In her collage series #blackfolk, Brooklyn-based creative Elise R Peterson places prolific figures in the nooks of fine art to create spaces for some of contemporary culture’s most badass black icons. In between gigs at various schools and publications, Peterson has always tapped into educating others about the power of challenging identity norms. She realized she was onto something with her art after she placed 1970s blaxploitation star Pam Grier in a collage with a piece by French painter Henri Matisse because, “If Matisse and Pam Grier were living at the same time, of course she would be a muse.” From Sade to Grace Jones to Foxy Brown, all featured in various collages, Peterson says she sees herself in all of the black folks she chooses for the collection. The FADER caught up with her in her cozy home in a Crown Heights brownstone to talk about sexual liberation, her affinity for the ‘70s, and Tupac’s gentle side.
How did you first get into creating the #blackfolk illustrations?
My #blackfolk series started when I was working a job that I was really unfulfilled doing. I was a secretary at a school and it was really frustrating for me. I always end up working in education in some capacity but working in a school where I didn’t feel like I could really reach students was really frustrating for me. It was Black History Month, so I decided to challenge myself and initially just started featuring black figures that resonated with me and kind of putting them in spaces that I would rather be, aside from work.
I was making a collage every single day for the month of February. Being consistent with making the work, it’s bound to evolve. I started collecting a lot of fine art images that I love, which ended up being the works of Matisse. I’ve really always admired Pam Grier. I want to be a blaxploitation superhero so I was looking for images of her to pull. It was this painting of a topless woman in red sheets and I found this picture of Pam Grier, topless in red satin sheets. I was like, “Are you kidding me? This is perfect. They fit so well together.”
So that was the first collage that I made and I guess my concept simplified to two components: the figure that I’m featuring and the fine art work that I’m placing the figure in. From there I think my work became a lot more intentional. It opened up a dialogue and that’s really what I want to do. There are so many answers that people look for in artwork and I don’t really have the answers. There’s also the bigger conversation of placing black figures into these traditionally very exclusive environments like fine art where, initially, we could not thrive or were not welcomed just because fine art is a world of a certain socio-economic status. The work then evolved into not only placing us in these spaces but of us as black people being put into these white worlds while dominating at the forefront.
What does the #blackfolk series represent in regards to telling a story about the identities of the marginalized? You had Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim and all of these women who defied the norms and also were challenged because of their own identities.
In all the work that I do, my goal is to be able to open up the conversation again in regard to gender, identity, sexuality, blackness, or just about people who are marginalized. The common thread amongst all of the people that I feature—and a lot of times it ends up being hip-hop artists or musicians in some capacity—is that they’re really vocal about their contemporary black experience. Whether it was Lil’ Kim and her on the cover of Hardcore, legs spread unabashedly—not only unabashedly black but a woman and using her sexuality as a tool. Josephine Baker did the same and it worked for her instead of against her. It was something that she had her own agency over. For me, it was important for me see myself in those people.
Which people do you see yourself in? In what ways?
All of them. I’m very transparent about the kind of work that I’ve done. I’ve worked in the sex industry before. My writing documents my experience as a professional dominatrix in New York and accounts my own sexual exploits in that and outside of that, which was scary. It was a very scary thing to do because you’re afraid of being judged and your mom finding out or whatever. I saw myself in those women because they were not and continued to not be afraid of the standards placed on us, especially as black women. There’s so much talk now and it’s such a divisive issue. It’s like, we’re empowered, we are women, we can be sexual beings, and we can be in control of that. And then there’s also this narrative of black women as props, thots, we’re just in videos and just a prop for black men or men in general. I just feel that the women that I feature were able to defy that and I hope to be able to do the same. Maya Angelou was a sex worker. More than anything, it’s important to show these women who did not let society’s standards impose what they felt about themselves, their bodies, and sexuality.
In Tupac Meets Matisse, Tupac has his glasses on with his shirt buttoned up. Most pictures of Tupac, he’s thug lifed out.
The black man is the most feared figure in America and I think the most powerful as well. That’s that’s why there have been so many institutionalized things set in place to disable him. I was terrified to work with a black male figure. The first one I worked with was Langston Hughes and it was before I was being intentional and now I think I’m being more intentional with the things that I’m creating. Tupac was the first man that I worked with that I felt this strong weight to do him justice. Sure, he can be “thug life” but we also know Tupac as a poet, activist, and a multi-faceted human being so I really wanted to do him justice in that way. In that collage, he looks so soft and so introspective. When I saw the photo, I knew. I have a very visceral reaction when I see things. I’ll feel it in my gut and it’s like, “That’s the photo I have to use.” I saw him and the Matisse piece together and how they fit so perfectly and it also shows a black man being cradled by a woman.
How would you describe your style?
It is very black. But I think that I’ve been here before. I remember being 5 years old and listening to Barry White. His song went off the radio and I started crying because I missed his voice. So, the classics inspire me. The culture of the late ‘60s and late ‘70s inspire me, the music that I listen to at my grandma’s house inspires me. Just very nuanced moments of my childhood inspire me the most. A sense of familiarity. The clothes that I wear, the music I listen to, the food I cook. I like that sense of familiarity, it feels like home. That’s what inspires me most. It is a take on a classic, a new take on the classic.
What about the aesthetics of the era do you connect with the most?
Early ‘60s and ‘70s was such a transformative time. Visually, there was never a time where we looked like that before. The way we were dressing in the ‘60s and ‘70s. A lot of work was very reactionary to the climate of America and the world. The way in which people responded to what was going on, I think was more impactful than protests have ever been. It really ignited some change, from music to fashion and black women wearing their hair natural. All of the things that were going on during that time, it was revolutionary. I don’t think there was ever a time that was as revolutionary. I really appreciate that out of respect. They created a culture that I love.
Do you see your work being revolutionary?
I don’t know. I try not to think about that too much. It can hold so much weight that I can get weighed down in that. When you start thinking about work in those terms, you take yourself seriously but I don’t wanna take my work so seriously. More than anything, I made #blackfolk for myself before anyone else. I never made it with the intention that it could grow to the level that it’s growing. Sitting down here talking with you about this blows my mind. I was a secretary at a desk, just making collages, that was it. But it makes me really proud and really happy to make it. When it doesn’t make me happy, that’s when I’ll stop doing it. It’s a double win to know that it resonates with people and moves people in a certain way to open up this dialogue. More than anything that I do, whether it’s my written or visual work, I just want to do that. I don’t want to come across like I know everything because I don’t. I love to talk to people and I love that we can sit down and talk about something for an hour that may evolve beyond the work.