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John Adams, “Bike Boyz (2)”
John Adams, “Bike Boyz (2)”, from the series DREAM (2022) by Jusu StudiosPhotography John Adams

The Atlanta collective challenging the art world’s white gaze

DREAM is a new project by Atlanta-based art collective Jusu Studios, a community of creatives celebrating the boundless, self-defining power of the Black experience

What is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the word “dream”? For Dauda Jusu, the creative director behind Atlanta’s content powerhouse Jusu Studios, the answer is simple: “My dream is for the African diaspora to gain more seats at the table in every profession, more inspiration, and more platforms where Black creatives get to shape their own narratives,” he tells Dazed.

Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia as a first-generation Sierra Leonean-American, Jusu recalls experiencing “the prepubescent, unconscious desire to assimilate white America” because there weren’t any people that looked like him in the media. Describing his journey to integration as a never-ending trip, he admits that navigating a country whose structures “are intended to set us back” can be disorienting, all the more so when striving to leave a mark in its creative landscape. “Stepping into the art world as a Black creative can feel isolating and tokenising at times,” Jusu says. With DREAM, the latest project by his Black art collective, Jusu Studios, he wanted to carve “a space for Atlanta’s African diaspora to talk and create freely”, away from the omnipresent influence of the white gaze.

A powerful collection of images, the series sheds as much light onto the universe of a young, trailblazing generation of African-American artists as it does on their ongoing quest to reclaim the public portrayal of Blackness. Co-directed by Jusu along with his “right-hand” India Mitchell, Jusu Studio’s creative and artistic director, DREAM is an imaginative response to the unanswered dilemma, “does reality even accept me?” It’s a question that is subtly referenced in the acronym that makes for its title and further explored in the handwritten testimonials shared by some of the faces appearing in the project.

“Our team is a group of Black 20-something-year-olds with a history of family, friendship, nightlife, pop culture, love, heritage, tradition, creativity, and – most importantly – with a voice,” Mitchell says of the cast and crew that contributed to the shaping of the series, for which she sourced talent, styled and conceptualised shoots, and even served as an impromptu make-up artist. “DREAM is about identity and hindsight,” Mitchell adds. “By looking at the past, we gather the stimuli, bravery, and resources necessary to write empowering stories our people can relate to.”

With over a dozen creatives involved between production and sitters, the photographic compendium is a complex, larger-than-life retelling of the Black experience as envisioned by its own protagonists. Brought to you by a new vanguard of African-American image-makers – including photographer Abdul Bangura, multidisciplinary artist John Adams, and writer, photographer and filmmaker Philip Swaray – and embodying the focus of a potential book and exhibition of the same title, the series borrows from its participants’ understanding of Blackness to uphold a “self-defining, non-generalising nor stereotyped” representation of what being part of Atlanta’s African diaspora means today.

It does so by neatly weaving together references to those cultural and historical figures who, more than anyone else, fought for the emancipation of the Black community in the US and beyond. Names like that of iconic, unswerving Black Panther Party political activist Angela Davis; eye-opening wordsmiths James Baldwin and bell hooks; social practice installation artist Theaster Gates; and genre-defining musicians such as Sun Ra and George Clinton, the “godfather of funk”, are just a few of the inspirations whose priceless contribution to Black culture now echoes through the bold, uncompromising images in DREAM.

Much of the motivation behind the project came from its creators’ urge to visualise what “the future will look like for Black people once we succeed in dismantling systems put in place to restrain us,” Jusu explains. Accordingly, the ethereal, suspended-in-time photographs speak of a liberated future which is still underway, and oftentimes hindered by the status quo. A multidimensional ode to Afrofuturism, the series taps into its contributing photographers’ ability to reinterpret pre-colonial Africa through a modern, stereotype-disrupting lens, while also capturing its people as “the divine beings that lived on its rich continent” prior to the violence brought about by western Europeans settlers.

Having this mission as its founding principle, DREAM leverages the power of photography to forward a new, boundless, and ever-evolving portrait of Blackness; one directly informed by nothing but the lives, wishes, and dreams of those depicted by it. “The great thing about photography is that it allows anyone who has a story to tell the chance to do so and share it with others,” Adams explains, adding that its “low barrier to entry makes it a widely democratic, accessible medium for all”. For Bangura, the relevance of the project lies in its potential to “question the viewer’s perception of reality” in relation to the role that the Black community occupies in contemporary society.

Visit the gallery above to take a closer look at DREAM.

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