By TADHI COULTER
Giovanni Martins has had a life & career that has taken him all over the globe. Now, in the midst of a sociopolitical reckoning, he's using his talents to be an arbiter of change with an upcoming book that showcases the nuances - and hypocrisies - of color.
TC: How did you arrive at THISISBLACKGROUND? I mean, has it been a process of self-discovery for you? How would you describe your coming to terms with this important work?
Giovanni Martins: As a black man born and raised in the Netherlands, and then spending 8+ years in the UK and now here in the U.S., THISISBLACKGROUND has made me think about our individuality shaped by the places that affect our lives and experiences, those places that give our lives meaning. In many ways, these different places of the world infuse both our individual and collective sense of Black cultural identity. What might be considered Black culture in the Netherlands is different than in the U.S. and in other parts of North America.During my time here in the U.S. working in the fashion industry, I have experienced first-hand the ugliness of racism. Model-selection notes for major campaigns have read, “We need to use a white model, for the black ones will not work for our buyers.” The implication being, that a model infused with less pigmented skin-color as well as “Black'' cultural traits is more valued and sought-after than a model infused with more of them. A booker of a modeling agency replied to one of my requests to book a model for an e-commerce shoot, “You want a white girl, right?” Subconsciously, these moments of devaluing black and brown infused individuals have triggered my desire to create THISISBLACKGROUND, portraiture of black and brown infused individuals that celebrates, documents, and re-imagines infused black and brown models of color.
TC: In the description of this work, you seem to be redefining socio-cultural codes of what it means to be black. Why use the term ‘infused’ to approximate or to redefine traditional notions of color? Are you only referencing one's skin tone in your use of the term?
Giovanni Martins: With my use of the term “infused” or some variation of it, I am referring to transnational, cross-cultural, and hybrid infusions of color that get at a person’s heritage and background--black-albino, black-Irish, half-Jamaican. It seems that there is a sort of a “threshold to pass for white” when you are mixed as well, however a black-albino, who is whiter than the whitest white person, would still be considered black, which problematizes stereotypes of race, something deeper than a person’s skin tone. Also, how about people with vitiligo, people with literal white and black skin.
TC: How might your body of work, with special attention on THISISBLACKGROUND, make a difference in the way we imagine and depict black people or people in general?
Giovanni Martins: It is meant as a celebration, an homage if you will, to black and brown people. I can remember when I was a little boy, I did not see many people of color in either magazines or on TV (except the few pop stars/actors). There was no real-life connection, people whom you could relate visually. In its first instance of a coffee table book/exhibition), I am hoping parents will love it and show their children, give them an inspiration of diversity to look up to. But, also to show a unique creativity and if people are not sure what they want to become when they get older, they might consider a creative craft such as a photography, make-up, hair, etc.
TC: Do you imagine THISISBLACKGROUND more as a chapter of a book or as an entire book or tomb? Why?
Originally, THISISBLACKGROUND was supposed to be a coffee table book with an international exhibition. However due to the current situation, I find it more important to release part of this work now, as now more than ever it is relevant--it is now and it is important. So currently, THISISBLACKGROUND is a series of individual prints in various sizes. We might add posters as well. Once the world recovers from COVID-19, we will continue shooting until we get to the 100 models and can work on the coffee table book. When people are able to go to exhibitions/clubs etc. again (and it is safe to do so) we will continue with our exhibition plans.
TC: How do your values and what you take seriously in life around issues of social justice find expression in your work generally speaking, and then specific to THISISBLACKGROUND?
: For me--and I believe this is also part of how I was raised--it is the fact that everybody is created equal. Pardon the expression, but we have a saying in the Netherlands, “Even the queen goes to the toilet and uses the same toilet paper.” Not 100% relevant, but it gets at our equality, whether richer, poorer, whiter, blacker, thinner, fatter etc. These values have always been with me in my work, even before THISISBLACKGROUND. I have been advocating for diversity, whether for editorial or commercial shoots.
A turning point for me, as I mentioned before, was “that" conversation with a client in NY, who used that specific racist statement. I did not do anything about it at the time. I should have! And this is something that still gnaws at me at times. I hope for more diversity and more leveling of the playing field with the project. THISISBLACKGROUND [could very well be] the first ever book celebrating black models, shot by one photographer.
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