#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 Artist or the Developer, Which Came First?

Cities change and art changes with them.

I had actually meant to write this post some time ago. I had returned from a trip in Philadelphia in which I took a mural tour with the Mural Arts program for their “A Love Letter for You” train tour, a series of murals done by renown artist Stephen Powers that can be seen from street-level and rooftops. We got on the city metro and would get off at various stops to get a closer look at some of the works. The program prides itself on rallying street artists as part of the anti-graffiti initiative in the 80’s due to the graffiti “crisis” and instead commission them to do artwork and participate in programmatic initiatives throughout the city. See their website for more about what they do.

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I tend to cringe at these sorts of programs as I am well aware of the ways in which street art is co-opted by city and development interests to capitalize on what was once an organic form of artistic expression by local residents that is then sanitized for the purposes of branding and attracting visitors. I intentionally don’t use the term “authentic” in place of “organic,” which has a long tenuous history in regards to cultural heritage, as it is a term often wielded by city officials and developers to accomplish means of revitalization that primarily privileges gentrifiers.

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On Sunday, we were honored to be able to sit among artists, creatives, entrepreneurs and concerned citizens for a Gather On event hosted by Nomad Yard Collectiv at 411 New York Ave NE to discuss these very concepts. The small business incubator is up against the city, and their struggle speaks to a larger one occurring in many cities.

Nomad Yard Collectiv is a homey, vintage shop unlike any other I have frequented housed in the historic Union Arts building, one of the last artist communities of its kind in the city. The site holds space for visual artists, musicians, poets, and entrepreneurs who have all formed a constituency, an ecosystem. It wasn’t until February 1st at city hall when I sat in on a public hearing, that I realized the threat this ecosystem is under to be destroyed. See our open letter to the city here.

The Union Arts building was purchased by developers who intend to transform the space into a “boutique” hotel, along with the other hotels that will occupy New York Avenue in that area. The location is adjacent to Union Market. The area is being carved out to make space for gentrifiers who the city and developers claim want to see art.

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It really is a home of sorts, and I don’t have to say that for the purposes of this post. It’s impossible to spend less than 15 minutes in this shared arts space, whether it’s perusing vintage fashions, finding an archive of history or poetry, or simply chatting with the ladies who are always there to welcome you at the door. And my favorite aspect, the amount of Black girl magic in this space from owner Desiree Venn Frederic (the other DVF). It’s just that rare to find a business of this caliber and magnitude in the city owned by a young black entrepreneur.

My fear is that we, museum professional and other culture workers who capitalize in various respects on the production of artists, don’t realize the severity of what is occurring in our cities that is not just the problem of the artist versus the developers. We are witnessing the dwindling of space and care for those who are easily marginalized, and further pushed into the periphery. This is a housing issue. This is a humanities issue. This is an economic issue. If we really want social justice in museums we must protect the artists, whose craft gives us reason to be curators and educators. We are not naive to the almighty dollar or the inevitability of change but we have a duty to steer change toward a future that we all can aspire.

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It is why we continue to say, “We are here. We’ve always been here.” Being silenced does not mean we are not there.

Please join us tonight at Judiciary Square to hold space and show support. Sign up for the Union Arts DC email listserv.

 

 

The Agora Culture Presents “The Supper Club” by Elia Alba

On Saturday, November 7th, The Agora Culture director Jessica Stafford invited us into her home in collaboration with writer and curator Julie Chae for a quaint reveal by Elia Alba for her latest project, The Supper Club. The Supper Club  highlights a series of artists by not only showcasing their work, but the artists themselves as enveloped by their own aesthetic. Below are some of the featured works and artists within the collective.

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Here is an excerpt of what The Supper Club strives to illustrate:

The Supper Club is a multi-faceted art project that brings together over 50 contemporary artists of color through portraiture and dialogue. Inspired by Vanity Fair Magazine’s annual “Hollywood Issue,” which showcases Hollywood’s biggest movie stars of that year, I set out to photograph over 50 contemporary artists of color in individual portrait. The photographs frame the artists as celebrities and transform their identities into iconic, fantastical images. Each artist was given a moniker as a way to define them within the group. For example, Irvin Morazan, The Shaman, whose practice has been offering us different shamanistic embodiments since 2011, presents as a shamanistic Che Guevara figure. Mickalene Thomas, The Female Gaze, is fashioned as a powerful Botticelli-esque Venus by the sea, not unlike the women portrayed in her paintings. All of the portraits will be featured in full page layouts in the book, alongside a brief description of each artist.

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Creator and Director Jessica Stafford Davis of The Agora Culture

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Artist Elia Alba

What develops from this exhibition is a legion of artist each with a moniker like an X-Men superhero. A juxtaposition between the art itself and artist intent is created as we move between Elia’s choice in depiction and the role of the artist within the collective. The sense of empowerment is highly palpable as each artist photographed gazes deeply into the camera’s lens and draws you into their realm, a world created for and by them. But of course what we love alongside the integrity of each photo is that The Supper Club represents a group of diverse artists of color.

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Some personas include “The Braddonian” aka LaToya Ruby Frazier and “The Chairman” aka Derrick Adams.

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Ultimately, The Supper Club project serves as a critical historical archive of this moment, documenting African-American, Latin American, African, South Asian and Caribbean artists as a collective group. It is rare that so many creative voices, from so many cultural, social, political and economic backgrounds can come together in a way that clearly highlights the importance and richness of diverse critical perspectives in today’s society. More than a photography book, The Supper Club weighs in on the historical significance of the last few years and the enduring power of art, food, and conversation in our everyday lives.

