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.

Understanding Otherness in Museums: Partnering with the Fralin Museum of Art

In partnership with The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia during the NEH HumanTies event, we led almost 40 participants on a unique Brown Girls Museum Blog tour of the museum. After building this blog around digital spaces for people of color in museums, we were able to take our mission offline and right into the museum space itself to lead tours and hold workshops in person about the things we care so much about. Take a look below to find out more about what we did with an audience of museum goers interested in diverse perspectives.

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Intersectionality as Context at #CrossLines (Review)

It is easy to mistake the spectacle of diversity for actual impact on the systems of institutional racism. The sight of a few brown faces, visible “others,” in a room full of whiteness can seem like an accomplishment for organizations that struggle to find and retain people of color. Museums, the art world, academia, and many other fields are all susceptible to this image of inclusion.

For those lucky, or unlucky, enough to wear their otherness on the inside, this obsession with the appearance of diversity overlooks their necessary inclusion. For the visibly diverse, it is only a short walk from inclusion to token status: as Eric Jolly put it at a recent AAM panel, tokenism is “input without impact.” For the people who are noticeably different but don’t fit cleanly into a census checkbox or other category, for those who claim a hybrid identity, for those who exist at a particularly trafficked intersection of disadvantages (to invoke Kimberle Crenshaw), the fetishization of visible inclusion can only reduce them to a single characteristic, a single role, flattening their experiences like a multifaceted peg into an institutionally-determined round hole.

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#CrossLines: Creating a Culture of Inclusion (Review)

The annual American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference (an experience to be shared in a future post) hosted in DC this year, was accompanied by a number of happenings during the Memorial Day weekend; and the timing is not without significance. CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality was of one of those occurrences in the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (formerly the U.S. National Museum) and coordinated through the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC). This event occurs at a critical moment, as museums are fervently learning and finding their way through dialogues on race and identity, as they are both influenced by and inform history and culture.

CrossLines (here) was a movement through this dialogue.

Red Carpet entrance into CrossLines at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building.

The Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building was transformed after a century of transition and over a decade of renovation. The two-day weekend event was free and open to the public beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 28th, to 9 p.m. Sunday, May 29th. The event featured a number of artists, performers, activists, educators, and facilitators across varying mediums and messages (visit the site to learn more about who all was involved). The culture lab was textured by the richness of such exhibits and performances to unfold throughout the day for visitors as they could move around freely or join in on a complimentary tour.

I took my time on Sunday stopping at each exhibit, taking a tour and sitting in on performances throughout the day. I enjoyed what could be both a solitary experience, and as a group when later joining friends. However, I was particularly struck by the wealth of radical tradition and truth that empowered the space, and made for a communal environment among all walks of life, and all of it under the banner of the Smithsonian name bears great importance. Here at BGMB, we have been thinking a lot about the language of “diversity and inclusion” and on greater pathways to intersectional thought and practice within our art and cultural institutions.  Museums, like other institutions and corporations, are grappling with data that proves that their staff and audiences are not diverse enough, however, this information is certainly not new. And the usual quick fix is the diversity hire, or the diversity committee composed of all the people of color or the sole person of color doing all the programming for the “diversity” events.

But, as Kimberlé Crenshaw gives us in “Mapping the Margins” (1989), intersectionality has always been about forces of power upon particular persons in our society. Diversity without this understanding of intersectionality ignores the barriers to the workplace, psychological pressures within, or why certain narratives are not reflective of a universal experience. What made CrossLines successful was that it presented divergent narratives, it was experiential, and did not begin or end in one place. It did not force visitors to come to one conclusion or settle into one story, rather it gave way to various ways of knowing and being that were all welcome in the space. I think it is important to consider how CrossLines can be used to model a culture of inclusion for historical and cultural institutions to follow.

Diverging Narratives

Our work at BGMB is always one that is curious from outside of the traditions of the museum field, and we bring with us our personal experience and academic pursuits. My beliefs in the museum space are not without critiques of geography, language, and ways of learning that vary by community. I followed Adriel (Curator of Digital and Emerging Media, APAC) as he led a group of us to several of the artists’ plots, each with an opportunity to hear from the artists themselves. The geography of the space was arranged just so, so that the distance between transformative stories was lessened. Stories of art, history and culture at the intersections of race, sexuality and citizenship were not secluded from one another.

