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Photographic Requiems: The Empathy of Ashley Oates

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Durham photographer Ashley Oates witnessed the murder of her African-American neighbor, Rosmari Pleasure, by Rosmari's ex-boyfriend. Unable to save Rosmari, Oates later felt compelled to honor her slain neighbor and exorcise her pain.

One of her responses to the murder was to photograph an African-American undergraduate and build a blood-red hallway to house these photographic images on linen, stretched across steel frames. They hovered amid bare bulbs, providing an environment for recollection and mourning. The exhibition provoked viewers into a state of empathy, forcing us to build a narrative around the images and interrogate ourselves about how we mourn as a culture. Oates has used in her artist's statement the Martin Luther King Jr. quote that Rosmari's father included in her funeral program: "There is an amazing democracy about death. It is not aristocracy for some people, but a democracy for all people. Kings die and beggars die; rich men die and poor men die; old people die and young people die; death comes to the innocent and it comes to the guilty. Death is the irreducible common denominator of all people."

Oates' M.F.A. show in 2001 at Chapel Hill's Ackland Museum comprised two works that informed and relied upon each other. "Turn (Forest)" was a field of 16 steel scepters, crowns and maces that conjured up aristocracy, pikes, protest signs, grave markers, flag poles, characters, protections and death. The other was "Blink," in which the museum wall was quilted with selenium-toned black and white photographs, or "photographic shadows," of her scepters and a ghostly image of the lower half of her body, one arm dangling, the other raised (see contents page). The rest of her body disappears into blackness, soft pikes and abstract forms rising up from within her. Photograms are photographs made by placing objects directly on light-sensitive paper and exposing it to light. Unlike most precious photograms of lenses and translucent things, such as those made famous by Man Ray, Oates exposed an entire studio wall of photographic paper to light that passed around her scepters and her body like moonlight around trees, searchlights across the sea.

In the next room were Oates' fanciful scepters topped with odd crowns and pronged maces, swaying in the slabs of concrete on the floor. Each scepter represented a person--Oates' mother or grandmother, a stranger, a king. Two photographs inspired "Forest": the 1949 newspaper clipping of her grandfather as King of the Memphis Cotton Carnival and a family photo of the Oates family, in Linville, N.C., from 1974. In the first photograph, Oates' grandfather holds a scepter upon his carnival throne, crowned and decked out in cascading regal fabric. In the second, Oates herself, also crowned, holds a wand. Wealth and power are often inherited, but so are memories and contradictions.

Teaching photography at the Durham School of the Arts, Oates shares with her students her hopeful and serious vision, and her stunning technical expertise. EndBlock

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