Zora J Murff is an MFA Candidate in Studio Art at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (2015-2018). 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 race, identity, and how images are used to reinforce social and cultural constructs. His work has been exhibited nationally, internationally, and featured online including The British Journal of Photography and Wired Magazine’s Raw File. His work has also been published in VICE Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, Huck Magazine, and The New York Times. Zora was the Daylight Photo Award winner in 2017 and was also named a Winner of Lensculture 2018 Emerging Talent awards alongside his collaborator, Rana Young. His work is held in both public and private collections including the Midwest Photographer’s Project through the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Zora’s first monograph, Corrections, was published by Aint-Bad Editions in the Winter of 2015. Zora is also a Co-Curator of Strange Fire Collective, a group of interdisciplinary artists, curators, and writers focused on highlighting work made by women, people of color, and queer and trans artists.
At No Point In Between
2017 – present
For many African-Americans, the Great Migration from the Jim Crow South was a search for hope. However, oppression followed them in the forms of continued racially motivated violence and prejudicial housing policies. Perceptions generated from and reinforced by the false image of Blackness have always been solid and clear: the other cannot live amongst us, and must be controlled. The need for whites to control African-Americans created mounting tensions that resulted in race riots and spectacle lynchings; these power structures, which were widely perceived as “Southern phenomena” were lying in wait for them . Once again, like their ancestors following Emancipation, Black individuals found themselves in an environment of perceived freedom .
As overt racial violence became a point of cultural shame, it was re-presented through government policy. The passing of the National Housing Act of 1934 brought with it the practice of redlining. These policies restricted individuals from receiving home and business loans, perpetuating the socioeconomic divide along the color line through the denial of access to wealth. Photographing in the historically African-American neighborhood of North Omaha, Nebraska, my survey examines not only race, segregation and financial disenfranchisement, but also how policies predicated through systemic white supremacy are a form of violence. We perceive violence dichotomously between fast and slow, and readily understand forms of fast violence – like lynching – because they are reinforced by our narrow perception of what it means to be at risk . Forms of slow violence – like redlining – are not so easily understood because their effects only become visible after long periods of time. The slow violence of redlining pushed African-Americans into the North Omaha neighborhood and kept them there. Following the collapse of the industrial economy – the sector in which many Black individuals were employed – the community was devastated financially and fell into disrepair.
I represent slow violence through photographs of the architecture and surrounding landscape, those who inhabit it, and by referencing the tumultuous local histories of fast violence spurred by racism. Slow violence subtly marks the landscape, and my depictions of structures and scenes are poetic reflections on how space has been shaped. The portraits are points of confrontation with those who are affected by slow violence, and emphasize a push and pull between intimacy and distance. Together, these silent images weave a complex narrative about person, place, presence, and absence. The historical documents from periods of civil unrest in North Omaha are used a corollary. Through cropping, enlargement, and other manipulations, I re-contextualize their meanings in today’s society. The medium of photography is unique in its capacity to evince temporal layers, revealing our past to help us better understand the contemporary moment.
My reflections on past injustices are a contemplation on Black identity as something other than a body held in contempt. Through photography, we can see the mark that has already been made. If we look and continue to ignore, the false image of Blackness will remain the fixed image. It is not our burden to attempt to erase this mark, but rather see it, extend it, and bring it back upon itself; a way to reinterpret it, and make it a different mark entirely.
 According to the NAACP, from 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of those lynched, 3,466 were Black, and 95 of those lynchings took place in states where segregation was illegal.
 Following Emancipation, many Black individuals joined federal militias, many turned to indentured servitude, and many were unemployed. Due to large numbers of African-Americans relocating from plantations to southern towns where work was not available, brutal policing policies and “separate-but-equal” laws were put into place.
 Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011.
Why the University of Nebraska–Lincoln?
