Vavi + Amina
Vanessa Vigil and Amina El Kabbany sat across each other, their faces outlined by shadows formed in the East Oakland studio’s fading afternoon glow. The broad window of the workspace overlooked cranes that dotted the Oakland Marina. Sounds of car whirs and weekday traffic honks speckled the peaceful, almost-evening silence.
Vanessa — more commonly known by her artist name, Vavi — wore an oversized green sweater. Her face, illuminated by the orange glow of setting sun, was unframed by hair. Instead, her short, shaved cut showed off her slender neck and sharp eyebrows. In contrast, Amina’s curly brown hair filled out the space around her face, her white winged liner a sharp rebuke to the dark color. As the last of the sun slid behind the mountains, the two women looked at each other, waiting to begin their interview.
Arguably perceived as an artistic power duo in the Bay Area, Vanessa and Amina have made powerful names for themselves through their work in the Oakland scene. A freelance photographer who hails from Sacramento, Amina takes photographs and creates stunning visual collages with ethereal, near-magical qualities. Her work can be seen in the stunning portraits she regularly posts on her Instagram, as well as the overlaid, superimposed collages that combine nature, people, and emotion.
Vanessa, an artist who first developed her creative inspiration through photography, has also made a name for herself as an organizer and curator in the East Bay arts scene. In August 2015, Vanessa launched “Not Ur Baby”, an all-women art show dedicated to ending human trafficking that was received with overwhelmingly positive feedback. In March 2016, she then returned with “Not Ur Baby Pt. II” at Oakland Terminal, solidifying her presence as a curator dedicated to upholding women’s rights in the Oakland arts community.
Through their time together in the Bay, Amina and Vavi have frequently collaborated. The Oakland “Unity In Color” shoot the duo embarked on in late March, for instance, was a gorgeous synthesis of the two creatives’ work: A visual art project of women clad in beige, yellow, and brown-toned clothing, standing in solidarity with women’s rights.
For this issue of nasi, the two artists asked each other where they each come from, how that belonging has influenced their work, and how their friendship and collaboration thrive off their vibrant, intoxicating femme energy — something that they’ll carry with them wherever they may go.
Amina: Where do you come from? What are your roots? What do you claim as home?
Vanessa: My roots, as much as I deny most of the time, are in the suburbs. I guess a lot of my artistry is rooted in being different from everyone around me, from being alone. Like, when you think about the suburbs, [you think of] a lot of loneliness. [Being] secluded. That’s where a lot of my roots are, I guess. That suburb life. And being an art kid in the suburbs, where everyone either played sports or, like, fucked your boyfriend in your car or stuff. laughs.
A: Suburb life, for sure. I kind of had the same kind of upbringing because I grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento. But I come from lots of diversity, lots of conflicting ideologies, and lots of conflict in general. Like, in my home, it was just conflict, one thing after another. There was always something going on. The first house my mom bought had mold in it and so she was trying to sue the landlord and put food on the table and my brother would always act out — and yeah, my art comes from trying to find peace within that.
V: What about where you come from in a non-physical sense?
A: My dreams. My dreams have been either memories of a past life, or things I’ve experienced that I’m still trying to reattach to. I know my soul is connected to a lot of different places.
We’re living in an age where we’re taught to suppress that and to suppress our backgrounds to assimilate into white culture and white society. It’s erasure. So for me, it’s important to make it a point in my work to show that we are all the product of so many different things and lifetimes. It shouldn’t matter the color of our skin or our gender — we’re all just products of just a lot of lives. Energy exists and is reborn. I think about that all the time.
A: What about you? Where do you come from in a non-physical sense?
V: I don’t know if I’ve explored that deep. I guess a root I can directly identify with is a feminine energy. I don’t necessarily have an answer for that yet.
V: How’d you start picking up a camera?
A: In elementary school, I would make my mom buy me, like, five disposable cameras to bring on field trips in school. I just developed the rolls recently [actually], and I was like, damn, I was really taking pictures of everything [back then]. I’d see beauty in everything and feel like I needed to capture it. That translated into middle school. And then high school. So I just always had a camera strapped to me for all my school events, taking pictures of my friends, and it hasn’t stopped.
V: I’m the same way. I remember my first camera was a polaroid when I was, like, five years old. It had Barbie frames. When we’d go on trips — not that we went on a lot of trips, maybe like two — I always had my mom’s little mom-camera. High school rolled around and I got my first DSLR, and I had it every day at school. Everyone on that campus knew that I had a camera. And I haven’t put it down since.
A: Where do you seek inspiration for your work?
V: My emotions, so how I fluctuate. Being sensitive to my emotions and my interactions with people and all the emotional layers that I’m constantly uncovering. But I am inspired by Frida Kahlo, her trials, and her outcome. She’s an artist, and there was no choice for her. She just made art. If she didn’t, she’d probably have exploded. She’s definitely a strong inspiration for me. When I get down and out, I’ll look to her as a kind of fairy godmother.
A: Do you see yourself as a photographer?
V: I just see myself as an artist. Although I remember having that polaroid and these things in my childhood, I didn’t realize that shit until later — like [in] interviews, when I’d have to dig deep and be like, oh yeah, I did always have my camera. But I was always just an artist. Photography has always been what people out here know me for, and that’s my strongest suit I guess, but I don’t necessarily consider myself a photographer above everything else. I consider myself an artist.
