“I usually have a script for this.”
Traci Bartlow, 54, smiles nervously. Maybe she wasn’t nervous, though. Maybe she was just getting into character on a day she didn’t expect to have to.
She had told me that this whole idea started on Valentine’s Day 2020. But that wasn’t quite true, I later realized. At least, it wasn’t the whole story.
And how could it be?
Traci shifted from in front of her computer’s webcam to allow me perspective into the room where she sat. I could feel the warmth and regality of the 1885 Victorian architecture from over a thousand miles away. I noticed an ebony sculpture of Black woman in motion on an end table near the door. Picture frames of varying sizes and colors — all meticulously arranged — adorned every visible wall except the one in front of Traci. That wall held two giant windows which allowed light to break boldly through and coat the room in a honey-gold.
And thus started my private, virtual, gallery tour of the erotic and sensual art of Traci Bartlow.
Artist. Business woman. Property owner. Sexual being.
A Labor of Love
The “My Life In Nudes” exhibition launched February 2020, but it was in motion long before then. Originally conceived as a one-time event followed by regular gallery hours for Traci’s art, restrictions due to COVID-19 forced her to reconsider how she could make the most of a three-year project curating a vast collection of photos (some nude and some not; professional and amateur) spanning 30 years. The result was a series of live stream gallery tours of the exhibition.
“It has been such a labor of love,” Traci tells Sexual + Being. “It’s content that I’m inspired by. It makes me happy and confident and proud of who I am as a Black woman. I often hear people comment about the images and I’m like — they get it. They get the messages of freedom and power I want to convey in this exhibition.”
Although the gallery, initially meant for only one exhibition, is still up, Traci has found deep self-reflection in recounting the stories of the photographs. The photo exhibition helps Traci define the concepts of Beauty and Pleasure on her own terms, and she hopes that she can convey a “celebration of the Black female form, through the lens of a Black woman looking at herself.”
“Good sexual experiences are a part of what fulfills you as an individual,” Traci says. ‘When you have really good sexual experiences — and that doesn’t just mean sex — whether it’s laughter, a physical experience, or a conversation — it heightens you. It’s enriching your life experience when you’re able to openly engage … Most of what we experience sexually is not to our mutual or collective benefit, I believe.”
Traci was born and raised in East Oakland with humble beginnings. Her mother was a serial entrepreneur and her father worked as a longshoreman. She remembers borrowing her mother’s camera as a teen to take pictures and enjoying the action of capturing the world around her. As she entered her teenage years, she developed an affinity for supermodels. Traci would not only marvel at the beauty of the women in the photos, but the artistic quality of the portraits. She studied the editorials for various modeling shoots, becoming just as familiar with the photographers as the models. When she herself started to model, the studio equipment in use for her shoots excited her just as much as the process of glamming up to be photographed.
After returning to The Bay from New York City, where she studied dance on scholarship at the Alvin Ailey school, Traci got a 35mm camera from a friend and started photographing her neighbors in Oakland. A mother on her stoop, baby in tow. A young man leaning against his freshly polished ride, shirt open. These were Traci’s first subjects, her first true inspirations — her community.
But it was never only about the photos. Traci maintains that the images from over the years are simply capturing experiences. Evidence of a life lived with freedom on the mind and in the heart. This freedom manifested in many ways, like her original production of an erotic festival for Black Oaklanders in 2003 — Starchild Enterprises Presents: The Oakland Erotic Funk Fest — complete with live music, a dance party, erotic poetry, art, and much, much more, I’m sure. A community for Traci isn’t just one you see through a lens on occasion — it’s one you live with, love with, enjoy the journey with.
As the years passed, Traci expanded her community, meeting friends and collaborators on the music, art, and erotica scenes in The Bay and beyond. She worked with Jessica Holter, founder of the Punany Poets, and was integral as a performer and photographer in HBO’s Real Sex feature of the group on episodes 24 and 26. In fact, Traci was the one who captured a well-circulated photograph of an intimate bath scene between a man and two women during filming for one of the episodes, a sensually-charged hallmark moment in the segment.
Traci also shot with Refa 1, a renowned Bay Area painter, illustrator, and activist. With every mention of a friend, she makes it a point to highlight the dichotomy, as well as the oneness, of their being.
“Refa 1 was the special guest on my last live stream,” she beams. “People know him for a lot of things, but erotic photography is another side of his creativity. Everybody has a sexual side.”
In some of the Pitts photos, she poses nude in various stances, some at the guidance of Pitts and some of her own creation. The poses capture the angles and geometry of the body in striking ways. Her favorite photos featured her sitting with her legs aloft, one slightly above the other, creating a V-shape with her body.
“I chose these poses,” she remembers. “I really liked the ownership of my movement in these shots, the confidence it brought me.”