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Thank you so much to The Agora Culture for extending an invite to us, and we look forward to following this brilliant project.

 

Painting Black Flesh into History

The first thing people do is pull out their phones or their cameras, without actually checking or asking first. So I feel like I’m on display. And it actually cheapens what I’ve been doing  because they’re not getting the real story…

David Ibata is a copyist at the National Gallery of Art. For 4 years he’s been attending the museum’s copyist program in which artists are permitted to illustrate classical works of art within the collection, an occupation not largely filled by Black artists. Museum Visitors are then able to witness as these works are redone. This experience is of course filled with awe of the artistic ability and its likeness to the original work of art, but David’s work is met with curiosity, confusion and contempt.

Exercising artistic license, he began to paint the figures with black flesh tones.

So what was happening was people were complaining to the guards… The security guards are black, they’re just statues. They see a guy like me and they’re like, “thank you.”

As we say in American Studies, “Lets unpack that.” The invisibility of African Americans as staff within the museum is not a new phenomenon, but the conversation is not complete without speaking to the large proportion of African Americans as security or in food services. Statues, that in this scenario, come to life in service to white patrons.

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A conversation over coffee––from art to museums, movies to black culture, gentrification to police brutality––collided into the crux of our discussion: the hyperspecialization of difference. With the coming of the new Smithsonian entity on the horizon, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it is something to consider. Believe you me, I am waiting in excitement for the reveal of what I think will be an amazing contribution to black history and culture. However, we can’t ignore the fact that the need for such dedicated spaces is reconstitution of our place outside of the American story in some sense. It is to exist outside of the realms of “normalcy,” that the prefix “hyper” draws attention. Despite the good work being done to reassert the narratives of minorities, that of Native Indians, LGBTQ, disability and so forth, within these spaces as an appreciation simultaneously reaffirms their locality on the periphery. So when it comes to the work of David Ibata who merely dips his brush and with incredible ability, ‘reimagines’ classical paintings, he often confounds many of the guest. And I am apprehensive to use the term “reimagine” because in some sense he is making black bodies visible  which isn’t an untruth although it’s often accompanied by a suspension of belief. It would be akin to having a black James Bond or the backlash that came with the latest version of “Annie” starring Quvenzhané Wallis. The ways in which black folk, and other marginalized groups, are expected without question to be able to relate to the mainstream, but films with majority black actors and actresses, for example, become niche; ineligible to wider audiences and incapable of relating to broader experiences.

David and I discussed the above image in detail, and I don’t think there is a better scene of what is the simultaneous erasure and disruption that is black skin. David, despite being at the forefront of the photo, is not the focus. And the high contrast of the photo renders him almost invisible. As he marks one of the figures in the painting with black skin, an onlooker, a white female, observes the painting in utter bafflement. Meanwhile, a rendition of the biblical tale of Daniel in the lions den ironically gestures to them both in the background. Never mind that Daniel, a story set in Africa despite how media chooses to depict Egypt (re: the film “Exodus: Gods and Kings”), is unquestionably  illustrated as white. Thankfully, David has been able to have what I like to call “teachable” moments, in which there are people who engage with his work, find inspiration and open themselves up to the possibilities of blackness.

After Eric Gardner died. After Mike Brown Died. I kept thinking to myself how is the museum going to respond to that. Nobody did anything…

Going to art shows was like business as usual. We’re at war right now, so painting the black skin was a way to exorcise the demons.

All of these frustrations, negotiations, and tensions, illuminate through the black flesh tones in David Ibata’s work. Don’t ask why he’s painting them black but begin to wonder why they weren’t there before. Consider what it means to be surrounded by whiteness and then be asked to reconfigure them as they are with so many options to do so. To rarely have the opportunity to paint blackness as royalty and in dignity, and not because they did not exist but that history is told by the winners. That to just imagine them in the narrative is a disruption of time.

There was a moment in the midst of our discussion in which David and I spoke about time-travel, the ways in which art galleries especially beckon us to imagine a different time period. It is a moment I am sure we each have had; to want to time hop to another era just to see what it was like. But our imaginations were halted by the realization of comedian Louis CK’s words.

“Black folk can’t f–– with time.”

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Planting Seeds, Finding Roots

Did you miss me?!…Back from Europe and I have so much on my mind––if only I could tip my head and dump it all out––so I apologize now if this post is longwinded. I made an expedition to Germany for 2 weeks to visit a cousin. The only things on my itinerary: see as many museums as possible and explore my surroundings. The rest would come as my trip unfolded. I started my trip in Frankfurt, Germany, where I would be staying in a wonderful hostel in Frankfurt’s Red Light District (yes, that district).

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The Journey for Regina: Deconstructing the Black Monolith

Meet the ladies of Nkem Life (pronounced en-khem meaning “my” or “my own”), a lifestyle blog that combines the artistry, culture, and intelligence of the Nigerian-American sister duo, Chidinma “Chi-Chi” Dureke and Chuckwunonso “Angel” Dureke. I had the opportunity of meeting them Saturday, June 27th, for their art showcase entitled “The Journey for Regina,” a visual conversation about blackness, culture, Africa and natural hair. The showcase was held in the ethnic apparel boutique Nubian Hueman within the Anacostia Arts Center, a center I plan to enjoy more of in the future.

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