By VICTOR SLEDGE, May 2021
Some art allows you to see a community. Other art, like Emerald Arguelles’, allows you to see straight through it.
Arguelles is as transparent of an artist as it gets. A visual artist and Editor-in-Chief of Aint-Bad Magazine, Arguelles’ work creates a haven for Black people to celebrate the stories and experiences behind their innate beauty. She peels back the layers of Black life to capture the intricacies and nuances that have seeped through the Black experience throughout time.
“I want to see Blackness and all that it is,” Arguelles says. “And it is so many things.”
Whether it be through the elegance of a durag, the beauty in pregnancy or the sacredness of a hair salon, Arguelles’ photos prove that Blackness is, in fact, so many things.
The elements of the Black aesthetic she captures have always been a part of Black art. The way she embraces these enduring elements gives her work a timelessness that speaks to Black beauty not just of today, but of the past and the future. From the coil of Black hair to the glow of dark skin to the majesty of Afrofuturism, you find this timelessness wrapped in the details of her work.
“Those elements of Blackness,” she says, “I know will be beautiful all the time.”
That clear look through Black beauty over time is just one of the artistic ways she brings transparency to her work. The models Arguelles shoots, who are almost always her friends, also add to that transparency. The comfort the models have with Arguelles gives way to unabashed photos, and that is clear through the striking element of eye contact throughout her work.
As you lock eyes with her models, they seem to almost pull your seat at the table out for you and invite you to a conversation about the story, life and intimacy behind the photo. The models seem to own their narratives.
Along with the eye contact, the way that Arguelles allows the models to fill up space in her photos makes it clear that the models themselves are where the photos find their stock.
“Taking up so much space is absolutely necessary,” Arguelles says. “It’s often that Black people are minimized. We’re told, ‘You can be who you are, but not too much of it.’ And that’s one thing I’ve always wanted to get away from.”
Arguelles captures the models in a way that feels honest, empowering and unapologetic. That element of truth and ownership keeps you engaged. Arguelles leans on that authenticity, and it keeps the stories flowing even in the most fragile settings.
In her series, “Tandem,” for example, she captures two nude models in various positions outdoors. It feels inaccurate to say that the models are interacting with each other because, as the title suggests, they are more like two parts of a whole, two people with one spirit.
Even exposed to the elements, they don’t feel desolate or deserted. There is a feeling of abundance between them as if they’re baring it all, even beyond their bodies. Arguelles shoots the models in a way that displays a quiet power between them.
We can’t tell if the models are sisters, lovers, or friends. Whatever their relationship, Arguelles doesn’t let their vulnerability weaken it.
Discovering the fruits of vulnerability is a theme throughout all of her work that adds to its transparency. Arguelles often situates herself in the cherished but often untold nooks of the Black experience and comes out with a story of love, strength, and beauty that seems to embrace the fragility of those spaces.
And in navigating those fragile settings, Arguelles also brings a delicacy to her work, both artistically and technically, that further helps present aspects of the Black experience in a genuine and graceful way.
In “Isn’t it Beautiful,” she steps into a Black hair salon, a historically safe yet vulnerable place for Black women, where everything from scandalous personal secrets to the beginnings of Civil Rights protest plans have been known to dwell. No stranger to what is often referred to in the Black community as “the beauty shop,” Arguelles, whose mother has done hair for decades, captures all the small, intimate moments that emulate the depth of a beauty shop experience for Black women.
In a standout photo from that series, “Black Madonna,” she captures that depth as a stylist’s hands carefully handles a woman’s hair. While the woman’s eyes are relaxed, closed shut, her daughter’s eyes are wide open, watching this sacred ceremony take place. It’s become one of Arguelles’ favorites in her catalog.
“That image really screams intimacy,” she explains. “That closeness with her daughter, but also allowing me to capture that moment.”
On the technical side of “Isn’t it Beautiful,” she worked with film, developing the images by hand.
“Film really slowed me down, and it made me really process what is important,” she remembers.
Through the development process, Arguelles translates the delicacy of caring for Black hair into the art itself by the delicate, meticulous way she developed the film. The process became a labor of love that further displayed Arguelles’ intimate connection with these Black experiences, as well as the people that keep those experiences alive.
“It became a process of how I care for my community and how we’re depicted,” she says.
Arguelles doesn’t only care for her community through her own art. As Editor-in-Chief of Aint-Bad Magazine, she carries that same care and transparency into her work with other artists in her community.
Arguelles started working at Aint-Bad in May of 2020, when the publication was undergoing major changes. One aspect of Aint-Bad and the art community in general that she wanted to change was the restrictive gatekeeping some artists face in the industry.
She says, “I wanted to break that. I wanted this to be an open space for artists to come, ask questions, get resources, and then build a community between each other.”
Arguelles remembers extending invitations for Zoom meetings to people who had constructive criticism for Aint-Bad, offering their audience a level of input that is extremely rare for an art publication to grant. She also continues to extend the same invitations to people who simply want her opinion on their work or a problem they’re having in the art world.
“I think that transparency in allowing for people to come with their issues, their celebrations -- whatever -- and being able to have that open dialogue really does help people feel comfortable,” she explains. “I always want Aint-Bad to be a space for that.”
As an editor, Arguelles has also championed representation at Aint-Bad, making Aint-Bad a space for other artists from marginalized backgrounds to tell their own stories in the way that she has.
“A goal of mine was to give exposure and opportunities to marginalized communities,” Arguelles says. “Let’s have a group of people with diverse backgrounds come together and make a decision about what art is and what it looks like,” she urges.
That’s who Arguelles is as an artist and editor: someone who champions the power of complete and unclouded representation for her own and everyone else’s community.
Arguelles’ work as an artist offers Black people space, but only upon the condition that they fill it up. Her catalog is a glimpse into the looking glass of her life and the Blackness that graces it. She allows people to look into the heart of the Black experience and come out with a fuller, unabridged idea of the beauty, community and culture of Blackness. Even further, she allows that same opportunity for other marginalized artists at Aint-Bad.
Arguelles has reached many feats even this early in her career, but as she moves forward creating art with authenticity and transparency and creating space for others to do the same as an Editor-in-Chief, it’s clear that she is far from reaching any peaks.
Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia. He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic.