Ronan McKenzie has worked on commissions for Nike, YMC, SHOWstudio and adidas. Born and raised in London, she took up photography after dropping out of a fashion course at Central Saint Martins, and caught the attention of brands with her intimate portraits of family, friends and models. (She learned her craft through practice, and learned to use equipment with help from friends and YouTube tutorials.)
McKenzie now has over 30,000 followers on Instagram. She staged her first solo exhibition in 2015 and last year published Hard Ears – a 300-page zine bringing together work by well-known photographers and upcoming artists. Alongside contemporaries Campbell Addy and Nadine Ijewere, she is one of a group of emerging black British photographers using their talents to challenge a lack of diversity in fashion and visual culture.
McKenzie’s latest project, I’m Home, is a group exhibition of photographs exploring ideas of family and domestic life. Like Hard Ears, it features a mix of established and emerging talent: McKenzie and Dillon’s images are displayed alongside work by artist Joy Gregory, whose career spans three decades, and Liz Johnson-Artur, who has spent 25 years photographing people of African descent.
The exhibition opens at Dalston arts space Blank100 on October 27, and will host a varied programme of events throughout its two-week run – including a supper club by Jamaican plant-based dining venture OOM, a self-portrait workshop with Joy Miessi and Bernice Mulenga, a workshop with Nadine Ijewere and a life drawing class hosted by Our Naked Truths. There will also be an evening of film screenings with Eloise King. The space has been furnished to create a homely feel, and visitors can pull up a chair and peruse the contents of a library curated by writer Rianna Jade Parker.
The exhibition is free to attend, but there is a £5 booking fee for events (the fee will be refunded on arrival, or guests can choose to donate it to East London charity Hackney Quest instead).
McKenzie says she hopes the show will provide “a place of learning, development and conversation” and encourage “cultural exchange, intergenerational conversation and a sharing of skills”.
In her personal work, McKenzie is keen to challenge narrow views of blackness and champion other black photographers and artists. “I’m trying to use my voice to showcase different kinds of people and especially to show different kinds of black personalities,” she tells CR. I’m Home brings together four black British women with very different outlooks and experiences, resulting in a thought-provoking reflection on identity.
Home and family is an intimate theme – and McKenzie says she looks to create work that reflects her personal experiences outside of her commissions for brands: “I only want to do work that really speaks to me … and I try to put as much of myself into my work as I can,” she explains.
With I’m Home, she wanted to showcase her own work and Dillon’s alongside images by established artists who have inspired her. “Liz and Joy have [taken part in] Biennales and had big shows, and I find it really inspiring that they’ve done that – it shows me that I can do it too,” she says. “Rhea and I are very much at the beginning of our journeys, and I think the conversation between those two generations can be very powerful.”
McKenzie recalls being frustrated with exhibitions where black artists are singled out for their race – something she wanted to address when curating I’m Home. “You would never write that an artist is white in a show but if there’s an exhibition or article with one black photographer, it will always mention that they’re black. And I just question why that has to be said.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to for the show has had similar experiences – Liz hasn’t shown in [a group exhibition] in London for 20 years because there hasn’t been a space that she feels represents her properly without having to explain everything about her work – so the point of the show is that everything is contextualised already. No-one needs to ask questions about why and what. You can just come and be immersed in the art.”
The show is self-funded: “I’m happy to invest in things I think would be useful to myself and other black artists…. I’m paying for it with money I’ve earned through [commissions], because I don’t want to wait for somebody else to pay for it,” she adds.
I’m Home is open from October 27 to November 4 at Blank 100, 100 De Beauvoir Rd, Unit 5, London N1 4EN. You can see the full programme of events and book tickets here and see more of McKenzie’s work at ronanmckenzie.co.uk