Aida Alami is a freelance journalist who contributes to The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and other publications.
Bobby Rogers’s art finds beauty and creativity in unseen communities, from black Muslims to Minneapolis gang members to faces of police brutality protesters.
MINNEAPOLIS—Three years ago on a hot summer day, Philando Castile was shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez in Falcon Heights, a St. Paul suburb near Minneapolis. Bobby Rogers had recently graduated from art school and was turning from drawing to photography. As the two cities erupted in protests, Rogers documented the turmoil and anger with his camera.
“After Philando was killed by Officer Yanez, I understood that my individual perspective, not anyone else’s, is how I should tell the story of my people, with my people, for my people, and to my people,” Rogers says.
For his ongoing photographic portraits of Minneapolis gang members, Rogers, 27, and now resident photographer at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, reached back into his own past. He grew up in the Powderhorn neighborhood of South Minneapolis, an area where crime, violence, and drug trafficking were widespread two decades ago. Rogers was surrounded by gang members, but through it all, they and the rest of the community shielded him from trouble, predicting that a bright future awaited him.
His parents didn’t get a chance for a good life. They suffered from alcohol and drug addiction, and Rogers’s childhood was marked by constant moves back and forth between foster homes and back into his parents' care. He says his parents were from the generation that was under intense scrutiny during the war on drugs before becoming victims of drugs themselves. “My older brother would tell me stories of how my parents were like Bonnie and Clyde in their heyday,” he says. “Respected and feared. My dad was the quiet contemplative hustler and my mom was the enforcer.”
Despite his mother’s struggles, she was instrumental in his success, Rogers says, instructing him and his siblings to chant: “I am a leader! I am a soldier!” “She was preparing us for this world, the world she grew up in but was never able to talk about,” he said.
Rogers kept away from illegal activities and worked at his art. His first major foray at art was trying to improve his drawing skills by redrawing Pokemon cards when he was about six years old. Rogers graduated to studying illustration at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In 2014, he started actively documenting anti-police brutality protests with a camera and discovered his medium.
“I’d have thousands of images by the end of the day, chronicling from the perspective of those who trusted me to occupy the space,” Rogers said of his initial entry into photography. “Eventually, as the movement transformed, so did my aesthetic and approach.” And in the same fashion as other artists of his generation, he didn’t seek the help of galleries to launch him, but instead used Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter to get his work known, highlighting subtle narratives of resilience and pride.
While Minneapolis is a major art hub in the country, it isn’t necessarily inclusive, Rogers says. Getting his work known abroad through the internet is what gained him respect back home. “Whenever I am creating work or I am about to release a project, I think of the multiple tiers of the people that are going to visit a show,” he said. “I try to break down elitism and make it accessible to different communities.”
In 2016, he was named on Minnesota Monthly’s “Best of” List as the artist to look out for in 2017. The following year, City Pages named him an “Artist of the Year” and the Huffington Post featured him among 24 others, as one of the "Muslims Breaking Barriers and Lighting Up the World.”
Two years ago, one of his most-known works went viral online. Inspired by the Muslim Anti-Racist Collaborative's hashtag conversation #BeingBlackandMuslim, Rogers released a series of portraits of black Muslims. A convert to Islam, Rogers felt that black Muslims (a quarter of Muslims in the United States) are very much forgotten in the conversation around Islamophobia as it focuses primarily on Arab Muslims (some of whom are also black).
His portraits are raw and unvarnished exploring revolutionary movements and figures, and black identity. Rogers often adds fantasy touches and highlights the complexity and diversity of blackness. In his The Blacker The Berry series, people’s eyes are glowing white in an attempt to make people view them as a symbol of blackness instead of individuals.
With his portraits of gang members, Rogers wants to document their complex system of nonverbal communication. He plans to show the work, “Affiliated,” in New York and Minneapolis at the end of the year. “It isn’t about highlighting what they do, but the communication of gang culture and how advanced it’s become,” he said. “It’s about why they were invented and what it meant for these people.”
Affiliated holds to the same philosophy behind all of his work: “I want to display humanity and beauty rolled up in a larger message, whether it be via nuance or defiant means, to challenge the viewer to deny these qualities in my subjects.”
While his father is still living just outside of Minneapolis, Rogers’s mother died in 2017 on the last day of his first show, which she had been too ill to attend. She was 49, victim of a liver condition related to her heavy drinking. Rogers misses her joy when he would bring her magazines and newspapers featuring him and his work. As her health deteriorated, he would read the articles to her.
“I didn’t let the image of her addiction destroy the image of the woman that I knew she was,” Rogers says. “The woman that taught me to live proudly in a destructive world; the one who introduced me to art and would smile when I taped my drawings of Pokemon and Disney characters all over the walls.”
Rogers describes his mission as an artist by paraphrasing the novelist Chuck Palahniuk. “If you can change the way people think; the way they see themselves; the way they see the world, you can change the way people live their lives. That’s the only lasting thing you can create. That’s what’s most important to me.”
This report was produced with support from the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.