Naima Green’s Ode to Fleeting Pleasures

At the beach, at a party, or at home, the photographer imagines a world of queer intimacy and community.

Naima Green, Pur·suit (detail), 2019. Photograph by Megan Madden

Naima Green has a thing for the moon, and for the tides. In her first public film work, The intimacy of before (2020), the artist fashions a dusk-lit self-portrait: her skin glistens behind bath steam, and the sea acts as the short film’s baseline soundtrack, waves lapping at Green’s voiceover narration. “It felt like I was being pulled by a magnet towards the sea,” she says in near-whisper. She’s been sitting with Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) since the start of 2019, and in The intimacy of before, I see echoes of one of the book’s heady passages: “ . . . the ghostly vague light drifting upward from the street competed with the silver hard sweetness of the full moon, reflected in the shiny mirrors of our sweat-slippery dark bodies, sacred as the ocean at high tide.” Green’s film, commissioned by Fotografiska New York, provides a captivating anchor for her first solo museum exhibition, and the show’s title, Brief & Drenching, makes Zami’s influence explicit; it’s lifted from one of the book’s final phrases.

Naima Green, Self-Portrait (I like you), 2017

I recently spoke by phone with Green about Brief & Drenching, her ode to portraiture—of the self, of the home (one gallery room is a recreation of her living room), and of the queer communities that make both self and home most legible. From Pur·suit (2018), a studio portrait series-turned-playing card deck of fifty-four queer womxn and trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people; to a birthing stool handcrafted by Green; to her snapshots at New York City’s historically LGBTQ-centered Jacob Riis beach, Green’s work seeks out a soft place for the transient self to land and wander. As Green intones over the short film’s narration, in a quiet murmur that drenches the whole exhibition, “Is it too much to want a tender and complete intimacy?”

Naima Green, Still from The intimacy of before, 2020. Single-channel video installation, 8:30 minutes, color, sound

Nicole Acheampong: One of the pieces in the exhibition that’s stuck with me is the video installation The intimacy of before. I’d love to know more about your filmmaking process. What drew you to that medium?

Naima Green: About four years ago, right after the 2016 election, I had just started my MFA program at ICP-Bard and was taking a video course. I was fresh out of a breakup, fresh off of the despair behind the election, and I made a video just with my tripod. It was me in my apartment; it was almost like a sketch video. The concept behind it was around grief and loss and using these pearls with the same action that appears in The intimacy of before: pulling the pearls out of a menstruating vagina, eating the pearls, and almost choking on them. At the time, it wasn’t anything that I wanted to share or show, but I knew that it was an idea I wanted to work on again, and in a different way. So, this time, I worked with collaborator Jessie Levandov. We filmed in July over the course of two days, and it was just me and her.

In that gallery room, the second one you pass through in the exhibition, it’s all about different ways of thinking about a self-portrait, but also the intimacy of being at home with me. In this time of quarantine, I’m thinking about the touch and comfort we now have to provide for ourselves. I’m definitely thinking about grief and loss and transformation and rebirth and purging and really sitting with myself in this time.

Naima Green, Cynthia and Travis, 2019

Acheampong: A word you mentioned just now, purging, feels resonant, because there was so much in the exhibition that felt close to bursting. In the film, you narrate about drinking too much wine, standing in the water until your feet are numb—so there’s this extremity of submergence. There’s the portrait Cynthia and Travis (2019), where you have the swell of the pregnant belly. But on the other hand, there’s this insistent purging as well. Can you speak on that tension?

Green: The release and the “holding too tightly”—I’m interested in those ends of the spectrum, which in some way are the same act, just on opposite sides. Intimacy and community are about the overflow in some ways. I think about the Riis portraits. Untitled (Riis) (2019) was the result of a thirty-second interaction. These moments are so temporary. You refer to Cynthia and Travis; I think that photograph was taken three weeks or less before [the couple’s son] Tenoch was born. I’m thinking about the stuff of life that happens on the brink of a change. Even in Pur·suit, something that feels really important is that none of these images are providing fixed narratives about who these people are. There is a constant change, an evolution. Last weekend, I saw one of the people that I had photographed for Pur·suit in 2018, and they said to me, “That felt like so long ago.” Thinking about the self, and what we’ve been through even in 2020, 2018 feels like lifetimes ago.

Acheampong: Absolutely.

