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Naima Green, Pur·suit 2020
Naima Green, Sara Elise + Amber, Pur·suit, from “Pur·suit” (2018-present)Courtesy of the artist

Photographer Naima Green reimagines Catherine Opie’s famous ‘Dyke Deck’

The photographer turn portraits of New York’s LGBTQ+ community into a pack of playing cards

In the early 1990s, Catherine Opie made a series of studio portraits of members of California’s LGBTQ sadomasochistic leather community for the Dyke Deck, a limited edition set of playing cards sold exclusively at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Like many underground artworks of the time, they were known among a select few but largely left out of the annals of contemporary art history. 

One day in 2017, while pursuing her MFA in Photography from ICP-Bard, African-American artist Naima Green stumbled upon the project while perusing databases in the New York Public Library for an intensive research class. Green was struck by a deep sense of kinship coupled with a feeling of surprise and disappointment for never having heard of the Dyke Deck before. She immediately set out to get a copy in order to learn more. 

“Portrait making is really a gift because people can be so generous with what they give you and allow you to see, even if it’s just a brief moment” – Naima Green

After seeing the deck listed for $700 on an esteemed art-collecting website, Green headed over to eBay where she found a deck for $35. A week later the cards arrived. A seed was planted in Green’s imagination and over time it began to take root in the artist’s backyard: the borough of Brooklyn. It is here that Greens’ dream project took shape in a modern-day version of the deck that would focus on the community she knew best: queertrans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people of colour coming of age in the new millennium.

“Brooklyn is a place where it has felt possible to be my biggest, queerest self and evolve into the person who I am and have become,” Green tells Dazed. “Brooklyn has given me a lot of space to breathe that some other environments that I have been in have not. In getting closer to myself by moving here, it was important to invite in all the people who have been a part of that story for me. But I also didn’t want to keep perpetuating this cycle of the queer Brooklyn faces you always see. It felt important to invite people that I don’t know to be a part of it.”

Rather than take inspiration from another artist and run with it, Green reached out to Opie to share her vision. Opie was excited and encouraging, giving Green her blessing to embark on a journey that would ultimately result in the creation of Pur·suit, a deck and digital archive produced in collaboration with award-winning Creative Director Toby Kaufmann. “Toby dove in with me on every aspect to bring this project to life. I shot all the first portraits at her husband Nick’s studio,” says, Green, who photographed 106 people over nine days between October 2018 and January 2019. 

For her portraits, Green drew inspiration from a diverse array of sources that are as innovative and eclectic as the people she photographed. “I was inspired by 90s R&B portraits. I saw this photograph of Aaliyah – it was all about the colour, her posturing, demeanour, energy, vibe, and confidence,” Green says. “I wanted to create a space where people felt like even if we only had 30 minutes together, they could just show up, drop into the moment, and be whatever version of themselves they wanted to be that day. Portrait making is really a gift because people can be so generous with what they give you and allow you to see, even if it’s just a brief moment. This electricity goes through my body like, ‘Oh this is what I am meant to be doing!’ I want to make sure the person feels respected, honoured, and care for in this moment.” 

Portraiture also allows Green to give back, to enlighten, uplift, and liberate, connecting people from all walks of life by bringing them together in her work. By centring people of colour, Green is writing history with every image she makes. “If you’re not involved in the community in some capacity, you don’t know where to go or what exists,” she says. “Black queerness then becomes this hidden thing that only the insiders know about. If you can’t see it, you think it’s not real, it’s just in your head, or you are the only one and no one understands you. It can leave people feeling more isolated because they don’t see themselves reflected back anywhere. I definitely have felt that personally. I think I would have a different and fuller understanding of myself and my experience had I seen more representations of black and brown queer people (growing up).”

All the more, Green took care to ensure Pur·suit was an inclusive portrait of the Brooklyn scene. She explains, “I wanted to invite anyone who has felt marginalised to participate, because there are so many ways in which we’re already pushed to the edges and so it didn’t feel right to say to my white queer friends. I wanted to honour those folks who have been supportive and know how to engage without taking up a ton of space.”

For Green, intimacy is an integral part of the work. She pauses during the interview to find a copy of Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker 1974-1989, one of the other inspirations for the work, and shares a tender passage from it. After she finishes, Green reveals, “What I loved most about that book was getting insight into what their world looked like at the time. The book feels like a map of place, ideas, relationship, friendship, and partnership. I want to make something that provides access like that, not only about how close you can get but how can you hold something and flip it upside down – how many ways can you look at it with fresh eyes. That is something I try to achieve with my understanding of myself and my way of being in the world.”

This is one of the reasons Green was so deeply drawn to deck as an object unto itself. Like her inspiration David Hammons, who deftly sold snowballs to New Yorkers after a blizzard and called it art, Green understands art is more than a mere commodity; its function extends past veneration. Art has use. Art lives in our lives in ways that are so simple and effortless, we may be inclined to overlook that which matters most.

“The idea of making a deck of cards and making an object meant for play is really exciting to me because you can engage in such a different way than you would with a picture on the wall” – Naima Green

“The idea of making a deck of cards and making an object meant for play is really exciting to me because you can engage in such a different way than you would with a picture on the wall. Making an object that is seen as lowbrow and mundane, an object you can get at a bodega for $3-5 that you can carry it around every single day – I love the idea of not just making these beautiful portraits that become a fine art object but also as something far more accessible that can engage with on a lot of different levels,” Green says.

“It feels special to see people who normally wouldn’t interact with my work bring it to the beach, play a game, and shuffle through the cards to see who they know and who they’ve dated – or who they want to date. One of the designers who worked on Pur·suit texted me a few months ago and said, ‘I just had a first date and the first thing she noticed on my coffee table was Pur·suit and all we did was play games all morning and that was such an incredible moment.’ They’re still together. This object can spark so many different interactions. It’s incredible to me.” 

Works from this series will be on view in two exhibitions: Naima Green: Pur·suit at Recess in Brooklyn, the second in Naima Green: Brief and Drenching at Fotografiska New York, both of which are temporarily closed. Stay tuned to their websites and social media channels for updates and info