SoEx Intern Nia Coats Interviews Charles Lee

Charles Lee, Untitled, 2021, Framed archival pigment print, Courtesy of the Artist

SoEx Intern Nia Coats Interviews Charles Lee

The following interview was conducted by Communications Intern Nia Coats on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. The conversation has been transcribed and includes Coats’ reflections in italics.

During PRISMATIC, the 2023 Southern Exposure Art Auction, there was one picture I kept gravitating towards during the entire time of setting up and preparing for the auction: a photograph of a Black woman guiding a white horse into the stable. Images uplifting the lives of Black equestrianism have been a topic in pop culture for maybe the past five years, with Solange’s When I Get Home album and the coining of “Yeehaw Agenda” by pop culture archivist, Bri Milandro. 
So seeing Charles Lee III’s work instantly reminded me of Black Southerners' relationships with their horses. Many Black people who have been in the Bay Area for generations have familial lineage linking back to the Southern parts of the U.S. Charles’ experience was no different; after realizing his passion for social anthropology with a focus on filmmaking, he started looking into his family lineage to dive into some storytelling. 
“I've always kind of been a storyteller. Both of my grandmothers always kept meticulous records on the family and photos, like, photo albums, people's names and where they were from and dates and whose family it was, who they were related to,” he stated. “So I was always kind of interested in the history of my own family and Black people at large and revealing obfuscated history, things that were intentionally left out. I've always been into that.”
Charles recently received his MFA from California College of the Arts (CCA). He was born in Honolulu, with roots in Louisiana, and later lived most of his life in Richmond, CA. From there he went on to study sales and finance at Bowie State University in Maryland. After working a corporate job, he wanted to do something that was more personally meaningful to him, which led him to consider making artwork. 

Nia: How did that work in your photography? What did you find from trying to uncover forgotten historical things?

Charles: How did it make its way into the photography? It kind of was always the impetus, really, because, again, I feel like I'm the griot of my family. So one of the major turning points for me was, like, during the pandemic, I started researching the aesthetic of Americana, right? Maybe not the era of Americana, but the aesthetic of it. Like, this kinship with interiority or, like, the interiors of homes. And I'm really in love with Black grandmothers’ homes and the aesthetic in there and the feeling in there. So I started researching, like, Americana, and I never saw Black bodies, or if I did, it wasn't the Black bodies. It wasn't in the forefront. And then in the search, I put, like, Black in front of Americana, and then you start getting, like, what Fred Wilson would call it, degradaria, all this degrading imagery and caricatures and things that I knew were not true. So I kind of took it upon myself to try to make work in response to it or try to insert our true story in there.

When thinking of the Americana aesthetic, it makes me think of early Lana Del Rey and the classic housewife image that was painted on women, mainly white women, in the years directly after the second world war. In a Google search for Americana, you see all of these skinny white women wearing clothes and accessories with the American flag all over them. In that time, Black men were fighting side-by-side in the same wars and Black women were in these same homes taking care of the children in the home, but when looking at pictures or caricatures of the time, when you see a Black person, we are always shown in a degrading light.
“So I kind of took it upon myself to make work in response to it or try to insert our true story in there,” he said. At the time he recognized his want for this, he inherited archival sources in the form of familial photo albums from his grandmothers on both sides of his family. 
This translated into his series entitled "Been Here!” In the 2023 SoEx PRISMATIC auction, Charles’ photo shows the more everyday side that comes with taking care of these large majestic animals, and shows that cowboys are more than what you see at rodeo shows. 

Nia: And in terms of the “Been Here!” project, how did your family align with that? Did you have a history of equestrians in your home, or lineage?

Charles: Yeah in the lineage. My mom’s family is from the country in Jennings, Louisiana, and out there it’s like agriculture is the business. Agriculture or you go to the oil rigs, the shipyard, and things like that. Basically, my grandparents grew up on farmland and rode horses, tended to the land, and raised cattle, poultry, that kind of stuff. When they moved to California during the Great Migration, that culture kind of traveled with them. I had a great-aunt who had a farm in Hayward. My uncle, my mother’s brother, had horses that he kept in a stable in North Richmond. There’s a really strong connection between this lifestyle, the South, and the Bay Area that a lot of people may not know or recognize, but, for instance, the Black Cowboy Parade in Oakland that has been going on for 27 years or so. There’s always been that connection to that lifestyle here, so in terms of it being connected to my family, it’s directly connected to that. And also this area too. But it’s still interesting because a lot of Black kids don’t know about it. 

Nia: Yeah because my introduction to horses and equestrianism was with my papa. He was from Marshall, Texas, he was born there but grew up here in the Bay. He used to watch Westerns, so that’s how I figured out about that, but we never, like, had horses or anything like that.

