Cali M. Banks (Munsee Lenape) is an interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, NY.
Cali collaborated with artist Cesar Medina to shoot a roll of 35mm film using one disposable camera wearing Shy Natives lingerie. We asked Cali ten questions to get to know her better.
1.) Were you always creative as a little Cali growing up? When did you start becoming an artist?
I was! I started dancing at three years old, and began dancing competitively at age nine. I danced through high school and college, where I was also a choreographer. I would also photograph anything I could with a disposable camera when I was younger. My mom would have the film developed and put all of the pictures in albums, which is really special when I look back on it.
2.) How do you incorporate your Indigenous background within your artwork?
I incorporate my background through color and symbolism mostly. I use a lot of red, black, and white, which represent Lenape tribal colors. I try to incorporate gold as well. Black is indicative of power, strength, aggression, and victory. Red represents happiness and beauty, but also violence and bloodshed. White is indicative of sharing and light. Gold is used to represent value and validation. I've recently started to incorporate beadwork into my photographs as well. Each beaded image contains one blue bead, historically known as a “spirit bead” in indigenous beadwork. This is not only a signature in every piece, but also an act of recognition to my maternal grandfather. Lastly, I utilize roses in my work frequently. My mother created a ritual where she assigned colors of roses to different members of our immediate family. If we are experiencing distress, loss, illness, etcetera, having the specific rose color for the family member, or self, present in the home is believed to spiritually connect to ancestors and our creator to bring peace of mind. If the rose is seen blooming in a public space, it is a positive sign from our ancestors and creator, so then we must thank them.
3.) We love your use of language and typography within your work. We see the words "Please" in one piece and "But I am still trying to find my way home" in a video piece. Can you please elaborate on your use of words within your work?
I've always gravitated toward poetic ways to express myself and my experiences. I've never actually taken a poetry class or workshop, but I read a lot of work from BIPOC writers. I like to take a more diaristic approach, especially because I sometimes have trouble verbalizing what I'm thinking or feeling. In my recent work, I've been lucky enough to find businesses and signage around where I live in Brooklyn that still tie into themes in my work surrounding feelings of "home", identity, and sensuality. I feel like I'm creating my own style of documentary street photography, which is a whole new realm for me.
4.) We love your “Close Enough To Touch” series. So much beautiful texture, abstraction and composition. What inspired you to use polaroid emulsion, and why do analog techniques resonate with you?
Thank you so much! I started the emulsion lift process a little over a year ago after seeing a tutorial through my friend's publication, Analog Cookbook. I had a portfolio review during the summer of 2022 where some artists mentioned that this is a common practice in experimental photography, so how could I make the work stand out? I haven't seen many, or any, photographers bead into their work, so by doing that I could also tie in my heritage. I really enjoy analog techniques because with anything I do, there really isn't a guaranteed result, or an undo button. Sometimes the work comes out even better than I expected! I also find that the work is more genuine if I have more control and a person hand in the making of it.
5.) Speaking of analog, please tell us more about your Shy Natives Photoshoot with photographer Cesar Medina. What were the concepts behind the shoot, and where was the location?
My shoot was done in my apartment in Brooklyn! I moved my couch and hung up a white sheet, and luckily have some big windows to let a lot of light in. We were going for a more dark romantic feel, and Cesar took inspiration from shoots in different magazines such as Vogue. And of course, I had to incorporate the use of roses!
6.) How did you choose Cesar Medina to be behind the camera? We absolutely love their work and how your images came out!
Cesar and I are coworkers! We work for a filmmaking nonprofit in Brooklyn. I have always admired Cesar's style and attention to detail, so I knew they'd be the perfect choice for this shoot.
7.) We see that you are an incredible photographer and image maker. How was being in front of the camera for a change?
Thank you! It's interesting because I used to do a lot of self-portraiture, but very abstract and borderline anonymous. It was a little nerve-wracking at first because I had little to no control over how the images were going to look, but I'm definitely happy with the results!
8.) As a Munsee Lenape woman, what did it mean to you to model in an Indigenous designed and owned lingerie company?
This was such an exciting experience for me. I've always struggled with my indigeneity, mostly because of outside perspectives judging on how they thought I should look, act, make art, etcetera. I've wondered often if I was "enough" to be able to represent a culture that is my own. So, this experience was very special to me, my mother, and something I also did for my ancestors.
9.) What advice would you tell your younger self?
I would tell myself that it's okay to love and celebrate yourself. You shouldn't have to hide parts of yourself to be more suitable or desirable to others. Take up space, advocate for yourself and others, and use your voice.
10.) When do you feel most beautiful?
This is also something I've struggled with - from growing up as a dancer to societal standards. But I feel the most beautiful in spaces where I can laugh and be myself. I've always felt beautiful when I was dancing because I felt free and strong - like no one could touch me. At the beginning of 2023, I started pole dancing, which ties a lot of those feelings together in an almost "full circle" moment. I can incorporate those feelings of freeness and strength, while also being able to express my sexuality as a woman.
Cali Banks IG @bankscal
photographer Cesar Medina IG @capella_cm
Cali Banks holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Media Arts Practices from the University of Colorado Boulder, and a BA in Art and Technology and Global Health Studies from Allegheny College.
Cali is currently an Adjunct Professor of Photography and Video Art for Indiana University. She is also an instructor of experimental and documentary filmmaking workshops in NYC.
Her artistic practice reclaims identity through performative photography and filmmaking. Her work explores the ideas of public versus private narratives, and the expansion of narrow, flattened definitions of indigenous art. She is reclaiming what she still has left of her culture, and honoring those rituals in her work.