"Super-Duper Black" with Adrian O. Walker
“I guess you can say I am a charismatic, outgoing, outspoken, super-duper black, always-willing go-getter,” says Adrian O. Walker, a contemporary mixed-media artist and photographer, during our interview in Oakland, California. Walker is all of these things and has been for as long as I have known him. For our interview, we meet at 10th and Wood, a West-Oakland neighborhood joint where a cross-section of Oakland’s demographic feels right at home, blue-collar workers and designers, Black, White, Latinx and Asian. After the owner Vladimir waves us in (he was running slightly behind), he takes Adrian’s bike and parks it in a back room of the cafe. For a moment they chat quietly, and it is in this interaction that I see the mutual respect and appreciation that each of them has for their neighborhood and for one another—from proprietor to customer, from neighbor to neighbor.
“I started this movement called Black Women Over Breathing [BWOB],” Walker tells me once we settle at a wooden, communal table. “It started out as a tweet, then a t-shirt, and so on.”
Walker isn’t exactly sure what prompted him to tweet “Black Women > Breathing” in October 2016, but he recalls seeing a photograph on social media of a young Black woman, Ieshia Evans, standing in front of a police officer who “looked like a fucking Starship Trooper. She was fearless, and you all are fearless for what’s been happening. Being looked at as low on the totem pole, not being able to do and say anything, making your own way,” he says in describing Ms. Evans and in general, Black women.
Months after the tweet in 2017, Walker made a limited run of t-shirts with the phrase “Black Women Over Breathing” for Black History Month, and tells me that he didn’t think about it much more after that. After the first run of shirts, however, a customer reached out to Walker on Facebook and strongly encouraged him to re-run the merchandise, but he was hesitant. One reason is that he had not planned for BWOB to be an ongoing project, but one of the strongest deterrents was that he did not necessarily have the extra resources—primarily time—to produce the shirts.
“I [did] not want to get to the point where I [had] too much merchandise to move,” he explains. “I have a full-time job and other creative projects.”
Despite his concerns, Walker moved forward with the support and help of his friend Skip Jones and his wife Morgan. Since then, Black Women Over Breathing has evolved into an apparel and accessories line, and a series of curated exhibitions with co-curator Danielle McCoy in the United States, currently St. Louis, Missouri and Oakland. But how did Walker get to this point?
As a youth, Adrian Octavius Walker dabbled in the arts, but had different ambitions for a career.
"I didn't know I wanted to be a photographer. I used to want to be some type of scientist. I had telescopes, microscopes… [I was] nerdy, into all of that stuff. But I hated math so it didn't pan out like I wanted.”
Eventually, a love for design and music surfaced, as did a desire for others to engage deeply with their senses. Walker often saw moments around himself that he wanted to show others, but before he could, the opportunity would pass. With photography, he could “freeze” and share his perspective of the world with others. Once he began his undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), Walker began exploring photography through courses and with guidance from his friend Skip Jones. Despite this curiosity, Walker did not yet see the potential in photography as a viable career. His internal fear of becoming a struggling artist was fed by real-life observations of artists he knew barely making ends meet, if at all. But over time, opportunities arose that led Walker closer to that path.
While at UMSL, Walker met three ambitious classmates who would become close friends and collaborators: Skip Jones, Darren Nesbitt, and Jhonna Woodard. As Walker describes it, “four Black, hungry individuals” started Made Monarchs, an online and offline media and entertainment company. Each of the four entrepreneurs had a special skill: Jones was the photographer, Nesbitt the fashion designer, Woodard the journalist, and Walker was the people person. The motivation for the new company was simple: St. Louis lacked a place where young Black people could have fun—away from adults—in a structured way, and Made Monarchs sought to fill the need. The foursome hosted themed events that took the form of sneaker competitions, skate parties, and concerts. Eventually, they began to operate more like a promotional company, booking artists like Dom Kennedy and Stalley, and even collaborated with local promoter Knuckle Rumbler to help secure acts including Big Krit and Currency.
Over the next several years, Walker gleaned many of the entrepreneurial skills he now practices during his time with Made Monarchs. He learned how to draft and execute contracts, and was fortunate to have a lawyer-friend who helped them along the way. The company was an official LLC with a bank account, public relations strategies, and an engaged marketing presence. Eventually though, as it sometimes goes with good things, Made Monarchs came to an end in 2012 as Jones, Nesbitt, Woodard, and Walker began to venture into new projects and life chapters.
