ina Wells, who works under the artist name NinaMDot (pronounced Nina-em-dot), is as optimistic as they come. In January 2014, the self-taught photographer quit her job in the financial industry to do art full time, and she says after she took that leap of faith, “It’s been 100-percent amazing ever since.”
The Madisonville-raised Cincinnati native has an exhibition on view at People’s Liberty’s Globe Gallery through early May, and the photographic installation features a project she began in the summer of 2015, shooting portraits of black men as royalty. NinaMDot believes the initial idea for the resulting body of work, King Me, was a gift from God.
“I’m not religious — I believe in God, that’s it. And God is directing me with this,” she says.
MDot got her first camera in the mid-’90s from her grandfather for sixth grade graduation. She used the Polaroid for a while until she bought her first digital camera in 2010, a Nikon. “Now I’m a Canon girl,” she says, laughing while explaining that she thinks the colors are just more vibrant. “But that’s just my opinion.”
MDot says she believes in shooting everything when you first get started in order to know what you like, and that’s exactly what she did when she first started photographing. She has shot weddings, family portraits and product lines, but says individual portraiture has become her favorite.
“But that is the result of me jumping in and trying a bunch of other stuff beforehand,” she says. “You have to learn, feel it out and test the waters.”
MDot had a lot of supporters who saw her talent early on. And she says she started to take her work seriously when she saw growth in her photos. She obsessively researched other photographers’ work and experimented with subjects. “It’s like I fell in love,” she says of her chosen craft.
And recalling that moment of infatuation, the artist says she knew this was her professional calling when she thought, “This is not just fun. This is what I wanna do.”
During this past summer’s All-Star Weekend, MDot and a friend went down to Fountain Square with a camera, backdrop and a crown. They stopped black men walking by and asked them to pose wearing the crown. MDot says she thought afterward, “This is fun, but it needs to be seen on a larger scale.”
She found out about the People’s Liberty Globe Grant the next day when an ArtWorks email featuring local arts opportunities landed in her inbox. Applications were due just seven days later. MDot took it as a sign that her chance to get her message of positive depictions of black males a larger platform had come.
“I checked my email and literally the opportunity for the Globe Grant screamed at me, ‘This is your opportunity!’ ” she says.
She had never written a grant, but went for it anyway.
An introductory meeting with People’s Liberty’s grant administrators helped her broaden her vision for the exhibition to include the lenticular photographs that hang in the middle of the gallery space, which show the contrast in her subjects’ dispositions with and without the crown. There is also a large collage wall of dozens of black-and-white headshots of African-American men and boys wearing this visual emblem of power.
On a central wall in black vinyl is the message, “What you see is what you become,” and MDot says this is the central message King Me aims at her subjects.
As an artist, MDot is invested in changing black male archetypes, but she insists that she is not an activist.
“I like to speak my beliefs with my art,” she says. “I don’t necessarily have to verbalize it.”
Asking her subjects to picture themselves as royalty was a paradigm shift for both the sitters as well as the artist herself. MDot anticipated the transformation for her subjects would come about as a result of them seeing their portraits in a gallery. But she says she was surprised to find out that the transformation actually began the moment she asked them to put on the crown.
“I saw the expression on their faces, how it started to change at that moment,” she says.
MDot can name nearly all of her subjects and offers anecdotes about how each reacted to her prompt. Some understood intrinsically what she wanted, while others needed a little coaxing to get the “strong” look the artist says she was after. But changing personal perceptions is an important part of her mission, so believing in the possibility of redemption through self-determination seems a major key.
But MDot also says that, while King Me is about restoring black male self-esteem and being able to see yourself as bigger than your circumstances, her message is for all kinds of audiences.
In today’s polarized political climate, King Me has the potential to reach viewers who might not be personally familiar with any black men — a very broad, arbitrary intersection of race and gender that often gets lumped into limiting stereotypes because of one-sided stories perpetuated in the media.
These photos have the potential to change viewers’ minds every time somebody walks past them, MDot says.
“Coming to Findlay Market, not even knowing People’s Liberty — whenever they come, they’re going to see a black man as a king, versus whatever they might think about them,” she says. MDot believes King Me is changing the collective mindset of her viewers and sitters alike.
“It’s changing it, because what you see is what you become,” she says.
KING ME is on display at People’s Liberty’s Globe Gallery through May 7. More info: peoplesliberty.org/globe-gallery.