Akilah Townsend is a self-taught South Side photographer. Born and raised in Chicago in the Bronzeville and Grand Crossing neighborhoods, she is a photographer and art director who focuses on Black beauty representation. Her portraits feature warm, saturated colors, using storytelling and place to empower her subjects and make them feel seen.
This summer, her work will be featured in an exclusive collection with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and Color Factory Chicago. They are partnering to include an exclusive product collection celebrating Chicago and featuring art from and inspired by Color Factory artists. Collaborating with local and international artists, her photography will serve as a color palette for immersive and interactive art exhibits.
South Side Weekly spoke with Townsend about her creative process and the inspiration behind this exhibit, which opened to the public on June 17. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When did you first become an artist? When did you know you wanted to start creating things?
Definitely my whole life. I think my mom was an artist that didn’t really realize her potential, and she inspired me. I just remember at a young age drawing just like she was and painting. I found my creative outlet of photography three years ago.
What usually inspires your work?
It really switches up. Sometimes I am inspired by a story. Sometimes I’m thinking about a connection between people or how I’m feeling. I’ve created projects where I just had something that was nagging me in my mind, and I wanted to create something, to get that out there and express it.
What’s funny, too, is I always start with color. It’s what has always inspired and been a really important part of my work. So I start with color. I have an idea and color, and those go hand in hand.
How do you describe your art style? I feel like you use a lot of warm color tones in your work.
I like warmth. I like the sun, and sometimes, I have to imitate it. A lot of times, we’ll play off that orange and think about what complements it.
What goes into telling stories with photography for you?
For me, I just start with where I’ve been and where I come from. My experiences as a Black woman on the South Side inform a lot of the stories that I want to tell and the thinking about narratives that need to be told. So when it comes to personal projects, when it comes to casting and thinking about those sorts of things—I’m thinking about what connects the most to me.
You spend a lot of time photographing Black beauty and Black features. How is that important for you and other people?
We have come so far when it comes to representation. It’s amazing. I think about media and what we see in our different channels, it’s incredible.
I think we still have a long way to go, and being someone who creates images, I have a lot of responsibility when people are viewing my work in those different channels. So I think about colorism, I think about shade-ism, I think about body representation.
A lot of times when it comes to casting, I think about those things, and the representation that I think we’re lacking in and what I want to see more of. I feel like, as artists, we have such a responsibility to be conscious of what we’re doing, and so I try to think about these things.
So you’re a self-taught photographer. How do you think that that’s shaped your work and your style?
I think it’s led me to experiment a lot and do a lot of trial and error and play with things until things feel right. Because I’m not classically taught, I just have to experiment until things resonate. I feel like I go off of feeling more so because I don’t have categories, or I don’t have rules. I’ve heard that from other photographers who’ve gone to school—they’ve told me that a benefit of me not going to school is that I don’t think within the bounds of what you’re taught what makes a good image.
I think that’s also cool, too, because I think your art should be personal. If I’m coming about it in a way that’s like, “this is what I like,” and it also gives me a lot of freedom because I can release that feeling of wanting other people to like my work, because it kind of starts and ends with me; like the option of the idea, the plans, the editing process, and if I’m happy with it, then someone out there is gonna like it. But most importantly, I’m happy with it. I think that’s how me not going to school has affected the way that I work.
Can I ask how your artistic process works?
If it’s a personal project, it’s probably a story that I’m trying to tell. And so, I start there, and I literally will write out a story, like I’ll write out the narrative. And then, I’m thinking about what colors, what scenes, what places, what people.
I just map out from there, like, how that can be told when it comes to client work. A lot of times, I’m given a lot of freedom, which is amazing. It’s kind of the same thing where I’m given a category, I’m given a bounds of thinking in wherever the subject I’m shooting, and then I start to think about how do I accomplish it, how do I put my spin on it and make something I think that I can be happy with.
How is your work going to be featured in the Color Factory?
I created the imagery that Color Factory has used to create a color palette or a color story for the City of Chicago. It was amazing. I got to travel all around the City of Chicago and take so many photos, thousands of photos, and just like get inspired by the colors of the city.
