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In Residency at Baxter St: A Conversation with Zayira Ray

By YoungArts | April 18, 2024

This month, Zayira Ray (2018 Photography) presented her debut solo exhibition, interthread, as the culmination of her 2024 YoungArts at Baxter St Residency. interthread features portrait photographs that explore notions of belonging, love and kinship in Brown diasporic communities. Her work explores in-between moments, capturing rekindled moments of joy and belonging, reconciling with what is lost in migration.

interthread will be on view at Baxter St’s storefront gallery at 126 Baxter St. through April 27, 2024. We chatted with Zayira before her opening to learn more about her work and experience in the residency. 

What is the premise behind interthread?

interthread is a collection of work that spans over several years using the idea of this large-scale canvas, or photographic backdrop, to create safe spaces, refuges and portals for these love stories and relationships to kind of exist in a different world.

“Three Sisters.” Portrait by Zayira Ray.

What are some of your favorite pieces in the show and the stories behind them? 

The largest portrait in the show is a portrait of my grandmother, and it’s probably my favorite piece. I call her Thamadida, but she’s kind of everyone’s dida. She’s like the matriarch of my family across many generations. “Three Sisters” is a portrait of her and her two sisters, weaved onto an embroidered pillow that has been an heirloom in our family throughout many decades. It feels like a very timeless piece, where I’m kind of nestled in her forever.

Throughout the work I’m really inspired by and focused on love stories, whether they’re love stories that are personal to me and my family or love stories that are more unconventional. With this portrait of my grandmother, I’m thinking about the strong relationship she has with her two sisters and how this image has been an indelible marking of their sisterhood. As I’ve grown up and they’ve aged, I’ve had this image of them in my head for as long as I can remember. This portrait preserves that story of bonding and companionship, even if the three of them aren’t physically in the frame. It felt like the perfect addition to the project.

“Mama’s Hands” is a self-portrait of me and my mom. I documented her oiling my hair, which is a ritual that we’ve shared my entire life. For me, it feels like the representation of us at home and the kind of love and companionship that I have with my mother. Documenting that, and preserving it in this backdrop, feels very sacred to me. I’ve matted the actual canvas in the print as well, and it’s the only framed piece. It feels like it’s a precious jewel, almost.

“Mama’s Hands” by Zayira Ray on view at Baxter St.
“Palestine Tapestry Project” on view at Baxter St.
“Palestine Tapestry Project.” Portrait by Zayira Ray.

The “Palestine Tapestry Project” is the newest work in the show. It is quite different from work that I’ve created in the past. It’s more of a documentary project. I was thinking about the canvas as a connective tissue: something created by communities, something that can be a mural, something that can be constructed and have its own lifeline. This piece is really meant to be dedicated space to Palestinian voices.

The film is a documentation of this tapestry being made. It’s created entirely by Palestinian-American women. Every marking on here is by one of the participants, and their voices, thoughts and feelings are all marked on this canvas. It’s meant to be an embodiment of Palestinian remembrance and a lifetime that can be captured, documented and preserved. Especially right now, there’s so much erasure and so much censorship, and to me, it’s very important that this is a dedicated space for those voices. Also, it’s rethinking the idea of this backdrop, or this canvas, as something not just that I’m creating, but as something that is shared by different communities and weaved together and interthreaded and has its own life form across different diasporas.  

Watch the Palestine Tapestry Project film here 

What inspires you?

I have many inspirations for the work. I say a big one is India. I’m Indian-American, and I grew up going back and forth between New Delhi and Kolkata, where my family is, and New York. I think I’ve had two very visceral homes in my life, which is my home in New York and my homes in India. It’s less about me feeling like I don’t belong in either, which I think is a very common experience for second-generation people, but more so that I feel like I really belong in both, but it’s hard for me to find that sense of home wherever I go.

This work is really born from seeking and searching for the textures, color palette and emotions that I feel when I’m back home with my extended family in India, while also using my perspective as someone who grew up in New York City as an American and thinking about what that looks like in the context of the United States, New York and my communities here. This work is thinking about diaspora and investigating what that can look like and feel like and how I can construct that, reconstruct that, document it and emulate it in images.

“Interthread.” Portrait by Zayira Ray.
“Four Generations.” Portrait by Zayira Ray.

Most of all, I’m definitely inspired by the people I photographed, those on the actual canvas in the portraits, but also the people who came before them, who have inspired the pieces and created the work over many generations. The work wouldn’t exist without the generations behind it.

In the tapestry project, I’m really inspired by the millions of people and the hundreds of thousands of hands of “invisible” people, who aren’t on the canvas physically, but who are honored, thought of and loved in the representation of the canvas.

What do you hope viewers will take away from the exhibition?

I hope that viewers of this exhibition will take away a feeling of home, a feeling of pure love, regardless of background or who’s looking at the work or who’s taking in the work. There’s a common throughline throughout the work that is rooted in pure love, community, companionship and empathy. I also really want it to feel like a sensory experience where the textures, sounds, emotions and gazes are all reminiscent of both the specific stories that I’m documenting, and, in a larger sense, our own notions of home, family and companionship. I really want these pieces and these canvases to live beyond the actual frame and for anyone who’s looking at them to find a piece of themselves in them.

interthread exhibition on view at Baxter St.
interthread exhibition on view at Baxter St.

What does this moment of debuting your first solo exhibition mean to you?

This opportunity means everything to me. When I was a teenager and I applied to YoungArts, I don’t think I ever could have fathomed that it would have turned into something like this. I feel deeply, deeply grateful that my work at that age, at that kind of level, was seen and believed in and propelled forward. To be able to physically see the work and be championed by my loved ones and strangers is the biggest blessing. 

I recently graduated from college, so this moment feels like a big step forward for me as an artist. I’m excited to see where I can bring the work, how I can expand it and how I can evolve it. Without the mentorship and guidance that I’ve received at Baxter St and the support from YoungArts, this truly wouldn’t have been possible. I am so grateful and happy. 

“Shainon.” Portrait by Zayira Ray.

interthread exhibition on view at Baxter St.

What’s next for you?

interthread is my first proper exhibition, where I’m really thinking about the work as a sort of lifeform– a physical, living, breathing thing. I am so excited to lean into that, create bigger pieces and push this idea of the tapestry or the backdrop and where it can go. I’m interested in the idea of the canvas being nomadic and traveling with the same canvas touching different homes from the U.S. to India, wherever it is, and what that means. I’m excited to travel with this work and bring it with me wherever I go. I’m also excited to explore new ways of making images and portraits and leaning into painting and texture. That is still relatively new for me, and I’m really excited by it.  

Every year YoungArts partners with 7G Foundation and Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York for a residency and exhibition featuring a New York City-based YoungArts award winner working in the mediums of photography and video. The opportunity includes a financial subsidy to create a body of work and produce a solo show in the Baxter St gallery as well as access to the Baxter St at the Camera Club dark room, studio resources, and their Art Advisory Committee.

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