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Lola Flash’s Afrofuturist Photographs Yearn for a Future without Mass Incarceration

Lola Flash, Black Lives Matter, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Lola Flash, Black Lives Matter, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

In 2008, artist was wrongfully arrested—in her words, “for walking while Black.” After that, her life spun out of control. Her teaching license was suspended, leaving Flash unemployed for six months. Forced to deplete her financial reserves, she went into debt for the first time in her life. Twelve years later, Flash is still paying for groceries purchased on her credit card.
“I saw the slippery slope happen personally,” said Flash. As a Black, genderfluid, lesbian artist, she understands the necessity of code switching for survival. Fortunately, a friend’s father represented her pro bono, and the judge dismissed the case and expunged it from her record as though the nightmare never took place.
“African Americans have been wrongly arrested for as long as I can remember,” Flash said. Now 61, Flash has been on the front lines of activism since the 1980s, when she came to prominence as a member of ACT UP, appearing in the 1989 “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” poster campaign. Around that time, she also developed her signature cross-color photography style to challenge stereotypes about race, gender, and sexuality in a life-or-death fight against the U.S. government during the AIDS epidemic.
Thirty years later, Flash is ready for battle once again with “syzygy, the vision,” an ongoing self-portrait series where the artist transforms herself into a representation of every Black person subjected to the horrors of racism, sexism, and homophobia. The series takes its name from an astronomical term for where the sun, earth, moon, and/or planets align to create an eclipse. Flash adopts this straight-line configuration to contemplate the pasts, presents, and futures of Black people across time and space.
Embracing the spirit of to create paradigms liberated from Western cultural hegemony, Flash plans to create 100 self-portraits made in places around the globe that correspond with her genetic roots. “I used to say I was tracing the slave trade because I was that serious about where we were taken and how we end up looking now; the cross cultures, cross-pollination that changed us and kept us the same,” she said.
Flash began to conceptualize this series in 2019 when artist and curator invited her to participate in “Utopian Imagination,” a group exhibition at the Ford Foundation exploring how radical love could reimagine the future of life on earth through a science fiction lens. With a premonition that the air around us would soon become deadly, Flash purchased a space helmet and paired it with the prison uniform she purchased after her 2008 arrest for “Incarceration,” an unrealized series of self-portraits Flash hoped to make in jail. After purchasing a set of handcuffs at a New York sex shop, the look was complete.
Best known for her large-scale portrait series like “[sur]passing,” “surmise,” and “LEGENDS,” Flash began working on “syzygy, the vision” during a residency at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. While there, she quickly realized she would need to cast herself due to the scarcity of Black people in the community.
In her first portrait, Syzygy I, Flash stands before the Ashokan Reservoir in Ulster County, New York. Her arms are crossed as she stands in profile, gazing beyond the frame. It is both hopeful and foreboding, much like the following Syzygy II. On March 13th of this year, Flash posted an image of herself standing before a grey A-frame house in Woodstock on Instagram with the caption “I’m ready, been ready!” just as New York went into lockdown.
Unlike so many things lost this year, “syzygy, the vision” transitioned quite smoothly into the hellfire of 2020; its themes having only become more prescient in light of the pandemic and recent protests. Heavy on Flash’s mind during the crisis were the fates of those trapped in U.S. prisons and jails, where COVID-19 outbreaks have become untold death sentences for inmates. Flash has made photographs in Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, and the Meatpacking District, the city’s empty streets making a prophetic backdrop for our brave new world.
Lola Flash, I Pray, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Lola Flash, I Pray, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

After the MTA began sterilizing the New York City Subway, Flash ventured alone onto one of its cars, setting up her 4x5 camera on a tripod to create an image she captioned: “I prayed.” Flash has also been using a digital camera to take portraits, which provides her the ability to travel into the eye of the storm, making photographs during the Black Lives Matter marches in New York City protesting the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and all the other Black men and women who have died at the hands of police brutality. “I believe there is something different about what is happening now as opposed to the civil rights era, the feminist movement,” she said. “I hope that I’m going to be one of those people who will finally be able to be seen.”
Currently in London, Flash plans to continue the series as part of a lifelong artistic journey for which, over the course of her 30-year career, she has received minimal institutional support. “Sometimes when I get frustrated I’ll put on Nina Simone or read Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler,” Flash said. “I can get inspiration from the things they have done because it’s the same problem. To break this system, it’s going to take other ways of doing it.” Through “syzygy, the vision,” Flash introduces an empowering model for survival based on empathy, compassion, and love, fueled by the understanding that the creation of a new future for us all begins now.
Miss Rosen
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Flash will be producing 10 portraits for her “syzygy, the vision” series; she will be taking 100 self-portraits. The text has been updated.