Nursalam Ibrahim: Celebrating #EveryShadeofMelanin
The name Nursalam means “light of peace” in Arabic. Photographer and beautiful human being Nursalam Ibrahim, 21, embodies that in a way. But for as long as I have known him, he has always brought chaos, noise, and dissent—all in the best possible ways.
When I first met Nursalam three years ago, I was sitting by one of my favorite sculptures of all time which sits in the heart of Seattle Central Community College.Fountain was made by the world-renowned Japanese American artist George Tsutakawa in early 1970s, which symbolizes the fight for social justice for people of color in Seattle and everywhere in the U.S. Nursalam was dancing, taking up space in jolly vibrations while tabling for a student leadership group. I thought, “Who is this kid?”
Nursalam said he is a radically different person since then, and one of the most striking proofs of this is his photography.
In fall 2015, Nursalam started a photography project called #EveryShadeofMelanin, a celebration and assertion of the power of people of color. This summer, the #EveryShadeofMelanin zine will be published, featuring photos that have gathered several hundreds of likes on Facebook and Instafgram, as well as never-before-seen ones. The birth of the project was preceded, in a way, with 20 years of Nursalam’s identity-constructing, status-quo-challenging, learning/ unlearning/ re-learning process.
What is the general idea behind #EveryShadeofMelanin?
[Fall 2015] was kind of the beginning of when I started to see more of thinking about how colorism plays a big role in my culture. It’s always that whiter, fairer and lighter skins are more superior. Blackness is always seen as inferior. That plays such a big role in how I grew up and how I viewed myself. It’s like this self hate that’s like, “Oh I need to not go out in the sun,” or something. I needed to stay in the house because I didn’t want to be tan. Or people in my community would be like, “Oh you need to use this cream to lighten your skin.”
#EveryShadeofMelanin is more about not being “team light skin” or “team dark skin”, it’s about being everybody for their shades of melanin. Respecting that we are human beings first and foremost but also kind of creating a new concept of self love in the way that for the next generations of youth, especially youth of color.
How do your upbringing in Skyway in South Seattle and having Cham parents who are refugees from Vietnam shape your life and motivate this project?
My parents were refugees who came here in the late 70s to mid 80s. After my parents came here fleeting from war, my mother was relocated in California. My dad was in Seattle. My parents got married in 1987 and my dad grew up in the Rainier Vista area in these boxes. That’s where a lot of immigrants and refugees live. And now you see a lot of upper middle class white folks trying to blend in and they literally stick out like sore thumb. I thought about how gentrification pushed us more south because we did grow on the south-end of Seattle but now we’re even more south.
I grew up in Skyway where it’s predominantly people of color. There are not a lot of white folks who live in Skyway. They live around it, in Ren-Mar or Renton. But not actually in Skyway. Skyway doesn’t have a lot of parks and even though there is a police station, it will take 30 minutes for them to respond back if you call them.
There was no park. There was nowhere to walk. It’s a desert of just places where we live, where people drive by to get from one place to another. There’s not really a community center in Skyway or youth-activated stuff which sucks so much. I grew up with so many kids who went to the same school with me and yet we had nowhere to hang out and be creative. It’s the whole systemic structure of us not having resources. So when we do things like we go to other neighborhoods, we were like these “troubled youths” from Skyway. It’s not because we wanted to do that. It’s a structural thing, it’s intended that we didn’t have community-organized things for youth, especially youths of color in these neighborhoods [that are] predominantly latino, black, and Southeast Asian.
And shifting from being in Skyway all the time to being in Capitol Hill…
It was very shocking. I had never been around so many white kids in my life. Going to school where it’s predominantly people of color to now where at least half the population around me predominantly white, I was just like, “Oh my god how do I navigate this now?” It’s not just a matter of me assimilating to American culture because I think about American culture and I think about the diverse languages that people of color have brought. I think about food, I think about a lot of other things than white culture. When I think about assimilating, I think about assimilating to White American culture.
When and why did you make it a point to take less pictures of white people and more of people of color?
In general with my photography it’s not just about the fact that I’m not capturing white folks anymore. I used to be that person who was like “F politics, I’m not here for politics.” But I think about it and me just being a person of color is political as shit. I think about how white folks can be apolitical and at the same time nothing’s gonna affect them because they benefit from anything that happens systemically and institutionally.
I’m not assimilating anymore to White American culture. i’m here to talk about my experiences as a person of color through my art. When I thought about it, because representations of me are never visible. Representations of my friends are never visible. Representations of people of color are just one-dimensional in media—when it’s written in these white-dominant narratives. They only show you what they want to show you and not every intersection of people of color because we walk many walks of lives. It’s important to highlight.
What do your parents think of your photography?
It’s harder for my mom and my dad to understand anything about art in general. They grew up in the time of war. What even is cultural hegemony to them? They’re literally trying to escape. The only thing that they kept with them is language and history of Cham people. They lived in Vietnam and my mom was just telling me how her mom pulled her out of school when she was 13 because we are Cham. We’re not Vietnamese, and my grandma didn’t want her to assimilate to the Vietnamese culture and language. [My grandparents] didn’t want her to become Vietnamese so they pulled her out. All my mom ever did was speak Cham. So when part of them coming here and after having us, their kids, they [said], “Why teach you Vietnamese when we can actually be teaching you about Cham people, about us, who we actually are?” How we pass down our history is all very oral. It’s not like written text, it’s not something you can Google. It’s more that the people who are of that has gotten that passed down. The language, the history.
I think people look at photos you have taken and realize that they’re not only aesthetically pleasing and beautifully composed but they’re really political. They’re strong because of the people in front and behind the camera. They’re strong because of your experiences and your subjects’ experiences.
My photos are about empowering and self love. I think about friends who I love so much and my family. Just people around me in general who make me feel good.
Right now it’s more of me gathering my thoughts. I have all of the photos and materials for it and concept and ideas but it’s more piecing together the story. When you think about cultural hegemony, it’s not a thing. It’s a process, right? Everything is a process.
Physical and online version of the #EveryShadeofMelanin zine will be available this summer. Meanwhile, follow Nursalam Ibrahim oninstagram.com/noturmodelminorihottie.
Photo Credit: Bunga Astiti (first photo), Nursalam Ibrahim