Location, Pose, and Lighting - 10 Questions with Hip-Hop Emcee and Action Figure Photographer Arsun F!st
D'Angelo Samuels was born into a Navy family in Panama, a country that bridges Costa Rica and Columbia. Samuels was introduced to comic books in 3rd grade after his father brought home issues that he read while on deployment. It was through these colorfully illustrated pages that Samuels learned how to read. He still remembers the first comic book that he read from cover to cover, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars Volume 8, in which Spider-Man found the alien symbiote that gave him a black costume that would eventually become Venom and then later Carnage.
While attending middle school in Hawaii, Samuels delved deeper into his love of comics, evolving from a reader to a collector. It was at this time that he also started competing with a break dancing crew, which introduced him to hip-hop. As a freshman at South Carolina State University, Samuels eventually stepped up to the mic and developed his artistry as an emcee. In 2006, He signed with Domination Recordings, an Orlando based record label, and released four albums before the label dissolved in 2010.
Samuels performed under the alias Arsun F!st. After moving to Northeast Florida, he joined forces with fellow emcees Stillwater and Paten Locke to form the group Steam Mechanics. Primarily as an emcee, Samuels began exploring photography as a hobby, also branding himself under the moniker Arsun F!st. Armed with a Canon Rebel t6i, he turned his collection of action figures into art by staging them in outdoor settings to create action sequences.
Arsun F!st will be one of five panelists participating in Big Picture: Creative Discourse Through Film and Literature, a collaborative program between the Cultural Council, Jacksonville Public Library, and Sun-Ray Cincema. We invite you to join us on Sunday, March 4 for a special screening of Marvel's Black Panther, followed by a panel discussion moderated by Shawana Brooks that examines Black Panther through the lens of Magical Realism. Arsun F!st will be joined by fellow panelists Marq Mervin (Visual Artist, Professor of Digital Design, Florida State College at Jacksonville, South Campus), Ebony Payne-English (Poet and Spoken Word Performer), Christa "Fatoumata" Sylla (Nan Nkama Pan-African Drum and Dance Ensemble), and Andreia Thaxton-Simmons (PhD, Professor of English and Humanities, Florida State College at Jacksonville). The film will screen at 12:00 PM and will be immediately followed by the panel discussion and Q&A. Tickets are available online or at Sun-Ray's box office.
10 QUESTIONS WITH ARSUN F!ST
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
Once I have a particular pose or action sequence in mind, I grab five or six action figures that best resemble my idea and spend about 45-minutes trying to recreate what I envisioned. Of course, there are times when I see it one way in my head but it doesn't work when I actually have everything set up. When that happens, I rinse and repeat the process until I have a final shot.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
The ability to let go of all biases and embrace the innocence that is art. Hands down, that is one of the most useful skills I have learned.
I grew up in a military household, so I was fortunate to have a world view at an early age. But, it took me interacting with people on an artistic level to truly value the many layers of culture within our society. Humility, patience, pain, and love are all things that I have learned along my journey; and I am truly grateful for those lessons.
How do you define success in what you do?
At first, I really just tried to keep it basic. The mere fact that I could take pictures of action figures and it be viewed as a legitimate art was a win for me.
As I dove deeper into the craft, I discovered a thriving community where photographers who post on Instagram have the opportunity to have their work featured by companies like Hasbro at major toy conventions in the U.S. and abroad. So now I'm on a mission to land a gallery exhibit and test the waters a bit to see how people would react to my brand of photography on a wider scale.
In your track "Crab Pot Soapbox," you speak out against gentrification, idolizing Confederate memorials, and whitewashing history. What role do you think the arts play in challenging perceptions, assumptions, and truth-telling?
I view the arts as a catalyst anchor. It keeps reality weighted in context while also becoming a vehicle to force change. When words fail, the arts are there to provide a space for dialogue through creative expression. Art has a subtle yet powerful way of showing us how we fit in the world, molding and shaping until finally we start to ask ourselves what are we really contributing to this planet?
A majority of people who support keeping the confederate memorials in place are using the same talking points to defend their beliefs. "These were honorable men fighting for an honorable cause, etc.." I can't agree with that argument because there was nothing honorable about Alexander Stephens and his Cornerstone speech in which he gave us gems like "African slavery as it exists among us is the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization." This is a man who stated that advances in science proved that enslavement of African Americans by white men was justified AND that it coincided with the Bible's teachings. The Confederate constitution in it's entire context is rooted in keeping people that look like me in bondage. There's no logical way I could find that to be an honorable cause. If the memorials can't provide the whole truth then I don't think it's fair to cherry pick history in attempts to validate one's culture or heritage.
Hip-hop has a history of referencing pop culture, including comic books, film, and television. There is a special convergence between hip-hop and comics though because each art form involves alter egos and sometimes secret identities. What is the origin of Arsun F!st and if you had a superhuman ability, what would that power be and why?
My alias used to be Sam Silahbul. It's the name I ran with since 10th grade, but as I entered my junior year at South Carolina State University I felt like I needed an upgrade. I used one of my favorite Marvel characters, Iron Fist, as my template. Iron Fist has complete control over his bodies Chi energy and channels that power to heal or hurt, depending on the situation of course. I do believe my rhyme style shares a similar philosophy, but with a tad more heat, so I replaced Iron with Arsun. I decided to keep Fist and just exchanged the " i " for an exclamation point as a reminder to myself that words mean nothing without action.
As for my superpower, I would be a telepath. More specifically, a math telepath. I think it would be really cool to have the ability to realize any mathematical concept or formula. It would also grant me control over the fundamental forces of the universe, like gravity and chemical reactions. Oh the possibilities!
