The images are opulent, ethereal and intricate. While the models’ poses seem effortless, their tight, interwoven braids dripping with jewelry are the exact opposite. When viewers see the “Adornment” photo series, they might wonder if they are looking at hairstyles or modern art. For the creators of the series, the answer is both.
Amanda Lopez and Tanya Melendez will bring their ongoing “Adornment” project to the Sol Collective on Saturday. Lopez is a Mexican-American photographer born and raised in Sacramento. Her work has been featured in magazines including Essence and Rolling Stone. Melendez is a Boricua stylist from Los Angeles and founder of her own jewelry line, NenaSoulFly. and has customized jewelry for celebrities like Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg.
Lopez and Melendez define “Adornment” as “an homage to everyday queenship of women of color” that “challenges traditional, colonized standards of beauty.” They consider hair braiding an international ritual among women of color, a form of everyday grooming and ceremonial adornment that requires artistic skill. The exhibit had its debut Los Angeles in March.
Creating small, intricate braids can take two hours, or even 10 when extensions are braided into hair. Cornrows or box braids, though common, require skillful hands.
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“Adornment” highlights this artfulness by highlighting it through the attachment of silver and gold decorative pieces.
“It’s no accident the women in these photos look like royalty. They're regal, they're strong, they're beautiful, and a reflection of what we aren't seeing,” Lopez said.
The project also explores the connection between women of color and their families. Most of the models remember their mothers or grandmothers as the first people who ever braided their hair. The time and effort spent braiding another person’s hair transforms the process into a communal and intimate experience.
Melendez says the exhibit also shows how important it is for women “to support one another in the process of becoming women. And adornment is one way of doing that ... inspiring each other to be creative, to love yourself in this capacity.”
The duo describes their artistic process as very organic, and working on the photographs has taught them about supporting each other as well. Lopez and Melendez value their bond as female artistic partners in a male-dominated field. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, 51 percent of visual artists are women. However, women make up just 5 percent of permanent collections featured in top American museums such as New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art.
Often, when a fellow woman artist enters the art scene, “you can't really connect with them because you're fighting for that platform,” said Melendez .
Melendez describes her and Lopez’s relationship as “this ball of energy that we’re throwing back and forth.” The pair met eight years ago at an art show in Los Angeles.
Both artists have equal say in “Adornment,” often blurring the line that divides their labor during photo shoots. Lopez helps select the jewelry (“We both love gold! The more gold the better!”), and Melendez helps set up photography tools and reminds Lopez to try new poses when she becomes fixated on positioning a model a certain way.
The models themselves also are part of the collaborative process. As they prepare for the photo shoots, Lopez and Melendez learn about the models’ experiences as girls of color, and their first memories of getting their hair braided. Melendez says that helps her decide how to style the models’ clothes and hair.
The intimacy of preparing for the photos is as much a part of the art as the final shots.
“It’s just a beautiful process to sit in on,” Melendez said.
Karen Marks: (916) 321-1136, @karenmarks_
Where: Sol Collective, 2574 21st Street, Sacramento
When: July 15 - Aug. 7