Sadie Barnette’s Do Not Destroy solo show opened last week at Baxter St to a roaring reception. It’s not every day that you get to see a gallery show that features the classified FBI documents of an ex-Black Panther Party member. That Panther is Rodney Barnette, who founded the Compton, California, chapter of the Black Panther Party of Self Defense in 1968. The centerpiece of Barnette’s show is undoubtedly the wall filled with copies of her father’s surveillance files, embellished in the artist’s signature “graffiti” and faux jewel treatment.
Barnette’s show features minimal photography. Opposite the wall of FBI files stands two seemingly life-sized portraits of a young Rodney Barnette that his daughter/the artist has rephotographed. On the left we see him smiling in his US military uniform. In opposition, to the right is Barnette captured in harsh flash donning a black beret, t-shirt and leather jacket; his dark shadow looms large behind him as he looks off camera. This photograph of Rodney is untitled, and yet we need no explanation that this is a changed man, reincarnated as a BPP member.
In the juxtaposition of these two portraits, the viewer contends with the use of photography as a witness to Rodney’s shifting identities and ultimately the medium’s political power. Without going into the internal politics and covert government action that caused the party to disband, I’d like to briefly discuss what art critic John Berger considered to be “the crucial role of photography in ideological struggle” and the Black Panther Party’s strategic use of photography (and posing) in crafting their own brand of Black anti-fascism.
Many B&W photographs exist of the high profile BPP leaders. Both male and female members are pictured in socio-political context: raising fists, encouraging crowds, marching in demonstrations, standing in formation, working at their headquarters, being interviewed by and addressing the press, conversing critically with each other, meeting other political leaders, performing community service or even just relaxing at home.
Then we see the isolated figure: numerous solo portraits of Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. This image of the lone revolutionary becomes ubiquitous just a few years earlier with Cuba’s Che Guevara and the Black Panthers utilize their portraits on paraphernalia like flyers, buttons, posters, t-shirts, publications. Sometimes these solo portraits were used to vilify the Panthers, like in the wanted poster below of Angela Davis. (Side note: you can view this poster in person at the ICP Collections at Mana Contemporary in NJ. It’s quite an amazing experience!)
The Black Panther Party’s visual message also conveyed their unique style and sex appeal, both aspects of the party’s identity that no doubt helped with recruitment efforts. Jet black leather jackets, Ray Bans, berets, perfectly coiffed afros merged effortlessly with the sleek profiles of .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols to create an impressionable representation of Black power.
Both Kathleen Cleaver (BPP communications secretary and wife of Eldridge) and co-founder Huey Newton became the party’s default sex symbols. Newton was pictured exhibiting his bare-chested, muscle-toned physique both at home and when he was freed from prison in 1970. Bingham’s images of Cleaver portray her as a thing of beauty though she may not have intended this to be her role. Yet Cleaver did play with fashion by often sporting a large afro, hoop earrings and the radical above-the-knee length skirt style thus creating a new revolutionary aesthetic in clothing for (Black) American women. The Black Panther style was even appropriated in advertising as seen in this vintage ad for Newport cigarettes.
Not only did the Black Panther Party provide political power for many Black Americans, but they also affirmed the notion of family. This familial bond was forged mainly through offering life-sustaining services like free breakfast programs and community schools operated in cities like Oakland, CA. So not only do we see Panthers providing children with nutrition and education, but we also see children in attendance at rallies and marches. Of course, the most famous BPP child was Tupac Shakur, son of party member Afeni Shakur.
Knowing that the photographic image is only as empathetic as the photographer behind the lens, the BPP leaders were strategic in appointing Stephen Shames as the party’s official photographer. In another move to control their image, Muhammad Ali’s personal photographer Howard Bingham was contracted for six months to shoot a 1968 cover story for LIFE magazine upon the insistence of party leader Eldridge Cleaver.
Despite the negative reports and judgements about who they were, the Black Panther Party members were in full control of their own image as surely they knew their supporters and haters around the world were watching. The BPP’s strong message spread overseas in areas where other Black communities were struggling for their own civil rights, inspiring regional groups like the British Black Panthers – see the work of Neil Kenlock. In this time post-US election where many are preparing for struggle once again, we are fortunate to be able to reflect on these images.
