Intisar_The Black Portlanders
Arts + Culture, Feminism, Wildflower of the Week 0

Wildflower of the Week: Intisar Abioto of The Black Portlanders Part II

In yesterday’s introduction to Intisar Abioto and The Black Portlanders, we learned about her artistic roots and community. With The Black Portlanders, Intisar has cast a spotlight on the social, racial and class dynamics in one of America’s most thriving cities, through candid and evocative portraiture. Intisar’s photography and storytelling has touched hundreds, through participation in her project, and through her recently launched Indiegogo campaign.

In Part II of my interview with Intisar, she invites us into what prompted her to create The Black Portlanders and the impact its had on her lived experience and understanding of Portland.

Why Portland? 

There’s so much back story here. How to condense it all?

Portland was not planned or intentional for me. I found myself in this city in 2010, a year and a half after college. I found myself in life and life was challenging. I was lost in my art for a while, learning to live. After living in Portland for 2 1⁄2 years, I was numb from a combination of not actively doing my art and what can be called the lack of accessibility to diverse cultures in Portland. It can be hard to feel ­ emphasis on feel ­diverse cultures here. Why?

Oregon was founded in 1859 as a white­ exclusionist state. Oregon was the only state in the union with exclusion laws written into its constitution. Black people and many communities of color were legally barred from moving, holding real estate, or making contracts in Oregon until 1927. Today, Portland has a Black population of around 6% or 36,0000.

To many, both inside and outside of Portland, Portland is considered a white city. The so­called “whiteness” of Portland is considered a haphazard quirk, a weird aspect of a weird city, but it’s the measured result of Oregon’s founding principles.

Portland is admired nationally for a storied culture of co-ops, bike lanes, microbreweries, and a DIY ethos of makers and doers. Fictional and non­fictional stories of Portland culture/s make their way to the world via national write-ups on Portland’s food, tech, and craft scene and via shows like Portlandia, but Portland’s reality is much more complex.

Today Portland does not have a strong geographically based Black community, because it was razed multiple times over Oregon’s history. Gentrification has destroyed much of Portland’s most recent incarnation of a geographic Black community and dispersed a great deal of Portland’s small Black population to the suburbs. Yet, on a national stage, this isn’t known. The complex histories and present/s of Portland don’t fit neatly into a lauded Portland branding of a “city that works.”

As a storyteller I am looking at the ways stories affect our understanding and current creation of the past, present, and the future. Places are also built and maintained by the stories that are told about them and Portland is very storied place right now. The story and branding that make its way to world at large on Portland culture often leaves out that complex history, and thus real present.

Strangely enough, the accumulative branding of Portland takes after Oregon’s beginnings. Intentional or not, by leaving out Oregon’s complex history and present, Portland’s “whiteness” becomes the default story. When Portland’s “whiteness” is accepted at base, the stories, creations, and real presence of communities that have existed since Oregon’s establishment are just ghosted.

It’s not understood that the presence of even comparatively small populations of color here represents a major triumph over a host of adversities. Portland’s communities of color are trailblazers, having existed and created life in challenging and often hostile conditions. These communities have been in Oregon since before Portland became trendy, but their presence doesn’t figure into the current story of what Portland is.

How did The Black Portlanders come about?

That is the back story, but the fore story is that we are here right now, just as we’ve been here. That’s the deeper story I’m seeking. Who are Black Portlanders? What is that story?

Personally, The Black Portlanders came from a deep soul need to connect with both Black people and more diverse and powerful expression of Portland cultures.

I needed to feel something powerful about being Black in Oregon. I needed to feel something.

That need collided with my dream of documenting the diaspora around the world. I couldn’t have planned it. I fell back into or forward into my art to understand. I began to document the diaspora where I was. It helped me to connect to Portland in my own way.

I’ve come to know quite a bit about Portland and Portland’s Black communities, but I still have only scratched the surface. It’s been humbling, if anything. I’m not sure why. Should it be humbling? I don’t know, but I feel that way.

Each community’s way of living across the African diaspora is different. There’s a respect and acknowledgement of the differences that I want to keep. There’s autonomy there, a sense of self/selves defined. Its what makes it all beautiful. Between Memphis and Portland there are many many differences ­­ in the culture, in the habit, in the way of speaking and engaging with the world. That’s powerful. There are also similarities. That’s power too.

I’ve learned a lot about this one city, this one community, this one place. The challenge of being in Portland long­term has taught me about researching deep, as opposed to working short term across long distances. It’s deepened my process.

What has been a memorable moment since you started your journey?

There was a moment last spring when it became clear to me that The Black Portlanders was really affecting the city, that the project mattered to people. People I didn’t know. Portlanders and people outside of Portland ­began writing me messages of encouragement and thanks, telling me how the project helped them in different ways.

There was a moment last spring when it became clear to me that The Black Portlanders was really affecting the city, that the project mattered to people. People I didn’t know. Portlanders and people outside of Portland ­began writing me messages of encouragement and thanks, telling me how the project helped them in different ways. It was a moment of surprise and affirmation for me, because my art is based in an intuitive belief that stories that really honor people ­ both who we are and who we could be ­ can really actually affect the world positively. I believe stories that move into the heart of who we are can write into life. I really believe in the story craft. I was so very moved by their appreciation. It proved what I’d felt all along. I’ll be forever grateful to Portland for this. It just feels priceless.


Thanks for joining us in shining light on the brightness that is Intisar Abioto. To learn more about The Black Portlanders, click here.

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