Abstractions of Black Citizenship 1 / Online Curating During 2020 / Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud

This series for “Thinking With” centers around the online exhibition Abstractions of Black Citizenship: African American Art from Saint Louis curated by Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud and produced by Molly Mac. In a series of short essays and interviews, Mahmoud, Mac and student members of the exhibition team will reflect on how to do the work of curating, educating and art making amidst the COVID-19 crisis and ongoing racist regimes. Originally designed for the space of the Hedreen Gallery at the Lee Center for the Arts, Seattle University, the exhibit went virtual in May 2020.

Thanks to Terrance Wooten, faculty at University of California at Santa Barbara, Abstractions of Black Citizenship will again open online on Thursday, February 11, 2021 via the UCSB Multicultural Center. This series will be published over the second online run of the exhibition during February-March 2021, and as you read the essays and conversations, we encourage you to also view the online exhibition. Click here to view the exhibition. 

Below is post #1, in which Jasmine introduces Abstractions of Black Citizenship and the challenges of online curating.

— Ken D. Allan, Art History, Seattle University, and Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud, curator of Abstractions of Black Citizenship: African American Art from Saint Louis

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Around this time a year ago, I scheduled interviews with five Black artists based in the St. Louis region. Here are some excerpts I hold dearly:

“I was thinking a lot about the spaces and homes, rooms that Black people inhabit — private spaces where people feel comfortable and kind of just free. That’s what I’m trying to get at in the sculptural work: the idea of an interior space, even though I’m presenting it in a public way. A place where you feel unencumbered by this idea of representation or having to perform.” This Jen Everett told me about her sculptural work in Unheard Sounds/Come Through, in which she arranges collected objects such as records and speakers to reconceptualize private interior home spaces, and make space for Black interiority.

A designer and social entrepreneur, De Nichols makes civically engaged work that archives personal and political moments through text, movement, and geography. Of her work Protestimonial, a video installation that centers the protests in Ferguson, MO in 2014, Nichols told me “activating our citizenship as Black people and doing it within our blackness is one of the biggest conflicts in our nation, that we still have not yet been fully accepted as citizens. There haven’t been many moments where we’ve been able to have citizenship without our blackness being contested. […] There’s a lot that is represented in Protestimonial, in terms in these moments of protest, and hearing for myself how citizenship, how Blackness, can really come together beautifully in the ways that our mainstream media will not tell and will not show.”

“How I tell my story, how I put the story together is solely up to me. I found the most power and freedom in how I abstract the stories that I tell and what level of abstraction I use.” This, Damon Davis said in our conservation about his work as the post-interdisciplinary artists who engages visual art, music, film, and made the children’s graphic novel The Bull, The Boar, The Wasp, and the Ant.

With Dominic Chambers, who now makes large scale paintings and drawing, we spoke about his earliest process working on paper, a material that is inexpensive and easy to find. He told me how he “initially [made] works on paper of young Black boys who could embrace their imagination, and in doing so they could be transported to other worlds, whether flower-filled or traditional landscapes where these supernatural beings could be there to acknowledge them. It’s about embracing the Black imagination in one sense.”

“I was thinking of a kind of beauty supply store, and I started seeing these edge growth creams. […] I started thinking about keloids and over-healing of highly melanated skin. So that was something that was interesting to me in relationship to Saint Louis and after the Ferguson protests and just in general. […] It’s like the whole city of Saint Louis just constantly needing to heal. I am intentionally not saying “post Ferguson” because saying “post” takes away the continuity of the reopening of the wound. So there’s this over-healing or even lack of sensitivity […] because sometimes with keloids, things can be hyper-sensitive as well as lack a sensitivity within the skin.” This, Katherine Simóne Reynolds said about her, at the time, new sculptural work inspired by the keloid and the keloidial landscape, and the meanings that type of growth animates.

