Abstractions of Black Citizenship 2 / Interview with Molly Mac and Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud / Ken Allan

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 #2, a conversation between us and Molly Mac, Galleries Curator, Seattle University, in which we discuss the challenges and opportunities of converting an exhibition to an online presentation.

— 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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Ken Allan (K): Molly, could you describe the role of the Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University and its mission as a campus art space?

Molly Mac (M): Hedreen Gallery is a contemporary art gallery and project space in The Lee Center for the Arts at Seattle University. At the gallery, we intentionally and strategically expand the Department of Art, Art History and Design curriculum and pedagogy, following the leadership of working artists, activists, guest curators, and scholars. We work to connect artists, audiences, and resources in order to create new artworks and generate new research. Seattle University students are part of the paid gallery production team, and work in collaboration with exhibiting artists and curators.

K: How did the shift to an online exhibition change your role as curator, Molly? And for Jasmine, how did this change in format impact your vision for the exhibition?

M: Production management is always a big part of my role as the curator of Hedreen Gallery, and I always think critically about labor, budgets, and timelines as I organize exhibitions. When working with a guest curator, I think about how we can collaborate to engage the Hedreen Gallery platform and community as a way to build support for their project in the long term. From the moment Jasmine agreed to curate Abstractions of Black Citizenship: African American Art from Saint Louis at Hedreen Gallery we knew that this project has a much larger, ongoing vision than one gallery exhibition. With that in mind, the key questions are, what are the resources that our platform can bring to support this work right now? How can we support the artists, the curator, and the gallery team? How can we scale the vision within our resources? We asked these questions when we planned the physical gallery exhibition and then we stopped and asked them all over again when we encountered the tragedies, uncertainties, and restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic. When the gallery closed, our priority was that Jasmine and all the artists involved would be able to continue the momentum of the important work they were already doing together, and also keep all the contracts and payments on the same timeline, without adding unpaid labor. Jasmine and I did a lot of checking in with artists and thought carefully about ways we could adjust timelines, expectations, and logistics. The artists’ experiences were at the center of our decision-making processes as we moved the exhibition programming online.

Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud (J): I so appreciate Molly’s leadership, the questions she asked throughout this process, and our focus on getting the artists paid. Before the pandemic, I was thinking relationally, and was excited about the five artists—Dominic Chambers, Damon Davis, Jen Everett, De Nichols, and Katherine Simóne Reynolds—coming to Seattle. How might I best frame their St. Louis-based work to Seattleites? Who could they meet? Where could they explore? What conversations could they have? In addition to planning our opening artist talk and reception, I had begun to reach out to artists, curators, restaurateurs, arts administrators, and others in the Seattle region who I hoped to deepen conversations sparked by the exhibition. I had also planned an event with both Wa Na Wari, an amazing Black arts space that I mentioned in my introduction for this series and Seattle University’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, to screen Damon Davis’s short film The Stranger.  

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

The Hedreen is narrow space, lined by windows—so full of light but low on wall space. While attending previous exhibitions at the Hedreen, I studied spatial arrangement. In Fall 2019, the Hedreen hosted Creative Justice | Up From the Table; I was so moved by the photographic installations, landline phone installation that included oral histories, and opening wall text with newspaper headlines and centering questions about youth incarceration in King County, WA. In Winter 2019/2020, the Hedreen hosted artist e.t. russian, with DOUBLE CLEAR, a sparse, deeply detailed exhibition with moving image, sculpture, and graphic art. These shows informed how I planned to layout the space. A map of Saint Louis with opening curatorial text would meet those entering the gallery on the moveable wall. Even though the exhibit contained a lot of works, I planned to group works by each artist to make moments of sparsity and concentration. Graphic designer Dev McCauley, then a BA student, proposed exciting marketing posters as well as an innovative unfolding program that evoked the geography of the region and made more space for curatorial language about the art.

As it’s been for everyone, the Covid-19 global pandemic has been horrible for the loss of life and grief it has caused, and much lesser for canceled plans. I was so lucky to work with Molly Mac, who immediately lifted my spirits by brainstorming ways to reimagine this exhibition through virtual engagements.

