New Additions: Zora J Murff
New Additions is a series of interviews with artists whose work was newly acquired in the Studio Museum’s permanent collection. This conversation features artist Zora J Murff in conversation about his work Garden with fruit (after Charles Ethan Porter).
Habiba Hopson: How and when did you discover photography? Or rather, how did photography discover you?
Zora J Murff: I was an imaginative kid. I loved reading books and listening to music. I gravitated toward the arts, but didn’t get a lot of exposure to fine art. We had a camcorder that would get passed around at family functions. I remember waiting impatiently for my turn, I wanted to be in charge of what was seen. I also remember going to my grandma’s house and looking through family albums, not necessarily to get to know my family members more, but to narrate stories in my head based on what was depicted.
I didn’t start practicing photography until I was in my mid-twenties. I was working in social services and was looking for an outlet to take my mind away from the stresses of that type of work. People said my pictures were good, and that made me feel good. I took photography seriously because of that. I asked myself: How do I make the best picture possible using this machine? How do I use that for creative expression? I started pursuing my education in photography and started visiting the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, where I was living at that time.
I saw a Sally Mann photograph, Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia (1989), which is a portrait of her three kids. I felt nostalgia for childhood, thinking about spending time with my brother and cousin growing up. I saw us in that picture. I thought, “I can make people feel things with my photographs.” That was my origin story, being an artist was what I needed to do.
HH: I got chills and a little emotional hearing you say that. Speaking of Des Moines, how did your experiences in the Midwest shape your work?
ZJM: I don’t think I’ve ever actively thought about place other than the location where I was situated at a specific time. But I will say that I’ve always been aware of the Midwest as this categorical “no place” that carries with it particular stereotypes and assumptions of who lives there.
Making my body of work At No Point In Between—which is a critical reflection on the practice of redlining—opened me up to the importance of thinking about “place” more intentionally. The Great Migration, the mass movement of our people, was influential in the development of redlining. It made me consider where my people have been. I grew up in Des Moines, went to grad school in Nebraska, and then was teaching at the University of Arkansas. My mom’s side of the family was enslaved there, that’s where we originated from.
HH: From Arkansas?
ZJM: From Arkansas. My family migrated north from there to Missouri and eventually to Iowa. My mom attended college in Omaha, Nebraska, where I was making that work. We do, in fact, exist everywhere though the perception is that Black people don’t exist or belong there. I started to see more connections of Black lived experiences in these different places.
HH: I’m curious about this idea of placemaking in your work, of creating space within visual culture and public memory that illuminates certain histories and realities of groups shaped by injustice.
ZJM: A question we had to grapple with as students was the idea of who your work was for. I was always confused by that question because I assumed it was for everyone. We put up a print in a space and we don’t know who’s walking in that day. What that question means in the space of grad school is who you are intentionally trying to speak to. Especially in the last few years, I’ve been making work for Black people, using particular language and types of visuals.
I’m intentionally embracing that divide. I’m making works for whatever Black person might walk into the space, so they can look and know that it is meant for them. Of course, other people can see it, but there will be a gap they can’t bridge, those politics only those who happen to be categorized as Black can see. That specific intention of making space for us is important.
HH: Seeing the type of image you’ve created opens up their awareness to visual codes that exist in a more Black space. I want to shift to your work in our collection, Garden with fruit (after Charles Ethan Porter). Could you share who Charles Ethan Porter is and why he is important?
ZJM: I didn’t know who Charles Ethan Porter was until a few months before I made this image. I was looking for images to include in a lecture about still lifes across time. I saw Porter’s painting, Untitled (Cracked Watermelon). I needed to know more about the painting and who made it, because if it was made by a white person what does that mean? If it was a Black person, what does it mean? Porter is a still-life painter who lived from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.
He is often categorized as the only Black still-life painter at that time. That was an entry to this question about visibility and invisibility. How does one become recognized as the only Black still-life painter? Who were all of the other Black still-life painters who are lost in history and time? At the time Porter painted it, the watermelon was a highly politicized symbol. It had these dual meanings as an object of liberation for Black people and one used as a way to denigrate us. I thought of how benign things become wrapped up with sociopolitical meaning; the color of one’s skin is only a physiological difference, a photograph is only a picture made by a machine, a watermelon is only piece of fruit.
HH: That’s hydrating.
