Ayana V. Jackson is an American contemporary artist, photographer, and filmmaker who is among the most talented artists working today.
She was raised in East Orange, New Jersey, where her family has lived for generations. Jackson’s family dates back to Lawnside, the first Black settlement in New Jersey. Her grandmother, Angenetta Still Jackson, is a descendant of Leah Arthur Jones, a member of the founding family in the region. Jackon’s grandfather, J. Garfield Jackson, was also a significant community member as Essex County’s first African American principal, and there is an East Orange public school named after him.
As a young girl, Jackson was always fascinated by the portraits of generations of her family hanging at her grandparent’s house. Jackson said that the photographs, along with their placement, had a clear message: “You have a history, you have a legacy, and there’s something to look up to and live up to as a part of this family.”
In 1999, Jackson earned her BA in Sociology from Spelman College and later traveled to Ghana to visit her family’s compound in North Odorkor. It was during this trip that she produced her first photography series, “Full Circle: A Survey of Hip Hop in Ghana,” – a visual documentary of the Ghanaian music scene. In 2005, German photographer and professor Katharina Sieverding invited Jackson to study at the Berlin University of the Arts, where she examined critical theory and large-format printing.
Some of Jackson’s most notable works surround the African diaspora and the use of her body as a visual instrument to explore how photography shaped the narratives of African-Americans and Africans.
Jackson has since gone on to have her works featured and collected by various prominent local and international institutions, including The Studio Museum in Harlem (New York, NY), The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (Australia), The Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago, IL) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Seattle, WA), and more. She also was a 2014 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow for Photography and the recipient of the 2018 Smithsonian Fellowship. Most recently, Jackson has portrayed her family members and historical black women from the 19th century to “fight photography with photography” and deconstruct portraiture of that era while considering ethics, race, gender, and myths of the Black diaspora.
Jackson’s art is compelling and unique, and her 2019 piece “Black Rice” is in the Clark Collection – which I took with me to Dubai when I served as Commissioner General at Expo 2020 Dubai. It’s part of her “Take me to the lake” series, an archival pigment print on German etching paper that was displayed at the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Chicago.
Artists like Jackson help society contextualize history by demonstrating the lives of important characters through curated moments and teaching us to look to the past to better understand the present.