David Christopher Orrell

My Friend Bunmi

How strange is it to know someone? To know them as family; to know them like you know the back of your hand, and suddenly they disappear from your life. Imagine reuniting with them for the first time in 25 years."Who are they now?" "What do they do?" "Where have they been?" and " What do they think of me?" Questions I had to ask myself after reuniting with Bunmi, my very first best friend, just one year ago.

Bunmi and I reconnected through an artist named Danielle Scott, whom I met at an event at the Newark Museum of Arts. During a conversation with Danielle, I mentioned that I was working on a project centered around black hair, so she told me I had to meet this artist, whom she called Adebunmi. At the time, it didn't occur to me that Bunmi-- or as I pronounced it at four years old, "Boomie" was short for Adebunmi. So one can imagine the surprise when I looked Adebunmi up on Instagram and saw a picture of her in the purple velvet dress she wore on our last school picture day together.

After exchanging numbers, we spent nearly four hours catching up on the last 25 years. I learned that Bunmi became a successful multimedia artist; she is what art critics call an "art market fave." She had an art studio downtown, Newark, right by my place, so we made plans to meet up and have lunch at a vegan restaurant, conveniently named Urban Vegan. To say it was surreal seeing my 5-year-old best friend at 30 is an understatement; the little girl I knew traded her short box braids for locs that curled around her face as if they were giving her a warm hug. Her eyes looked the same, though. 

Bunmi has this way of looking at you that at first is unsettling, but once the feeling of nakedness passes over, you're left feeling seen. I also had the pleasure of meeting her "art mom," Adrienne Wheeler. Adrienne is an artist too, and a big deal in the Newark art scene. Her family has over 200 years of documented history here in the city, and she's supported Bunmi in ways only a mother could in the past few years. Bunmi was in the middle of acquiring a wicker chair from this furniture store around the corner, and she asked if I could help her carry it to her studio, which was less than a block away. Of course I agreed to help, mostly because I was excited to see her studio space: her "domain expansion," if you will. My excitement quickly shifted to humbleness once I stepped into her world. As I looked around, Bunmi began to clean up, and whenever something caught my attention, she would stop and explain what I was looking at. Her studio was littered with notes and the materials she used for her work. The humbleness I experienced came from the magnitude of Bunmi's work; clearly, she was an "in spite of" kind of person, and her dedication to her passion was evident. 

I learned that she experienced significant loss during the first year of the pandemic, probably more loss than anyone I had ever met, and it was clear that it had shaped how she saw the world and thus shaped her perspective on art. To me, Bunmi's work is an act of self-preservation: Using organic materials like hair donated by family, friends, and strangers who believe in her art; or soil cultivated from the land her ancestors once toiled under oppression, Bunmi creates a carbon record of our people's existence and experiences; a reminder that beauty is more than just a spectacle, but also a peice of time that can shift how we move forward in the world. Bunmi expressed that it was important to her to not have her work compared to the likes of her white peers. I think this rejection of eurocentrism allows us to focus on the history she's trying to preserve in her work through the context of our resilience as a people.

As I looked around some more, Bunmi rummaged through a bag of her things and found a photo of the two of us when we were about five years old. Neither of us could believe it, yet we were like two kids again on an imaginary adventure and had just discovered the holy grail. Evidence of our special friendship. The power of photography, am I right? That moment cemented a new bond for the two of us because, I think, we both realized that this kind of reunion only happens in movies, and for us to be given a second chance at friendship when we both needed it most was something worth cherishing. 

However, the moment would turn out to be a bittersweet one; Bunmi had a residency in Philly that she was extending to continue her work in clay and pottery. She would spend most of her time there but would visit Newark often because of family and work. Though, between our two schedules and Covid, we didn't get to see each other as much. Sometime later, Bunmi invited me and Reis, my husband, and our dog, Ollie, down for a visit now that she was settled in. She had been house-sitting in South Philly; it was a beautifully quaint home owned by a conservation biologist and his wife. Bunmi jokingly referred to the house as her "reparations home." After exploring Philly a bit, we stopped by her studios, yes plural, for a photo op. 

Since reuniting with Bunmi and seeing her artwork, I knew I wanted to photograph her in her environment. She was the closest I'd ever come to an artist of her caliber, and I knew the photos would simply take themselves. As with all things, I approached this portrait session with familiarity: While my husband was on lighting duty, Bunmi demonstrated what a typical day would look like in her studio, as she talked about her latest project. Just a year into working with clay, Bunmi was days away from the biggest showcase of her career at the Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Bunmi was one of five contemporary black artists contributing their own pottery art to the exhibition. The exhibition was centered around Dave Drake, better known as Dave the Potter, an African American who created incredible stoneware pottery in the Edgefield district of South Carolina while enslaved by different owners. So naturally, I wanted to photograph Bunmi composed with pieces she had leftover from the exhibition. I shot one roll of Kodak Portra 800 120mm film and one and a half rolls of Kodak Portra 400 35mm film.

There are muses throughout a photographer's life that pulls out different sides of that photographer. Fortunately, these muses tend to show up quite a lot in the photographer's work, and we sometimes get to peek inside the life of someone and see them evolve over time. I think Bunmi is one of those so-called muses for me. I have a feeling that these photographs of her are going to stand the test of time. I can only imagine the full scope of her influence, but Bunmi has inspired so much of my work, and it's only been a year and a half since we first reconnected, and what I do know is that Bunmi's art shakes the table. In fact, part of Bunmi's work is already pushing museums like the Met and the Boston Museum of Art to educate themselves on how to preserve the black hair used in her work. Literally studying black hair as a medium of art.


You can view Bunmi's latest works from the 

Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina Exhibit 

at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, now through Feb. 5, 2023.



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