Photographer, dancer, and writer Intisar Abioto is a Tennessee native who moved to Portland in 2010 with her mother and sisters (one of whom is singer/songwriter Amenta Abioto). Abioto loved what Portland had to offer in terms of food and bike culture, but found herself wondering where all the Black people were—that’s partly what inspired her to document the Black community that is here. As Abioto began bumping into Black folk in North and Northeast Portland and asking them about their stories, an exploratory photo project emerged: The Black Portlanders. The portrait series became both an outlet for Abioto’s creative lens and for Portland’s Black presence to be seen and shared online. Her gorgeous photographs captured the attention of W. Kamau Bell, and were featured on his CNN show United Shades of America; Abioto was also a TEDxPortland speaker in 2016.
Today, the exploratory project Abioto began with The Black Portlanders continues to grow and evolve, with the 150-plus photo exhibit Black Portlanders, Black Portlands at PSU’s Littman Gallery, spanning five years of photographic work. Given how small Portland’s Black community is, I looked forward to seeing how many faces would be familiar. I’ve always thought Abioto’s portraits were beautiful. They’re not overly styled or model-y. Instead, Abioto captures her subjects in their natural environments, as if she just happened upon them in the middle of their day.
At Littman Gallery, Abioto has penciled some of her subjects’ names on the walls, while other labels include brief details like “NE Portland,” and other images have no caption or explanation at all. The photos vary widely in size, just as Abioto’s subjects vary in age, identity, background, and personal style. It’s beautiful to see the immense diversity in Blackness that lives here in Portland, and rare to see so much of it in one place. There’s a photo of a basketball squad. Of Senator Avel Gordly, the first African American woman to be elected to the Oregon State Senate. Of a man wearing a bucket hat at Good in the Hood in 2014. There’s a shot of an interracial family walking along the North Park Blocks, and another of a man playing drums nearby. There’s a picture of hip-hop artist Maze Koroma, and a shot of pioneering natural hairstylist Amber Stark smiling into the camera. Abioto also includes her family in the series, with a couple of photos of her mother and sisters, plus two self-portraits sprinkled into the mix.
In addition to being able to see the collective and individual beauty of my fellow Black community members, I love that Abioto’s work also documents Black folk participating in stereotypical Portland experiences. Like a slender man with blue hair holding an iced coffee, or a red rose bush with a trio of Black bodies chillin’ in the background, or the photograph of a young woman standing tippy-toed on her bicycle downtown. Seeing them all feels like an affirmation: “See? Here we are. We belong.”