STLMade and Rung for Women collaborated on this conversation to highlight the important work Ms. Otey is doing of amplifying the stories of women who have made an impact but have not been as visible as they should have been. Rung for Women is a nonprofit that aims to empower women to achieve economic success, holistic wellbeing and a joyful life.
Tell us about you.
I go by Myrina Renaissance, and I’m a photographer and the owner of Renaissance TJS studios in St. Louis. I enjoy creating with people. My target is usually women. I have these photography therapy sessions with them and help build their self-esteem.
What inspired your photography project, H.E.R. (Her Eminent Reign): Forgotten, Recreated and Reimagined?
The reason why I came up with this project… I watch a lot of documentaries. I love to watch anything about my history, about our history, America’s history, just to see who had an impact during these time periods. And then I like to match the time periods together based on, you know, what was going on during that time. And so I’m able to put together a lot of stories, but what I was noticing was a gap in whose stories were being told. And so a lot of times in watching those documentaries, I would see some of the same people continue to come up.
And so I was just like, these people are great and I don’t want to undermine them, but who else is out here? Who haven’t we talked about?
And so I sat here and I said, okay, well women’s history month is coming up. And now I want to take the opportunity to highlight some of these women and their untold stories who may have been forgotten, recreate really nice or dope images of them and bring together a group of awesome women as well to help me put this on. That was the purpose of it. I wanted a fellowship with women, collaborate with other women to highlight other historical women that we don’t talk about enough.
How did you choose the women whose photographs you recreated?
The three women I chose for the project were Florence Mills, Leontyne Price and Ericka Huggins.
Leontyne Price, I looked her up and I was like, this woman’s accolades are ridiculous! To go from being from a small town in Mississippi to one of the first African-American women to perform in an all-White platform and just kill it and get so many awards. She made her debut in the 1950s as an opera singer. She went to Juilliard. She’s won over 20 Grammy awards. She’s just dope. Then I found a really dope image of her and I was like, perfect. I want to recreate it.
When I found Ericka Huggins — I am kind of obsessed with the Black Panther Party, because I think what they did was truly impactful. A lot of my morals do align with just like making sure that my community is taken care of and looking out for the children. I’m a volunteer, a French teacher for a homeschool co-op with all Black kids. A lot of their models and community schooling, I’ve mirrored a lot of those in my own teachings. When I found Ericka Huggins, who was this community activist, I found that she actually went to Lindenwood University in Jefferson City, really close to home.
She was also one of the people who were behind the original feminist movement. She wrote for the newspaper for the Black Panther Party. She was the first woman on the Board of Education elected in Alameda County.
I was really inspired by her work with Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks and James Baldwin. And she’s not somebody that I’ve ever heard of before.
As far as Florence Mills, when I Googled Harlem Renaissance era, and looked at images, I found hers. And it was like, who is this woman? She is gorgeous. I want to learn more. So I looked her up, but her fame has been forgotten. In the Harlem Renaissance era, they didn’t have much media, so with cameras and video footage, it was very limited. So the reason why she is forgotten is because her work was never recorded.
She was called the queen of happiness as an American cabaret singer, dancer, comedian — she was known for her stage presence. She also was the first African-American woman to hit Broadway when she did Dixie.
I had chills reading about these women. That for me rooted the idea that I can’t know where I am, where I’m going, if I don’t know who or where I come from, and know who are these women that put these things into play for me to be able to do the creative things that I do today.
Otey’s collaborators on the project include Cami Thomas, director of photography; India Monae, makeup artist; Pierre McCleary, creative director/wardrobe stylist; Lisa Stylezz, master hairstylist; Antwoinette Ayers, production assistant; Nykieta Alexander, model, “Florence Mills;” Tracy “T-Spirit” Stanton, model, “Leontyne Price;” and Dacia “Innergy” Polk, model, “Ericka Huggins.”
What was it like to collaborate with the other women you worked with on this project?
The reviews, the feedback that I got from these women, it was truly impactful. For some of them, the experience was healing.
There is an unspoken bias, I think, that women have toward each other, where it’s more so competitive versus collaborative or collective. I’m not saying that exists all the time, but there were a couple of women who were not comfortable with the idea of being around a whole bunch of other women on this project. But when they got in this space and they felt the energy, they felt the power, they felt the movement. It was like, this is great.
Since then, I’ve heard from them, “It was healing for me.” I’ve heard, “I can’t wait to do it again. We need to meet up again. Like when is the next project going to be? I’m so excited and grateful that you chose me to be a part of this.”
Now they’re collaborating on projects outside of me. And a part of me is like, yeah, I’m going to take some of that credit. But then the other part of me is like, yes, let’s embrace more of that. Let’s connect more of us in the city to each other. St. Louis has a lot of talent. And so if we just took more time to mold each other and to work with different people, there’s no telling what we can come up with.
As a mother of five, what obstacles or barriers have you had to overcome in order to reach your goals in
I’m gonna keep this answer as simple as I can: Homelessness. Moving from place to place. Between 2017 and 2018, I moved six times, but I still had the fight in me to keep going, all while being a full-time college student and a part-time business owner at that time.
When we think about women, sisterhood, and the importance of our shared history, do you have an example of women in your life who have supported you along your journey?*
All I’ve been supported by are women, besides my brother and my fiance and my dad. Aside from that, it’s been really women who have encouraged me, who have done things in their own rights to further themselves that make me keep stepping it up.
My mentor is a woman, a phenomenal photographer. She taught me a lot: patience, being humble, doing pro bono work to build my portfolio, encouraging me to stay the course.
My dad’s ex-girlfriend, she was super influential when I became a teen mom. She was in my ear all the time, helping me with financial aid, figuring out scholarships for college. I got over $30,000 scholarships from University of Missouri–St. Louis. So I thank her for giving me the skills to understand what it was that I needed to do.
Then there are a couple of women who started their entrepreneurial journey simultaneously with mine, and I didn’t know them before we became entrepreneurs. I met them on my journey, networking and taking pictures at events. And we’ve stayed in touch and I’m watching them grow like constantly. They’re still steadfast in their journeys to be better and greater and provide better products and services.
So when I think about who inspires me the most and who’s been impactful for me, it has been women. And then it’s been boss women. The women with the drive, the determination, the motivation, the mothers, the wives, the stay-at-home moms.
*These questions were contributed by Rung for Women.
What else do you want people to know?
I’m just grateful to be one: be a woman of color, and two: to be able to represent other women of color in. I say that I’m always here to be the change that I want to see. I think that is so important. If there’s not someone that you can look up to or see in yourself, then work to be that person that you want to be.
I just think that women should definitely rule the world.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity by Lauren Harms Milford.