ZJM: And delicious. The watermelon originated in Africa and traveled through trade and conquest to different places around the world. It ends up in America. Individuals like Isaac Gardner and his family, who were enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, grew watermelons for Jefferson, but also for themselves to sell at the local market to make their own money.
Another Isaac, Isaac Campbell, also an enslaved man on a plantation, would take a watermelon and put it in the bottom of his cotton sack. The weight of the fruit would make it so he didn’t have to work as hard, and at the end of the day, he would get to eat a watermelon. Campbell passed this knowledge to others who also started weighing down their sacks. Their collective subversion threw off the plantation’s cotton yield for the year. In both of these situations, the watermelon was freedom: economic liberation and liberation from physical labor.
My assumption is that Porter made his watermelon to remind us of its delightful qualities, that its sumptuous flesh can sustain us. I haven’t found any specific writing about the work, so who knows why he painted it. I started my version with the question of what it means to live as a stereotype.
HH: What does it mean to break that too?
ZJM: Exactly. A friend said something slick about tending to your own garden. The idea of a garden stuck with me. That’s where the title comes from, Garden with fruit. You have the watermelon in this cardboard box environment, and behind it, you have what looks like a beautiful landscape. By sampling Porter’s work, I was trying to present this idea: “You can find, plot, and cultivate your own garden."
HH: Wow. You said so much there, Zora. It’s so interesting how this fruit was historically used. I had no idea. Technically speaking, what went into creating this image?
ZJM: I set this up in my garage. I made a backdrop using a wall and a table and staged everything with cardboard and paper. The image of the watermelon is made with a large format film camera. The background image comes from a thirty-five-millimeter negative of a garden with a bunch of flowers; I took that picture when I was in my twenties, one of those things you keep in your back pocket until you find a use for it.
I tried to mirror Porter’s language, being intentional about light. I wanted it to have similar notes and for the symbology to be painfully clear. How do you depict what a stereotype does or how it exists in language? So: putting oneself in a box, thinking about a simulated environment, the plug in the top left corner illustrating power.
HH: I didn’t even see that.
ZJM: This work also marked a shift in how I was practicing as an artist. I’m more concerned with making one piece at a time, rather than trying to make a photographic body of work. It’s not about trying to make pictures connect to one another. That switch gave me space to keep it real basic, where images can speak volumes in their own right.
HH: If you were to have an artistic bibliography, which writers, thinkers, visual artists, performers, filmmakers, would you include and why?
ZJM : I have to shout out Howardena Pindell. Her practice was broad and touched different parts of the art world, also the activism she did. I think about Pope.L. Again, someone just going for it. Doing what one needs to do as an artist.
HH: You’ve recently relocated from Arkansas to the East Coast. What are you thinking about in relation to your practice and this new geography?
“Especially in the last few years, I’ve been making work for Black people, using particular language and types of visuals. I’m intentionally embracing that divide. I’m making works for whatever Black person might walk into the space, so they can look and know that it is meant for them.”
ZJM: I’ve lived in the middle of the country pretty much all my life. So, being in a different landscape is delightful. In relationship to the work, I’m considering the history of enslavement, and how it existed here on both sides, between people being able to be free, boundaries that were close to one another.
HH: Walk me through your version of a morning. How do you start your day?
ZJM: I’m a slow windup person. I have to wake up early. I have to walk around the house aimlessly, and look at things for no reason, drink some coffee, maybe listen to a podcast. I got to have some time to slow ramp into the day.
HH: If you suddenly had access to unrestricted funds and resources, what is a project or activity that you would take on?
ZJM: We’re tearing down the empire, baby. That’s what we’re doing. If you give me infinite resources, we’re tearing it down. It’s game over.
HH: Where would that start?
ZJM: I think it would be: Let’s get people fed. Let’s get people housed. Let’s get people educated. Let’s get people armed and teach them how to defend themselves.
HH: The last question comes from the previous interviewee, Vladimir Cybil Charlier: How do your past and your present interact in your current work?
ZJM: I’m able to have a better understanding of who I’ve been through my practice. That would be my present influencing my past. My past helps me see my present-day predicaments more clearly and solidifies what I’m doing in the present moment.
HH: Could you share one question for me to ask the next artist?
ZJM: How are you gassing yourself up? How are you turning the volume up? How are you getting in your bag right now?