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On our tour, Adriel led us to a tipi, with a white female dressed in native costume there to welcome us inside (pictured above). She and I locked eyes, and I couldn’t tell if she was uncomfortable or if I was more uncomfortable for her. Inside the tipi we were offered a seat on the floor and to listen. The performance and artistry presented by Gregg Deal was part of his work “The Indian Voice Removal Act 1879 to 2016.” He shared with us the purpose of his work, to show the ways in which native voices are stripped of their power to speak, whether explicitly by his accompanying cultural interpreter who completely disregarded Deal’s words or cloaked in a Washington “Redskins” jersey. However, Deal did not speak with hostility, or target his words toward anyone specifically among us.

This is the part where I tell you I hate tours, always have. I’ve always felt put on the spot, or like everyone was thinking “she already knows this stuff because she’s black and has a better understanding for that reason.” We were a mixed group in terms of age ranges but we were not a rainbow coalition in terms of race of who was sitting inside. However, we all could appreciate that this was a truth within a larger narrative. We all had an opportunity to learn, and for once I did not feel the burden of responsibility was on me, i.e. because I’m black.

Inside the tipi with performance artist Gregg Deal. Art pieces inside.

Who tells the story? How the story is told? What stories do we tell? These are all important questions to ask of yourself and your cultural institution, and probably seem like an obvious “duh.” But so many history and cultural museums are tethered to the same narratives of race and identity embedded in a Western historical canon. We so often say to our audiences, which then becomes reflective of our staff, “because you are x, you must interested in y.”

APAC could have chosen to wholly spotlight works among Asian and Asian diaspora artists, and rightfully so considering the name of the center and even with the event in May, being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. However what they accomplished with this dynamic group of creatives was an acknowledgement of a range of experiences that do not belong to any one specific set of persons, and not without their historicity or cultural implications, but don’t exclude those other hybrid and hyphenated identities. The moment we are in is expressive of black lives matter, indigeneity, afro-asian and latinx peoples that make up the fabric of our communities. Our personal geographies navigate how we move through those identities as American, as woman, as heterosexual, etc.

The American story is contradictory, conflicting, but just because something is complex, different or new, doesn’t make it negative. It is about creating the space so that there is equal value in the exchange.

Pathways

I wandered throughout CrossLines for quite a bit of time after my tour but I found I spent much of it holding a conversation, inviting someone to sit or reminiscing with the folks around the People’s Kitchen Collective. The quickest way to someone’s history and heritage is across the kitchen table. The People’s Kitchen Collective is a group out of Oakland, California that specializes in diaspora dinners and kitchen remedies.  I was quite cozy among the fruit and veggies that adorned the table, surrounded by beautiful prints and patterns, and shelves dedicated to their food pharmacy (pictured below).

Shelf of remedies in the People’s Kitchen Collective.

The founders explained the process of filling out a prescription (pictured below) for either the flu, a stomach ache or white supremacy; the list goes on. Once the form was completed, you turn in the slip in exchange for another prescription filled out by someone else anonymously. My remedy for the flu paid homage to my grandmother’s hearty homemade chicken soup with rice and veggies and the chicken that stewed for hours. And if I was feeling achy, the tea she would give me with fresh lemon and honey, and the cough drop sunk to the bottom to diffuse in my drink; something so simple suddenly seemed like a science experience. I thought of things I hadn’t remembered in years, and remembered how these simple remedies were filled with the love and the little bit we had, which was always enough.

I completed my form and shared what I wrote, and suddenly felt my story wasn’t special enough, not original enough. I received my prescription and said I would read it when I got home.

Sharing personal remedies at the People’s Kitchen Collective.

A couple days after CrossLines concluded I was cleaning up the piles of memorabilia laid across my room, and there it was. The small brown paper bag with the People’s Kitchen Collective stamped on it. Opening it in my room, I started to tear up. The first thing I read was “Cliché, I know, but…”

Robert, a U.S./3rd generation Jewish immigrant had shared his remedy for fever and sore throat: chicken soup.