Charles: Similarly to you, my papa, my grandfather, that was his favorite thing on television, is still. He still watches all of these old Westerns, which I find interesting too because he knows that there are Black people that are doing this lifestyle, though the television is not reflecting this. 

Nia: I was like, why are you watching this?

Charles: Right. It’s not accurate, it’s really interesting. But I’m sure for nostalgic purposes it reminds him of home.

Nia: What was it like for you to prepare for this project?

Charles: It’s a project that I started in 2016, and actually my cousin Julie, we grew up together. She was born and raised here in California, but when she turned 18, she moved to Louisiana and didn't come back until about 18 years later. So basically lived a life in rural Louisiana. And because we have this proximity to that lifestyle, she was in love with the country lifestyle. So when she moved back to take care of her mom, who had cancer at the time, we were hanging out a lot because we're exactly the same age. Cousins in my family were more like sisters and brothers, so we would hang out a lot, and she would always want to do country stuff, which I'm totally down for. And so we would always go out to local trail rides because there are a lot of black cow folks that live mostly in the Central Valley, but they come to Oakland to do things. And she mentioned to me, like, hey, you should document this stuff. And that's really how I began. I was like, you know what? You're right. I was just doing it for fun. And then it became a serious series that I was focusing on and trying to capture this lifestyle in its essence, all the facets of it, not just, like, a person on a horse, but the care that goes into it. And this relationship with the animal started to become unearthed, and it's still something that I think of as an ongoing project that I’m making new work for this summer. There’s a brother in Seattle that has a ranch. I met his brother at CCA , and we started talking about the work that I did, and it was like “Oh, my brother has a ranch.” So I’m going out there in July to meet with him to start some stuff.  

Nia: You mentioned that you’re not just documenting people on the horses. I said you’re documenting the mundanity with the horses. Was that a point to get across? Like, this is something that is not extraordinary, but extraordinary. But this is also something that is like, daily. 

Charles: Exactly. And that’s kind of where the title came from. We’ve been here doing this. Right. It’s kind of a testament to the fact that I believe and know that this is a lifestyle that’s been here and shouldn’t be sensational. Right? And what I’ve noticed and why I focused on that was because the photographers that were covering it, a lot of them were not Black, and a lot of them were sensationalizing the act of being a Black Cowboy. It was like this thing of, “Wow, exotic. Never seen this before.”

Nia: But it’s been here. 

Charles: Exactly. So that’s why I kind of wanted to focus on this project and make it a long-term one because I know people do it for the time and fame. It’s like this flash-in-the-pan type thing, and I just want it to be known and rooted like this is a long story. It’s not just somebody going through a McDonald’s drive-thru on a horse or doing tricks on top of the saddle, or blowing smoke through their teeth. And it’s this whole aesthetic I was pushing back against and just wanted to show this daily life.

Looking at the photos from the “Been Here!” project, all are in black and white, as if these were scenes in old Western films and old Hollywood. That was an intentional choice for Charles, when he started the project he started with shooting in color. But in a way to take a step back from sensationalism, he kept the colors to a minimum to separate the work from the sensationalism and perceived excitement of the cowboy world in photos. 
“I kind of wanted this body of work to exist outside of a place and time,” Charles stated. “So, that’s why I kind of chose the same palette, so you can't see or really differentiate landscape or time period.” 

Nia: It seems like all of the photos were taken pretty recently.

Charles: Yeah, they are recent, but it's still like, when people view it, I want them to be like, “Damn, was this when was this?” That was the conscious choice. 

Nia: Were all the subjects local? Because I feel like was it the Compton Cowboys?

Charles: Yeah, I went to Compton with the Compton Cowboys for one day. I need to revisit them and kind of spend some more time. But we did one day. They were getting tattoos from a brother that was from Louisiana but lives in the Bay Area, so it's like this late Great Migration-type thing. Lives in the Bay and lives on a ranch here. Then I also went to Louisiana twice, in 2019 and 2021, just for family stuff, and ended up making work there. This young man was the only black rodeo rider in high school in Louisiana at the time. And this is like Mardi Gras 2019, I think. So that's 2019, yeah. So I went to Louisiana and then a couple of times with Central Valley.

Creating work that is such a big part of your identity and lineage is important for everyone to do. However, in a lot of these spaces where art gets showcased and uplifted, there are not many people who look like the people making and showing their art in these places that are predominantly white. For Charles in particular, his work for the “Been Here!” project puts the Black experience of the South and the Great Migration on display for all people to see. 
Though the work is for everyone, the audience that the work is intended for is the people who look like everyone in these pictures, Black people. He created this work to insert us and our existence into the conversation of art. And placing his work that centers our experiences is a way for him to create accessible work that is on display for everyone to participate in the viewing. 
“I want people to want to go to these spaces and see it and to not be afraid in front of them,” Charles said. “It’s also like an assertion for me to say, ‘Hey, here we are here doing this not for your entertainment, but here for you to understand and recognize we’ve been doing this.’ That’s why agency is important.” 

