Riley Blanks’ Self-Portraits Explore Identity, Expression and Resilience in “Manifest”
“Rebellion against limitations can actually make a room, a neighborhood, a city grow larger”
At the onset of the pandemic and shelter-in-place, I curated a self portrait series reflecting life in quarantine. These were my first words:
This is the slow-motion recording: me holding a curtain in front of my mind and letting it go, ever so slowly, as words and images fall from the fabric. There’s suffering in vulnerability. Exposure makes it better. So here I sit, in a red vintage chair that cost $69, trying to remember every thought. I imagine these essays as letters dropping from my fingers while I digest a time in my life that’s still sitting in my stomach. The world is spinning around me with words I’ve only read: pandemic, global virus, quarantine, self-isolation. They say this has never happened before. They said this would happen. Conspiracies and fears and tears weave their way through our collective consciousness. And as I walk around in circles, lost and confused, I’m just trying to find where the lines are drawn.
I wonder why simple things have to be so complex. There is now emptiness in the space I had carved for my future. I hoped I was psychic, that I knew everything to come. I buried my head in memoirs, spiritual practices and astrological readings begging for answers. And now, here they are all wrapped into one: Nothing is promised. Some of the best lessons are cloaked as tragedies. The pandemic is a wake-up call I can’t silence. It’s sad that our silver linings are filled with fire; that horror was necessary to remind us of what’s important, to reveal all the things we so often neglect. Maybe our attention is the miracle. As I release this curtain, I define the part I must play. And though I may be insulated from the world I thought I knew, my voice remains. The curtain is dropping. Slow. Steady. Still.
In the beginning, when my home became my only dwelling, I was distressed by immobility. But as time moved and I grew accustomed, I decided that “architecture” is in fact an active word. Defined as “a carefully designed structure,” architecture can be curated even when the materials don’t feel plentiful. Whether a built environment confined by walls or a city contained by redlining, all structures have the invisible potential to be pushed and prodded.
The manifestation of space is of great interest to me. As I continued working through self-portraits in a space that attempts to confine me, I found that rebellion against limitations can actually make a room, a neighborhood, a city grow larger. My ongoing series, Manifest, is an expression of my resilience as a biracial woman claiming space in a society that attempts to confine me. Through texture, movement, light and color, I am conveying that all women of color have the power to manifest an environment in which they can thrive despite the injustice they face within their respective communities.
Austin is a city that exemplifies a distorted progressive mentality, the only growing metropolis in the entire country with a dwindling African American population. The Lone Star Capitol building stands as a symbol of the erasure we’re experiencing as a nation. If you choose to stay, you have two options: Disrupt or assimilate. In my case, since my upbringing was multiracial and transnational, I know my responsibility: I must do both.
This past February, I exhibited seven of my images from Manifest at Miranda Bennett Studio, a sustainable boutique in East Austin that seeks to support local artists and provide an inclusive space for the community. East Austin is a historically Black neighborhood whose gentrification renders its occupants almost entirely white. Due to COVID-19 and the studio’s temporary closure, Manifest still hangs on those walls, taking up space in a neighborhood designed for but slowly devoid of blackness.
This year, my work has begun to reflect our current state of affairs more directly. Quarantine and protesting have risen as important issues to document; I hold the contemporary moment accountable for the years that bore it. I am constantly urging the viewer to think deeper, to deny societal trends and envision a landscape that is colorful and culturally integrated. I find myself relentlessly challenging limited archetypes by redefining the meaning of architecture, subverting the boundaries of restrictive structures in an effort to build new ones.