Curatorially, working online allowed for a few amazing things—especially within the 54 slide online exhibition itself. First, we could show more of Dominic Chambers’s work. Given our budget, we originally could not ship his large scale canvases, and were only planning to show I’ll Be Your Shadow, You Be My Shade, a work on paper. When we shifted online, we were able to add two more of Chambers’s large scale works including Well, Well, Well (Chiffon in Green) from his reading series. Second, working online allowed me to degroup the art by artist, and instead group the exhibition in seven themes—shine, citizenship, growth, beauty, reading & leisure, the sonic, and quietness & interiority—that emerged in conversations with each artist. Third—and I think I went a bit overboard here—using the online exhibition format, I had, in effect, “unlimited space.” My curatorial language not only described works (often framed by scholarship from those including Kelly Chung, Uri McMillan, Amber Musser, Kevin Quashie, Sarah Stefana Smith, and Krista Thompson), but also centered excerpts from my interviews with each artist. Lastly, we sent the artists various drafts of the online exhibition for their feedback and edits.

K: Jasmine, how did the notion of abstraction—and the history of debates around representation and race in the arts—take on a new valence in the context of an online exhibition mounted in the spring of summer of 2020?  What kinds of discussions did you have about the goals of the show or your aim as a curator and educator that inflected the show and its programming?

J: I was nervous to use “abstraction” given its tight association with abstract expressionism. But ‘abstraction’ opened up a generative space to think with the work of these artists as artists, as Black artists, and as St. Louis-based artists. I am in debt to 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”? I am also in debt to Salamishah Tillet and others who rightly show how because Black people have been excluded from normative forms of citizenships, artistic work often becomes the place to articulate Black citizenship.

Also, I have just read Leigh Raiford’s excellent 2020 essay “Burning All Illusion: Abstraction, Black Life, and the Unmaking of White Supremacy” in Art Journal. Raiford offers: “two distinct but interrelated ways that I am thinking about abstraction in relation to the representation of Black life: first as a specifically aesthetic problematic and second as a legal and theoretical category—that is, the concept of abstract personhood.” I am excited to re-read this essay to dig into Raiford’s thoughtful analysis.

I am trained in Performance Studies and Theater Studies, and I’ve been thinking about a parallel between abstraction as a visual art form, and theatrical experimentation (including the “avant-garde”), as two types of aesthetic forms of experimentation that easily get attached to white artists. Theatre artists and scholars of color including Larry Neal and Josephine Lee have written how for minoritized people, even realist representation on stage can be experimental given the context of racism and other oppressive structures. How might a realist or figurative representation (I’m thinking about De Nichols’s showing the quotidian work in Protestimonial, Chambers’s reading series showing a Black person reading in leisure, and Damon Davis’s Negrophilia series) of Black people be an abstraction given the context of so much racist representation of Black people? I sit with this question a lot.

Especially in the current moment, there is so much weight put on Black artists to perform a particular type of anti-racist work, especially for white audiences. There’s an expectation by viewers of Black art to engage or expect that work expresses a particular experience with racism. And this is very racist! As we constantly confront racism, we have to ask—what meanings, burdens, and pressures are we putting on Black people and Black artists?  Vinsom Cunnigham has a great New York Times article asking similar questions, entitled “Can Black Art Ever Escape the Politics of Race?”

We canceled the scheduled Artist Talk event on May 29, a few days after George Floyd was murdered, for many reasons—including because we didn’t want the artists to have to explain racism to (mostly white) audiences. Black people already hold so much, and asking these artists to talk about their work in that moment felt unjust. We’ve kept the cancelation up on the website to mark this; our language included that we remain “committed to honoring the presence, artwork, questioning, imagination and labor of the exhibiting artists.” My continuing question—what are best ways of doing so?

K: The show now has another iteration through a collaboration with University of California-Santa Barbara (find the online exhibition here). How might this form of online circulation be seen not as a substitute for a physical exhibition, but as a mode of generating different modes of collaboration, scholarship or audience engagement that might enhance the staging of the show in an actual space or larger institution in the future?

M: I think that continuing to mount the show on a range of platforms is really exciting. Each institution has its own unique resources and energy to bring to the analysis of the project. Public engagement and public feedback will make the show stronger when it does have the opportunity to become a physical exhibition. Jasmine, can you share an example of how this kind of collaborative feedback loop worked for you during the programs and run of the show on the Hedreen Gallery website? Is there anything you changed (or considered changing) while the show was up?

J: That’s a great question Molly! One example includes our virtual guided tours—I led five of these over the run. In preparation, I attended virtual online guided tours at the Guggenheim in New York and the Henry in Seattle, and I wrote a detailed script. I was well studied and prepared, but my first tour was so bad! I spent so much time contextualizing this work—history of St. Louis, background on the artists, my experience living in St. Louis, genesis for the show—when I finally got to the art it was 30 minutes in! I am thankful for those patient first tour attendees who subtly gave feedback by saying “we want to see the art.”

