Billie Holiday, Coretta Scott King, Gwendolyn Brooks, Phylicia Rashad — their portraits grace the walls of Wofford College’s Campus Life Center.
After a closer look, the black-and-white pictures of the “Still I Rise: Wofford Women of Color” photography exhibit may surprise, as the portraits are actually Wofford students portraying influential black women including inventors, activists and entertainers.
The exhibit is the creation of juniors Kessie Blassengale and Katie Harmon.
Blassengale said she was looking at photographs on Pinterest and became inspired by an iconic photograph of jazz singer Billie Holiday. After she spoke to Harmon about it, Harmon also was inspired. Their photography project was born.
“I said, ‘I’d love to re-create that,’ ” Harmon said.
Harmon and Blassengale began looking for models to portray other inspiring women of color. They asked the college’s theater department for props, and Harmon shot the photographs in the campus art studio, with Blassengale serving as artistic director.
“We chose the most powerful photos to re-create, with strong composition and contrast,” Harmon said.
Becky Salami, a junior government and humanities major, portrayed poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Participating in the photo shoot was a learning experience, she said.
“I love that (the exhibit) portrays women who did such amazing things,” Salami said. “I didn’t know a lot about (Brooks) or the rest of the women, and I learned a lot about them.”
Among her favorite portraits in the exhibit are Josephine Baker, portrayed by Helena Fulmore, and Eartha Kitt (Aliyah Johnson). She also points out actress Phylicia Rashad’s photo, who may be the small screen’s favorite mom.
“Growing up, I looked up to Mrs. Huxtable,” Salami said, referring to Rashad’s character on “The Cosby Show.”
Blassengale stood in for Rashad for the project.
“She was a strong, powerful black woman,” Blassengale said. “She was an attorney (on “The Cosby Show”), and she took care of her family. I just think she’s beautiful, someone I wanted to portray. It’s surreal. I enjoyed creating the pictures.”
Harmon can’t choose her favorite photograph but said technically, she believes Nina Simone, depicted by Orvenie Bernardin, is the best.
“I learned how to prepare a studio, and it has shaped my photography because I really like monochrome,” Harmon said.
Harmon completed the photographs for a class project in January. After a few delays, Harmon and Blassengale were given the go-ahead to hang the show in the game room of the Campus Life Center.
Harmon also created a video to go with the exhibit, with lines from Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” and African music playing in the background.
“It’s melding the cultural history with the women,” said Harmon, who was born in Michigan but spent the first 14 years of her life in Senegal. “I’m really proud this happened and that we were able to honor these women in this way.”
A reception was held Monday for the free exhibit, which will be on display through May 9.