The latest series "Ghetto Fabulous." by Savannah-based photographer Emerald Arguelles is empowering her community through reimaginations of the histories and futures of women of color.
Born, raised, and based in the American South, Emerald Arguelles has witnessed the lack and misrepresentation of Black bodies in both art and society. Camera in hand, she is challenging this canonical facet of a flawed westernized art history by reinserting the inspirational people from within her own community.
The work Arguelles produces is more than aesthetics, but asylum. In an approach she calls image-based activism, she employs rich saturations of color alongside meticulously designed compositions that uncover the overlooked stories of Black America. The worlds she creates, the subjects she depicts, and the narratives that arise from her images actively celebrate the nuances of culture and community with a revitalized vibrance that exudes pride and hope.
Today, Arguelles has an established photography practice as well as being the editor-in-chief of progressive contemporary art publication Ain’t Bad. She continues to pursue her mission of empowerment through her latest series, a personal project titled Ghetto Fabulous. Arguelles took the time to discuss this new series with Tainted Magazine and share how this energetic and uplifting project came to be.
Getting to Know Emerald Arguelles
Arguelles’s photographs invite us to witness private and often intimate moments. Her work is more than documenting those around her, she is using her unique eye to encapsulate the emotions and experiences of her world. Each image exudes a confidence, a pride, and a beauty that helps us dismantle the world’s preconceived notions surrounding the Black community and inspire those within it.
So how did Emerald Arguelles discover her distinct artistic voice has led her to create these gorgeous and influential works?
TM: It would be great to begin with an introduction. Can you introduce yourself to our readers and give us some insight into what made you want to pursue the life of an artist?
EA: Of course, my name is Emerald Arguelles, and I am a photographer. What attracted me to the medium was the freedom and the ability to create whatever world I wanted. I was in the Marine Corps from 2013-2017, and the structure and discipline of the military helped me navigate as an artist. However, I had the desire to have individuality and independence. Those experiences were a foundation for what I wanted as a photographer. When I was in the Marine Corps, I would often be the only woman, only Black person, or both. Photography allows me to create a world that is a haven for the Black community, to be free, safe, and to be what and whoever they want.
TM: You create spectacular images that blur the lines between documentation, staged portraiture, and notions of conceptual photography. How did your unique style and approach to the medium develop?
EA: Thank you. I believe the style and approach came from not being formally trained until later in my career. I made an intentional effort to break the rules and not define what I did. I, of course, had to choose a concentration in school, but I shoot what my heart desires to avoid being pigeonholed or defined for others to understand. College has helped refine my skills and given me an intended direction and encouraged my rebellion.
TM: While you are already a notable photographer, we see the incorporation of videography within certain bodies of work. Can you share how videography fits into your larger practice and how it integrates with your photography?
EA: I usually pull most of my motivation from videos and performance art. Oddly enough, when building a concept, it is always in motion. So incorporating that into my projects made sense to me as a next step. My first short film was for My God Wears A Durag, and that feeling, once it was completed, was something I had never felt before. It became a passion for sharing that emotion any time I could.
The Rise of Ghetto Fabulous
Arguelles returned to the home of her youth, New Orleans, in 2021 embarking on a new artistic journey, Ghetto Fabulous. Since she departed the Crescent City, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the place she once knew. Beyond the physical devastation of the natural disaster, the political and social turmoil that flourished in the storm’s aftermath decimated the lives of the people she left behind, with repercussions continuing to be felt 16 years later. Now, in her return, she is on a cathartic journey to recover the youth and sense of belonging that was lost. Ghetto Fabulous is Arguelles reclaiming not just a place but a mentality that can help her community unite and rebuild, alongside the city itself.
The iconic nature of the Beauty Shop is the central setting of the series. As we stroll the aisles with Arguelles, we watch as she brings together fashion, design, and style beneath the umbrella of her vivacious signature aesthetic. Here, she highlights the power of women; their beauty, their ingenuity, their persevering spirit. Ghetto Fabulous becomes a collaborative project rooted in self-love and admiration, in the face of the struggles of our tumultuous day and age.
TM: Your newest work is a photographic series, accompanied by a short film, entitled Ghetto Fabulous. What is your definition of “Ghetto Fabulous” and how did you work to encapsulate that in this project?