Green: I have since moved out of the apartment I’d lived in for six years, the apartment where all the MumboJumbo portraits (2014–18) were taken. We filmed The intimacy of before a few weeks before I moved, and so, having that moment and having that video is also a way to remember the very end of a long time in a space that I called home.

Naima Green, Freddie and Laurent, from the series MumboJumbo, 2018

Acheampong: So much of the film feels fluid, like it’s being moved by currents of water. Likewise, a lot of your photographic work captures bodies in fluid motion. In the MumboJumbo portraits, there’s sometimes a pleasurable blur, a figure in backbend. I’m curious about your relationship to movement and transition in your photographs.

Green: For a long time in my work, I would say until maybe 2016, I was really focused on the stillness of a portrait. I’m thinking about some of my earlier Jewels from the Hinterland portraits (2013–present), where there might be a subtle movement—maybe someone is lifting their big toe in a certain way—but it’s still really about the body in a still posture, claiming their environment. There was a shift when I started including my own body in my work, around 2017. The movement comes through for me in subtle ways. I’m interested in a breathing portrait or the way that someone might wipe water off of their chin, or the way that they might hold the wind in a certain way. How do you exist within the natural environment?

The Riis portraits really are when motion comes through in a new way for me. I was talking to a friend of mine, Jenna Wortham, and she said to me after she saw this show, “You are thinking about and celebrating people and bodies while they’re still living.” Photographing our bodies and our existing in spaces of leisure and joy and pleasure is really crucial to me, because so much of the way that Black bodies are understood and digested is in death. We’ve been on the brink of something for so long. This overflow and this oversaturation of Black death in the media cycle feels like this bursting; like, how much more can we take? I’m not watching the news right now, because mentally, and emotionally, I can’t digest any more.

When I’m thinking about the movement and lives of the people that I’m photographing, it’s like, where is the pleasure in our lives? And how much of that pleasure, prior to COVID-19, existed in community, in space together, at the beach, at a party, in a home.

Naima Green, Untitled, 2017

Acheampong: There’s a lot of the textual and the literary woven throughout the exhibition, from the Open Tabs portraits (2017–19) and the Audre Lorde reference in the exhibition title, to your own poetic narration in the film. Do you see those insertions as photographic in their own ways, or as counterpoints to your visual project?

Green: They offer a different entry point into the photographic and the visual field. For example, I have a sound library that I’ve kept for the past four or five years. Just recording sound as I’m walking down the street; or maybe on the subway, I hear someone playing a song. I record my dreams when I wake up in the morning, when I can remember them. I used to write them all down, but then that just got too arduous. I went through hours of dream recordings and pulled out themes and memories that felt like they would add to the visuals of the video. A lot of them had to do with the water and being at the beach. I feel like they offer a different texture, and a different tone.

All of the audio, with the exception of my voiceover, was taken from my phone. The voiceover, we re-recorded, but the origins of those stories and of those clips and sound bites are from my phone.

Acheampong: Which seems relevant to the transient themes throughout the exhibition—that all these recordings are taken on the go or, at least, taken in a way that you can transport.

Green: Mm-hmm. And it’s also about what you find and what you encounter as you’re moving around your life. So, I’m not going out with all of my sound equipment looking for sound. It’s more like, I’m on a really long walk, and I hear something that I want to remember. It’s a more natural way for me to engage with the things that I’m hearing in my life.

Naima Green, Come Back to Bed, 2017

Acheampong: I also wanted to know more about your encounter with Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. How did that text come to coincide with this body of work?

Green: I moved to Mexico City in January of 2019, right after the New Year. I started reading that book right after moving. When I really enjoy a book, I read it slowly, because I want to make it last forever, and that’s pretty rare for me, but it’s happened recently, with Zami. I learned so much about Audre Lorde. She’d lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico—I had no idea. She’d also lived really close to where I’d lived in Brooklyn. I finally finished Zami at the top of 2020.

The line “brief and drenching” is on the last page of the book—in maybe the last paragraph, the last two to three lines. It felt so apt for the way that living in Mexico really changed my life. I felt like I was being rinsed and I was being washed in a culture and a people. I was able to move slowly; I was able to recognize that there is so much more that I want for myself and that I can have. I think, sometimes in New York, you have to be really rich to have what you want. And so, you just start grinding until maybe one day, hopefully, you can create the picture of the life that you might want for yourself. And living in Mexico City, I’m like, Oh, all of the light that I want is here, and I can have it in my apartment. All of the places that I want to go, I can get there by bus, and it’s not so crazy expensive that it’s prohibitive. Or I can go see the monarch butterfly migration two years in a row and experience the beauty and the magic of that. In thinking about Lorde’s life and the way that she moved; it felt so aligned with that moment that I was in.

