Emmai Alaquiva recalls the exact moment he decided to create the “OpticVoices” photography series. He was attending a Black Lives Matter rally in 2016 with his camera.
“I saw a 2-year-old kid pulling on his mom’s leg because there were these signs that said, ‘I Am A Human Being’ and he wanted one. Although he couldn’t read, he understood the power of this sign and saw everyone else carrying one. When his mother finally gave in … he grabbed it with such courage. I noticed what transformed in his spirit and wanted to capture it. When he looked into my camera, he had more courage than I’ve seen in most adults. It was like he was saying, ‘Don’t kill me. Give me a chance. I’m only 2.’
“When I loaded the images onto my computer, my mouth dropped. I never saw myself as a photographer or photojournalist … I saw images I never saw before. I was excited to post these because I fight through art.”
Alaquiva is an Emmy Award-winning film director and composer. He was appointed to the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts by Gov. Tom Wolf. While he had a history of working in the arts, photography was new to him.
His photos were shared thousands of times on social media. Janet Burley Wilson, the president and CEO of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, saw the photos and convinced Alaquiva to curate an art show.
“OpticVoices” was born.
The exhibit moved from the August Wilson African American Cultural Center to Repair the World and evolved to become “OpticVoices: Conversations” focused on the Holocaust.
Soon, images from numerous social settings were woven into Alaquiva’s artwork. “Black Lives Matter, Pride, Holocaust, Not My President,” he said. “We want to move to other iterations, as well — immigration, etc. — and really tackle these subject matters through photography.”
Pittsburgh Holocaust Center Director Lauren Bairnsfather was impressed by both the artist and his work, and felt the show would fit into the Holocaust Center’s mission.
“Emmai Alaquiva is a bridge builder — he draws visual parallels between the Holocaust and current events and invites viewers to join the conversation. This fits exactly with the community engagement goals of the Holocaust Center. The Holocaust is human history. What can we learn from it to address injustices happening today, in Western Pennsylvania?”
It took two years to develop “OpticVoices: Roots,” which opened at the Holocaust Center on July 18 and is on display through August.
The exhibit combines images from a trip Alaquiva took to Poland with Classrooms Without Borders to create the documentary “Ghetto Steps,” as well as photographs from the Hill District and North Side featuring African Americans and more recent images centered on the Tree of Life massacre in Squirrel Hill.
“Jewish people have a lot of parallels to African Americans in this country in the adversity that both have experienced,” Alaquiva explained. “We wanted to create something that attacked the parallels. ‘OpticVoices: Roots’ really tackles the roots of African Americans and our struggle, as well as the Holocaust. It does it through an aesthetic that is digestible through art.”
Among the images on display is a photo of Rabbi Jeffrey Myers looking through a bullet hole in a siddur from Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation.
“That image is gripping and evocative and it evokes change,” Alaquiva said.
The artist worked closely with his producer, Victoria Snyder, selecting images for the exhibit.
“We wanted it to highlight the roots of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and the deep roots of the community in the Hill District and North Side,” said Snyder.
She explained that after the Tree of Life shooting, she felt it was important to show that “hate doesn’t have a place here. We felt this was the sort of exhibit that had to be produced.”
“‘OpticVoices’ should take you on a journey,” Snyder continued. “By only using a word or two titling the photo, you come up with the caption and concept. You tell us what it makes you feel. We want to curate hard conversations within the community.”
For Bairnsfather, “it is the thoughtful weaving of Holocaust history with persistent social injustices that speaks to me,” she said. “For the ‘OpticVoices: Roots’ exhibit, the photographs go deeper — including story lines about Holocaust survivors and the attack on Oct. 27, 2018.”
Alaquiva views “OpticVoices” as a part of his what he calls his “artivism.”
“It is a coming together,” he said, “to update and change the narrative of our communities.” pjc
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@