Last Words in Old Conversations: Redefining DC Art

As 2016 comes to a close, we inevitably find ourselves in a state of reflection––on the course of the year, the recent election, and looking toward the future.

We were honored to be invited to join a conversation hosted by ArtTable DC, State of Art 3, that would allow us to do this contemplation around the changing state of DC art. It is an event dedicated to sharing what those in the field are doing to support the arts or foresee as possibilities to sustain the art ecosystem, and we were excited to be listed alongside an array of creatives. It was a moment, on and off the stage, that both acknowledged the importance of such conversations and why we have to continue to have them.

State of Art requires speakers to put together a brief presentation of six minutes and forty seconds with twenty seconds per slide, a format known as PechaKucha style. It is an opportunity to spark dialogue among the speakers and the audience in order to further the ideas presented. Our presentation sought to showcase our approach to museums, their collections, and the exhaustion that brought us to this work.

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We intentionally selected excerpts from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric to illuminate these moments of racism, oppression and microaggression that occur repetitiously, often enacted through passive day-to-day occurrences. Texts were interwoven between the 15th century painting The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, and Misty Cropland photographed as Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer for Harpers Bazaar (Feb 2016). The imagery in relationship to Rankine’s eloquent words, provided an avenue into how we steer that frustration toward new interpretations of art in order to make room for other narratives and critical thought. In looking at Venus, how can we explore racial myths? How does Misty Copeland as the Little Dancer reveal or shift the narrative of the original subject of Degas’s work?

We expected it to be a lot for the audience to absorb in six minutes and forty seconds, especially if you are unfamiliar with our work, however we had faith that the two larger themes would marry.

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Of course not everyone was pleased, and resulted in this thread of tweets as an immediate release of my frustration:

 

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If the post-election has taught us anything (and oh, oh so much), we’ve uncovered the desire for order at the overwhelming expense (and silence) of others that is the project of oppressive systems, vested in whiteness. One older white woman frankly told me that we “should focus on the positive” as she turned to walk away, and another woman, in a backhanded compliment let me know our “talk didn’t work” in the style we chose and offered her help. *sigh*

These women aren’t one of a kind. But more importantly, despite being tired––and I’m tired ya’ll––they exemplify the reason why we have to disrupt in order to push forward, and create space for new conversations on art and equity. A statement I constantly make, and made a point to do so in this presentation:

Decolonizing the institution is difficult work, but that’s how you know you’re moving in the right direction.

The truth hurts, especially when it means you have to experience some discomfort. Our presentation was meant to startle, and maybe even make people feel uneasy, because inclusion and intersectionality happen when people are willing to give up their seat to make room for others at the table––and history tells us sometimes you have to bring your own chair.

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