My favorite of these photos featured her facing out of the frame, intent, as if looking into a mirror. Her hands are raised at her sides, but bent, palms facing out. She holds a slight bend in her knee, a hitch in her hip. A glamor pose. Her dress — purple satin with holes cut out of each side of the torso to reveal the body — is sliding down off her shoulders, revealing her back, her breasts. A wave of proud nostalgia washes over Traci as she remembers picking the dress. She has styled herself for most of her shoots throughout her career. From fishnets, to faux fur drapes, sultry, soft dresses, she expresses herself not only with her body, but how she chooses to adorn it.
“We have to tell our own stories,” she explains. “This is my own story, and it’s not influenced by what anybody thinks or feels I should do as a Black woman. The way I’ve chosen to be photographed — these are all my choices.”
As Traci walked me through the exhibition, I realized the photos taken by Bay Area artist and entrepreneur Keba Konte photos were my favorite part of the show — a series of shots featuring a 26-year-old Traci, with a demeanor mingling between shy and fierce. Her perfectly round afro (she’s been wearing her hair natural since she was a teenager in the 80’s) and smooth skin glows against a wall painted with red, yellow, and green parallel lines — colors very important to Pan-African people across the diaspora.
I first thought maybe Traci was aiming for glamor model, what with raindrop-shaped crystal earrings, an astounding natural face-beat, and an art deco backdrop, for the first set of photos. But then we came upon a photo of her in the same earrings and makeup, fully nude and laying on her side, her Black power fist raised and facial expression full of conviction. I saw nothing less than a Freedom Fighter. I think Traci would reason that answer is both. Always at least both, and probably much more.
“These are really beautiful, sort of a Goddess femme, Venus de Milo style,” she explained to me. Just in case I had underestimated her knowledge of Art History. I think she had overestimated mine.
Saddi Khali did Traci’s 50th Birthday Shoot. She stands on a rocky shore at Salt Point National Park in Northern California, the waves rushing behind her and the sun slowly dipping, not quite dusk. Khali is a master of lighting and shading — never using artificial lighting to stage photos. He captures Traci in all the glory of what must have been a beautiful afternoon. She is nude with a sheer, floral shawl draped around her. Her jewelry is regal, huge golden bangles and multiple necklaces with crystal gem charms around her neck. Tracy notes the changes in her body and how reflection on these images teaches her new things as the years keep coming.
“These pictures hit me differently over time and with perspective in my life as a Black woman,” she says. “They prompt exciting discovery and a deep self reflection. Even just noticing the natural weight I’ve gained since I was taking photographs like this in my twenties. I’m learning more about who I am and who I was each time I reflect on these.”
“How I Saw Us”
My official private tour of the gallery ends as Traci exits the main room and settles on a plush bed, surrounded by more photos in larger frames. “I usually end the live stream here, with a bedtime story,” she announces, getting comfortable. The photos in this room are different, however. Concerts, performances, backstage candids — many of popular and local hip-hop artists from the 90’s, shot by Traci. She pulls a photo of OutKast (my favorite group) off the wall and tells me it’s from their first ever performance in San Francisco.
What floored me was one of the last things she shared — a collection of collages, dated year by year. 1996. 1997. The collages contained cutouts from magazines, original photos, and personal effects, all plastered onto a base, representing the fun, the style, and the diversity of the decade. Most of them are Bay Area-specific. She made them each year to have a snapshot of some of the biggest moments for the culture.
“This is just how I saw us, you know?” she says. “Photographs allow you to see the humanity of a person. That’s a healing element of my images. This opportunity to look at ourselves in a historic context.”
How I see Traci, and undoubtedly how those who know her see her, is no different. If the last 54 years were a collage of pivotal moments in Black culture, social activism, sexual liberation, feminism, and hip-hop, Traci Bartlow would be indispensable to the piece. We’d have to see her humanity. Her courage. Her beauty. Her strength. We’d have to see all of her.
And that’s exactly how she’d want it.
Traci wants women to have a better lived experience. She sees artistic expression as not only an avenue for sexual liberation, but a tool of empowerment among oppressed Black women.
“Nude, erotic and sexual images are things I enjoy sharing, and I want to connect with others who share that feeling,” she says “It could be pornographic or subtle light on a nude body making it compelling and interesting. It’s a normal part of who we are as human, and a way of sharing that brings more comfort to yourself and your surroundings.”
She remembers receiving both praise and pushback after her appearance on HBO at the turn of the millennium. Some folks only saw her as a teacher, activist, community programmer — and had concerns about her reputation as such, posing nude on syndicated television.
“We have been controlled in a way that is not healthy for us,” she says “Our sexual expression is very limited. It takes a lot of courage to do this type of work because of how society has put limits on how we express ourselves … you have to be prepared for people to misinterpret the work.”
Even still, Traci has always maintained her truth and encourages people to embrace their sexual selves — their whole selves — everywhere they show up. With life philosophies like Work Your Magic and Live As Your Highest Self, she hopes that people can align their values and their lived actions in a way that helps set them free.
“I enjoy seeing people do well,” she says. “At its core, my work is about healing. Healing Black people.”