Street: What are you involved in on campus?
Araba Ankuma: I’m chair of Strictly Funk, so that’s the dance company. I also work for the Black Cultural Center, MAKUU, as the creative fellow, so we’re actually developing a mural–type collage painting project that’s gonna go up over Homecoming. I used to be in Big Brothers Big Sisters if you count that as on–campus. I’m in Friars Senior Society and Kinoki Film Society. Oh, and I just signed on as full–time photographer for The Walk.
Street: And you have your own photography company?
AA: Yeah! I have my own business, well it’s my name: Araba S. Ankuma Photography. I started photographing when I was in––I like to say officially eighth grade. That’s when I got my first DSLR camera, so 2008. And I’ve been just shooting on my own. I created a website and people started hiring me for events and stuff so that’s been a really cool thing.
Street: Do you want to be a photographer?
AA: I’m trying to go off in life and be a photographer. I applied for a Fulbright so I want to do documentary work. Not video but documentary photography work, and then have my editorial fashion summer class finance that other stuff.
Street: So what do you love so much about creating images and photography?
AA: People have asked me a lot of times, 'Why don’t you want to get into video, like everything’s moving towards moving picture?' But I don’t know, I feel like it’s more of a challenge to capture the motion and energy, the vibrance, the essence of a moment in one shot. Like, that is the challenge that I’m always trying to get at. If I can get my photograph to emulate all of what was happening when I was actually there, for somebody who wasn’t, that’s me doing my job.
Street: Do you have any particular events or moments that like really stuck out to you in your photographing?
AA: This summer, I got to go photograph in Ghana for three weeks and I was at my cousin’s wedding. He was like, 'You should come and just bring your camera. We have a bunch of photographers we hired, but bring it anyway ‘cause I love your work. I want to see how you see the wedding.' And I think those moments were just so amazing. That whole day was just from 9 a.m., photographing all the groomsmen getting ready in the morning and getting together with the groom and the going to the hotel—or go to the church where it was. There are so many things going on and at the end of it, it’s like, everybody’s happy. At a wedding, the joy is so palpable, like it was—that was incredible. And then I think, being able to photograph I think moments of black joy, so... to, like, unpack that, I was in Chicago this summer doing independent research. Penn granted me money to go basically photograph and work. And in Chicago, they really celebrate the summer, like every weekend, every week is some festival. One of the groups that throws parties are these three black women and they’re just making spaces for black millennials to just be in the space...they throw day parties and night events at venues with bars and things, so for older black women there’s things like that movement. Being able to picture that in a way that people who may not understand black culture will start to understand how just, how similar and how different and how unique we all are from one another. I’m trying to pull out the invisible people in society. I feel like, that can cover anything. Not just black people. But like, people who aren’t typically noticed or like the culture’s sort of, sort of slides over.
Street: Do you have a dream editorial shoot that you ever want to do?
AA: I think dancers because they’re able to bend their body, models who have danced before or dancing people who look very model–esque, but like darker bodies. And going to places like New Zealand or the mountains in Thailand and doing clothing that’s very flowy in the mountains so you get different viewpoints. Sort of like an H&M–looking thing. I was talking to a professor about how some photographers just use a dilapidated space to enhance the beauty of the model and in doing that it objectifies both the model and the space and like cheapens the space. So I don’t ever want to do that. I really want to think about the settings and incorporate whatever it is. It’s almost like taking the model to a different world. And then making that model somebody that like you don’t typically see. So, like very dark–skin models or Asian. I have one idea where it’d be like a spectrum of models.
Street: Can you talk a little bit about your involvement and progression with Strictly Funk?
AA: I’d danced in high school a little bit. But I never had danced at this level where I was going to master classes and things. And I’d danced culturally, like coming from West Africa, we dance. It’s what people do. We dance, we party. That’s a lot of what West Africans––or not West Africans but Ghanaians––do. [It's] what we love to do. Coming to Penn, I went to auditions and I remember seeing them at FPAN before being kind of disappointed ‘cause I felt it wasn’t up to the standard I thought it was gonna be. So I was like, 'Hm, maybe this isn’t for me, but I’ll go to auditions anyway.' So I went and I was...floored by the level of amazingness in the choreographer and the director. There were three girls in particular who were super intimidating and I was like, 'Whoa, these people are amazing.' And those three girls ended up being the girls that were with me. We all went ahead, and now we are the senior class in Funk. So me, Avalon O’Connor, Michelle Adjangba, and Cat Shi...Like they’re the best dancers that I’ve seen ever in my life. And you have a family that you graduate [with] and come back [to] every year. Our Funk alum are the most dedicated alumni you ever saw. Every semester without fail, they’re here.
Street: Were you born in Ghana?
AA: No, I live in Northern Virginia and I grew up there, but I’ve been back to Ghana over six or seven times now. When I was 18 months, for example, I went there. They shipped me off with my uncle and I went to live there with my grandparents and that’s when I grew up. I think I was there for like a year or six months doing that. Another time I was there for three months, like, was going frequently until I got to around, 10, 11, 12, and I think that’s when we slowed down our visits because it’s expensive to travel across the Atlantic.
Street: What’s the most photogenic spot on Penn’s campus?
AA: I’m so tired of Penn’s campus—that’s a really hard question. I had a great shoot by the Schuylkill if you count that as being on campus, but that was also the time of day, the lighting, the clouds––there were a lot of different things that came together. Rooftops are really dope, so if I could get on one of the rooftops at like the Hub or one of the older apartments, those are dope.
Street: If you are what you eat, then what are you?
AA: Nachos, like the Mad Mex [kind]. Black beans and chicken and the guac and peppers and cheese.
Street: What would you be infamous for?
AA: Changing the way people saw the world.
Street: There are two types of people at Penn…
AA: The ones who are here for themselves and the ones who are here for everyone else.
Street: Do you remember your first screen name?
AA: So, embarrassingly enough, it was QueenyLS6.
Street: What is LS?
AA: I’ve never told anybody this, so embarrassing. So Queen Latifah was one of my role models at the time, let’s say middle school time. I was watching this show all the time that was called Living Single so queeny comes from Queen Latifah. She was the main character in Living Single and there were six characters in Living Single—I loved all of them. It was like the black Friends.
Street: What’s one question we forgot to ask you?
AA: How many places have you been? How many different countries have you been to? Just because this summer people actually thought I was studying abroad because I didn’t get here 'til August 21. September 1, people were like 'Where’s Araba?' because I had a lot of places I traveled to. So Ghana, the UK, Barcelona, Switzerland, Germany, France––very short trips for those two. Chile, Puerto Rico, Tobago, Jamaica, Canada. I’m missing some I know it. Cuba.