In the disco world of 1979, one of the standout, chart-topping blockbusters was “Ladies Night” by the legendary funk/soul band Kool & The Gang. And now, for the photographer Laylah Amatullah Barrayn – who was born in Brooklyn that year – the song has quite literally come to life in so many ways.
In Brooklyn, the historic Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza is just the latest institution to showcase Barrayn’s dazzling work.
The exhibition (titled “Her Work As Witness: Women Writers of the African Diaspora”) highlights nearly 40 dynamic women of color who were photographed in intimate settings over the course of a year. There’s Esperanza Spalding – the critically-acclaimed jazz singer and songwriter – who appears to mimic the precision-like stance of a ballerina. Meanwhile, legendary poet Sonia Sanchez basks in the glow of the natural light encircling her.
Also among those featured – the notable writers Jill Nelson, Susan Taylor, asha bandele, and Raquel Cepeda. At times sensual and playful, Barrayn’s images are largely celebratory. Still, the exhibit’s very existence makes a statement that veers well beyond the surface.
Best known for using their words and voices to tackle a range of social ills – from sexism and racism to class inequality and domestic violence – the women in Barrayn’s show have all dedicated their lives to interpreting the complex world around them. But rarely have they, in turn, been collectively probed in such a manner – until now, that is.
“They use their pen to fight for us [and] they use their pen to tell the truth,” Barrayn told me. “I would love for you to see their words and not only know their words, but to see their faces.”
Still, for this reporter who attended the opening reception for “Her Work As Witness” in early December, it’s Barrayn herself and the many accomplishments that she’s garnered – during an incredibly short time frame – that first comes to mind.
I met Barryan in 2001 as she worked alongside Brooklyn-based author/activist Kevin Powell and April Silver, founder and president of the communications agency Akila Worksongs, to produce a series of conferences with a broad array of artists and activists across New York dubbed “Hip-Hop Speaks.”
Humble, yet brimming with energy – Barrayn’s passion for writing and the cultural arts was unmistakable. It was often, during that period, when we exchanged many thoughts about pursuing dreams. But what form would it ultimately take? At the time, little did I realize that she was already fully inspired.
Years earlier, while still in her teens, Barrayn made her way to Philadelphia to chronicle the Million Woman March – a massive protest rally that included the likes of actress Jada Pinkett Smith, the late civil rights activist Dorothy Height, and a veritable sea of women who trekked across the nation to participate.
For Barrayn, the experience left an indelible impression. And since then, Barrayn – a self-trained photographer – has tirelessly labored to use her camera to build a formidable and still-emerging platform for herself in recent years. With her first solo show in 2005 (titled “Black and Tan Fantasy”) in Brooklyn, she highlighted her findings from trips abroad where she documented life in the African Diaspora – from Jamaica and Barbados to Malaysia and Senegal.
Last week, Barrayn was feted by friends and admirers alike at her latest show. Still, much like the many prominent women who inspired her, she’s more inclined to shine the spotlight elsewhere.
Nevertheless, by providing more context to individuals whose experiences, for better or worse, fail to capture the sustained attention of the public-at-large – the inherent beauty, strength and value of Barrayn’s work becomes all the more clear and important. Yet what’s also clear is that given Barrayn’s status as a shooting star in her own right – with many miles yet to go – her time has now come.
Or, in the words of Kool & The Gang’s “Ladies Night”:
On disco lights, your name will be seen.
You can fulfill all your dreams.
Laylah Barrayn’s work can be seen at: http://laylahbarrayn.com