All other guided tours started directly with art. After attendees entered the Zoom room, we’d look at one work, and I’d aesthetically frame it, give an excerpt from the artist interview, and then ask for audiences responses. I repeated this process centering one work by each artist. I also themed subsequent tours, including the “Juneteenth” tour, where I asked: “what does liberation mean for Black people amidst global anti-black regimes? How might an attention to aesthetic practices emerging from Saint Louis make aesthetic, geographic, and political space for Black presence and citizenship?” The tour centered viewing work through these questions.

A second example includes the Conversations & Closing reception we hosted in late July (video of that event, here). We asked: What did the artists want here? We also knew that we wanted to host a conversation between each artist and scholar (Kemi Adeyemi, Rikki Byrd, Azzurra Cox, Nijah Noel Cunningham, and Rebecca Wanzo) in anticipation of a forthcoming exhibition reader. We held an earlier Zoom with the artists and scholars to generate ideas for the best format, and then encouraged each artist/scholar pair to continue a conversation that framed what attendees watched.

A third example includes regular virtual meetings with the curatorial team, who gave great feedback about the framing of our events and online presence.

K: How did you both gauge the reception of the show and the way it impacted its audience as a virtual experience? What might have been gained or lost in its translation to the online space?

M: Hedreen Gallery generally has large, well-attended public programs and opening receptions. These events are attended by a mix of Seattle University students and faculty, the Seattle art community, the artists’ friends and family, scholars, and people who encounter the events while walking by our large gallery windows on busy 12th Avenue.  (These events are not socially distanced!) The community-building potential of these in-person programs is one of the biggest opportunities of our platform. Rather than trying to replicate this experience, we had to think about the online exhibition as a completely different opportunity to make connections. Jasmine and the gallery team created many points of access: a primary Google slideshow exhibition, five recorded “studio visit” video interviews, reading lists, live exhibition tours on Zoom, a Zoom webinar featuring conversations between artists and scholars, education guides, and a website contextualizing the resources and exhibition didactics. This array of resources allowed the exhibition content to be accessible to many communities and contexts who could not usually attend our in-person public programs. We learned a lot in this process. Some virtual events were very busy, while others were intimate in scale. We also acknowledge that many people have engaged (and continue to engage!) with the exhibition content asynchronously in their own time. Our hope is that the video visits and program recordings continue to be a resource.

J: I so appreciate how Molly frames the virtual space as one that makes specific types of connections. Molly and I are also both educators, continuing to teach online; in teaching, I think about Zoom as a specific type of classroom that allows for specific types of learning. Similarly, I thought of our array of engagements—including the asynchronous online exhibition and studio visit videos, and synchronous guided tours and opening and closing events—as specific spaces that allowed for specific types of engagements.

Molly thoughtfully shepherded how we best frame these engagements. For the online exhibition, she motivated me to write an opening statement to guide how the viewer views online: “Within this online exhibition, there are 54 frames with seven themes, as well as introductory and concluding slides. To fully engage content, aim for at least 25 minutes. You are also welcome to engage within the time that you have available in various ways, such as by theme. For optional engagement, press on the square button at the bottom of the frame to initiate full screen view.” For the Conversation & Closing, we hosted this specifically as a webinar so that the audience could focus on the conversations, and to prevent any racist or unwanted spamming.

Lost in the transition to online space were presence, scale, and texture. As I said earlier, I was so excited about connecting the artists and the Seattle arts community—what comes from engaging their works in person, or dinner or a walk? I was so excited to view this work in person: to put on headphones to listen and watch De Nichols’s Protestimonial, to observe the textures of Katherine Simóne Reynolds’s keloid sculptures and audio artifacts in Jen Everett’s sculptural work Unheard Sounds/Come Through, to actually see the reflection in Dominic Chambers’s Ill Be Your Shadow, You Be My Shade, and to get lost in the detail of works from Damon Davis’s Nephrophilia series. In this loss, I thought about how curatorial language might deepen engagement.

K: The studio visit interviews are engaging—could you talk about how you and Jasmine felt those enhanced the experience of the show or what your aim was with developing those short videos?

M: Initially, all the exhibiting artists were planning to come to visit Seattle University through the generous support of the Pigott Family Endowment for the Arts. This endowment provides triennial funding for SU Art, Art History, and Design students to engage with professional artists from outside the region. Due to COVID restrictions, we could not host this visit, or the in-person programming as we had planned, and this loss was one of the more significant challenges of reframing and reorganizing the show. In moving forward we carefully considered the time and labor of artists in the context of the pandemic. It was very important to us not to add labor in such an uncertain and challenging time. We wanted to create the studio visit videos that would serve the artists, act as an extension of the exhibition focus, and reflect Jasmine’s research methodology. We hoped to make space for the kind of balance that an in-person studio visit or campus visit provides, reflecting both formal and informal ways of sharing ideas and work.

