The young New York photographer welcomes us into her multi-coloured, multi-layered world of wonder

Arielle Bobb-Willis’ photographs are a joyful concoction of colours, bodies and shapes. There’s a youthful playfulness to them that makes you smile and want to find someone to hug. So in conversation with the born and bred New Yorker in her choice of restaurant (a dinky downtown spot where all walls and furniture are candy pink), it’s surprising to learn that her work originally stemmed from a dark place. “I went to a preppy high school in Georgia, which was the most horrible experience, and I went into an existential depression for about five years. I couldn’t look at people or even myself. It was like my identity had been taken away and the world lost its hue,” the 23-year-old recalls. “Then I took a digital imaging course and the teacher saw that I enjoyed it so much that he gave me a film camera. I shot my first roll of film in my room and when I saw the bright, saturated images I was like, Oh my God. Holy crap, this is crazy!”

“I’ve come to understand that only through adversity and discomfort will you find growth”

Photography became Bobb-Willis’ therapy and she went on to study it at university in New Orleans, where her current approach took shape. “I’d learnt about contemporary art through my dad. He knew Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring and growing up would always take me to exhibitions. But it was in New Orleans that I learnt how poetry and soul can go into your art. New Orleans grounded me in the human experience. I’ve come to understand that only through adversity and discomfort will you find growth.”

Now living back in New York and embarking on her promising career, Bob-Willis is inspired more by painters than photographers. She looks to the works of African American artists Jacob Lawrence, Benny Andrews and Gertrude Morgan for her approach to both composition and representation. Her images may break people into depersonalised blocks of vivid colour through her choice of extreme poses and simple costumes, but they are very also often bringing black bodies into bold view. “I would love to see more black people in abstract art,” she says. “My photos are me, so when I shoot people of colour it feels more whole. I want to continue to push for that always and forever and show off all the shades of black.”

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Published on 21/06/2017