Q&A: Kennady Schneider
By Hamidah Glasgow | March 28, 2019
Kennady Schneider is a photographic artist and recently retired NCAA athlete. Schneider will receive her BFA from University of Arizona in May of 2019 and will pursue an MFA in the Fall of 2019. Schneider's current work focuses on her experience of being a Black woman and athlete in America and the historical misrepresentations that continue through pop culture today.
Hamidah Glasgow: How did you get started on the #Black work?
Kennady Schneider: I got started with this series by creating the single image titled “10 for 10 at Popeyes”. When I was making this image, I was really working intuitively. I had actually dreamt about the visuals of this image, and it wasn’t until I was physically making the photograph that I understood what it meant. After this particular image, I was able to make references to this idea of contemporary stereotypes with more authority; the photographs and works that followed came very quickly. Once I had analyzed and researched more about this topic, I felt very enthusiastic about making this into a larger body of work.
HG: Tell me more about “10 for 10 at Popeyes”?
KS: The image “10 for 10 at Popeyes” depicts a woman laying on a blanket with a cotton field stretched out behind her in the distance. On the corner of the blanket, there is a pile of fried chicken. This image is essentially reference the “Mammy” archetype. The mammy is a societal trope that is used to describe a black woman who worked in white households during the time of enslavement and Jim Crow America. The mammy would serve as a caregiver to white children; often at the expense of providing for her own kin. The mammy is also said to have qualities of wisdom, and cooking expertise. One common iteration of this figure is “Aunt Jemima”—the face to a maple syrup company. The image that I created is bringing this perpetuated stereotype into question, and it is subverting it through the use of irony.
HG: Tell me more about the overarching themes in this work?
KS: #Black directly mirrors the representations of Blackness that were in my everyday life growing up. This includes references to rap videos, the media, and hip-hop culture. This work examines the perpetuation of these stereotypes of Black Identity. I draw references from the visual language of minstrelsy and Blackface in the social representations of Blacks, and I simultaneously portray the dialect of Black Social Media and Hip-Hip culture through my photographs. My goal was to create contemporary iterations of these characterizations. By creating satirical portrayals of these ideas, this work parodies and rejects these historical and generational confines that Blacks are limited to. It’s essentially making a mockery of tropes such as the Mammy, the Baby Mama, the Diva, the Buck, and the Gangster.
HG: What do you want the viewers of your work to gain by experiencing your work?
KS: When experiencing my work, I want viewers to recognize these iterations of Blackness, and to question their existence. When viewing these characterizations, the familiarity of these performances should call upon our values and short-comings as a larger community. Why has the Black Experience been communicated so narrowly, and how have we—as beings—aided in perpetuating these ideas?
HG: Where do you see this work going as you continue to work on #Black?
KS: I really see this work moving toward more subtlety in the future. While universal representations of stereotypical Black identity have dictated this project so far, (ie. references to enslavement and pop culture) I am more interested in making work about erased histories. There is something about uncovering these displaced narratives that is innate within my artistic practice, and I find myself moving more towards the stories that remain untold. I feel that just because an audience cannot immediately access the references I am interested in, it does not invalidate what the work is doing. In many ways, work that encourages questions and conversation is what makes the images more interesting.
HG: Agreed. Tell me a more about the erased histories that you mention?
KS: At this moment, I am extremely interested—and full of rage—about the forced sterilization of Black Women. As recently as 1974, Black women have been forcefully sterilized by birth clinics and practitioners. While feminist ideology and movement has consistently aimed to provide access and rights for women to have agency over their bodies, this part of the fight has been left out in our miseducation. The body of a Black woman has never belonged to her. Forced sterilization was another way to eliminate Black women’s reproductive, sexual, and human rights. It was a way for this vessel to only exist in support and prosperity of the white body. I am interested in exploring these ideas within my work as I move forward.
HG: This sounds like work that needs to be seen and that history told visually. I’m excited about following your work in the future. Continue to speak truth to power. We need your artistic vision and intellectual curiosity.
HG: How has being away from Las Vegas, the place you were raised, affected your views?
KS: Being raised in Vegas made me very desensitized to many things. Gambling, nightlife culture, sex work, and nudity were all very normal for me to see as a young person. I think that exposure made me pretty fearless in my approaches as a photographer. I haven’t been afraid to make sexually charged photographs. It has also affected the ways that I interact with my subjects. I when I direct my subjects, I am not afraid to ask them to do things, which leads to endless possibilities. I am also aware that my views do not align with what my subjects are comfortable performing. If this is the case, I use myself in the work to create a self-portrait; I am never going to make work that I am not comfortable depicting myself in.
HG: Who are your artistic influences?
KS: One of my artistic influences is Deana Lawson. I think that my work often talks about Blackness in relation to Whiteness. Lawson’s work has completely extended past this idea. That is something I am really inspired by. I feel like work where Blackness is secondary creates a whole new conversation around the topic, and it fosters a more intersectional approach to these issues. Hank Willis Thomas also informs much of my artistic practice. As a retired athlete, most of my work centers around experiences that I’ve had as a Black woman in the sports industry. What differs between Thomas’s and my approach is that I am able to perform my experiences from an extremely personal and emotional standpoint—as my first-hand athletic endeavors fuel the narratives behind this work.
HG: You are a highly accomplished gymnast. How did this directly affect the work that you are making around athletes and racism?
KS: As a recently retired NCAA athlete, my experiences as a gymnast has largely influenced my artwork. It was terrifying for me to make work about the sports industry and racism; I was making this work when I was still a participating athlete. As a gymnast and athlete at any institution, you are taught to represent the school in a particular manner. You are expected to uphold the status of the institution just as the institution is upholding you (as an individual). For me, gymnastics, the NCAA, and the school I was representing were essentially providing my meals. I was afraid to bite the hand that was feeding me; however, I knew that I wasn’t the only one who was questioning this system. I knew there were other athletes and women who saw the need for critique, but they didn’t know how to communicate it. That’s why I made the leap and decided to cross my two worlds over. I actually saw support from many other coaches, gymnasts, and athletes who understood that my harsh critical standpoint as well as my love for the sport could coexist in the same space.
HG: Your grandmother plays a large role in your work. What have her influences brought to the work and to your sensibilities on the topic of the representation of black women?
KS: When I think of my grandmother, the idea of a “Diva” comes to my mind. I now look in the mirror, and I see some of that Diva reflected in me as well. It’s protection. It’s armor. The way that my grandmother presents herself is a survival tool; it is how she has moved up in the world, and it is how she intrigues an audience. I have learned to do the same thing. Just as Black men act tough and gangster, we sometimes act “extra” and cold; vulnerability cannot be afforded in a world that is constantly trying to knock you down.
Within my work, I think that her influences have made room for some more introspective territory. Instead of working from the outside, in, I am working from the inside, out, now. It has forced me to really look to my own role as a Black woman, and how my existence is adding to the wider understanding of the Black experience.
HG: What’s next for you as an artist?
KS: Next for me as an artist is to move through graduate school. I think it’s time to continue to have conversations within the gallery and academic space that develop my practice further. I’m ready to push my work towards deeper empathetic understanding, and to fail a little along the way. My goal with my work is to move towards more intersectional themes of identity… once Blackness becomes secondary in the conversation about my work, I’ll know that I’ve really discovered something.
HG: Thank you for your work and your time.