Adrian Octavius Walker is a mixed-media artist based out of Chicago by way of St. Louis, Missouri. He’s inspired by the untold stories within the African American experience — follow him on Instagram and this will immediately become evident by the sheer amount of art books he shares on the subject. When talking to Adrian about the various projects he’s working on or worked on, empathetic intentionality can be felt. From his photograph “Black Virgin Mary” being shown at the National Portrait Gallery, to documenting what was really going on during the Ferguson uprisings, to being a Lecturer at Stanford University’s d.School, where he’s designing space for Black and Brown genius through his course “Community College,” you’ll always feel his desire to uplift voices progressively.
Adrian Octavius Walker
You grew up in St. Louis. Could you describe the neighborhood you grew up in? Did growing up there shape the way you approach art today?
I grew up in North City St. Louis, in a neighborhood called JVL, Jeff Vander Lou. My street, in particular, was the “hot block,” Brantner Place. Rough around the edges but crazy to say I personally felt safe knowing everyone in my neighborhood. I also didn’t hang out much and knew when and when not to go outside. The JVL most definitely shaped me for who I am today as well as my outlook on the world. Being a curious child living in an area where you had to create things to do made it easy for me to be attracted to people and learn from them. This is why I’m so into portraiture.
My Lens, Our Ferguson is a book you self published that documents the uprisings after Michael Brown was murdered. What did you learn from documenting that moment in history?
During the time when I was photographing Ferguson, I didn’t realize I was on my photojournalist tip, because I wasn’t looking to create a book, gain a following, or win any photo prize of any sort. My focus was sincerely on documenting the truth and what the media wasn’t shining light on. For example: Peaceful protest, the children, and folks making sure the neighborhood of Canfield, where Mike Brown was lynched, was protected and clean from all the mishaps at night with police.
Being a curious child living in an area where you had to create things to do made it easy for me to be attracted to people and learn from them. This is why I’m so into portraiture.
Why did you decide to make Chicago the place you call home and create from?
I knew I wanted to make Chicago home years ago, with my wife and kid, considering it’s four hours out from our hometown and it's one of my favorite cities right in the center of America. I had the opportunity to move with my past company, VSCO, but that was short-lived due to COVID. Not a total bummer because we are thriving with our creative side and Chicago is showing mad love.
How did you decide that photography was going to be the way that you presented your ideas as an artist?
Being able to see things from a different perspective without using words to describe the emotions from an experience being at a certain place, speaking with a certain individual or just being able to capture self and how I’m feeling at the time, came easy owning a camera. Photography quickly became my escape from the outside world.
In 2019 you were one of seven artists in the country selected as a winner of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. What was that experience like? How did it feel to have your work shown at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.?
This is a feeling I would never shake and be able to describe without getting emotional. First off from having my wife and best friends from all over the country pull up to see the "Black Virgin Mary" in this well-known institution was enough for me. To think my portrait is two rooms away from Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama is insane to me. All I can say is we all won and that moment was dedicated to everyone Black.
Your most recent body of work, We Matter, explores black beauty traditions amongst black men. What made you want to explore this?
I wanted to share the intimacy depicted in each photograph and erase the possibility of threat often assigned to Black men. I was able to push for the viewers to see the power of kinship within the Black community. We Matter seeks to expand notions of Blackness by challenging the American perception of Black men.
You recently exhibited We Matter in Oakland at Part 2 Gallery. What’s next for this body of work?
We Matter is my hottest work to date. I’m looking to slowly move away from it, as it is still getting inquiries here in there to be exhibited. I am working on a short run of screen-prints titled Still A∗Float. This series of faceless images of floating durags is my way of moving on from this work, and on to the next.
Photography quickly became my escape from the outside world.
You’re part of a collective of Black photographers called See In Black, which recently made headlines because the Whitney Museum decided to participate in a fundraiser the collective had by buying prints to add to their collection instead of paying the artists market rate for their work. As someone who’s had work shown in a traditional institution like the Whitney, how does this make you view the relationship between them and Black art?
So many layers here… For me, and having had my work inside of an institution at scale like the Whitney, it's both sad and not surprising. These types of things happen often when there is a lack of representation where one would speak up on behavior of this sort and not let certain individuals get away, at least try to get away with things like this. My hope is that institutions out there sit with what happened and really take a deep look at what this incident has done for the rest of the art institutions in the world. From silencing Black women employees that work hard day in and out to protect those who look like them that aspire to be inside the walls of these galleries and museums, this should be the ultimate wake-up call, knowing you don’t have the power just because your name is big. These institutions have to learn that they need us more than we need them.
You recently launched Stanford Community College. How would you describe this to someone? What sparked this idea?
The d.School, or the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, is a design thinking institute based at Stanford University. DesignThinking is a human-centered, iterative process that designers use to tackle problems.
We’re exploring what it means to take, create, and imagine space where Black people have been historically excluded.
My co-leads and I came up with a class called Community College: Designing Black and Brown Spaces. We’re exploring what it means to take, create, and imagine space where Black people have been historically excluded. This idea was sparked for many reasons, one which displays the lack of representation at a university like Stanford as well as tech and art spaces.
You seem to be an avid collector of art books. What’s one that you always find yourself going back to?
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Notion of Family. Frazier does an incredible job relating to those with similar lifestyles and making a beautiful story for the rest of the world to see. Growing up in north city St. Louis, I experienced what it was like to not have access to things like a good school system or good enough jobs or good healthcare. Frazier uses her photographic voice to create an experience for her audience of what it’s like to live in a way unknown to most.
After reading the book I researched Frazier and came across her Ted Talk, which sums up The Notion Of Family. An A+ watch that will break you down emotionally, but her story will uplift you and inspire you to learn more about where you come from and the community you were raised in.