Ancient Black Saints
Interview by Lauri Lyons
Welcome to the magnificent world of Barron “Africanus” Claiborne, a renowned self-taught photographer, cinematographer. Originally from Boston, Claiborne has mastered the art of weaving historical facts into vivid feats of imagination.
Lauri Lyons: What inspired the Sable Goddess series?
Barron Claiborne: My photos usually come from what I read. I was reading about the saints before the catholic church was moved to Rome, when the church was located in North Africa. I read about Saint Nirvana and Saint Perpetua. They were saints in the early church in North Africa. Saint Augustine was the head of the catholic church.
The were a lot of saints but the first saints were black, and the first popes were black. The saints were also black in the christian church. You see images of them in catacombs and in Rome. You will see black russian icons, a lot of eastern european icons. Even Santa Claus (St. Nick) was a black man, that’s why today the Dutch recognize Zwarte Piet, his sidekick apprentice, who was also black.
What are your favorite subjects to read about?
I like archeology, history, and mythology.
What inspired you to start photographing people as saints?
The women I know and my mom. Your mom is like your saint. I was photographing women who were around the age of my mother, when she had me.
Did you pick women that fit into the character of the saints?
Yes, that’s basically what I do. I see someone and sometimes it’s just completely aesthetic. I see the person as I want them. It’s pretty simple.
A lot of your images have a lot of textures and layers. What is your process?
I make the backdrops. I use cloth, paint, and paper to have that icon feeling. I also use symbols from different cultures and geometric patterns from different places.
Are the crucifixes special?
Some are coptic crosses, some will be orthodox, some are crosses that I make. The cross is also a nautical symbol. It also represents man. It’s not just a religious symbol. All of these symbols were in usage before religion.
How long did you work on the series?
I worked on the Sable Goddess series for ten years. I created it for the new millennium. I started shooting it in 1990 and stopped in 2001. Now they don’t make the Polaroid 8 x 10 film anymore.
Did you create the set design for the backgrounds?
Yes, I usually did it myself. It would take a day or two to fix up the set. Sometimes I would change the background slightly. I would move the sun up, behind the women or I would change the cloth. I also built the lights. I didn’t have any specific method to create the sets, I would just do it. When you’re a genius, you don’t really think about the “how”, you just think about what you want to do. (laughs)
What were some of the highlights of shooting the series?
Getting to know so many women. I also like seeing people’s beauty. What people look like when they came into the studio, is very different than what the photos look like. Even the people themselves are always amazed at how they looked.
That’s what I like about photography – it’s not reality. It can be more realistic if you want, but it can also be complete fantasy or a mixture of both. I tend to like things that are beautiful. I don’t really like to take pictures of things that are ugly. I’ve been to refugee camps, but even when I’m there I try to make people look beautiful.
Have you traveled to the places you’ve read about?
Oh yeah, places like Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt. A lot of what people think of as ancient Egypt really started in the Americas. Black people in the Americas are just as old as people are in Africa, but people just don’t realize it. People don’t notice that there are more pyramids in the Americas than anywhere else in the world, including the Nile Valley. There are pyramids everywhere. There are more megalithic structures in the Americas than anywhere else in the world. People just don’t bother to go see them, but they are right there. Their ancestors are here right under their feet.
What is it like for you to go to those places?
It’s interesting because when you travel around, people know that you are an American. They will tell you certain things when you go to Africa like, “ My people were in the Americas way before slavery”. People in West Africa will tell you that their people used to go back and forth to the Americas long ago. If you start searching for the information you will find it.
Do you feel like you’re time traveling?
A little bit. I think when you go to a place that is foreign to you, it is kind of like time travel. You can go back in time, or you can go someplace more modern than where you came from. I always think that people are the same. People are what matters. When you go places and you say, “Wow that person looks like so and so from New York”, it’s because people are the same.
Which places have stood out to you the most?
Going to Kenya and Ghana. I like South America a lot. I love Mexico because it’s really cool and huge. There is so much about the country that people don’t really know. We don’t really think about the America(s). A lot of people just think about America. We don’t think that the people in the Americas are also related to us.
The black people in the Americas are the same people as we are. They just moved around and live in one place and then moved to others. Some people from Jamaica really came from North Carolina and South Carolina. People from Louisiana were sent to Haiti and people from Florida were sent to Oklahoma. The slave trade was really around the Americas. They enslaved black people within the Americas and were sending them around.
What do you think about the theory that aliens built the pyramids?
People think aliens came to Earth and built stone buildings with humans? Get the f**k out of here! That’s the dumbest s**t I’ve ever heard in my life. Do some people think that black people, the oldest people on Earth, are so dumb they didn’t know how to make buildings?
Everything that we know comes from the people before us. That’s why I always think it’s weird when people say ancient people were primitive. You mean the people we got science, math, the calendar, and everything else we know from, were primitive and stupid, really? That’s weird because we didn’t invent numbers, they did. We didn’t invent chemicals, they did. We didn’t invent farming, they did. How primitive could they have been?
Do you think your work is bringing history to the foreground?
All the things I do, you can find the actual images, paintings, and drawings if you look. You can find anything. You can look at the early paintings by the Dutch and Spanish and all the images of Native Americans were black people that look like us, they were just wearing feathers.
Its right in front of people’s faces but they don’t see it. Black people don’t realize that their skin is red – they are the “redskins”. We are the only people that are red, but we call ourselves black. We’re brown, red, copper. The original definition of an American is “Copper colored tribes found here by the Europeans upon their arrival”. That’s the meaning of American.
When I was reading about the conquistador Hernan Cortez. He said in 1495, in Mexico City, he killed 350,000 blacks. He talks about killing Montezuma, who was was wearing a lion’s head from Africa, around his neck. So clearly, they traveled back and forth. They called blacks from the Americas Negros de terra, which means blacks from the land. They knew their were black people on both sides of the Atlantic. They wrote all of this down in their own journals.
What do you want to do with all this information you’ve accumulated?
I want to show it. One day I’ll be dead (laughs). That’s why I’m archiving my work, because I want to start showing this stuff. There is no point taking photos if you’re not going to show them. I’m digitizing all my collections. No one has as many photos as I do in my archive. I’ve been taking pictures for almost forty years, because I started so early. I have a lot of pictures I’ve taken all over the world and a lot of my personal projects. It’s almost revolutionary to show black people being beautiful, in a way that you don’t see.
What’s next on your artistic horizon?
I’m working on limited edition Sable Goddess books. I also plan on going to Cambodia. I’m curious to see Angkor Wat.
Photos © Barron Claiborne