Early last fall, Cruz Riley '17 began taking portraits of schoolmates for a photography class. By the end of the academic year, he had completed a campuswide exhibit that challenges the "reductionism" of blackness
By Dick Anderson | Photo by Marc Campos
From the Cooler and the Green Bean to residence halls and academic buildings, the faces stare back at you—a spectrum of complexions that are frequently lumped into a single word—black—for statistical reckoning.
"Blackness is comprised of an infinite milieu of cultures, values, shades, and identities," Cruz Riley '17 writes in explaining his public art installation, The Ninety-Five, that popped up all over the Oxy campus last spring. "By photographing the students in a formally consistent manner and framing the portraits to reveal only their neutrally expressed faces, I am eliminating superfluous vectors and allowing the viewer to direct their focus to the inherent differences between the faces. … It is almost as if the subjects themselves are challenging the viewer to reflect on and deconstruct their own socially conditioned notions of race."
"Blackness, I think, is a form of reductionism," says Riley, a media arts and culture major (and biology minor) from St. Louis. "We don't all look alike. We don't sound alike. The aim of this project was to make people challenge their own internal ideas of blackness and understand that it is such a spectrum. To just call something 'black' gives you zero information."
The first thing most people notice about Riley is his hair: long, black dredlocks that come down well past his shoulders. "Nearly every day, someone might touch my hair, or ask me some question like, do I sunburn?" While such microaggressions bother him ("I'm not a pet"), he adds, "I feel like there are enough students here—black, white, whatever—who are aware and willing to hear you out that it doesn't matter. I've met people who have improved me the most at Oxy."
Riley enrolled at Occidental as a sophomore after an unhappy year at Boston University (too large and "way too cold" for his tastes). "What I hoped when I was transferring to Oxy was that it would be a pretty socially aware environment—where people are going to know what's going on and be sensitive to other people's narrative and condition." He toured campus for the first time during the annual production of The Vagina Monologues. "Seeing everyone walk around wearing 'I Heart Vaginas' T–shirts—that was something we wouldn't talk about at BU."
With his parents' encouragement, Riley experimented with various artistic outlets growing up, but nothing stuck. "Trying photography as an art form, something clicked in my brain," he says. "It was finally finding a way to express myself. I had dabbled in poetry, but gotten really bored with it."
Prior to taking adjunct professor David Weldzius' digital photography class at Oxy last fall, "I'd always been like an iPhone photographer," Riley adds. "I got my first real camera [for the class], and that's the first time I took photography seriously. One thing I like about photography, especially film photography, is that once you've captured a moment, the moment's gone."
In his class, students were expected to use photography toward the development of a visual archive, "a body of work that categorized and differentiated a series of objects in the physical world," Weldzius explains. "I hoped that students would weigh the consequences of their aesthetic decisions alongside the conceptual framing mechanisms and systems of organization that, ostensibly, they themselves had crafted. On day one, we looked at and discussed an array of visual archives. Next, students were sent out with their cameras and assigned to report back."
As Riley was walking around campus, camera in hand, "I noticed there was a general lack of African-Americans. It's hard to find a large concentration of African-Americans on campus because there aren't that many of us. As a person of color in a predominantly white space, you are always aware that you're the other, that you're not the majority. So what was important to me was to capture the minority, shine a spotlight on something that's kind of hard to find on our campus. So I walked around taking pictures of black students."
When Riley presented his project in class—a dozen color portraits—"I was immediately intrigued by his archive for a number of reasons," Weldzius says. "The images were striking—honest, candid, and serious. Cruz spoke at length about his own lineage—admitting that, while he could trace his ancestry to the Caribbean, he could not reach back to Africa [because] this information was either buried or lost. Cruz presumed that this was likely true for many people of African descent in the United States."
In discussing the project with Riley, the true meaning of the word diversity was a frequent topic, Weldzius recalls. "At what point was this word folded into the administrative language at American colleges and universities? When did it become ubiquitous?"
In examining Oxy's admission materials, Riley noted that "black students were frequently front and center" when they showed up in photos, "yet, statistically, African-Americans were far less likely to attend and graduate college than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts," Weldzius says. Riley learned that, on average, 4.5 percent of Oxy students identify as black—95 students out of an undergraduate enrollment of 2,100. (In the 2015-16 academic year, that number was 4.9 percent; 49 percent identified as white, and 9.2 percent identified as two or more races.)
What Riley perceived as an incongruence between institutional discourse surrounding "diversity" and his actual experiences at Oxy, Weldzius says, "inspired Cruz to take the project to its logical conclusion": He set out to photograph most, if not quite all, black students on campus for his project, which he christened The Ninety-Five.
