he act of re-engaging with traditions and histories lost or obfuscated by American violence can form into a lifelong pursuit. For her current exhibition, Birthed From The Soil, at the Front Door Gallery in UNR’s Church Fine Arts Building, Iyana Esters explores reconciliation and growth through images of mentorship.

Yawah Awolowo (a.k.a Mama Yawah) in her yard, July 2023

Esters has made a practice of generating images around events and people she feels a passion for. For her latest series of photographs, she journeyed to Alabama’s Black Belt to photograph—and learn from—Yawah Awolowo (aka Mama Yawah), an organic farmer, natural food chef, and midwife.

“She is an Alabama native, beautiful woman in her 70s, ahead of her time as a Black, loving matriarch who was plant-based, like 50 years ago,” Esters said. 

“It’s pretty much a photographic love affair,” she added. 

Mama Yawah holding a squash from her yard

“I take my camera with me to explore beautiful places and beautiful people,” Esters said. “I get to meet them and learn more about them. … I’m already out in nature as an herbalist, but learning from our ancestors and elders is really important. I always have my camera to document when I’m going and exploring … because it’s important to bring forth things that are practices that us as Black folks do, and that we’re connected to.”

Muslin cloths that Mama Yawah uses to make juices

While depicting visions of poly-African lineages through photography would be a significant enough practice, Esters also brings her herbalism into focus as part of the image making. She creates her own natural dyes from plants.

“So I did that creating photographs using plants that reminded me of Mama Yawah, as well as other images that I have of her … and the reason why I did that is because I want people not to see ourselves as different from nature, but to see ourselves in nature,” she said.

Often we find when focusing on the African Diaspora depictions of loss, trauma, history, and traditions made unrecoverable. In Birth From The Soil, Esters gifts us with the things that remain in African- American culture, from eating habits to ritual practices disguised as daily life—eternal connections to our ancestral family that cannot be taken or destroyed.

Birthed From The Soil is on view at UNR’s Front Door Gallery, which is programmed by the Lilley Museum of Art and located in the Church Fine Arts Building, through Jan 1, 2024. A reception is scheduled for Nov. 2, 5:30-7:30 pm. 

Photos courtesy of Iyana Esters

Posted by Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a wizened veteran of the Las Vegas arts and journalism scene, a lonesome cowboy riding the high desert who occasionally wanders in to communicate dispatches on the innumerable goings on in this thing called civilization. Beware his haggard stare and keen eye.