A: It also took me a long time to kind of buckle down and be like, okay, I’m a photographer. [There was a point that] I was like, okay, I want to do this full-time, so I have to be a photographer if I take photos full-time. Photography for me has always been secondary, but now it’s front and center.
V: What do you look for when you’re shooting? When you bring out your camera?
A: I think it’s really important to capture moments for the future, for both myself and other people — but mostly for me, I think. Every time I look at an old photo I can transport myself back to that time, so I look for a raw authentic moment from whatever it is that I’m experiencing. Sometimes, I feel weight to capture it. Like in our political climate, if I was at a rally or something. I look back on those photos, and I’m like, damn, that’s history.
I’ll look for stuff that looks like art to me. Or stuff that I experience that I think is really beautiful, and I’ll be like, oh. I wish that the whole world was here to see this.
V: For the most part, [my work] almost always correlates with people. I always photograph portraits, so it usually has something to do with finding some rawness or truth in them. A lot of times, it’s usually someone who’s close to me, or someone who I want to be closer to. I’m creating this set to bring this vulnerable moment. I’m looking for this rawness or truth or possible conversation — or there’s no conversation and a natural bond is made through that.
And being able to explore. I want to get more into exploring different identities of people and — I don’t know. It’s kind of hard for me to relate to that question right now, because I’ve been so far apart from my camera for a couple years. Every time that’s happened to me in the past, where I’ll go in and stop [shooting], I’ll really miss it. So I’ll go in [and start shooting] again. But I’ll have a different style, or a different purpose.
A: What are you working on? Or, like, what are you working on internally? Because I know you’re working on a few things, but you know, you can be working on yourself too.
V: [laughs] Always working on myself! I want to work on expanding “Not Ur Baby”; I want to brand it better. I want to take advantage of the look that it gets, and the support that it gets. Because part of me — when I start to see potential in myself, like in my photography or with “Revolve” — as soon as I saw myself rolling and people paying attention, I backed off and got scared. And I feel myself doing that with “Not Ur Baby”.
It has a lot of spotlight on it, even a year from the show, and I almost get scared, like I don’t want to do it anymore. It holds a lot of responsibility, and that’s something I need to work on within myself — being confident and proud of myself. Not being scared of my potential, not being scared to be criticized or have people looking at me.
V: What impact do you want your art to have?
A: I want people to believe they have opportunities and they can create the reality that they want for themselves. That’s what I’m trying to convey with my work. It’s not like I think what I do is that uncommon or anything. I shoot people; I create vision boards with my digital collages. But I feel like I’m trying to push people — like, look what I did. You don’t have to live in the confines of what you’ve been told is going to make you successful or happy. You can just follow your own idea of what happiness or success is, and make that happen.
I want my brand to be my existence, so that I can be a beacon of hope for people like me — from a random school and broken home, whatever you want to call it, not that it’s like a crazy sad story. It just builds character. But some people don’t build character from it. They just become really sad and lost. I want to show you [that] hey, no matter what you’ve been through, no matter what your childhood looked like, no matter what high school was for you, you have now. And you can move forward.
A: How ‘bout you?
V: My impact — I feel like when I first started making work that was geared for people to see, it started with this project about taking nudes of women in a non-sexual manner, a refreshing view of the nude female body. I feel like with my impact, I just want to be able to shit on society with whatever I do. Like, oh, that’s where you’ve been at? Let me help you rethink that, dismantle it, or challenge you.
I want my overall impact to be to be a vessel for other women, especially Women of Color, especially LGBTQ women — those three groups are constantly suppressed — because I’ll say my shit so you don’t have to. Like, you don’t have to put that shit on your back. I’ll do it for you. I’m willing to give myself and be vulnerable and be open and be criticized, even though those are all the things I fear. I feel like it’s my duty to do that. So with my art, that’s the impact I want it to have: Let me take you on my back; let’s all do that.
nasi: What’s your favorite thing about each other?
V: My favorite thing about Amina, and really any close friend I have, is the balance they bring me. Although [Amina and I] get on very well, and we can seem very similar in humor, she helps create this balance of — I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but I definitely tell other people this about you and our friendship. I’m more the quiet [one]; I have a harder time engaging with people, and I always look mean, very intimidating. And Amina — she’ll just make friends with everyone. When she gives that energy, it helps me to find balance and to find that attitude, too.
I told her this analogy once — our analogy as people is that Amina is the type of dog that, if someone broke into your house, it’d be like, “hey, what’s up”. And I’m the type of dog where you’ve met the dog a zillion times, and you go over to your friends house, and they still don’t fuck with you. You’re like, what the fuck, we know each other, and I’m just like staring at you from in the hallway. That’s me and Amina.
A: Trueeeee. I just like being around her energy. I love your energy, I love how introspective you are but also fun. Your versatility. When I’m with you, I’m just like ok, I can be whatever.
You just make me feel like I can be whatever I need to be in that moment, and I feel like it helps to be around someone who also has as crazy and wild of dreams as I do. It makes me feel like anything that we want to do is achievable.
I don’t really click with people very easily, to the point of being down to do whatever with them. But we’ll be here, we’ll be wherever, and you’re that friend I have where I feel completely comfortable. I trust you and I care for you and I feel like I don’t have to put on a front or be anything that I’m not. You have such a loving, comforting, understanding persona. Your energy is very compassionate — and you can't trust these hoes these days, so I’m so glad I can trust you.
Vanessa and Vigil and Amina El Kabbany in conversation with Eda Yu and each other
Photographed by each other