Aspiring filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison won our Artists Month contest for her striking self-portrait, entitled “Unrequited Love.” We asked her about her art and her life, her guilty pleasures and inspirations, and why Independent Lens matters to her.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My mother was a storyteller and my father a musician, so my brother and I were surrounded by art from an early age. My mother is a survivor of breast cancer as well as a brain tumor, and when I was 15 my father passed away. My mom, brother, and I moved to Chicago after his death and it has truly molded me into the person and artist I am now. At 23, I still live in Chicago and work with Step Up Women’s Network as a photojournalism instructor, and am an independent artist (film and photography), while my brother, who is 25 and a phenomenal cellist, lives in LA again. I began college as a theatre major but will continue my education this fall at Columbia College with a concentration in Film Cinematography and Women’s Studies.
Tell us more about the inspiration for your piece, why you felt compelled to create it, and why you used the symbolism you did.
I originally planned to use a friend for this piece and I still do. I first came up with this idea about 2 months ago for a series of photos I’m doing that deals with women and sexuality; it’s a bit of a feminist series. For “Unrequited Love” I used Christianity and homosexuality because, as a Christian, I don’t believe in promoting hate or disgust because of someone’s beliefs or lifestyle. I know so many loving gay people who have such beautiful spirits and who’ve struggled with their religious beliefs and sexuality, so I wanted to be an advocate. I don’t care if people don’t agree with me or are offended, this is a topic that needs to be discussed. I hope anyone who is homophobic, Christian or not, sees this piece; and I hope it makes them think. I want to eliminate hate. It’s disgusting. I believe in love, I believe God loves everyone, gay or straight, and I stand by that.
How did you create your winning photograph? Take us through the creative process.
I painted 30 toothpicks brown and red and stuck them throughout a grapevine wreath, and then I covered my face in white clown make up. I sat in my friend’s room on the floor and since I didn’t have a tripod handy I had to be creative so I used a box and placed it on top of a chair and balanced my camera on top of the box. Using the camera’s self timer I took picture after picture until I was happy with the image. Then I enhanced the image a bit in PhotoShop to make everything pop.
Do you — or do you plan to — make art your career?
Yes I do! A filmmaker (documentaries and fiction) and a photographer. I won’t settle for anything other than that. Some of my work can be found at www.wix.com/sophianahli/sophia
What role do you think art has in a democratic society?
The freedom of speech, done properly. What I love about art is it’s a way to highlight situations going on around the world. It’s a way to make people think, and see things from different perspectives.
Do you think the arts get enough attention in our media-saturated world?
No they do not. What is mainstream in our media-saturated world is not art. Our society is obsessed and consumed with idiotic entertainment and self-fulfillment. What happened to telling stories? I feel like the mainstream media is in desperate need of new ideas and breaking the mold. Unfortunately a lot of amazing art that is innovative and meaningful doesn’t get a lot of recognition and the finances are not in that area at the moment to promote artists who are truly talented.
What artists and other people do you admire or are you inspired by?
Friends who are talented artists beyond belief. Allison Bodnar Jaros, Theresa Miller, Doc Allison, Afam Uderoji, Stacy Osei-Kuffor, Rashida KhanBey (so many more). I’m inspired by Conrad L Hall, Jodi Cobb, Sam Mendes, Sofia Coppola, Kathyrn Bigelow, Lucy Walker, Tom Hanks, Spike Lee, Carrie Mae Weems. People who are doing something new and who are helping mankind inspire me.
What do you watch on television? It’s OK to be totally honest — we have our guilty pleasures here (reality TV).
My guilty pleasure is 90210, I’m obsessed with that show. It’s my dream to direct an episode! Other than that, I love Curb Your Enthusiasm and The L Word.
What do you do with your free time other than your art?
I love to surround myself with nature or watch a good movie. I could watch movies all day long. I love to surround myself with my phenomenal friends but no matter what I’m doing I think my mind is always creating art.
What is your favorite book of all time?
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hossein, and When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe.
Why do you watch Independent Lens (assuming you do!)?
I watch it because it keeps good filmmaking alive. It’s a goal to have a film of mine shown on Independent Lens one day. I watch films like Wasteland and I cry. I become so inspired to bless people and to create art that is meaningful. Independent Lens combines humanity and art; you can’t help but be moved by the many films shown on the series.