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These interviews foregrounded the 2020 exhibition I curated, Abstractions of Black Citizenship: African American Art from Saint Louis. The group exhibition presented painting, photography, mixed-media, works on paper, sculpture, music, and video by these artists—Dominic Chambers, Damon Davis, Jen Everett, De Nichols, and Katherine Simóne Reynolds. The exhibition would have opened on April 2, 2020 at Hedreen Gallery, an experimental venue run by Molly Mac on Seattle University’s campus. A month prior, plane tickets and hotel rooms had been purchased, art had been shipped to Seattle, and I was collaboratively finalizing the exhibition’s floorplan and wall text—including excerpts from these interviews.

Hedreen Gallery/Lee Center for the Arts, Seattle University, view of interior, COLLAPSE: Recent Works by Dewey Crumpler, guest curated by Sampada Aranke, showing ArtSideOut student club event

But with the Covid-19 global pandemic, we had to quickly readjust. To what—at the time—was largely unknown. With an amazing team of collaborators—including the brilliant artists; Molly Mac, Seattle University students and alumni who worked as curatorial, education, and design associates Anna Iwasaki, Meilani Mandery, Ashley Marshall, Dev McCauley, and Ellen McGivern—we were able to reimagine and produce another version to accommodate social distancing.

The result included an online exhibition which ran May 18 to August 2, 2020; studio visit videos produced by Mac featuring each artist; a series of virtual events on Zoom including topical guided tours, an opening reception, a closing conversation with artists in conversation with scholars Kemi Adeyemi, Rikki Byrd, Azzurra Cox, Nijah Noel Cunningham, and Rebecca Wanzo; and education guides produced by Mandery, Marshall, and McGivern.

Curating Abstractions—an exhibition that centers Black artists—during what’s being called the twin pandemics of Covid-19 and systemic racism asked us to reflect on what it means to profoundly shift how art is engaged in such a short time, and during so much crisis. What does it mean to engage this work on virtual slideshows and videos, and in Zoom rooms?

In what follows in this essay, I foreground St. Louis, my curatorial practice, abstraction, and the important work of these artists.

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Saint Louis is a U.S. city (population 308,000) and multi-state region across Missouri and Illinois (population 2.8 million) often publicly marked by racism: by racially restrictive covenants that began in the 1910s, redlining that began in the 1930s, urban renewal/Black removal policies, and 21st century anti-Black regimes including policing and siphoning of school and municipal funding. Before the Civil War, Missouri was the northernmost slave state, and the state where Dred Scott, the enslaved man who sued his owners for his and his family’s freedom, lived; when his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Taney, writing for the majority, included that black people could never be U.S. citizens because they were of “an inferior order.” More recently, St. Louis residents often talk of the “Delmar Divide,” about the avenue that cuts the city horizontality dividing North St. Louis, which is 98% black, from the city’s southern part which is 60% white and has much higher property values.

When I think about Saint Louis, I think of this history and present, but I also remember the city as a place my parents first met in 1970; the parks I frequently walked through including Forest Park and Tower Grove Park; the massive, rushing Mississippi River that edges the city’s eastern border; the nearby Arch that glistens in the sun and marks downtown; so much great BBQ, craft beer and Chambourcin wine (Missouri was the first major wine producing state in the U.S.!); the black-owned weekly St. Louis American whose reporting captures Black cultural life; and the people: many of whom are kind, humble, and endlessly creative.

As a mid-South city, St. Louis is horribly underrepresented in art discourses—baffling given its history and presence. A century ago, St. Louis was the sixth most populous U.S. city. Today, the city has the second most free cultural institutions per capita behind Washington, D.C, supported in part by municipal policy passed in the 1970s. This made—for me—a liberating embodied experience of freely engaging art across the city. When I lived in St. Louis, I frequently entered—sometimes briefly, for 20 minutes at a time—arts and cultural institutions without being asked to pay an admission fee.  And with the under-the-radar position that St. Louis holds nationally, curatorial practices often made space for diversity of excellent, boundary-breaking, and thoughtful artwork.

