The AjA Project: Photography Programs for San Diego Youth
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“Collective Voices” a blog post by AjA Project Interns Namu S. & Bethlehem D.

Collective Voices, a nine month AjA Project that highlighted the identities of eighteen young City Heights residents through photography, was done in partnership with Doris Duke and The United Women of East Africa.  This blog post, written by AjA’s student interns, seeks to share some details and events from their nine month process and to celebrate their many achievements!

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The  AjA Project partnered with our neighbor organization, The United Women of East Africa, in order to engage a population of their young women in a program titled Collective Voices. Collective Voices participants communicated themes of identity and contemporary women’s issues through the photography and narrative to techniques they learned in the classroom.   Collaboration was central component of this project, as 18 diverse young artists came together to create art focused around similar themes!

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The Collective Voices classroom was unique in its understanding of our participatory structure. It’s emphasis on collaboration fostered conversation around the process of making art that both allows for each of participants to speak their individuality while also demonstrating a collectivity in the themes their work explores. Collective Voices met each Friday evening during its nine month run at The AjA Project building in City Heights, where participants discussed each other’s work, the work of contemporary artists and learned photography techniques!

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Inter+FACE, an exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Man, features content collected  from a series of three workshops put on by The AjA Project in collaboration with the Museum of Man. The Inter+FACE workshops were held at The AjA Project in City Heights, the Elementary Science Institute in South East San Diego, and at EQ Studios in Barrio Logan over the 2015-2016 winter months. For each workshop the Museum of Man brought out six busts from the archive of the museum’s first anthropological study about American people. Participants from each local community were invited to learn about the complex histories of the busts. Participants were also given an opportunity to represent themselves by taking a self-portrait. The exhibit, now open at the Museum of Man, is a multimedia exhibit . When asked why photography was important within the workshop, one of the participants replied, “I think they use photography as a way of communication because it lasts for such a long time. In Emily’s (one of the busts) presentation, we saw pictures that were from almost 100 years ago that we are still talking about today.”

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On June 3rd, 2016, the Collective Voices crew had the first formal exhibition of their art, “SELF – TITLED” at the San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park . “SELF – TITLED” was a collaboration between three youth centered artistic projects; the work of Collective Voices was being shown alongside Words Alive’s Adolescent Book Group, and Lux Art Institute’s Teen Collective. The show as a whole was a vibrant, multi-media affair – each of the members of Collective Voices had a diptych in the show that was their own interpretation of the traditional self portrait. Each of these pieces consisted of two photographs of the artist, a personal statement written by the artist, and her name, all presented on the same panel. Themes explored in this work explored themes of  double consciousness and self-representation! “SELF – TITLED”  was on display through June 19th.

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Monday, July 11th, 2016 was the start of a really exciting week for Collective Voices – one of the participants described it as the week where everything was coming together. On that morning the young women of Collective Voices began to trickle into the AjA Project’s office in City Heights to put the finishing touches on their final projects as a group: a standing three-dimensional installation, a built collage of 50 framed photographs that they had all taken from throughout the 9-month project, and a spoken word poem co-authored and performed by the entire 18 person group. The next night the group would be presenting these two pieces as a celebratory community event being hosted by the United Women of East Africa, and that Friday they were at the center of an event at the MOPA.

The build-out of the final installation was front and center on this day – literally. At the start of the day laid out all across the floor were photographs that the Collective Voices crew had taken, printed double sided on mesh and in wooden frames. As exampled by Miriam, one of the member of Collective Voices, the images were printed double sided so that they could be seen clearly not just on one side of the frame, but on both. The printing on the mesh was to allow air to flow through the photographs, and let the images flow in the wind.

Everyone came together as the installation came together – more and more girls arriving and pitching in in the process of building up the installation, excitedly talking about how big it was going to be and exchanging ideas back and forth about how and where to position each piece of the installation. At its completion, the piece stood at about 11 feet tall by 22 feet wide, but completing the installation was just the start. For the installation to be moved or shown anywhere it had to be entirely deconstructed, transported, and then reconstructed on site, which is what had to happen for the piece to be shown at the community centered event the next day at the United Women of East Africa office next door.

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The day after the build-out at the AjA Project was the United Women of East Africa event to celebrate the Collective Voices crew and showcase the work that they had produced, alongside a media-based project done with other youth from the United Women community done through Outside the Lens, in addition to plenty of delicious food and time for hanging out. After all of the hard work put into the build-out, this event was the piece’s debut. In the words of Collective Voices themselves, “this installation recognizes the beauty in our struggle and who we are as East African American Young Muslim Women from San Diego” (quote taken from “Navigating the Map of Our Selfhood” show statement). Additionally, after some introductory words by Melinda Chiment, the executive director of the AjA Project, and Miriam, a member of Collective Voices, the group performed their poem in front of an audience for the first time. After these presentations, there was a question and answer portion, where the members of Collective Voices  got to speak on what it is that they had gotten from the experience of being a part of this project, and for many attendees, especially those from the AjA Project, this was the highlight of the event. During this Q&A members of Collective Voices talked about topics such as colorism and the Black Lives Matter movement when asked about their involvement in this project.

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The “Navigating the Map of our Selfhood” event at MOPA was the final presentation and celebration of Collective Voices and the work that this group of incredible young women came together to produce. In their own words: “Navigating the map of our selfhood formally acknowledges the contradicting multiple consciousness of our experiences. Our goal is to reach out to the community to educate and eliminate misconceptions some may have about us as female Muslims. This is an artistic work of individuals collectively navigating the reality of various identities” (quote taken from “Navigating the Map of Our Selfhood” show statement). Their sculpture of framed photographs was installed in the center of the MOPA lobby space, and throughout the night members of Collective Voices took the microphone to perform their poem, share their thoughts on the project, and give some special shoutouts to people like their instructors Rebecca and Famo who had been working with them and supporting them throughout this year-old project. Although serious and profound at times, ultimately this was a night of celebration for Collective Voices, and ending with an informal performance of the whip and nae nae dance crazes.

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As a result of all of their incredible work, the young women of Collective Voices are responsible for the first time that there have been three exhibitions in and for Balboa Park created by the same young hijabi women at three separate museums. We at the AjA Project have so much love and gratitude we’d like to share with the young women of Collective Voices. Over the course of these past 9 months, with the support of their incredible instructors Rebecca and Famo, they have produced some absolutely stunning art, and we are so happy to have been able to be a part of all of this.

A huge thank you to all of the participants of Collective Voices and to our funders California Arts Council and Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Arts.

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