Dallas artist Ciara Elle Bryant BA’16 realized this year that even though her career didn’t take off until the 2000s, she’s always been a photographer.
“I’ve been taking photos since I was a kid,” Bryant said. “I had my first digital camera when I was in middle school. When I got back to Dallas in 2011, I was like, ‘OK, I want to explore this. I don’t know what this means, but I want to try it.’”
Although she grew up in Miami, Bryant ventured off to Arizona after she graduated from high school in Carrollton. She returned to Dallas in 2010 to be closer to family, and with her future in front of her, she decided to enroll in classes at Collin County Community College.
“I took my first 35mm film class and everything changed,” Bryant said. “It taught me how to control things in the camera and how to prepare to shoot and be strategic about what I wanted to make.”
When she found out UT Dallas had a dark room, she transferred schools to pursue a degree in visual and performing arts. Once enrolled, she connected with Diane Durant, associate professor in the School of Arts and Humanities, whom Bryant had previously met at local art shows.
“It was a really good experience to have someone who kind of already knew what I was doing and helped me foster my practice while I was there,” Bryant said. “She’s still to this day one of my biggest mentors.”
With Durant’s encouragement, Bryant began to experiment with other forms of art and photography as an undergraduate. For two and a half years, Bryant had only done medium-format dark photography. After enrolling at UT Dallas, the artist began to dip her toes into mixed-media installations, which led to an independent study.
“I started pushing any boundary I could and having more time to explore what installations looked like,” Bryant said.
Through these mixed-media installations, Bryant pulled from her own experiences as a Black woman in America and incorporated them into her work. The exhibits often include photos, collage, audio, relics, moving images and objects.
“I made a very intentional decision to shoot bodies and figures of color and not limit them to traditional standards and explore what the black body meant in image making,” Bryant said. “It’s been a part of my practice to always talk about people of color and their importance in art.”
As a child of the ’90s, Bryant calls herself a “hoarder of digital information” from that time period. Her process as an artist usually begins with putting together YouTube playlists of videos, speeches and clips from film. She uses Tumblr, Twitter and Pinterest to put concepts together and help visualize an idea.
“They all start as things I’m hoarding, and then I make it,” Bryant said. “The last installation I did talked about being Black and all the armor I had to put on to go out into the world.”
Earlier this year, Bryant became just the second Black female artist to be shown at Dallas’ Nasher Sculpture Center. In August, she debuted Vivrant Thang, her largest exhibition to-date, at 500X Gallery. The show was a collaboration between Bryant and 11 other Black artists from North Texas. Bryant’s portion, titled Server: A Streamed Revolution, paid tribute to Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland.
“Most of my references are political or about systemic racism or treatment of the Black body,” Bryant said. “I make it based on what I’m experiencing at that time.”
Bryant just completed her master of fine arts from Southern Methodist University, and hopes to continue the conversation about the treatment of Black lives and bodies in future work throughout the Metroplex.
“I always want the viewer to either walk away knowing something new or trying to figure out something they don’t know,” Bryant said. “I want each viewer to have a moment of confrontation with themselves or have a moment of serenity like, ‘Somebody sees me.’”
Bryant credits UT Dallas with fostering an atmosphere that encourages growing artists to discover what they’re passionate about and hone their skills to build bright futures in the art world and beyond.
“The staff and professors have really built a community for artists here,” Bryant said. “Even after I left, they still reach out to me with opportunities. They’ve been really good in helping me build my career.”