Oakland Photographer Ashley A. Ross Reflects on Her Religious Upbringing in Debut MoAD Show

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Black-and-white image of back of Black girl's head with white cross above.
Ashley A. Ross' 'Facing Symbols,' on view in her debut solo exhibition at San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora. (Courtesy of the artist)

Photographer Ashley A. Ross knew as early as high school that she wanted to pursue art as a career. After graduating from California College of the Arts in 2021, the Oakland artist has debuted her solo exhibition 10/27/03 at the Museum of the African Diaspora – up now through March 5 – as part of their Emerging Artists program. The series of staged photographs, intermingled with documents from her personal archive, reflect on her religious upbringing as an only child in a Black, Apostolic Christian household. KQED talked with Ross about the exhibition, her craft and the ways she’s exploring her point of view as an artist.

Ariana Proehl: Where did the concept for 10/27/03 come from?

Ashley A. Ross: The project began a few years ago when I came across some personal memorabilia I hadn’t seen in a while. There was a particular certificate describing “your new spiritual birthday” with the date “10/27/03” and it had scriptures on it. That sparked a lot for me because at that point in time I was in my early 20s, I was at CCA in my sophomore year. I was really searching for my calling and what I want to say with my art. It made me think about growing up in a religious environment with a specific doctrine that was heavily focused on this idea of rebirth, being “born again” and the concepts of sin and being a saint — all of these heavy concepts that we as adults still have a hard time trying to rationalize. And so it’s actually a certificate that I received when I was baptized and “born again” as a child. I pulled the name for the exhibition from that day and that certificate is actually in the show. I have a photo of me being baptized as a child, alongside portraits of my parents, portraits of this little girl who represents me as a child. And so I’m dealing with memory, the past and the present.

So what’s your relationship with these religious beliefs today? And what are your reflections coming out of putting the show together?

Right now, I don’t identify as a practicing Christian, but I think this project has been a great way for me to process these questions and these thoughts that I continue to have. People tend to have very strong opinions, either they’re against religion or really dedicated to their faith. But we don’t really talk about that in-between stage, you know, somebody who really doesn’t know, somebody who maybe has past experience with a religion and is kind of healing from that or is not far removed from that. Or somebody who is just like, “you know what? I don’t know what to think of it.” That’s what this project has meant for me, and it’s the conversation that I would like to have with other people.

Black-and-white image of a woman's figure draped in transparent fabric, standing in water
Ashely A. Ross, 'Who's That Young Girl Dressed in White.' (Courtesy of the artist)

Can you talk about the decision you made to showcase this particular work as your debut – to have portraits, staged photographs and archival material included? And what you wanted to reveal about your aesthetic as a photographer?


We have these black walls and how the lighting is situated, it really creates this intimate environment, kind of almost like you're walking into somebody’s house, or in a silent film. A space that is very curated and intimate, which was my intention.

The staged black-and-white images were shot on film. There’s this technical element of analog photography that requires you to really slow down your process. With medium format, you have only 12 shots, depending on the camera — and film itself is an expensive process. So it requires you to sit and really look at what you’re trying to shoot and be precise with what each frame is going to show. So for me, that was the benefit of using the film camera and black-and-white.

As I mentioned, my parents are included in the exhibition and that allowed me time to sit and talk with them as I’m photographing them. The little girl who represents me in that photograph is my little cousin. I used her as my model. Even spending time with her — which, she did an excellent job — allowed me to really look at my surroundings, like, how is this going to aid the project? So I think it has been a foundation for what I hope my visual esthetic continues to be.

How do you envision your work going forward and what themes are you excited to explore?

I’ve been thinking a lot about labor and ideas around capitalism. More specifically, Black labor and that history within this country. Honestly, our current climate right now, economically and socially, has really inspired a lot of these questions I’ve been having about labor, the workforce, you know, how we value other human beings and what they contribute to society.

And as an artist, I feel like I’m in a kind of transitional stage right now. Like, what is my art practice right now? What do I want it to be? I’m definitely looking for my practice to be more interdisciplinary. I would love photography to be the foundation and the basis of my visual esthetic. But I would love to get into sculpture and installation. Theaster Gates is an artist I really admire — how he creates sustainable ecosystems for people to be part of a community and communicate with each other. So I’m moving towards really creating experiences for when people come into a space, the exhibition is evolving.

‘10/27/03’ is on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco through March 5. Exhibition details here. An in-person artist talk and reception takes place at the museum Saturday, March 4, 3–4 p.m. Register to attend here.