By RikkiLynn Shields, Asst. Editor
Manhattan College student Michelah Desnai Brown recently modeled for artist Fabiola Jean-Louis. Jean-Louis photographed portraits of Brown that are being featured in the exhibit “Rewriting History: Paper Gowns and Photographs.”
The Rewriting History series that Jean-Louis shot is based on the concept of social change and slavery. Jean-Louis questions how much slavery has actually changed since the beginning of history, and how much worth black lives have in the 21st century. Each photograph not only brings to light these questions, but also creates a vision for the future. A vision, “of hope, strength, resilience, and beauty,” Jean-Louis said. By using paper gowns in the photographs, Jean-Louis hoped to show that although the past cannot be changed, it is more than possible to change the present.
“The pieces on display at The Harlem School of the Arts are just a small version of what is going to become a huge collection, that will eventually be displayed in Atlanta,” Brown said. “The collection focuses on putting African American women in their rightful place. A lot of slaves that were brought here were royalty in their country, but when we see them in history, they are presented just as slaves. People with no identity, no history, no culture. Fabiola is taking famous paintings and putting black women in the place of the white characters, hence the name “Rewriting History.”
Jean-Louis is a Haitian born fine artist and photographer based out of Brooklyn. Jean-Louis has been involved in art since she was a young girl. As a child, she was forced to attend a Catholic middle school. However, as soon as she reached high school, she convinced her parents to allow her to attend the Fashion Industries High School, and subsequently, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. While majoring in illustration in college, Jean-Louis discovered her passion, love and natural talent for photography.
Jean-Louis’ art is said to be a mixture of fantasy and realism. “I believe she calls her art ’afro-futurism,’” Brown said. “All of her pieces come from her amazing imagination. She focuses on people of color because we are a group that are poorly represented in society. All of Fabiola’s photography is astounding and groundbreaking.”
Brown, on the other hand, has had some experience modeling before working with Jean-Louis. She didn’t, however, start modeling until later in her career.
“I started acting when I was 12 years old. My first audition was for a Redskins commercial, and I ended up getting it,” Brown said. “I didn’t start modeling, however, until I was 14 years old. I was asked to model in a Pacsun runway show, and since then, I’ve been splitting my time between acting, modeling, singing and whatever else I can get my hands on.”
“When I moved to New York I wanted to test shoot for some photographers,” Brown said. “I ended up emailing Fabiola and sending her some of my photos. She liked how I looked and added me to the ‘Rewriting History’ series, and we’ve been working together since.”
When Jean-Louis received the email from Brown, she knew right away that Brown was the perfect fit. “Well, Michelah is beautiful,” Jean-Louis said. “She had the European features I was looking for to fit that particular role. I’m delighted to see that I was right. She did a great job!”
Brown acknowledged that it was very interesting modeling for Jean-Louis.
“We were talking for two years before we ended up shooting together, and I didn’t really know what to expect,” she said. “At first, we had talked about doing a single conceptual shoot. Then, one day she messaged me and said she had a new project that she wanted to include me in. So I went to Brooklyn and met with her and the other models, and we carried out the project. The make-up that was done made me look like I was a painting.”
Brown, who is not a rookie to the modeling world, enjoyed her time modeling for Jean-Louis.
“Modeling for Fabiola was very cool. I love playing a character and getting dressed up, and helping Fabiola have her vision come true was pretty cool,” Brown said. “She created a great atmosphere, which is really important when modeling for someone. There has to be a good atmosphere to create a good product.”
The photos are currently on display at the Harlem School of the Arts Gallery. “When I saw the pictures for the first time, it was during the opening night gala, which was a little overwhelming because there was an abundance of people,” Brown said. “It seemed a little shocking for people to see the photos on the wall, and then to see the models in person. They seemed to get excited. I did an interview with Dynamic Virtual Private Network, and took about 200 different photos, all with different people. I enjoyed seeing people’s reaction to Fabiola’s work, and I really enjoyed seeing Fabiola’s vision come to life.”
“Being an artist in NYC has been great for my career. I meet a lot of people, and some folks who have great collaboration ideas,” Jean-Louis said. “I think the diversity of the city has translated into the diversity of my work. While I have a specific style in my work, I also have a very diverse portfolio. Aside from that though, being an artist is many times – not very glamorous… even if you live in a place like New York City. I work constantly, and live in my overalls or jeans when I’m not socializing.”
Although Fabiola has only been working in her field for two years, she is already beginning to make a mark with her art. Her art has been featured in AfroPunk, Blerds, ArtInsomniac, books, album covers and now in the portfolio of many models. Fabiola is currently working on her first solo photography and sculpture exhibition.
As an artist, Fabiola said that her biggest goal is to have her work hung in museums and galleries all around the world.