The Space Where Words Fail: Asha Belk

This season’s MacPhail’s Spotlight Series joins important visual artists with our accomplished musicians in special performances. Our culminating performance brings the narrative photographer Asha Belk to Antonello Hall on Saturday, April 22.

Asha will merge her visceral, photographic images of Black culture with music by MacPhail’s EMRA (Electronic Music Recording Arts) department. The program will capture what Belk describes as “the joyous moments and the painful moments and the things that you question.”

As a social worker, Asha has seen great hardship, and she folds those life experiences into her work. But her intuitive, thoughtful images also capture moments of hope, beauty, and love. The result is a body of work that’s hard to pigeonhole. It’s a space where words fail.


Oliver and other students painting a mural on the side of a building

I took these photos in June of 2020 in South Minneapolis. A teacher from a local high school had invited students to help make murals and beautify the street after the protests. I met Oliver while I was walking around taking photos. He told me about the school he was attending, and I told him that I worked at one; which struck up a conversation.

Oliver was 16, and we talked about his goals for the future. He told me that he wanted to be successful and to make his family proud. He said he didn’t want to get involved in some of the things that his friends were doing, activities that might sidetrack him from achieving what he wanted. 

Oliver told me he was working hard to graduate high school and that he was serious about making it happen. “But I’m a kid, too,” he said. “Sometimes I just want to be a kid.” That child-like wonder really surfaced when I asked if I could take his portrait. He was so excited about it. When I showed him the picture, he said, “You’re cold with it!”. We both laughed, and I told him he might have a career in modeling. 

portrait of Oliver

On October 8, 2020, I received a notification on Instagram, someone commented on the photo I had taken of Oliver: RIP. I DM’d the person, who replied that Oliver had been shot and killed while walking down the street. He’d been talking on the phone with his mother. 

On a GoFundMe page created after Oliver’s death, his YMCA life coach filled in more details about him. He described his love for music, his advocacy for other homeless youth, and his interest in local politics. Oliver had met Representative Ilhan Omar at a political event, and she’d inspired him to run for office one day. I also learned that Oliver had achieved his first goal: He’d graduated high school. 

I used Oliver’s portrait in one of my showings at the Capri Theater, and when the exhibit ended, I reached out to his mother and offered it to her. We met at her place of work, and I asked if I could take a picture of her with the photo—just her arms holding it. She said yes.

I feel super blessed to have met Oliver, and even more so now as I look back on the photo I took of him that day.

Oliver's mom holding portrait of her son

Clark Atlanta University Homecoming

a crowd of alumni outside

These photos were taken in October 2022, during my alma mater’s Homecoming. If you know anything about Clark Atlanta University or HBCU culture in general, you know that Homecoming is a celebration like none other. Think of it like a family reunion — but even bigger, even richer, even more jovial. It speaks to the richness of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and our legacies and serves as a tangible bridge between alumni and current students who are looking to make their mark.

With these images, I wanted to encompass the feeling of Homecoming. The unmitigated love, joy, and revelry we experience when we come back to the place that shaped so much of who we are. From Greek life and step teams to parades and the big game, this single weekend speaks to the majesty of attending an HBCU, especially one in the heart of Atlanta.

two university alumni hugging

I make it a point to attend Clark Atlanta’s Homecoming every few years. It’s fun reconnecting with old friends, meeting their kids and families, and reminiscing on some of the best times of my life. And it makes me proud to see how younger generations are extending the lifeline of Clark Atlanta. It’s something special.

I discovered Clark Atlanta University during high school when I went on a civil rights trip to Selma, Alabama. We marched the path that John Lewis and Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. took over on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. On our way home to Minnesota, we took a route through Georgia and passed Clark Atlanta’s campus in the West End of Atlanta. I’d never heard of it and hadn’t considered it an option, but something spoke to me. I remember saying, “I’m going to go there.” When you’re a person of faith, God places certain things on your heart. You don’t always have the understanding, but you know it’s right because God put it there. And I just knew that was where I needed to be.

Clark Atlanta showed me the multifaceted beauty of Black culture. Back home in Minnesota, I was always the only Black girl in my class. At CAU and in Atlanta, city-wide, I was surrounded by so many people who looked like me, lived like me, and shared experiences that only we could relate to. That never happened to me before.

At CAU, I became a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the first Black sorority, founded at Howard University in 1908. My sorority promotes scholastic achievement, unity amongst college women, a focus on issues impacting women and girls, and, above all, service to all mankind. The women here, are my neos — my little sisters who were initiated after me and worked to uphold the legacy my sisters, and those before us, cemented. I photographed them during their 10-year anniversary at Homecoming 2022. It was a full circle moment that spoke to my time at CAU and the bit of history I could contribute to.

Some people see sororities and default to the stereotypes. They think it’s all about wearing the colors and doing the strolls. But it’s so much bigger than that. Black sororities — and all organizations under the National Pan-Hellenic Council — make a lifelong commitment to uphold our values and uplift the entire Black community. It’s about enriching those around us, connecting with other Black students, sharing knowledge and resources, and helping each other succeed in college and beyond. We see that impact from the 50-yard-line with the likes of Colin Kaepernick to Capitol Hill, with my Soror, Madame Vice President Kamala Harris (who became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha in 1986 on the campus of Howard University). And when I say it’s a lifelong commitment, I mean it. Our sisterhood is woven into so many aspects of my life. If I need advice, I have a sister who’s a call or text or a flight away. I have so many sisters who will lend a hand.

It’s an honor that I would not have had, had it not been for Clark Atlanta University. And I think a little of that comes through in these images.

a group of sorority sisters posing for photograph

Join us Saturday, April 22 at 7:30 pm for MacPhail Spotlight Series, The Space Where Words Fail, Antonello Hall

photographer Asha Belk standing in a gallery with her work

Asha Belk is a successful event and food photographer in the Twin Cities (and MacPhail collaborator), and she has a strong narrative style. Asha will curate a selection of her recent photography from the Twin Cities and beyond (both existing and new work), creating a visual narrative that is highly relevant and speaks to the times we live in. 

       Follow her everyday adventures on Instagram: @asha.belk
Published on Date: Apr 17, 2023
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