Also, when thinking about queer life, in the same ways as when thinking about Black life, our lives often do end quicker and younger than other people’s. So, the title is also a way of thinking about, in this moment, who knows how long I’m going to live? I hope that I have a long life, but I’m really maxing out on the joy and the pleasure and the leisure and the resistance and making sure that the people I love—and even the people I don’t know—are celebrated and that our lives are pictured in those subtle pleasantries of the day-to-day.

Naima Green, Sara Elise & Amber, from the series Pur·suit, 2018

Acheampong: I’m curious about the size and scale of your images. You’re working with playing cards, Polaroids, a lot of prints that can be cupped in the palm of your hand. How do you want viewers to interact with the portraits? For myself, the size required me to really come close to the wall and have that kind of intimacy with the physical space.

Green: My intention is just that: to encourage—I was going to say “force,” but that is a strong word—to encourage people to step into the work. To actually hold a picture close to your face or to really move your body into the work.

I was drawn to the playing card format because you can put it in your pocket or bag, you can bring it with you to the beach, you can have a game on you at all times, but also have this community and this support around you at all times. Pur·suit has taken on a much broader life than I could have ever imagined. I get messages from people who have said to me, “I don’t live in a place where it’s safe for me to be out and queer and affirmed, and someone sent me this deck, and I’m reminded that there are so many people in the world who are like me.” Pur·suit is equally for that and also the pleasure of having a deck of playing cards and recognizing, “Oh! I went on a date with this person” or “This person’s my ex” or “I’ve seen that person in Bed-Stuy,” and those two degrees of separation that happen. I like the idea that the deck straddles this line: it’s framed beautifully as a fine art object, but it’s also the same format as an object that you can get in a bodega for $3. It takes on many different lives.

I started working with Polaroids because it helped me, as someone who is more type A. I’m always thinking about the postproduction and how to really elevate the photograph. Having a format like Polaroid, where I’m not doing anything to that portrait, frees me up in a different way. It allows me to accept what comes out of a camera in a different way, but also, when thinking about the self-portraits, accept myself in a different way, in this raw form: this is who you are, this is how you look in this image,and that’s it. And that’s okay and that’s beautiful. And how can you extend grace towards that, even if you don’t like what you might see in that moment?

Naima Green, I like you, September 22, 2018

Acheampong: We’re getting to witness you extend that grace to yourself as well as to anyone who interacts with the work. You are documenting and fostering so many safe spaces across your work. There are the photographs at Riis beach, which has itself been a safe space for many queer people. And then, in reading about your portrait-making process for the Pur·suit portraits, I noticed an emphasis on how you wanted everyone you photographed to feel at ease. You had a pre-shoot ritual to invite them into that safety. As a final note, can you share how in your photographic practice, as well as in your life and the chaos that is 2020, slash America, slash just being a Black person moving through this world at any time

Green: It’s like, slash, slash, slash! [Both laugh

Acheampong: —what does safety look like and feel like for you?

Green: That’s a great question. Safety looks like setting boundaries with people that I love. Safety is taking this weekend and saying, “Actually, I’m not working this weekend.” I work all the time. I work seven days a week. I’m trying to change my relationship to work. So I’m going to go, in the beginning of fall, to experience what these mountains look like, what this lake looks like, and just live in that and live in these beautiful sunsets and live in the full moon and just enjoy my life in this way. And allow myself to enjoy the leisure and the pleasure that I’m wanting to share and foster in my work. To give that to myself too, in a more formalized way.

Safety looks like baths. Taking baths and soaking. Safety looks like really centering, and sharing my time with people that I love and care about and who respect me and who want to see me thrive and grow in the same ways that I want to see them thrive and grow and change. Safety looks like therapy and acupuncture. 

Riis is a site of my work, but it’s also a site of some of the deepest joy and comfort that I experience in my body. So, safety looks like going to the beach, it looks like being near the water.

Acheampong: Yes, the water. In your film, you said, “I need the water,” and you said it three times.

Green: Yes. I’m recognizing for myself the things that I do need, the things that make me feel more whole.

Naima Green: Brief & Drenching is on view at Fotografiska New York through February 28, 2021.