When I was applying to graduate programs, my goal was to find a program that provided funding, maximized teaching experience, supported independent practice, and had strong faculty membership. Out of the programs I applied to, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln fit all of those needs. I was offered a Graduate Teaching Assistantship as well as a couple of fellowships. As a GTA, I assisted with teaching my first semester, and then taught both darkroom and digital classes as a Graduate Instructor of Record. Another great financial aspect of attending UNL are the extra opportunities for funding including travel and creative activity grants. I received funding to exhibit and lecture at the Vermont Center for Photography, and just received a grant that will help produce my thesis exhibition.
Coming into graduate school, I was in the process of publishing my monograph, Corrections, and I knew that I would have to balance my time between promoting and exhibiting that project and making new work. The curriculum at UNL is self-driven, so not only does it call for you to be a self-starter, but it allows for a lot of freedom while you develop your practice. As long as I held myself accountable, I had support in traveling for exhibitions, speaking engagements, and editorial jobs.
Dana Fritz and Walker Pickering have both been wonderful mentors and are dedicated to helping their students find their unique creative voices. They also have a really great teaching dynamic and bring a lot to the table as far as instruction in technique, concept, and professional practice. The photo program is relatively small; when I began, there were four other graduate students. This intimacy allowed us to make strong bonds with one another, and get to know each others’ work very deeply.
How has your experience at University of Nebraska–Lincoln informed or shaped At No Point In Between?
I spent a lot of my first year floundering creatively, which I think is typical for a lot of first-year graduate students. I began making work about police violence in relation to my identity as a Black male, but it was always lacking something. I had a studio visit with a faculty from the Ceramics department, and we had a really grate discussion about making art about one’s identity. He told me that he could see I was dancing around the work that I wanted to make rather than approaching it directly. At the time, it was a tough pill to swallow, but it was something that I definitely needed to hear.
I found more direction in my second year, but I was still struggling with producing a lot of work. I spent more time researching the historical aspects of my work, trying to find out how the history of redlining informed my work conceptually. One lesson I learned about the process of graduate school is taking time to find out what your studio practice looks like, and in my second year, I realized how important deep research and writing are to my creative workflow. There was some minor pushback because I wasn’t producing a lot of imagery, but my faculty mentors were all supportive and had faith that I would make the best work I was capable of.
What kind of exhibition or arts-related job opportunities exist in the area for current students and recent graduates?
Lincoln has a great artistic community. Every month there is a first-Friday art walk where the community can visit galleries and studios. Parrish Studios, which is one of the main locations, has a few spaces where it is easy for students to hold exhibitions. There is also Lux Center for the Arts, a small arts center that also has a residency program for ceramicists, painters, drawers, metal and fiber artists, or mixed media artists. Dana Fritz and her husband Larry Gawel run Workspace Gallery, a small photography gallery that brings in a few good shows every year. The Sheldon Museum of Art is a great institution that is a part of UNL where students can apply for internships.
There is also a large art community in Omaha which is about an hour east of Lincoln. There is the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, the Joslyn Art Museum, and other smaller art spaces. Last year, I was fortunate enough to work with the Union of Contemporary Art which is located in North Omaha, the community I photograph in. The Union has awesome new facilities including maker spaces, a gallery, and an artist residency.
What’s the most memorable piece of advice you’ve received from a mentor?
Make the work.
I spend a lot of time in my head, which can be great because I’m constantly thinking about things. But it can also be a detriment because I talk myself out of making things because I feel like they might not be worthwhile or a bad idea. However, if you just make it, regardless of what it is, it might lead to something else.
What advice do you have for prospective students looking to attend University of Nebraska–Lincoln?
I would say that if you’re looking to attend UNL, you should come prepared to work independently. That not only applies to creating, but to other endeavors as well. One of the great things about this program is that you have a lot of freedom to shape your experience. I would also say that you should come prepared to make the most of your experience. There are many different opportunities from student organizations, departmental service, and internships that you are able to participate in and take advantage of.
Where can we keep up with your photo department online?