Throughout and after his tenure with Made Monarchs, Walker networked and maintained relationships with both promoters and artists, which proved to be valuable in further pursuing his multifaceted career. Walker had been working in a position at Pepsi for about a year when Stalley’s manager, Dan Resnick, offered him an opportunity: Stalley was joining a tour with Lupe Fiasco as the opening talent, and Resnick asked Walker to join his team. For 45 days in the fall of 2013, Walker acted as the photographer and assisted in managing Stalley on the 32-city “Tetsuo and Youth” preview tour, taking full advantage of opportunities to forge new relationships with creatives across the country. And it was this experience that encouraged Walker to take a leap of faith and begin freelancing as a photographer in 2014, eventually earning $27,000 through contract gigs. Just as importantly, he continued to dedicate time to improving his craft, learning photo editing software and continuing experimentation with both film and digital imagery.
Late summer 2014 was a watershed moment for St. Louis, Missouri and for the nation as a whole. On August 9 and in the following days, the city exploded in civil unrest after St. Louis County police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“I think for a lot of us it was just shocking that it was happening in St. Louis. You don’t really hear about stuff like that. And the fact that it was like, super close to home for a lot of us. It’s really not that big of a city…and also just trying to understand what was actually going on and why. It was like a state of confusion for me—I can’t really speak for a lot of other people. Obviously the people in Canfield were a nervous wreck because it was on their block..They’d seen everything.
"I didn't know what I was going to see, but I did know that I didn’t want to put the same information out that the news were, the stuff that was really negative. So I focused on the peaceful protests and the people of the neighborhood.”
Taking photos helped Walker process what was happening in his extended community, and more importantly, it allowed him to capture the humanity of protesters, onlookers, and Canfield’s residents. He took many images with his phone, noting that the tension and seriousness of the situation made people wary of cameras, or of any object, being pointed at them. For five days Walker moved respectfully and intentionally, taking his time with the subjects of his photographs—his people—while also joining in marches, protests, and post-protest street cleanup.
"When I was taking the photos, I was making journals on VSCO. Just hashtagging it #FergusonMissouri, stuff like that. The photos also lived on Instagram. I shared them on social media like everyone else, not knowing that they would get picked up by VSCO."
Curators at VSCO, an art and technology company, noticed Walker’s images and those of another documentarian, Marcus Stabenow, and produced features on the two men and their work. Walker’s story was widely shared, which eventually led to him producing and publishing a collection of his images from events in Ferguson entitled My Lens, Our Ferguson in April 2015. (He sold his first copy to Montreal-based photographer Naskademini, who is a tastemaker along with his twin brother Marcus Troy). Shortly after the publication of the book, a friend encouraged Walker to enter My Lens, Our Ferguson into the Paris Photobook Awards, a collaboration between the Paris Photo and Aperture Foundation. The book was shortlisted in October 2015, and Walker traveled to Paris for the ceremony and festivities, absorbing the photography and fashion, and seizing the opportunity to forge new relationships with creatives abroad.
Unexpectedly, Adrian Walker’s thoughtful portrayal of moments surrounding the birth of this generation’s Civil Rights Movement led to a new direction in his career. He was eventually hired by VSCO in December 2014 as a curator, and began speaking about his art practice and experiences in Ferguson in panels around the country. Eventually, Walker would like a career in which he travels the world, captures the stories around him, and engages in public and motivational speaking. But in the meantime, he is working hard at his job (now in Community Marketing at VSCO) and on his current projects, including music and sound production, and Black Women Over Breathing. So I asked him how he balances his many hats, and why not be freelance full time?
Walker likes his job, which has taught and continues to teach him a great deal, and with a blossoming family, he says health insurance is a great benefit.
“I am still the same person as I once was before I had a full-time gig. So before VSCO, I was always still working. When I was working at Pepsi, I was still doing photo work. So a nine-to-five isn’t stopping me from doing the things that I truly love, because I make ways to make sure I can still do those things. I don’t have a strategy guide. If you want to do something, you’re gonna do it. You’re going to make it happen.”