"It made sense to have a number that was lower than the actual total [103 in 2015-16] but would capture the vast majority of the students," Riley says. "So I ended up taking just under 100 photos." After some students opted out of being included ("they were happy to participate in the project at the smaller scale, but they didn't want their face to be on the wall"), 76 portraits were installed around campus in clusters of five.
"We spent several days discussing the wall didactic—how could Cruz present information about the project in a bite-sized form without diminishing the complexity of his project or the power of his portraiture?" Weldzius recalls. "From my perspective, a simple, understated mode of presentation was preferable to over-explanation. In my class, we talk a lot about the role of language in framing one's understanding of a picture or series of pictures. … Is there such a thing as an artwork that invokes an autonomous symbolic order—a picture, in other words, that 'speaks for itself'?"
In his ambition to stage his installation outside of traditional art exhibit spaces, Riley wanted to put his photography "in a place where it's hard not to see it," he says. "When you're doing public art you're forcing the viewer to interact to some extent." But the logistics of getting his work into 19 separate buildings was "a bureaucratic nightmare," he admits. "I didn't realize the amount of work that went into scheduling with all these different buildings and trying to get on the master calendar and working with Facilities."
The Ninety-Five "is meant to follow you throughout your academic, educational, or administrative day as a perpetual cue for self-reflection. In my mind, the success of this project can only be measured in its ability to catalyze Occidental College's students, faculty, and staff to reflect and engage in discussions surrounding the social constructions of race," Riley concludes in the artist's statement on his website (crucero.squarespace.com/installation).
Under ordinary circumstances, Riley's exhibit would have turned heads on campus. But The Ninety-Five materialized in the wake of last November's protests organized by Oxy United for Black Liberation, in which hundreds of students occupied the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center for five days.
"I was already knee-deep in the project" when the sit-in took place, says Riley, who stresses the autonomy of his work. "Beyond the black-centricity and timing, The Ninety-Five had little relation to the protest," he says. "Its primary aim is to investigate the social construction of race and the clumsy reduction of a broad spectrum of culture, belief, language, and traditions."
Riley was one of a handful of student photographers assigned to document the Oxy United movement. He estimates that he took "maybe 10,000 photos" of protest-related activities, many of which were published by the Huffington Post, LA Progressive, and other news outlets, including this magazine ("A Movement Not a Moment," Winter). The end of each day, he says, "was just a mad dash of editing work," sifting through all the images to post the best online—"a crash course in photojournalism."
In addition to photographing some of the most dramatic moments of the protest, Riley captured some of the quieter moments that didn't generate as much attention, "like students playing Scrabble on the AGC floor or group-hugging each other and crying. There were a lot of really moving images of people helping other people get through a hard time."
He adds: "While some might have seen this year as a negative one for Oxy, I would say that I've never been more proud of Oxy as a student body after this year. Seeing a group of people mobilize around a central idea and act on it, that was really powerful. So all that week I was like, I made the greatest decision ever in coming to Oxy."
In response to those who would suggest that the protesters must hate Occidental, Riley retorts, "Here's a group of students who love the school so much that they are willing to put their academic success on the line to improve it. If I didn't care about Oxy, I wouldn't have slept on the [AGC] floor," he notes with a laugh.
With his senior year fast approaching, Riley (who aspires to go to medical school) is eager to make the most of his remaining two semesters. "I want to do a comp and an honors project," he says. "I think I have something going here with breaking down social constructions of blackness and what it means to be black, because I don't think anyone can define what it means to be black. They can only give their experience.
"So I want to somehow extend The Ninety-Five. What I did was take people's faces and say, this is what people who identify as black look like. But I feel like I've only shown people at skin level." Riley is thinking of making a 10-minute video asking roughly 60 of his peers, in 10-second sound bites, about what it means to be black at Oxy.
"Because one of Oxy's tenets is diversity, I think we need to raise the bar on what it means to be a diverse campus," he adds. "When I go to a class, I'm normally the only black student in the class. I want to see like Oxy be 1-to-1 of as many groups as possible. It doesn't make any sense that there are only 4.5 percent black students here when there are hundreds of thousands of qualified students. It's frustrating that I feel like I am scarce when it shouldn't be that way."
Riley is no stranger to self-examination, and atypically introspective for his age. "My first year of college wasn't the most pleasant experience, and then getting to Oxy was so refreshing, because I was like, 'Finally I'm in an environment where I can be myself—all of myself—without having to hide any of my personality.' Junior year was one of the biggest years of self development—What was my experience as a black student? How does that compare to other students?—but was really hard, really stressful. Trying to get this project done, I broke down a lot of times.
"I want to look back on my last year of college and be like, Graduating Senior Cruz is better than Rising Senior Cruz," he says, stretching his arms and adding, "I just want to sit outside before it gets real."