Fourth-year photography student Aleia Robinson-Ada showcased her photo series called Untitled Portraits of Black Women at the Girls By Girls gallery held at the Ryerson University School of Image Arts.
Robinson-Ada’s photos of relatives and close friends tell a story about the significance and the alteration of African last names during colonial times in the U.S.
Girls By Girls was a group show of portraits of women made by women. The exhibition ran from Feb. 6 to Feb. 10.
What inspired you to create this project?
All the relatives in my family, also myself, wanted to go into an investigation of their last names. My family is Nigerian and also Dominican, but my last name is Robinson, so it doesn’t really make sense when you’re physically looking at me. You read my name on a piece of paper and it’s just kind of confusing. So, “OK, you’re Nigerian African?” and I’m like, “Yeah I am but my last name is Robinson.” It’s just stupid.
I did my research it turns out that it affected pretty much 90 per cent of black people, like our last names are either slave occupational names or master names or just names that we had to kind of make up like freeman, (which is) literally a man that was freed from slavery.
It’s insane because (your) last name kind of, in a sense, defines who you are. A family history defines who you are and where you came from, but it’s kind of weird because I guess I’m a product of slavery through my family. I came from that, but at the same time, I also came from this rich African culture. (It’s) kind of like a push and pull. Where did my actual last name get mixed up? What could it have been? Just a whole bunch of questions come up.
How does photography inspire your projects?
I think of content first before I think of photography. I don’t feel like photography influences me, my work influences the reason why I take photos.
How was the process of making this project?
The research took a little longer because then I’d be like, “OK, I need you to write out your first name and last name and also what you identify yourself as.” For example, for me I’d be Aleia Robinson, Nigerian-Dominican, and then I would use that information and just Google the shit out of it.
I had to find everything because I wanted it to be really accurate as well so I went on to ancestry.com.
How important is it to showcase life and history from a female perspective, specifically African-American women?
It’s very important. The portrayal of African women is not really accurate in schools or institutions. I feel like that’s the kind of research you have to do on your own and really dig through it. So I really wanted to just share what I’d learn, share details about my own life details about life that I’ve learned through books. I think it’s just important for people to be well-rounded and just not ignorant.
They need to know about things that happened in the past and that it’s still relevant today. You can educate yourself and move forward. So I think it’s very important to tell everyone, not even just people of colour, but have everybody educated on life and history of African American women. So I wanted to portray that because I am an African woman myself, so I thought it was fitting.