Against a bright yellow backdrop, a figure stands with her back to the viewer. Braids cascade down her back, the deep brown of her hair punctuated with gold pieces: gold strands and chunky hoop earrings of varying sizes. We might not be able to see her face but somehow she seems regal, stately in the way she stands firmly.
The photo is just one of many at “Adornment,” a photography exhibit focusing on the beauty of women of color. Dynamic duo Amanda Lopez, a photographer (and freelance contributor to L.A. Weekly), and Tanya Melendez, a stylist and artist, teamed up to take these stunning photographs. For Melendez they are not only aesthetically gorgeous but symbolically important.
“I've always been inspired by women from different cultures and historical backgrounds,” Melendez writes via email. “Their natural, raw beauty displayed through their hairstyles, adornments and clothing conveying a message of strength and resilience. Because of this, I've been 're-mixing' and 'fusing' traditional hairstyles and adornments into my creative work for the past six years.”
It took a little more than a year for Melendez and Lopez to complete the series. It was a grassroots effort: They reached out to friends and women they had worked with previously to model for the photos. They squeezed each shoot into their usual work (and life) schedules and took the photos at Lopez’s home studio in Highland Park, where Melendez was born and raised. Melendez is also the creator of a jewelry line called NenaSoulFly, which she’s been running since 2005.
Her love for jewelry shows through in the photographs, many of which combine intricate hairstyles with eye-catching jewelry pieces, or “the iconic Bamboo Doorknocker,” as Melendez calls the style. The photos are like a contemporary spin on classical portraiture — a way to distill and immortalize the distinct style of these women. Seeing women of color in portraits proves especially important within an art setting.
It also makes sense, then, that “Adornment” would be hosted in L.A. The city plays a significant role in the creation of the series. Melendez and Lopez met at Lopez’s first photography show back in 2007. And the city’s diversity shines through; outsiders might see L.A. as overflowing with people dressed in the California-cool style, but “Adornment” asks that we consider the clothing and jewelry of the communities that contribute to the city’s diversity.
“Los Angeles is interwoven with so much diversity and history,” Melendez says. “It was this diversity that played a vital role in carrying me through my artistic struggle and gave birth to this and other projects. Undoubtedly, this was the perfect place to introduce the show.”
Melendez hopes that viewers see themselves in the photographs — or maybe someone they know. Melendez and Lopez organized the show, most important, to encourage women of color to embrace their beauty.
“We want the viewers to know that it is OK to shine, be loud, not conform to society's standards of beauty and pigeonhole themselves in a carbon copy,” Melendez writes. “That their skin color, hair texture and style is beautiful and should be celebrated.”
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The pair is hoping to expand the reach of the exhibition and bring it to new cities soon.
“Adornment” is on view through April 1 at 977 ½ Chung King Road, Chinatown. The gallery space is open from 2-6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and noon-5 p.m. Saturday.