Interview: Azikiwe Mohammed

Azikiwe Mohammed in conversation with Peter Freeby

Azikiwe Mohammed is a Photographer and DJ. He earned his BFA from Bard College. Recently, he exhibited with SENSEI, Gitana Rosa Gallery, Culturefix, and 15 Warren Street in New York, as well as La Peche Gallery in Los Angeles. Mohammed was also a highlight of the Spring Break Art Show at the Moynihan Post Office in New York.

Q: Who are you? What do you do?

A: Who I am, I guess it depends on who you’re asking, and in what time frame they knew me from. Born and raised in New York. I still live in New York. I live in Tribeca in the house that I grew up in. Mom moved out, I think it was like 9-10 years ago.

When you live somewhere, you need entertainment, food–both eating out and a kind of grocery thing–a bar of some sort, and basic amenities of a neighborhood. There aren’t really those things there. There’s Whole Foods, if you want to wait 45 minutes for a granola bar. The bar that I’ve been going to for “x” amount of years is closing on December 31st. The place I used to go for breakfast just closed 3 months ago… I guess it’s a nice place to live if you’re not one of the working humans that have to do stuff. But I’m a worker. That said, home is home. I do like where I live. It’s close to everything, and [is convenient] given that I have so many jobs that all require me carrying massive amounts of stuff. I can change costume over the course of the day.

I'm trying to make things a little less shitty than they are for as many people as possible as often as possible. And then wherever that lands me is where that lands me. Does that make sense? That's my main “me as a human” driving focus… So I’m trying to figure out a way to gainfully employ myself and make things that I think will be helpful and useful to other humans. I want to see the brunt of my life as not important; [I am] completely irrelevant.

I’m in the process of making a fake thrift store for a location that I’m building. Right now I’m making all the items for the store… What are the items that denote the location?… Lamps come to mind… I would much rather give you all of the souvenirs of your visit and then allow you to create all of the memories of the visit on your own after you have them. As I start to make enough of them, hopefully the eye will be turned away from me as the maker because, A) it’s hard to believe one person made all this crap, and B) it all looks too different–it doesn’t make sense that it’s all one person.

[I’m also] doing a lot of stereo photography right now. Like 3D stuff. More stereo work and more black portraiture. Those are the two things that I’m really trying to shove towards right now.

Q: What were your early influences?

A: The first time I picked up a camera, I want to say was 7th grade? It was a yellow Kodak, point & shoot disposable, and I took a whole bunch of pictures of trees in Central Park… those were the first art pictures I remember taking. And I showed my mom, and she was like “What is this? This is garbage!” and they were. They were terrible pictures. They were just picture of trees and shit. But it was a really good lesson that just because you say it’s good doesn’t mean it’s good. It has to be good to be good. Keep your audience in mind and actually engage with the thing that you’re trying to take pictures of.

My dad shot events, portraits, schools, weddings. He saw that a lot of photographers were making money, came up with a company name, “Armor Photo.” So when you looked in the yellow pages, that was the first name that was up. That was the reason he named it [that]… As I go on, I see the things he did well, and the things he didn’t do as well. He was pretty good. He never took [the company] past handing the photos back [to the client]. Just as a service. I’m sure that has a lot to do with my service perspective.

Q: What does your process look like as a DJ and Photographer?

A: Everything in all of my practice involves making items with and/or for other people. [That is] everything that I am engaged in during the span of the day. So those two conceits–the photos and music–are the ones that make the most sense.

As a photographer, I am gifted with the ability to be able to hand back people their memories on a consistent basis. It’s something I take very seriously. I’m very happy and honored every time I’m asked to do that. One of the things that I think marks me as a photographer–from what I’ve been told by employers in terms of why they like me–is that I’m participating, as well as the documenter. If there is a moment that I see that you guys had and probably wanted that I didn’t get, as an observer, it’s impossible for me to recreate that. But as a participant, I can be like, “Hey guys! Jim, right? Remember a few minutes ago when you did that thing?…”

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If you don’t make rules for yourself (photographic and otherwise), no one else is going to and you’re just going to swim around in this self appreciation… So as long as the picture makes sense within itself, it’s fine. If you have enough rules that match each other and you have photos dancing around those, then that creates the series.

With music it’s very different, because the school where I come from in terms of DJ-ing is “journey.” One song journey. You come in and you know–and again it’s a trust thing– that I’m going to be playing stuff that will be good. It may be stuff you’ve heard. It may be stuff that you haven’t heard. But you’re open to learning new things and hearing new stuff. Having this paired with some things that you do know. It helps elevate the night a little bit and takes the brunt of curation off of you. You walk in, know that it’s going to be good, and then with that comes fun. Move some, dance some, sit in a corner and just listen, whatever. But again, [I’m] taking the burden off, and offering a new thing that hopefully will aid in something that is necessarily in your space. That’s when it works the best.

Q: What do you you think of more traditional painters like Velazquez with works like Las Meninas? Do you draw inspiration from that sense of the presence of the artist?

A: I love this painting. Him and Caravaggio, those are the two… The physical handling of the material is insane, but it’s so much so that it becomes a non-issue.

NOTE: In the painting, Velázquez is clearly depicted just to the left of the scene. both Velázquez and Mohammed seem to think that “Your hand is going to be there, you might as well just say ‘Hi.’” Velázquez also famously portrays the underdogs in society. The dwarf and dog depicted to the right in the painting are neither over embellished nor devalued by their structure or brushstrokes. Though the royal children alongside the dwarf and dog have a grace to them, the structure of the painting doesn’t put them in another realm or superior section of humanity. The only person depicted with lesser value in the foreground of Las Meninas is Velázquez himself.

Mohammed’s selflessness allows him to be involved in his work, not just like Velázquez, winking out of the corner of the frame, but participating in the photographed moment as it happens. As a photographer, Mohammed isn’t just capturing the moment, but helping the depicted to develop their on-screen character into something that is more themselves and more true to their memories of the event.

Q: Who are you watching?

A: Hank Willis Thomas, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Rachel Stern, old tourism brochures, welcome videos they have at tourist welcome centers