Zora J Murff is an MFA student in Studio Art at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Zora attended the University of Iowa where he studied Photography and holds a BS in Psychology from Iowa State University. Combining his education in human services and art, Zora’s photography focuses on the experiences of youth in the juvenile justice system and the role of images in the correctional system; specifically how images are used to define individuals who are deemed criminals, and what happens when these definitions are abandoned or skewed. Zora published his first monograph, Corrections, through Aint-Bad Editions in the Winter of 2015. He is also a co-curator of Strange Fire Collective with Jess T. Dugan, Hamidah Glasgow, and Rafael Soldi.
Images by Christa Blackwood
AB: When did Strange Fire Collective start, who does it involve, and can you give us a bit of background on how you all met and decided to begin this project?
ZM: Strange Fire Collective started last summer (2015). It was founded by Jess Dugan and is co-curated by Jess, Hamidah Glasgow (of the Center for Fine Art Photography), Rafael Soldi, and myself. The project was Jess’s brainchild and she selected the rest of us to help launch it. Jess has been a champion of my work (Corrections) since I started working on it as an undergrad, helping me get it selected for the Midwest Photographers Project through the Museum of Contemporary Photography while she was completing her MFA at Columbia College (Chicago). I knew Hamidah through being curated into a group exhibition at Center and was familiar with Rafael’s work. Jess is the common thread between all of us. The collective began with a lot of emails and conference calls, and our idea was fairly simple: be a vehicle to get more socially-engaged work out into the world.
Image by Christa Blackwood
AB: It’s no secret that the work of women, people of color, and queer and trans artists have been severely under-represented in history. Can you give us an overview of how Strange Fire seeks to challenge and change that fact?
ZM: You’re exactly right, it is no secret, and I feel that this exclusion boils down to bias (inherent or otherwise) that has become built into the art world, not unlike a lot of systems and institutions that society has constructed. As with any social-justice issue, it is the responsibility of those in power to constantly question their motives and their bias rather than leaving it up to those affected by bias to educate them. However, waiting around for those individuals to do that, and do it honestly, would be naive. Through combining all of our unique positions in the art world, and life in general, Strange Fire becomes a collective voice that can challenge the dominant social hierarchy by promoting the work of those from diverse cultural backgrounds.
AB: What is your favorite project featured with the collective so far?
ZM: That’s a tough question because I believe in and enjoy everything that we feature so it is hard to boil it down to one. My favorite interview (so far) would be last month’s conversation I had with Mark Strandquist. As a visual artist working on a very serious project, I constantly struggle with the idea that my work can raise awareness, but not actually move people to action. Mark’s work breaks that boundary, and gives me hope that the art we create not only has the ability to generate conversation around an issue, but possess political clout to facilitate change. My favorite conversation of Hamidah’s was with Christa Blackwood, Rafael’s with Karine Laval, and Jess’s with Richard Renaldi.
Image by Karine Laval
AB: Can you give us a little bit more info on what kinds of publications you have already created and what you’re looking to do in the future in terms of print?
ZM: We have our first publication underway, and it is an exhibition catalogue of our first group exhibition, Agency, which will run from January 22nd through March 5th at The Center for Fine Art Photography and features works by Caleb Cole, Zackary Drucker, Ervin A. Johnson, Laurence Rasti, and Krista Wortendyke. It will be published through MagCloud, which makes it very much affordable to a wide audience. Our goal with publications is to expand out from exhibition catalogues and generate a regular publication of artists we feature along with other contributions from writers, curators and the like. These publications will not only help us generate income to create future exhibitions, but give our followers a tangible piece of our collective’s mission.
Image by Karine Laval
AB: What’s next for the collective? Do you have any big plans underway, or a specific vision for the next few years?
ZM: Physical exhibitions (juried and self-curated), juried online exhibitions, and more publications. We would also like to grow a roster of fresh and regular contributors to make our discourse with our audience even more diverse.
Image by Mark Strandquist
AB: How does this project influence your own personal work, or vice versa?
ZM: In terms of influencing my own work, it definitely keeps me on my toes creatively. I am constantly looking at other artists’ work which requires me to keep my eyes open conceptually. I also read a lot about issues that may be relatable to the artists I interview to be able to broaden the context of our conversations.
It should come as no surprise that I am interested in work about the American Criminal Justice system and how photography and photographs of those incarcerated and those formerly incarcerated is used. I look at the work being done in this arena, and I want to feature a lot of the projects that I see. That being said, it’s not responsible for me to constantly feature “prison-centric” work, but I have a feeling that I will always have a lean towards artists who are making that type of work.
Images by Mark Strandquist
AB: If an artist wants to feature with your site, can you give them a basic overview of what you’re looking for and how to contact you?
ZM: We are always looking for talented artists – both emerging and established – to feature. Anyone who would like to be considered for a feature should connect with us via email, twitter, or instagram: firstname.lastname@example.org, @StrangeFireCol, and @strangefirecollective !