How did your being a toy collector evolve into action figure photography and what goes into staging an engaging photoshoot?
I had all these really cool figures just sitting on a shelf or sealed in display boxes. It got to a point where I had to ask myself, "what's next?" I started creating mini fight scenes and taking pictures of them. It was more of a personal hobby at the timeI and I never shared these photos. Then Instagram happened. I did a search for "toy collectors" and the first image I saw was an action figure fight scene between Bruce Lee and the Hulk at the beach, with water and sand flying everywhere. I was hooked after that. It went from being a hobby to a form of creative expression.
Being that I have no formal photography training, when I first started staging outdoor scenes it was a lot of trial and error. Location plays a huge part in the process. First, it has to make sense with the scene you want to create. Then you have to make sure your scaling and perspective are aligned. You don't want to have a 10 inch figure in a scene with accessories made for a toy that's only 3.75" tall, so balance in the frame is necessary for a "believable" shot.
Another important aspect is the actual posing of the figures themselves. Back in the day, most action figures might of had anywhere from four to six points of articulation. Creating realistic poses were really limited. Fast forward to 2018, action figures now come with close to quadruple the amount of articulated joints. Now you can really pull off some intricate poses and convey emotion that you would not expect to see from a toy.
You also have your technical components, such as what camera you are using, the lens size, and lighting. There's a lot of moving pieces involved when staging a shot. My advice to anyone interested in trying it out would be to just experiment with what I call L.P.L. (location, pose, and lighting ) and let your imagination run wild.
T'Challa, the Black Panther, first made his appearance in 1961 in an issue of Marvel's Fantastic Four. The action hero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby received his own comic book series in 1977 when Black Panther #1 was released. With a release date of February 16, how do you think the world of cinematic storytelling and pop culture as a whole will change after an Afrofutiristic film shatters box office records?
I'm hoping that with the release of Black Panther, we can finally kill the notion that a major motion picture with a Black lead or predominantly Black cast will not succeed in the global box office. I think that was the obstacle that Wesley Snipes dealt with back in 1998 when he was selected to portray Blade. Barely anybody realized it was based on a Marvel character, a Black man that is half human and half vampire. For the time period, folks thought it was a risky move, especially since it launched with an "R" rating (you're welcome Deadpool). Despite the critics, Blade did pretty well globally, grossing $131 million in the world box office and $70 million domestically. For a movie with a $45 million budget, I'd say that was a success.
Moving forward, I think we are already starting to see a shift in cinematic storytelling and pop culture. Shows like Atlanta, Black-ish, Dear White People, and Luke Cage represent that shifting narrative. It will only continue to grow with the release of Black Panther.
We finally have a fictional world filled with images and people that walk, talk, and look like we do on the "big" stage. Considering the path Black cinema has taken to get to this point, that alone is cause for celebration. But, it's also vital that we don't forget there's still a lot of work to do and that Black Panther will not solve all of our problems. As with most things in life, balance is key. If Black Panther is the reason we celebrate, let us recycle that energy back into our communities to make sure that the next Ta-Nehisi Coates or Angela Bassett has a chance to thrive and not feel ashamed while doing so.
You're in the process of redesigning your website. Why is it important for an artist to have online representation in the modern market and what is the primary objective of your social media and web presence? Additionally, how do you use these tools to reach to an audience beyond Duval?
The internet made the world smaller and social media made our lives portable. I can now access my favorite shows, music, movies, and comics with my phone. As a creator of content, I'm not doing my job as an artist if I am not able to connect with my audience. With that said, having an online presence on social networks like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram grant me access to deal with fans and critics in real time.
I'm currently at a crossroads with how I want to brand myself online. For years I was only known as an emcee and my love of comics and action figures was just a footnote. But thanks to Instagram, people are starting to see that I have some range in my creative skill set outside of rhyming words together over a beat. It's pretty hard to envision a website right now until I can figure out what this new version of myself will look like. But thanks to social media, I can still share my art and stay relevant while continuing to tweak and build a website that best represents my creativity.
An interesting dynamic about the toy photography community on Instagram is that there are a few "gatekeeper" galleries that will send out a different hashtag theme everyday, along with a schedule broken out by global time zones. Each time zone gets 30-minutes to post an original toy photo using that day's hashtag. The only rule is that you must either like or provide meaningful feedback to every post in that 30-min block. It's a really great way to interact with other toy photographers around the world and to expose your creations to a larger crowd.
I've gained more followers and contacts from posting in those hashtag generated session than I ever did when I just posted randomly throughout the day, so it definitely pays to know what moves the particular artist community you are a part of. In the toy photography game, it's all about the hashtag.
What is the greatest challenge(s) you face as an artist working in Northeast Florida?
Jacksonville is a unique place, in that there are so many pockets of creative people who overlap but never interact with each other because of personal or cultural biases. Unfortunately, the racial divide plays a part in the stagnation and it's something that challenges me daily living in the South as a Black man.
For the most part, I can navigate without incident. There are times, however, when I hear sly or crass remarks. Of course it hurts, but at the end of the day I can only be who I am and if I allow the opinions of others to dictate how my art should look then it's not my art - it becomes theirs and that is counter productive to my movement and growth. I simply just won't allow it to break me, period.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow Jacksonville's arts and cultural sector?
We need more inclusion. Jacksonville's cultural sector has grown a lot since I moved here in 2007, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. Open up to different forms of art and showcase talent that doesn't always fit the traditional artist mold. Like I said, this is a unique place with a lot of creative energy. We just have to do a better job of catching the ones that fall between the cracks because they didn't fit into our personal idea of what art should be.