EA: Ghetto Fabulous is an attitude: it’s that confidence, that Black royalty. Ghetto Fabulous was a love letter to the women who babysat me, did my hair, and inspired me to hold my head high regardless of how others may define you or a world telling you that you are not supposed to be confident, love yourself, and demand respect. The encapsulation of all those elements was in the freedom to allow every woman involved in this project to do what they wanted, creative freedom and trust. I believe that effort allowed everyone to trust themselves.
TM: Beyond the concept of Ghetto Fabulous itself, what was it that inspired you to create this series?
EA: In July of 2021, I went back to New Orleans for the first time in 7 years. As an adult, I yearned for a sense of home. Hurricane Katrina took a lot from me, and a sense of belonging was one of those things. That feeling allowed so many people to humble me and Ghetto Fabulous was an opportunity to enable my collaborators to flex and be empowered in that. It was an effort to heal the younger Emerald, give familiarity and appreciate what was once there.
TM: These works encompass your bold use of color and dramatic compositions that make your work iconic, but how do you see Ghetto Fabulous connecting to your previous bodies of work? And also, what makes it stand apart from these previous series?
EA: Thank you. Ghetto Fabulous and my previous bodies of work have an undertone of empowering my community to live your truth and love who you are. I believe what makes this project different is the emotional effort. It’s the most personal project; it’s confronting my struggles and the absences of my childhood. This project allowed me to feel a sense of home and reminded me to continue honoring the women who got me here.
TM: When viewing the short film for Ghetto Fabulous you make some artistic choices that add a striking energetic tone to the piece. I would love to know what made you decide to embrace an analog aesthetic as well as the decision to include an explosive brass band as the audio?
EA: The project was shot on a Super 8 camera, and that was my first time using it. I wanted to challenge myself to continue to be a student and be a sponge to my practice. The context of the project is a reimagined past, and using film for that was fitting. The decision to include “Big Girl” from Hot 8 Brass Band came from reminiscing on the score of my childhood, and it was loud, energetic, and had a second line. It carried my youth and felt appropriate for this project.
TM: You discuss the series as a collaboration; working with a Black hairstylist, nail artist, jewelry maker, beauty shop owner, and designer. How did this collaboration form, influence your creative process, and add to the final work?
EA: The Black hairstylist is my hairstylist. She’s always down for whatever crazy ideas I have and is so appreciated and loved. The jewelry maker and designer were both models I have worked with and have personal relationships with. The designer has made most pieces that others have modeled; it was great to have her in front of the camera in her designs. The nail artist was a new relationship that formed, and she was so flexible with the ideas I had and added her style to it. It was a great collaboration.
Also, the beauty shop owner was such a needed aspect that it was the hardest to secure. It seemed that every beauty supply wouldn’t allow photography in their space. However, a Black-owned beauty supply was difficult to come by, and once I spoke to the women who owned the space, they welcomed me into the space and allowed me to have the freedom to create this world. I felt supported through every idea and effort by the collaborators. There were no conversations of the impossibilities, and we helped each other through the process and completion. All of these relationships and connections made me feel safe in knowing that no one knows us better than us, and everyone treated their part of this project with pride, and it allowed me to trust myself to do the same.
From Fantasy to Reality
Ghetto Fabulous originated as a personal journey and evolved into a collective confident state of mind that resonates within Arguelles’s community. As she brought together creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial women, she has constructed a space within and outside of her images for people of color to have a voice in shaping their own realities.
TM: Your works are reimaginations of the past and speculative futures for the Black community in what you’ve referred to as the “imagined domestic fantasy”. Can you explain how this has impacted your body of work and how does viewing these speculative futures impact viewers in the present day?
EA: I think reality has shown marginalized Black, Brown communities that our freedom and lives can be taken for just living our lives. Creating spaces and a safe world for us is a necessity, and in this world, I can be as free, as loud, and as expressive as I wish to be without judgment and fear. I hope that others feel that when experiencing the work and that these speculative futures impact viewers in knowing that there are efforts and hope to create a world where lives are valued and perspectives are respected. There’s a home for you, there is a space where you are heard, where you matter, and you are loved.