Nia: Why did you choose the photo of the lady leading the horse from the stable?

Charles: Honestly it was one of the ones that I had that was framed and ready to go, and I thought it was a really peaceful moment, and it seemed like it could be something to be in someone's house. Right? And also that thing, too, this idea of before in my career, I denied a sale of a piece because it was, like, for my family archival photos and a white person wanted to buy. Right. And I get that. And then I was speaking to one of my mentors, and he was like, ‘Look, some of these folks, their children have never seen a black person, right?’ Maybe, like, a person hasn't encountered them, interacted with them, or anything. And he said, ‘Wouldn't you want their interaction to be something where they look up to this person and they see them in this glorious manner and this beautiful way? Because this is the only encounter, maybe that they're going to have until they're adults with black people.’ So then it's in their subconscious, like, here these people are in this way. And it's not like I didn’t think about that, and yeah, I get that, but still, my ancestors know you don't need to own them. But I kind of go back and forth with that because then it's like, well, I'm the one making this image, right? I'm the one that's exalting it by putting it in this frame, and it could potentially go on someone's wall. And then it's this whole other beautiful thing, and it's not like a funny photo of a black person. It's like, this is a real, actual document of us in our lifestyle. And I feel at the end of the day, I want everybody to kind of understand the nuance of our life and our being, so then we can just be without it being like, oh, this is interesting. This is just what it is. 

Nia: This is life. 

Charles: Just like yours. So there's that kind of catch-22 being in the space, right?

Nia: What was the response from the “Been Here!” exhibition, especially when you first showed it and then now having it in these different spaces and auctions, and things like that?

Charles: Yeah, I mean, the response was great, and it wasn't, like, fantastical. The response from everybody, a lot of folks, white folks included, were saying, like, this is something that needs to be seen in this manner. And my mentors, who are all Black folks, were telling me, like, yeah, this is a beautifully, elegantly put together body of work that does need to be seen. Right. So I'm just trying to figure out what's the best way to, again, hold on to this agency and the best way to really show it in, the best place to let that go, to let it out. And I've been kind of sitting on it for years for that reason, because it's very close and near and dear to me, and now I feel like it's something that can be exposed. I actually have an exhibition in Berkeley curated by Leila Weefur, at a gallery called Cube Space in Berkeley that's coming out, on June 10. It's a really interesting space. It's on the bottom floor of a parking garage in Berkeley. And it's just like a cube. It just has three windows. It's really nine windows, but three windows. And I'm going to show some of this work in a different fashion there. But it was kind of important for me that the curator was a Black person understanding the nuance of this. And they also ride horses for leisure. Now, the space where it's being seen may not be a lot of black folks that see it, but I'm going to try to make sure that at least my folks and people that are in my network get to go and see this as well. But it's also, like, public-facing, so then it kind of starts sinking into people like, I don't need to exoticize this.

Nia: And how did your other projects and other works prepare you for showing this, or even prepare you in the mindset of taking these photos?

Charles: I started out like, honestly, I was a street photographer and somebody that wasn't asking for the photo type of thing, which I felt like is kind of important in the documentary because you want to document a certain thing and not have it be interrupted. Right. 

Nia: Or staged. 

Charles: Or staged, yeah. Which a lot of photographs can be. And then it's like I don't know, it loses kind of the essence for me. So that kind of prepared me for this quick way to snap photos and to capture moments. Right. “The decisive moment,” as they love to say, in the history of photography. But again, being a Black person and thinking of this idea of agency and how our images are used, I would ask after the fact to use it. So these types of things kind of went together for me to start to feel comfortable with revealing this. Because obviously, like, the folks that I photograph, I wanted to ask their permission to show these works. And then I think grad school kind of put me on a path in a way to feel comfortable showing this work. I had a few studio visits and folks were like, have people seen this? I was like, no, not really. And they're like, wow, these scenes are gorgeous. And then when it came time to write my thesis, I was drawn to write about this. So then that's where the thesis exhibition came from, too, which features some of these works. I even made a found footage video. You've seen it?

Nia: Yeah.

Charles: Okay, good. Was a snapshot of this lifestyle with historical references, historical and more modern home videos and kind of my ode to hip-hop appropriation and remixing of things.

