Portrait of The Woman: A photo series with artist Gianni Lee

Growing up in a single parent household in West Philadelphia, Gianni Lee quickly learned to adapt to diverse landscapes. 

As drugs and violence painted the backdrop of Lee’s childhood, he found the importance of creative expression as a form of escape. With few male influences present, powerful black women such as his mother, teachers, and guidance counselors helped lay the foundation for the visual artist and man you see today.

In his photo series, “Portrait of The Woman,” Lee seeks to display the multiplicities of women. The works in collaboration with photographer Crystina Bond use textiles, assemblage, and negative space to explore the wide ranging roles women of color occupy in a society that has criminalized their male counterparts.

The goal of “Portrait of The Woman,” is to present a meaningful and uplifting depiction of the woman through the intersection of art and fashion. We sat down with the visual artist to talk about his influences, Philadelphia, and his upcoming show.

Check out the exclusive photos and interview below.

How did this idea come about?

I felt there was too much static between men and women in today’s media. Most of the static is based on dated philosophies that should be killed off in order to move us forward, but it’s not that easy. I figured if I wanted to start a conversation or get people thinking, why not express it through images?

The way men portray women in art and fashion today is boring and repetitive, quite honestly. I wanted to give my own perspective of women and how they have impacted and influenced my life. I sat down with Crystina Bond and we threw around ideas on how to bring this to life.

How does your background influence your art? How do the women in your life influence your art?

Honestly, I think the way life is “designed” is what influences my art the most. I don’t attach myself to any particular theme or being. I look at life as one big mood board you can pull from, so I try to stay rather broad.

That being said there are times where I put most of my focus into a particular source. The woman tends to be a recurring source and influence in my art because of her inherent power. I’m naturally drawn to power. I like drawing powerful beings, and what is more powerful than that? Women are more fun to draw anyway.

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How do you feel about the relationships between women and men in the art world?

It’s weird to me. I don’t see many men collaborating with women on art. Women tend to continually serve as the muse or damsel in distress in visual works and collaborative efforts that I’ve seen of late.

Of course it does happen, but not on the scale the world needs to see. I respect women’s opinions in art, but I would challenge other men to think similar. There are so many amazing thinkers, why would we ever marginalize based on sex? I feel like we are missing out on amazing work yet to be seen because of misogyny.

How do you feel you depict the women in your work?

The muse narrative is dated to me. I like to paint women as rulers, warriors, and even killers. A few years ago, I worked with director, Nate Edwards, on a short visual where a superhero played by me ends up getting assassinated by his female partner. I thought it was important to show the woman is capable of the same madness as the man vs. her being someone he saves at the end.

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What is your take on the Criminalization of black man? How do you feel this has shifted the role of women – what does this mean for them?

Let me first say that criminalization is not exclusive to black men, all people of color are affected tremendously, but not at the same rate or intensity as black men. It was and is one of the most evil and strategic moves ever. Divide and conquer.

The War on Drugs destroyed us. I watched my own homies and big brothers get carted away to jail for extended periods of time for the pettiest crimes. I watched entire families break apart and I watched drug addictions turn families upside down. I watched women struggle with the added responsibility, but I also watched women become stronger.

I watched women rise from the adversity to keep things together in the home. I believe that is the message I want to get across. Women are resilient. It takes guts to raise a family on your own. Growing up in that environment myself I watched my own mother become Superman. Yes, she became Superman.

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You have an upcoming show. Tell us about it.

“They Sat Back, They Let It Happen,” is my newest collection that’s attempting to explore the political and social climate of America. I want the whole thing to be interpreted through the construct of slavery. These works challenge the viewer to define how this system of oppression evolves from past, present, and future.

I’m using 7 tall wooden boards as my canvas. I wanted everything to have a gritty and unfinished feel. It’s the idea of humanity ‘building’ towards something yet we are still in ‘construction.’ We have much to learn, so the work has to have that unfinished feel.


How are women’s roles expressed in your upcoming show?

Women in my upcoming show serve as the judge, the jury, and the executioner. I want to equal that playing field. Women bleed the same blood we do. Women breath the same air we do. I want to continue to normalize. We need to stop the limitations.

What’s next for you?

The goal is to become what I paint.


Gianni Lee’s upcoming solo exhibition, “They Sat Back, They Let It Happen” opens at Saturday, May 19 at The Dock Gallery, Los Angeles.


Photographer: Crystina Bond

Artist: Gianni Lee

Words: Zina Reed

Makeup: Flash Niper

Model: Mollie Papouloute

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