The studio visit videos followed a simple production structure that our very small, remote gallery team could do in the context of the pandemic. Each artist received the same set of questions and filmed video responses to each question. Dev McCauley, a paid SU student designer who had been working on the graphic design and style guide for the exhibition materials for months, created a series of text cards that we used in each video to reflect the questions that frame the exhibition context. I worked with Jasmine and each artist to edit the clips where necessary, but for the most part, it was a straightforward edit to combine these files and add images of works in the exhibition as stills when they were discussed. Once we posted the videos, they became a way for SU students and online gallery viewers to “meet” the artists. The videos could be easily embedded in Seattle University Canvas courses and linked on a range of remote learning formats.

One great effect of these videos is that students and online gallery viewers could join our Zoom public programs already very well-informed about the artists work and practices, rather than using the public program as an introduction.

J: Hearing each artist’s voice was the best part of these videos! Molly led this effort brilliantly, thinking in a focused way how we could make well-produced, meaningful videos within such a short time frame. We came up with five questions, and asked each artist to record responses to each one as a video clip, that Molly later edited together into each “visit” video. The questions included: introducing themselves, discussing their body of work, walking through the story behind the work they exhibit in this show, and talking about their relationship with St. Louis and with the concept of “abstraction.”

Tied into our educational programming, we had an optional sixth question, “If you gave an educational assignment based on your style of work, what would it be?” I encourage folks to view the videos for the thoughtful responses to these questions!

K: How has your understanding of the artists’ work or the framing themes of the show changed as you look back now from the perspective of a world that is even more transformed by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing “racial reckoning” occurring in the U.S. today?

M: I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Jasmine Mahmoud on this project. She led many new curatorial programming initiatives with this project and truly modeled what responsive and accountable curating practice can look like. I don’t think the framing of the exhibition themes—the “why” of the show—necessarily changed, but the “how” of the show transformed many times over the run of the exhibition, first as she learned more about the context of COVID-19 and the logistics of the move to online arts engagement, but more importantly as she adapted the programming, presence, and promotions to respond to the calls to direct action following the murder of George Floyd.

J: Magnetism anchored how I curated this show. I am magnetically drawn to St. Louis as a geographic region that is complex, and humble, and arts-filled. I am magnetically drawn to each of these artists and their works. Damon Davis’s site specific work (including All Hands on Deck, Hands Up, and The Wailing Wall) was a central reason why I moved to St. Louis. De Nichols’s deeply political work—and all well-designed work—orients us to document what is and imagine more liberatory futures. Jen Everett’s mesmerizing, iterative photographs force us to look at Black faces, people, families, and homes with attention and withholding. Kat’s bold, multi-genre work asks profound questions about beauty and home. The embrace in Dominic Chambers’s I’ll Be Your Shadow held me as a viewer.

The global pandemic allowed for retooling and reflection. Practically, I had more time to talk with the artists, and to research and write curatorial language. With this time, I began to see the artists more through their intricate processes. Damon Davis is a transdisciplinary artist who tells stories through collage, sculpture, film, music, children’s books, and so many other forms. Before we switched to online programming, I actually had De Nichols’s Black Notes mailed to my home. So I sat with the materiality of her work, and thought of her inscription of Black feelings and thoughts on paper. Through Jen Everett, I have learned so much connecting private Black homelife (interiors) to Black interiority. Kat’s processes—cutting foam core in the shape of keloids, making molasses face masks—are playful, daring, and critical. From Dominic, I’ve so learned much about where we place Black people imaginatively—often in reading, leisure, non-urban spaces, and behind veils—as an aesthetic and political act.

The racial reckoning of last spring/summer was not new. As much as I am heartened by amazing anti-racist activism that it sparked and continued, I also witnessed so much “activism” that used and discarded Black people. Those latter actions broke my heart, and made me dig into more of how we might best respect these artists. How can we (and this is due to Molly’s amazing work) pay them even more? How can we curate their work in a way that centers their questions, processes, and aesthetics—things they want to discuss, and decenters how (often white) audiences put expectations on their work to perform a surface-level anti-racist labor? How are we listening to them—via online platforms—at a time when the world continues to change so much?

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This is one of four posts from Abstractions of Black Citizenship. Read the other posts here:

Post #1: Online Curating During 2020, by Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud