The 12 Months of Melanin is a photo calendar project in celebration of black women. It features black female artists living in Toronto. These artists are writers, lovers, poets, actors, singers, dancers, bosses, and bad bitches.
Photographed by Setti Kidane, a self-proclaimed black woman who loves black women, Setti uses her photography to explore the multi-dimensionality of black women and encourages us to view their vulnerability as sites of power and resistance. This project is a celebration of black women’s layers, beauty, and lived experiences.
AFRIPOP: Talk us through the idea behind the 12 Months of Melanin photo calendar.
SK: The 12 Months of Melanin photo calendar project is a celebration of black women. It is a celebration of our beauty and our layers. I shot it in this style to really highlight the richness of our skin. The main reference image that I was drawing from was Kelela’s music video for ‘A Message’. Her skin looks amazing in that video. To me it’s the main focus. And it felt like that’s what the style celebrates – melanin.
The calendar started out as a spin-off of my YBG series whereby I shot images of black folks at Blockorama and Afropunk while they held a sign that read ‘Young, Black and – whichever word felt good for them (e.g. ‘Young, Black, and Magical’). I was aiming to continue that series under a different aesthetic. But when we got around to shooting that concept felt less and less like a good fit. I scrapped the ‘Young, Black and Gifted’ series continuation altogether after I had a chat with a photographer who asked me how a project about the multi-dimensionality of black women ends up having one tone throughout. Then I realized that I had actually been curating a particular space for the models. I had been playing with melancholy and sadness as well as heartbreak, love, and resilience. I directed the models to show themselves – what kind of story do you want to tell the world? Who are you? What’s one thing about you that you want to get across? I asked them to remember really intense moments of heartbreak and of falling in love – dive into that space and see where it takes you. One of my models asked me to play Adele for her. That was fun. Another didn’t take any direction at all – she just moved her body as she felt and it was fantastic.
I feel compelled to create art around black women. Black women as humans who experience a full range of emotions, have flaws, and deserve love, not despite themselves but because of who they are. Never mind who we are to our communities. I really feel like we do and give so much with little recognition or return and this perspective informs my art a great deal. It is why I feel absolutely unapologetic about loving black women the way that I do.
How did you meet and convince your subjects to be a part of your project?
My community consists almost entirely of black women. They are my mentors and my peers. These women are incredibly talented and incredibly slept on so the 12 Months of Melanin project is a celebration and it is also a platform for us to be celebrated for our work. And our work isn’t just what we produce, it is also the way that we love and hold communities. I approached my friends with this perspective and they were happy to support and participate. While its great to have friends who mirror my experiences and identity in many ways, I’m mindful of the fact that people are socialized into building communities around them that closely resemble them (especially their lived experiences, social locations, and privileges). It is ‘harder’ to build relationships outside of your bubble because it requires you to be accountable for your privileges and to really do the work of (consistently) unlearning harmful behaviours and perspectives so we tend to stay in our bubbles. For me that looks like a lot of black women who are cisgender and have aesthetic privileges such as having light skin and being thin. I don’t want to center these experiences in my work. It’s necessary to highlight black women who are underrepresented and most vulnerable in our communities. I am looking to connect with more black women outside of my immediate circles for the photo series that I am continuing to shoot in this style.
The word melanin especially in black pop culture has become synonymous with blackness. Does your calendar intend to replace the word “black” which identifies a particular racial group with the word melanin?
The project is a celebration of black women. We aren’t running away from blackness or engaging in any weird ‘new black’ politics. We are celebrating black women’s beauty especially those who have dark skin because that’s not something that we see enough. Light skin is associated with beauty, as is thinness, and so on. That is the kind of world that white supremacy and anti- blackness have shaped for us so this celebration of melanin is pushing against that.
What do you think about the exclusion whether intended or unintended of other melanated peoples through the pop culture use of the word melanin to denote blackness?My project is a celebration of black women’s beauty and multi-dimensionality. It is an exploration of our vulnerability as sites of both power and resistance. Centering the lives of black women is important and I am happy to continue doing this work.
Header Photo Credit: Shawntol Drakes