In that moment of filling out my prescription I called upon generational memory and cultural practices I didn’t realize were important to me, and was drawn to how that memory took shape in someone else’s life. I think about the work of Kosher/Soul culinary historian Michael Twitty:

Identity cooking isn’t about fusion; rather it’s how we construct complex identities and then express them through how we eat.

If we think about intersectionality in this way we realize we can’t discount any aspect of one’s experience. Intersectionality does not assume a shared experience (to borrow from Ariana Curtis, Latino Studies curator at the Anacostia Community Museum) but rather we must explore multiple pathways of knowing; they both intersect and diverge.

Moving Forward (and in various directions)

I hold on to these two seemingly disparate installations––Gregg Deal’s performance piece and the People’s Kitchen Collective––from CrossLines because they are exemplary of what I hope for in the future of museums.

During a Memorial Day weekend in our nation’s capital, among the several museums and activities simultaneously occurring on the National Mall, droves of people came into the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, and confronted were with numerous critiques and commentary on politics, patriotism, racism, colonialism…

The Smithsonian could have opted for one singular American story but it chose to tell many, and that’s a true American story.

We often get caught up in who is not coming into our museum in the sense of statistics, but what would the museum look like if we were to consider those who are coming as bringing texture and richness to the stories we already tell? When we set ourselves up for closed minds, we close ourselves to the possibility of greater inclusionary practices. The name of the event, “CrossLines”, is both what we need to do and the directions in which we should follow our work. I often think of art museums as having the flexibility to be nomadic, but what if our historical and cultural institutions were too? What could our pasts tell us that we hadn’t given attention to before? What cultural practices have we overlooked? Museums are only as empowered by the stories they can tell. Those are our stories.

As always drop us a comment and share with us on social media @2brwngirls. Thoughts?

The Language of Diversity and Inclusion (Part 2)

Words have always been important to me — there was no question that language was going to be central to the message Ravon and I wanted to communicate during our chance to speak at AAMD. While Ravon’s talk focused on putting an end to tired vocabulary like “diversity” and “inclusion,” I spoke about possible alternative language that could get at intersectionality without sacrificing specificity. To keep that sense of community present, I turned to the realm of geography.

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The Language of Diversity and Inclusion (Part 1)

Amanda and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak at the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) conference in Cleveland this month. We were invited as part of a young thought leaders session on diversity and inclusion. Our presentations were a moment to think through the language of diversity, and how we foresee the move toward intersectionality in the field.

I’ve been working through my own frustration with the over-saturation of the terms ‘diversity and inclusion’, intersectionality, and community that are often without the depth of meaning that allow for us to put them into real action.

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Diversity

From its inception has been overly relied upon to do the work of changing our perceptions and the place of people of color within our institutions. A textbook dictionary definition of the root word diverse states, “showing a great deal of variety; very different.” ‘Diversity’ initiatives in this way are shortsighted. The cliche of diversity becomes a burden on people of color that only requires the appearance of change. (i.e. the diversity committee, comprised of all the folks that are “diverse,” diversity does not mean black and brown people, etc.)

 

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Intersectionality

The problem with diversity is it’s uncomfortable, and not in the way doing the work of shifting our paradigms for ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives should be. ‘Intersectionality’, as it has been taken up, has become a way to bundle up difference with a bow. Kimberlé Crenshaw, legal scholar, gave us this term in her critical essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” in 1989. Knowing the disciplinary origin of this term is important because intersectionality has always been about systems of power and privilege that are enforced upon particular persons in our society. (i.e. doing the work of inclusion should be difficult. If it isn’t, you’re doing it wrong.)

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Community

But as language travels so does meaning, and instead we’ve settled on a definition that sanitizes difference so to not have to critically examine the consequences of power on those differences. Diversity in this ways does not inquire into how to deal with difference but contains it. If we, in museums, are to do the work of intersectionality, we must examine our privilege and power; and it starts with putting meaning into practice. It is how we come to find and know our community.

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It is easy to settle for the community that looks like you, and that you can assume you know; rather than to ask the questions that would cause you to confront your own ignorance. Communities are ever changing, and for that we should never settle.

(Thank you again to AAMD for having us for their centennial conference convening.)