At the St. Louis Art Museum, I engaged Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis (2019), the artist’s momentous portraiture exhibit featuring dozens of St. Louisans; through his radiating use of color I felt redemptively drenched in light, and in their stories. At the Griot Museum of Black History & Culture, founded by Lois Conley, I heard black St. Louisians speak about their experiences of being displaced due to municipal policy at an event for the 2017 exhibition Eminent/Domain Displaced. At the Pulitzer Art Museum, I experienced Glenn Ligon’s curation of Blue Black (2017), ruminating on those colors, as well as questions of identity. Next door at the Contemporary Art Museum, I viewed Amy Sherald’s pastel portraits of black people immersed in their landscapes, film collages by Mickalene Thomas, city-themed work by Glenn Ligon, Mark Bradford, and Maya Stovall as part of the 2017 Urban Planning exhibition, and colorful cloth-based sculptures by Ghanian-American, St. Louis-based artist Addoley Dzegede at CAM’s “Great Rivers Biennial” in 2018. In addition to these institutions, myriad galleries supported innovative art exhibitions including project+gallery, and The Luminary where I attended an opening for Damon Davis’s Darker Gods in the Garden of Low-Hanging Heavens.

When I think of Saint Louis, I think most deeply about the region’s Black artists many of whom reflect and reimagine the region in their work. I’m not from Saint Louis (I’m from southern California), but these artists brought me to the city. In 2015, I had come across Damon Davis’s work, including lawn sculptures Hands Up and wheat paste powers All Hands on Deck, and was so floored by his thoughtfulness and imagination that when I was offered a chance to move to St. Louis for work in 2016, I jumped on the chance. I choose my neighborhood because of another Black artist: Dexter Silvers. When visiting apartments, I came across him perched along Manchester Ave with a canvas and brush, painting the sunny, vibrant day: the brick buildings, the people, the cars, and the city. When I taught at Washington University in St. Louis, I was honored to learn from Black artists including De Nichols, who guest lectured in one of my courses, and whose gallery openings I attended. Immersing myself in Black art—at galleries, museum exhibitions, talks, and events—expanded the questions I asked.

For Abstractions, those questions included: how do Black aesthetic practices emerging from that region abstract civic structures? How might an attention to abstraction make aesthetic, geographic, and political space for Black presence and citizenship? My curatorial approach roots itself in questions—for myself, for artists, and for audiences. I’m highly influenced by Faye Gleisser, a curator, art historian, and professor at Indiana University, who has described to me her curatorial approach as “question-based” with goals of unlearning.

Critical ethnography deeply roots my curatorial approach. This method—often associated with Anthropology, Sociology, and my field Performance Studies—seeks to ethically study the world of specific people and their culture through observation, interview, and participation. I was trained as a doctoral student at Northwestern University under scholars including D. Soyini Madison (who wrote Critical Ethnography); at WashU in St. Louis, I taught courses including “Urban Ethnography in St. Louis.” I started this essay with interview excerpts, and interviewing each artist (sometimes multiple times) was central in curating this exhibition. Many of these are woven through the curatorial text as a means of asking viewers this important guiding question: how might we understand art both aesthetically and ethnographically?

Molly Mac, the Seattle University Galleries Curator, deeply supported this exhibition. After conversations with her in 2019—where I gushed about these artists—Molly invited me to guest curate at the Hedreen Gallery. In addition to supporting my curatorial framework, she provided guidance on spatial design, budget, shipping, and other administrative details, and later on virtual exhibition design, as well as how to best support our team of university students. Mac is incredibly thoughtful, whimsical, topical, and collaborative, curating shows at the Hedreen Gallery including Favorite’s Favorite’s Favorite where she selected a favorite artist to select their favorite artist, to then in turn select their favorite, and all to display work. As a curator, Mac was part of The Alice, a feminist art collective in Seattle (that sadly shuttered in 2019), where daring experimentation reigned. Among other curators at that space, I count Thea Quiray Tagle—a feminist queer Filipinx curator who centers socially-engaged, future-oriented art as part of her practice—as an influence.

