In The Spotlight: Lily Kenyi, Visual Storyteller at Hunter College

Artist Lily Kenyi is no stranger behind a camera. Not only does her gaze create a soft and feminine feel that is both comforting and ethereal, but her exploration of black and white photography and video also highlights her subjects through a lens of intimacy.

“I love black and white for certain photographs because it creates more of an emotional feel or allows you to focus more on the person’s mood, whereas color can sometimes feel busy,” she said, referring to a short video she created, a friend of hers as the model. “I felt the model, the dress and the movements she was creating were dreamy. It made me think of old Hollywood, and black and white definitely creates that aesthetic.”

During her time as a Hunter College student, she has shifted toward film and photography as a way to tell her stories through art. Using these mediums, Kenyi often finds herself touching on themes that call back to her early upbringing, living in upstate New York, as well as her experiences as a Black woman.

For Kenyi, camera work is only just one part of her artistic identity. Her recent work was printed in the premiere issue of Rogue Magazine, a friend’s startup that has allowed her to explore her skills in screenplay writing.

Over the phone, Kenyi, who is based in Harlem, spoke with me about what moves her as an artist, what it means to surround herself with other creatives and the best place in Brooklyn to get a mochi donut.

A black and white photo of Lily Kenyi with her hands on her head, looking toward the sky
Photo by Eli Blumfield. Courtesy of Lily Kenyi

Natalie Rash: What first got you into art?

Lily Kenyi: I’ve always enjoyed drawing as a kid and painting. As I got older I did gear a little bit away from painting and now I definitely value visual storytelling more. I’m really into film. I enjoy documenting my life and the people around me, my friends and family, and a lot of the art I make is inclusive of my friends. Whether it’s photography or video, it’s capturing life around me and what I can access. I have fun with so many different mediums that I don’t want to ever box myself, but I would say I’m more of a visual artist and storyteller.

NR: Can you talk a little bit more about why you choose to use photography and video storytelling in your work?

LK: I think there’s a lot missing from my demographic as a dark skin Black woman. I definitely don’t think I see stories out there that center me as a protagonist and I like to think that if you don’t see something you start creating it. Along with filmmaking and capturing videos I also enjoy screenwriting. I hope to have more people who look like me and their stories because we don’t really get stories about ourselves.

NR: Speaking to screenwriting and being a visual storyteller, do you see yourself in the future going into filmmaking both as a director and a writer?

LK: Yes, definitely. Whenever I work on screenwriting already, I think that’s one of my biggest goals. So I definitely look forward to that.

NR: Do you have any major inspirations?

LK: I do look up to my sister a lot because she also wants to go into filmmaking. I feel like together we go out into the world and take inspiration from anywhere. Whether that’s the fashion industry or any industry, I have a lot of friends that are painters, so I do take inspiration from them. Even music videos and filmmaking that captures a lot of stories in a short amount of time that are really experimental.

NR: Is there any music video that you saw recently that had an impact on you?

LK: The artist Giveon has a song “Stuck on You” that’s really pretty. Another artist Isabella has a song called “More Than Words.” They have really beautiful stories and visuals. Also Aly and AJ came out with a new song that had a really beautiful music video that was in nature and that’s how I really want my films to look.

NR: Does nature have a big impact on you and your work?

LK: I feel like it does. A lot of filming I like to do is in natural light and outside environments. Growing up in a place like upstate New York, it’s not really a city and you don’t have options other than go out and interact with nature. I worked on an urban farm my last year of high school and that opened my eyes a lot to environmental issues. I’m drawn to videos and movies that have a natural essence.

NR: You mentioned your sister and your friends also being creatives. What do you think the impact is of immersing yourself with other creative people?

LK: You’re able to have a broader mindset and view on the world. You gain different perspectives on things. Whatever my friends like I’ll be able to take that in and be like: oh yeah, I never thought about it that way or I never painted something like that or I never saw the world how they do. It’s really nice to have a diverse set of eyes that help me be a better person and understand the world, not just how I see it.

NR: Can you describe what your creative process is like?

LK: When I have an idea I like to see it through. When I want to create a story I want to know the ending before I even venture into it. For a painting I kind of figure out along the way what works and what doesn’t. Even with filming friends it’s more spontaneous. If I like something and how it looks, I’ll take my phone or camera and start filming it. With writing I’m more structured but for filming it’s more, do I like it? And then I start doing it.

NR: In your writing, photography and filming, what are the most common themes that can be found in your work?

LK: Black people, happiness and youth. Having fun. I’m always trying to look at how I can relay my experience with the things I’ve gone through, especially with racism and all that, and kind of make it understandable for people in a form that they haven’t really seen before.

“I took this little video of my friend in black and white and that’s something I’m most proud of,” Kenyi said.

NR: Do you think that in 2020, with the pandemic, quarantine and the Black Lives Matter movement, did that have an impact on you and your work at all?

LK: It made me be more proud of my work. It’s like a reminder about what you’re writing about. Sometimes you definitely doubt yourself and think, I don’t know if this really needs to be said or like, who really cares about these things? But with things like that happening you think, OK that makes sense because things really still aren’t the way they should be. It helps to really restart my drive.

NR: Do you have any recent works that you’re proud of?

LK: I recently filmed a little 20-second video of my friend. I’m really proud of the editing process that I’m able to do and getting more familiar in that area makes me prouder of my work. But I took this little video of my friend in black and white and that’s something I’m most proud of.

NR: Do you have any hopes for finishing out your education at Hunter College?

LK: I hope to still be connected to the arts program and the people there. There is such a community there so I’ll hopefully stay in touch with people and I look forward to seeing what other people do.

NR: What’s your favorite thing about being an artist?

LK: I like how other people interact with it. You’re sharing how you feel with a bunch of other people that you don’t know. I remember I put out a video called “Homies” with my friends before the pandemic that was like a little collage and this guy from Nigeria commented and was like “that’s amazing, I love it.” I would never think that someone from Nigeria could have the same experience or outlook of some kid in New York City. So I think it’s really cool sharing feelings with people around the world.

NR: Has there been a time where you found yourself connecting with work that you didn’t think you would be able to?

LK: I do like a lot of foreign films. Like “Parasite” and “Burning,” things that don’t come from the same culture as me.

NR: When you’re not creating, what are some other things you like to do?

LK: I like eating and finding dessert places in the city because New York City has a lot of places I don’t have back home. I do like hiking and hanging out with friends. The regular things.

NR: Do you have any dessert places that you would recommend?

LK: This place Win Son bakery in Brooklyn. They have really good mochi donuts and really good chicken.

NR: Where’s the best place for people to find your work?

LK: I post stuff on my Instagram first and then usually it will be on my website too.

Edited for clarity and length

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