I’m not one to brag, but my friends are all types of amazing. From leaving their mark in the entertainment world, to being able to handcraft jewelry and accessories, and even going from an NFL career to acting, their talents are immeasurable.
But when it comes to having an eye for art, photography and interior design, there’s one person who stands out, and because of his new couch series, the Couch, and his upcoming exhibit “The Couch: Beautiful,” Detroit’s Tafari Stevenson-Howard is finally getting the attention he deserves.
I can’t pinpoint the exact time I met Tafari online, but I know it involved social media, a bunch of mutual friends, and my former career in human resources. But I do remember where and when we had the chance to finally meet in person. About seven years back at an annual Society of Human Resources Management conference in San Diego, we met at the booth I was manning. And seven years later, we’re still kee-keeing on the phone and at his sip-n-sees (just a fancy word for “come have some drinks when I’m in town”).
Tafari and I had more in common than our disdain for HR; we also had our side gigs. Mine was writing; his was photography. And somehow, years later, we’ve both taken our passions and put them at the forefront of our lives.
Tafari’s photography has included everything from New York Fashion Week to weddings and lifestyle photos. But most recently, his exhibit titled, “The Couch Beautiful” has caught the eyes of Detroit media as well as social media. When Tafari purchased his new couch, he’d already visualized the aesthetic he wanted to capture, and once his friends started coming over to his house, which he calls the Humble Ranch, everyone wanted to take photos on it. Of course, as a photographer, who was he to deny their requests?
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The Root: Tell me how you got into photography?
Tafari Stevenson-Howard: I got into photography back into the early 2000s, more so for fun or a hobby.
As my interest in this art form grew, I was mentored by my best friend/cousin, Verlisa Allen, who was really into photography at the time. She taught me some skills, coached me and pushed me pretty hard, and this opened up my eyes, so to speak, on how I could find my own niche.
After gaining more skills and confidence in what I could do, I took a leap and reached out to the Detroit Fashion Pages, which was a lifestyle/culture blog, to see if I could get a job. I really didn’t think they would take me on, but after one discussion with the owner, I was in and on my first photo assignment that week.
I worked with them for a while, and this really pushed me in so many good ways. I was able to hone in on portraiture, fast-moving society events, fashion photography and more. The cool thing about my opportunity with the Detroit Fashion Pages is that it put me in the room with some good contacts that I still maintain to this day. Because of these contacts, I have been able to photograph at New York Fashion Week, I’ve had work in the New York Times, L.A. Times, a variety of magazines and books.
The Root: What inspired the Couch series?
TSH: The Couch series was something that came out of nowhere. I didn’t plan it. Wasn’t thinking about it, and to be honest, in 2017, I was severely depressed and out of love with my craft. Fast-forward, I shop when I’m blue, and I was looking at this same couch for a few years and decided to bite the bullet and purchase it sight unseen and untested.
The couch that I ordered was burgundy, which was perfect! Almost 1.5 months or so later, my new couch arrived in the evening, and it looked great! The next day, Verlisa came over to see the couch and the first thing she said was, “Why do you have that pink-ass couch?”
I looked over at it, and strangely enough, the couch looked totally different than it did the night before. A totally different color. It was strange. I then asked her to sit on the couch for a photo and she did. Later, some more family came over and I took photos of them on the couch as well, for shits and giggles, and then posted the images online [Instagram and Facebook].
People started to react to the photos immediately! People were asking if they could come be photographed. They wanted to know why my couch was pink. It was funny at the time.
I then seized the opportunity to invite people to my home, which I refer to as the Humble Ranch, for photos on the couch. After about the 10th photo, I started to feel something bubble. It was fun. It was freeing. I pretty much felt myself coming back from my blue moment and my disengagement with photography. I mean, at this point, people were really hitting me up to be photographed. It was crazy. I mean, people were coming to Detroit from Dallas, Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle to be photographed on the couch.
At this point, I have photographed close to 80 people for this series. All Detroiters or those with deep Detroit connections. It’s no secret that everyone that I photographed on my couch is black, which is by design!
Living in the Detroit area, you can’t help but feel and smell the rapid gentrification of the city, which is leading many to feel not included, heard or seen. I think my couch is a way to offer some change to this narrative.
Flashing back just a little, I did reach out to the manufacturer of the couch to voice my concerns about the color of the couch from what I saw online to what I had delivered. We went back-and-forth for a while and we came up with some terms and I decided to keep the couch. At this point, why not?!
TR: How has your series been perceived?
TSH: The perception so far has been varied, but I think the biggest perception is black! Poet jessica Care moore and visual artist Sabrina Nelson told the world that my couch is black! And it really is. Some have thanked me for creating a “safe black space.” Overall, people seem to be loving it. I still laugh when I meet people locally and they ask if I’m “the guy with the couch.” So people know about this little midcentury modern “Mood Couch,” as my friend Karla calls it.
TR: Where did you buy the couch? Has the company reached out to you about it going viral?
TSH: Fuck them! Especially after they played me out on a contest last summer. They are shady, but they do make high-quality furniture. We were in contact, but again, fuck them.
TR: Who has been your favorite guest so far?
TSH: There have been so many guests. … This will be hard, but I will name a few favorites: [DJ] Kai Alce, [entrepreneur] Mikiah Westbrooks, [chef] Yachecia Holston, Helene and Celia Faussart [aka Les Nubians], [sexologist] Kevicha Echols, [community activist] Lauren Hood and [musician] Amp Fiddler.
TR: Are you afraid of any wear and tear the couch will receive?
TSH: I’m not afraid, but the couch has seen a lot of action. Also, since the series is coming to a close, I think it will survive!
TR: What was your inspiration behind the aesthetic of your living area?
TSH: Good question! My entire home has been a labor of love! It’s heavily influenced by the African Diaspora, with pieces from around the world, but I’m also a West Elm and Crate & Barrel junky, so you will see structured old-school pieces mixed with midcentury items that are paired with textiles, masks, headdresses and art work from all over Africa. My kids describe my house as a mix of art gallery-meets-Ikea catalog. I also love Ikea!
TR: If you had to pick one person dead or alive to photograph on your couch who would it be?
TSH: Tough! Can I pick two? Gil Scott-Heron because he is one of my heroes and I would love to just talk about existence and blackness. Nina Simone because she is one of my sheroes! Her activism, her musical gifts that she gave the world, and her unapologetic stance on blackness and freedom.
TR: What next project will you be working on?
TSH: I have two projects that will come to life spring 2018. The first will be a pop-up photography party called the Pop Up Powershoot. This will be my second time hosting the event here in Detroit. It’s an event where participants can get headshots done with other professional services in a hot location with music, food, drink and some random surprises. … Stay tuned! My other project will be a nude portrait series, which no doubt will be quite provocative (don’t tell my mother). I plan to make an announcement sometime in late May.
Want to know more about Tafari’s photography? Visit his site, and on Feb. 10, “The Couch: Beautiful” exhibit opens at the Brix Wine & Charcuterie Boutique in Detroit at 8 p.m. The exhibit will run for two months.