Zora J Murff’s Re-Making the Mark
Q+A with Artist Zora J Murff
Zora J. Murff's Re-Making the Mark is on view in the Desai | Matta Gallery through November 3, 2018. In this exhibition, Murff connects the destructive legacy of government-endorsed discriminatory housing policies (slow violence) in North Omaha, a historically Black Nebraskan neighborhood, with the public spectacle of lynching (fast violence). In so doing, he engages the critical work of scholars like sociologist Rob Nixon and UC Berkeley professor Leigh Raiford, whose Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare spotlights the evolution of lynching photographic imagery-from a celebration to a repudiation of the gross inhumanity of this practice.
Here, Murff responds to the observations of CIIS staff member and MFT Intern Lauren Selfridge: "There is a strikingly intimate quality of these three portraits that form the focal point of the exhibition. Was there a prompt for each one? What happened in the moments before the photo was taken?"
Conversation has always been the inspiration for my portraits. I want to talk with my subjects, interact with them, connect with them. Of course, I don't expect that they will allow me to take their photos; though the presence of the camera implies that eventually I will ask.
The first portrait of the young man on the basketball court came about when I saw a group of kids playing basketball. I watched them for a while, and when they seemed to be done with their game, I introduced myself. They were curious about my camera, and had lots of questions about the subjects of my pictures. I photographed a few, but one young man stood out; I think it was the beads in his hair and that he was the smallest in the group. I asked if I could make his portrait. He agreed and posed for me, holding the basketball. At one point he reached up to scratch his eyebrow, and his gesture, as he lowered his hand, was really beautiful. I asked him to repeat the movement, and that's how the image came about. I scribbled his name on a scrap of paper in my pocket, but lost it. Unfortunately, I don't remember what it was.
The woman in the second photo is named Terri. It was taken outside her mother's apartment building. I went to the apartment complex because the freeway cuts behind it, and there's a retaining wall that I wanted to capture. Unfortunately, my efforts didn't live up to my hopes for the setting, but as I walked back to my car, Terri pulled up. She asked what I was taking pictures of. I told her about the scope of my project, and why specifically, I was interested in the freeway. She said that she was familiar with its history. I asked her if it was okay to make her portrait, and her eyes lit up. We worked together and chatted for while; she led the process. I just picked the settings. She would position herself in all kinds of ways. I went with it, feeling inspired as she moved. Before long I had run through a roll of film. While I reloaded, I watched her shoulders relax, and she pulled her knees up to her chest, hugging herself. I asked her to hold the pose, and that became the image.
The last portrait is of a man named Shaun, but he goes by Smoke. I was working on a job for The New Yorker about a group of exonerated individuals who had been extorted and wrongfully arrested by the Chicago Police Department. For the assignment, I made a portrait of Smoke and his cousin. We worked together for some time, at least two hours.
Like my interaction with Terri and the young man on the court, the moment that mattered, the moment I captured, was neither planned nor posed. It was simply a moment of humans "being"-me working the camera and scene, them easing into an improvised "self, " us-unscripted strangers-joining forces to capture a momentary yet eternal dignified truth.
Zora J Murff is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of Arkansas. Zora received his MFA in Studio Art from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and holds a BS in Psychology from Iowa State University. Combining his education in human services and art, Zora's photography focuses on how images are used to reinforce social and cultural constructs including race and criminality. His work has been exhibited nationally, internationally, and featured online.