Also deeply influential in my curatorial practice are Yaelle S. Amir, Elisheba Johnson, and Ashley Stull Myers. In 2019, I visited the Portland Biennial, which they curated and which I wrote about for this publication doubly—including a review and interview. Johnson is an artist and arts administrator who I’ve known since 2008, when she owned and ran Faire Gallery & Cafe, an interdisciplinary arts space in Seattle. In 2019, she cofounded Wa Na Wari, a black arts space housed in a former home, and describes her curatorial approach as storytelling. In our interview, Stull described listening as central to her curation, and Amir described centering artists (not just work) and attention to geography.

Lastly, for the production of this exhibition, each artist’s practice was deeply influential in my approach. After initial conversations with each of them, I changed the theme to center abstractions and citizenship, given the range of each artist’s work and interests. Some included interiority (Jen Everett), citizenship (De Nichols), growth (Katherine Simóne Reynolds), reading and imagination (Dominic Chambers), and storytelling (Damon Davis). Centering their voices, themes, and art work ultimately led how I curated this show.

Curatorially, Abstractions of Black Citizenship also critically follows a host of exhibitions over the past decade that centered questions of Blackness (racially, politically, and aesthetically) through abstraction.1 Collectively these exhibitions ask the question prompted by the Blackness in Abstraction curator Adrienne Edwards, who wrote, “In response to the demands placed on Black artists for social content in their art I put forward Blackness in abstraction,” to ask “how [do] artists negotiate and exhaust the paradigm of Black representation in visual art”? In those abstracted aesthetics that “negotiate and exhaust… Black representation” (Edwards), the work of these artists—as cultural historian Salamishah Tillet has suggested—provides a central place to conceptualize and articulate what Black citizenship might be, especially amidst regimes of anti-Black racism. Also pivotal: art historian Faye Gleisser’s thinking on how abstraction deeply entwines with, and aesthetically juxtaposes, figuration, as abstraction is “the form that has accrued its own associative ‘look’”; and “has a complex relationship with figuration, since every portrait, is a translation.”

Thus abstraction as a concept centers ideas; as an aesthetic practice abstraction decenters representation, and often indexes abstract expressionism, the post-WWII aesthetic movement marked by non-figurative paintings which were often attached to white male artists working in New York City. Thus abstraction has never been purely aesthetic, but rather always also political, racial, temporal, and geographic. In a March 2020 New York Times feature on 21st century black art, Kenya Barris, the TV writer and producer said “I find that abstract art is something black people don’t really get to do. We’re not given the opportunity to do black art that way.” This exhibition reconsiders abstraction so, as something black people get to do—as an aesthetic form, but also as a geographic and temporal form emerging from the early 21st century Saint Louis MO/IL region, and doing so amidst endless anti-Black political regimes therein.

Thus, this exhibition—even as some works in it are figurative—asks: how do these artists use dimensions of abstraction to imagine within and beyond the raced, political, economic, and geographic structures posed by Saint Louis? The answer is found in the thematic, as the virtual exhibition is organized into seven themes—shine, citizenship, growth, beauty, reading & leisure, the sonic, and quietness & interiority. It is also found in each work’s materiality, and in centering the artists’ voices and ideas, alongside the aesthetics of their works.

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Endnotes

  1. These include Blackness in Abstraction curated by Adrienne Edwards (2016, Pace Gallery, New York, NY); Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction curated by Erin Dziedzic and Melissa Messina (2017, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO); Blue Black curated by Glenn Ligon (2017, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Saint Louis, MO); Out of Easy Reach curated by Allison Glenn (2018, various locations, Chicago, IL); Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art curated by Christopher Bedford and Katy Siegel (2019-2020, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD); and The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection curated by Gretchen L .Wagner and Alexis Assam (2019-2020, Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, MO).