Taking risks: Endia Beal’s contemporary photography

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by Chris Nafekh

A man stands beside a colossal Confederate flag hung in the front yard of a North Carolina homestead.

It’s a photograph that captures the stigma of the American South and the debate between heritage and hate. It also earned Endia Beal, recently named the interim director at Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State University, acceptance into the Yale School of Art.

“There was this large Confederate flag,” Beal recalled. “It was huge like the size of a wall. I’d never seen a flag that big in my life.”

Beal, who is black, retold the story during an artist talk at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art on Aug. 13, surrounded by students and patrons. She sat comfortably in the spotlight and flashed a kind smile, crimson curled hair tumbling over her shoulders.

“He could’ve killed me,” she continued. “I was on his property; it could’ve happened. Of course the man is like, ‘What are you doing on my property?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I was admiring your flag.’”

The crowd chuckled.

“So,” Beal continued, “he told me how the flag, for him, represented the South and didn’t necessarily represent racism. I told him we can agree to disagree.”

Endia Beal didn’t anticipate her career as a groundbreaking photographer. It took time, tragedy and inspiration to set her on that path. As a child she never took art classes, but growing up on the south side of Winston-Salem galvanized her to narrate the stories of marginalized citizens.

“When I was in high school the first person I ever loved was shot and killed,” she said, referring to her friend and high school sweetheart. “When that happened everything changed.”

Beal turned towards art as a vehicle for emotional expression. She illustrated and wrote for her lost love whose death not only catalyzed her artistry but showed her the light in which minority communities are portrayed by the media. Winston-Salem papers, according to Beal, painted her lover as a thug shot in the streets.

“I knew him,” Beal said. “He was an artist, he was a poet, he was a wonderful individual and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Beal left Winston-Salem to study fine arts at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008. She started photographing her grandmother’s community in Durham’s south side, an area scarred by gang violence. Fearless, Beal photographed anybody willing to have his or her picture taken. Her photography developed into a narration of Durham’s underprivileged population.

“That energy of being around people who’d never seen a camera or had an opportunity to show themselves in a positive light, I fed off of it,” Beal said. “It kept me going back… for me it’s about the relationships I had with my subjects.”

Over the course of her college career, Beal watched children in south-side Durham grow up. She keeps their photos tucked away now as personal memories. Around the same time, she traveled to Lexington to document the many faces of Southern racism. There she met Bud, the man standing beside his Confederate flag in her application photo to Yale. Soon after her application, she received an acceptance letter.

“Charlotte” from Endia Beal’s Can I Touch It?
“Charlotte” from Endia Beal’s Can I Touch It?

During her stint as an IT intern at Yale, Beal created “Can I Touch It?” It’s statement on women in the workplace and her most famous work. In the office, she heard whispers from her coworkers that the men around her fixated on her Afro. Beal told the men to pull her hair; they did, and she caught it all on camera. She fashioned a four-minute video — it’s sexual, it’s awkward, and it speaks mountains about gender norms in a male-dominated workplace.

Then Beal gave white women black hairdos she had worn and snapped a series of portraits.

The 2015-2016 school year inaugurates Beal’s career at the Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State. Her premiere exhibit, “Flawlessly Feminine” features photographs of the women who graced the cover of Jet magazine from 1950 to the 1990s. The exhibit is inspired by the director’s interest in educating students on the stories of contemporary photography.

“You see these women’s stories but you don’t know the trials and tribulations they experience,” Beal said. “And so, there’s a bio associated with each woman to learn her failures and not just her successes. You know that Chaka Khan dropped out of high school, right? And Whoopi Goldberg was homeless and Halle Berry was homeless.”

The stories of these women are analogous to the trials Beal confronted in her youth. But Beal sees life in chapters — pages turn and time passes; she’s untiring in the pursuit of creation.

“We get to tell those stories to our students, especially our women and see that sometimes when you’re going through things it’s just a chapter, right?” she said. “And this too shall pass.”

Diggs Gallery is located at 601 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (W-S). For more info, visit endiabeal.com.