on this series since 2012, so I’m glad to be able to wrap it up in this beautiful way.
I also just finished a new video, literally a couple of weeks ago, that kind of sums up every aspect. So, we have "Can I Touch It?", the "Office Scene,” there's a video called “9 to 5” that National Geographic published, and then, "Am I What You're Looking For?" The last video is called "The Mock Interview.” In this video, which is still in the theme of corporate spaces, I'm interviewing white men who are the same age as my “Am I What You're Looking For?” students. The young men are students as well, and they experienced a mock interview. I did a focus group where I had women of color between the ages of 27 and 54 give me stories or questions they were asked in an interview that were discriminatory in some way. I ended up getting about 25 questions from all these different women of color, and there was a lot of overlap in the questions. Many of them were asked the same things, so I narrowed it down to 10.
The men then experienced the mock interviews, and they knew that they were going to be asked questions that were prejudiced or included some type of discrimination from a woman of color's perspective, but they didn't know what the questions were in advance. There is a certain degree of humor because you can imagine if someone says, "Would you be willing to change your name?" And he's like, "My name is Matt." You know? "What should I change my name to?"
Paula: You’re pointing out the absurdity of the question.
Endia: Right. Or something about their hair. They are sitting there like, “What?” It's just hilarious, there are some really funny moments. I think the most beautiful part about the video comes at the end when they actually talk about what it felt like. Many said, "I felt like I was on trial, I felt like it wasn't about my resume, it was about my character, my person, my physical nature." Many of them will never have to experience that in their lives, and they walked away with a different perspective. I mean, you get this humorous part, such as their facial expressions, but then at the end, it's like, "Oh my God.” So, they really came out on the other side thinking about those issues. That video will travel with the exhibit.
Paula: Do you have venues?
Endia: We have about 7 right now that are interested in showing the work. There are other shows in Germany, Paris, Indiana, New York, that are showing some of the photos, but not the series in its entirety. Some images haven’t been printed or seen at all, so I’m looking forward to doing a more complete exhibition.
Paula: How does it feel to have this kind of reception and response?
Endia: When you're talking about something personal, you never think about impact. I guess when I started the work, I knew it was something that I felt needed to be discussed, but I didn't realize how many women and people of color were going through it on a daily basis. It’s just humbling, but also, just as an artist, sometimes you make work and you're like, "Man, are people going to like it?" To have that validation makes it feel like what you're doing is important. It is important because it makes people realize that they're not alone in those feelings and that there is a problem, there is employment discrimination and you're not crazy. There was a reason why you felt uncomfortable with that question because that question should have never been asked.
Paula: I see a dual purpose. It gives people a chance to be seen and included in the story that you're telling, and also opens the eyes of others to what these women are experiencing, and that's valuable too.
Endia: I hope that. For example, the men that participated in the mock interviews, like I said, probably won't experience these things, but I think many of them left with a very different perspective that I hope they'll keep in mind as they move forward in their careers and become leaders in some way.
Paula: Look at what art can do.
Paula: What the best way for people to keep up with what you're doing?
Endia: We're in the process of revamping the website and updating some things so that when the traveling exhibition takes place and the catalog is finished, everything will be cohesive. So for now, following me on Instagram is probably best.
Paula: Thank you so much. It was great talking to you.
Endia: You too. Definitely.
For more information about upcoming exhibitions and projects, follow Endia on Instagram @endiabeal.