The “Been Here!” project is not limited to the photos Charles took of his family or on-site with various Black equestrians throughout the western and southern parts of the states. He also decided to incorporate video, using archival video footage he found on YouTube. With the backing of Solange’s 2019 song “Down with the Clique,” the message has never been more clear. When putting everything together, it just made sense. With the video and the photos, you are put in the world of Southern equestrians and their everyday activities with their horses. He looked up things he knew about life through his family like trail rides through Louisiana to show us what that side of the world is like from first-hand experience. 
Incorporating video with the photography he was already doing was a way for him to confront the icons in the way that the United States is seen as a whole. Other Western countries see us as cowboys who barbecue and play baseball. But when it comes to seeing Black people this same way, we are never thought of, and if we are, we are seen as the help. 
“I was thinking, like, Marlboro Man or agency and advertising and the Black body and how it's used to sell things. Right,” Charles stated. “But also, like, how we're obfuscated from the history of this, and they don't show us or show us in ads or anything like that. They hadn't. And now it's like, popular. So now it's happening a lot.” 
Charles decided to put that obfuscation into his work. He went and used a 15-foot vinyl piece on the wall using the same material they use for billboard advertisements. This piece was an image of the Newport man. Exploring the relationship between Black people and our use of menthol cigarettes, and how in so much of the South, people were not only picking cotton but tobacco as well. Post-slavery, these things remained in our lives through imagery and commercials.
“Thinking of video, too, how commercials are used in film and how people get their information from these things and they believe it as the holy truth even though it’s constructed,” he said. “So I was just trying to use some of those same avenues that folks have used in the past to indoctrinate people, but instead I was using it as a way to inform them of what's real.”

Nia: What were some of the obstacles or even challenges that came with creating the “Been Here!” project, or trying to get it into different galleries, or different spaces?

Charles: The biggest obstacle was myself wanting to show it because, again, the whole business was to make sure that it was done by me in the right way. So it was just like, time sitting on it and then making this work. Like, one of the biggest obstacles is time because, with most of the subjects, I only had a day to do it. And I want more time. But life, I can't spend three months I mean, maybe now, but I wasn't able to spend, like, three months with one group of people to kind of have other stories unfold, which is something I want to do going forward. It's like spending a year off and on. Not like an entire year, but weeks at a time with folks. And again, I think I'm going to start doing that when I go up to Washington. Photograph this brother. This will be our first visit to sit there and kind of program things. And I see it kind of developing into me actually filming as well, which is something that I want to do.

Nia: And when you're going to these spaces, how are you immersing yourself into each of these cultures? Because I know it's like the broader spectrum of equestrianism, but each culture is so different depending on where they're from, depending on where they're at. How are you adapting to that or making your subjects feel comfortable with that?

Charles: Yeah. I can say my training in sales has really helped in that way, but I don't know. For me, I'm comfortable with wherever Black people are, regardless of socioeconomic strata that they're on because I've also been in all of them, so I can understand that and I can empathize. Right. So, like in Compton, I understand Compton is like Richmond. Just like Richmond. When I'm there, I was like, “Damn, am I in Richmond?” Really felt just like Richmond to me. And then the folks in the Central Valley, I've lived in kind of rural areas, and my family, being from Louisiana, I know the country codes. It's just something that's in me. And again, I don't know. I just feel really comfortable with wherever they are in the world, too. There's a certain kinship that I think we all have and carry with us.

Nia: Are you open to exploring different parts of the world?

Charles: You'd be surprised. Mexico. There's a place in Mexico, Nacimiento de los Negros, the birth of the Black. And they actually celebrate Juneteenth there. And it's in a question and lifestyle that they lead there. So that's actually one of my dreams and goals, is to go and document Juneteenth there and just show the spread of this culture. Brazil is definitely one. And I'm going to throw a curveball. And I was even thinking, like Australia, because the Aborigines there, they do this too. 

Nia: What do you think are the biggest things that opened your eyes the most when it came to this process? Even in terms of equestrianism. What do they teach you? How to break a horse?

Charles: No, I mean, just how to be around an animal. There's a certain real connection between the rider and the horse. And if the horse ain't feeling you, you will know it. I don't know, it's like, really interesting viewing that type of relationship that these folks have with this animal and nature in general, understanding the cycles of nature, understanding these animals. So that was one of the things, seeing the care that went into it with the Compton Cowboys, how they started because of gang violence, and to see these dudes, they love their animals, right? And the animals love them back. So it's like that was probably one of the biggest eye-opening things to me, was like the type of care that goes into caring for this animal.

Speaking with Charles about this project that has been so near and dear to his heart and his family was such an enlightening experience. So many Black Americans today can trace our roots back to someplace back in the South, and I saw parts of my lineage in this project. A majority of my family comes from Texas, so seeing the resurgence of Cowboys in the media reminds me of my grandparents and the everyday reality of growing up as a descendant of people of the Great Migration. 

Nia Coats is currently the Communications Intern at Southern Exposure; a lot of the posts you’ve seen on our Instagram recently have been made by her. Outside of her work with SoEx, she is a journalist covering the local art scene in the Bay Area with publications like KQED and the SF Chronicle. Outside of covering the music and arts scenes in the Bay Area for local publications, she does the same with her own independent publication Lucky 7 Magazine.