Then they took all those photos and my favorites and narrowed them down to a list. And through those images, they picked out a nice color in each of those images and created a color palette. That color palette is going to be used throughout the exhibit, and throughout the installations for the different artists who are creating their pieces around that color.
So it’s a nice symbiosis for collaborative work. It’s really cool. I can’t wait to see how the collaborative process turns out. I can’t wait to see that my images come to life in that way.
What brought this partnership together between artists and the MCA and the Color Factory?
I believe they found me because they were looking for a local artist. They wanted someone who was in the art community, so a wonderful producer that I know linked me with the Color Factory. It was magic how that happened.
How does your work in the Color Factory represent Chicago and the South Side?
I think inherently because I am who I am, and as a Black woman from the South Side, everything I do just has to—the images that I make—they come through my lens. And so, they speak to who I am and how I see the city that has inspired so much of my work and literally me becoming an artist.
Ever since I was really young in high school, I remember I used to live on Lake Park Avenue and just walking to the lake every day and being able to get that peace and serenity and inspiration by being at and seeing those colors of the beautiful blues and the beiges—so that had to be included in our color palette. It’s things like that, just being born and raised here and making those images, making sure that they speak to me and the beautiful city that I love, you know?
What inspires you about Chicago so much?
It’s cool because, growing up, I was absolutely enamored by the South Side. I lived on 79th Street, and so, places like the lake were a really big part of my upbringing. Also the parks, the Regal Theater. There’s so much history in Bronzeville, but also, every weekend, we would travel to Navy Pier, and I would go to [the] Children’s Museum and just also knowing other parts of the city was really cool.
Being from a place, it really has an imprint on you and who you are, at least in the way that I grew up, because I was very much a city kid, like taking the buses at a young age and going all around the city. I feel like that has to play a part in how I see things, and maybe the way that locations really inform my work, too. That is one of the primary factors that goes into creating a project in the beginning.
What locations inspired this color palate? How did you decide which to use?
You know, now it’s funny, it’s kind of hard to say because ever since I’ve become a photographer, I have had a folder in my cellphone of locations. Whenever I’m around, like driving around, I will see something beautiful and colorful. I literally slow down and take a picture and just save so there’s a folder of locations.
I think place is probably something I didn’t really articulate. But it grounds me, and it can inform so much of my work. I don’t like to really shoot in studio or on backdrops. Sometimes I have to, but I think that place has a quality about it that just forms so much. When I shoot in-studio, I feel like there’s a bit of a void, you know?
How do you describe your photography style?
I really feel like the best description is informed by color because I’m not always shooting people. Sometimes I’m shooting locations. And a lot of times, like when I’m on some of the projects that I love, I’m capturing people and places. If I do a story—I’ve done a couple of stories where I’m capturing people, and then, I also go around photographing the place and including that in the story and that being a more full picture of the place in the story through the images.
What are you most proud of with your work?
I think I’m just most proud that I’ve done it. I really never thought that I would be where I am. I didn’t know that you could be an artist. I thought that you had to have resources and money and rich parents. But coming from a place of lacking resources, I didn’t think that I could be freelance and do it on my own and be successful in my own way. I’m just really proud of the fact that I have had the courage and the bravery to actually put my work out there and let that sustain me. It’s such a blessing to be able to create, and the fact that I get to do that is so fulfilling. So that’s what I’m most proud of.
What would you tell someone that was getting into visual art for the first time? What would you tell a younger version of you?
I think I would say be brave. Be brave and explore who you are and what you want to say and what makes you happy and what resonates with you. And be courageous. Make it and put it out there because it’s not easy, it’s not comfortable—but it’s rewarding.
Reema Saleh is a journalist and graduate student at University of Chicago studying public policy. She can be followed on Twitter or Instagram at @reemasabrina. She last wrote about visual artist Hailey Losselyang of HML Design and her Leave Me Alone art series inspired by unsolicited interactions with men.