Photo from They Still Live
Tya Alisa Anthony

What makes you … you? That’s the powerful question photographer Thomas “Detour” Evans is asking in his new exhibit that combines photography, African art and ancestry.

The idea for the exhibit came from two seemingly unrelated events: Evans’ trip to Tanzania a year ago and a stranger he found admiring his photography at a Denver gallery.

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The stranger was Paul Hamilton, who visited Evans’ studio and later emailed him, inviting him to see Hamilton’s collection of African artwork.

“The entire place was filled with African art. He has stories for every piece. It was so overwhelming,” said Thomas, who questioned why Hamilton’s items weren’t on display somewhere.

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The two decided to collaborate. Evans began taking photos of Hamilton’s African masks, sandals, instruments, statues and other items. He then remembered that trip a year ago and how discovering his genetic makeup through a DNA test had greatly affected him. Instead of just snapping photos of art from Hamilton’s collection, Evans decided to “tie these two elements together in a way that’s really cohesive. Let me do a project where it links many African Americans back to the different places they come [from] throughout the world.”

In June the “They Still Live” exhibit will be unveiled. It combines Hamilton’s art, Evans’ photography and African-American models who’ve agreed to have their DNA tested. The results of many of the tests, provided by Ancestry.com, will be revealed when the exhibit opens.

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That didn’t give models an opportunity to consider their DNA makeup when deciding which African artifacts they’d pose with in Evans’ photos. Instead, they selected them based on feelings, what they were drawn to and what items they liked from Hamilton’s collection.

While some models are awaiting the results, others have already discovered where they’re from, and for them, and Evans, the findings have been life-changing.

Before discovering that his roots trace back to West Africa, Evans undeniably identified as African American. He still does, but now he questions what “African American” really means. There are a hundred different tribes in Tanzania. How does that define him? His DNA revealed some European ancestry. How does that define him? In other countries, he’s viewed as American. How does that define him? In America, he’s a minority.

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“I have this feeling of what I am, but it’s hard to explain because it’s just so different. That’s the feeling I’m getting from this project. It’s very overwhelming when you get that information,” he said. “We’re all different,” despite the country’s propensity to lump all African Americans together.

But Evans hasn’t refused the categorization. He just questions exactly what the term means. 

“What classifies me as African American or what classifies you as black? The more you question or the more all those labels are broken down, it’s a question that can’t be answered at all for me,” said Evans. “I’m African American and I identify as that, but when I dig deep down to it, what makes an African American?”

Evans’ business partner Tya Anthony, who’s had her and her younger daughter’s DNA tested, agrees.

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“I had so many cultures that make up my DNA,” said Anthony, who is predominantly African but also has a lineage of white Confederate soldiers in her ancestry. “We want to single out one portion of our DNA makeup. It’s just not that simple.”

For Evans and Anthony, the knowledge of their diverse heritage fills them with pride as they’ve researched the people and places that have shaped them.

“I want to know more about how I came to be because it gives me more vested interest in making sure I succeed in life and knowing more about my history,” said Evans, who said his new knowledge has given him more power to refute the negatives stereotypes to which blacks are often subjected. “Because there are so many different parts of me from different places, you start to feel better about yourself. You start to hold your head up high. You feel like you know yourself better than anybody else.”

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Evans and Anthony said they hope young people will come to see their exhibit and also have their DNA tested. It’s an opportunity for people to learn more about themselves, and that’s the point of it all.

“That’s the goal of the actual show: knowing who you are,” Evans said.