For additional viewing, I’ve created a Black Panther Party Photography board on Pinterest. Also, the Smithsonian Institute has an excellent BPP archive of black & white, documentary photographs from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Sadie Barnette’s Do Not Destroy, curated by Alexandra Giniger, is on view at Baxter St now through February 18, 2017.
Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: The Black Female Self in Landscape, Forthcoming Photbooks by African American and Black African Photographers and In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes.
Earlier this month, noted art critic John Berger passed away. His death immediately sparked ripples of mentions throughout photography and art communities online. Though his writings may have been eclipsed by the more-celebrated musings of Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Berger’s observations on the propagation of the photographic medium are nonetheless as crucial and still relevant today.
When I heard of his passing, I immediately looked for my copy of About Looking (Pantheon Books, 1980) which I happened to find years ago amongst a pile of books left on the street. The book is a collection of essays by Berger written over ten years which were all previously published in New Society magazine and The Guardian UK newspaper. About Looking not only discusses the act of looking at photographs, it is “a fascinating record of the search for meaning within and behind what’s looked at.”
Berger’s most direct critique of our lens-based medium is an essay titled Uses of Photography, in which he writes down “some of my responses to Sontag’s 1977 book On Photography.” Without publishing the entire essay, below I’ve highlighted select quotes that introduce and elaborate on Berger’s idea of “an alternative photography” to counteract the medium’s nefarious functions and realize it’s altruistic possibilities.
WARNING: The following quotes contain radical (or what could be considered socialist) views on photography’s historical role in modern, Western society. Proceed with a decolonized mind.
“The speed with which the possible uses of photography were seized upon is surely an indication of photography’s profound, central applicability to capitalism. Marx came of age the year of the camera’s invention.”
“Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearances.”
“A mechanical device, the camera has been used as an instrument to contribute to a living memory. The photograph is a memento from a life being lived.”
“Has the camera replaced the eye of God? The decline of religion corresponds with the rise of the photograph.”
“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.”
Upon (re)reading this quote I immediately recalled photographer/ethnologist Edward Curtis who made it his mission to document the North American native population because of his imperialist belief that they were “a vanishing race.”
“… the current systematic public use of photography needs to be challenged, not simply by turning round like a cannon and aiming it at different targets, but by changing its practice. How?”
“The truth is that most photographs taken of people are about suffering, and most of that suffering is man-made.”
Certainly this quote speaks to the historical and systematic utilization of ethnographic photography of native and indigenous populations around the world. In our globalized era, suffering is injected into (public and private) visual culture through images of war and illicit pornography which is a byproduct of modern slavery or human trafficking.
“It is possible that photography is the prophecy of a human memory yet to be socially and politically achieved.“
“The task of an alternative photography is to incorporate photography into social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of any such memory.”
“The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images.”
Next Berger argues that photographs are typically used in a “unilinear way… to illustrate an argument, or to demonstrate a thought…” Consider the way a forensic photographer records the initial appearance of a crime scene as the first encounter and experience it through their subjective perspective. Berger also cites a photograph’s more common, tautological use so that it only “repeats what is being said in words.”
Although Berger argues that memory is not linear and works radially, with an “enormous number of associations all leading to the same event.” This radial pattern of memory is compared by Berger as being like the spoke of a wheel, which is a bit simplistic with just a single radiating plane. In my opinion, memory’s radial pattern has multiple (perhaps intersecting) planes and instead mimics the fractal-like, radiating pattern of a dandelion seed head.
“If we want to put a photograph back into the context of experience, social experience, social memory, we have to respect the laws of memory. We have to situate the printed photograph so that it acquires something of the surprising conclusiveness of that which was and is.”
“A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.”
I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this profound “radial system” and ways in which it can be used in storytelling and to display photographs in physical locations (galleries, public sites, etc.) More importantly I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps Berger was signaling our use of the #hashtag as a descriptor and curator of images on social media.
Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther Party and The Black Female Self in Landscape.
A recurring theme within contemporary art photography has been the imperative to address the biased or unavailable historical representation of the Black, female body. Since the 1990s’ artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Renee Cox, Xaviera Simmons and now Nona Faustine, have used photography to recognize Black womanhood in all its unattested complexities. In the photographs shown below, each artist has settled their melanated bodies within their landscape of choice – sites that have witnessed unspeakable violence, marooned existences and/or enlightened encounters.
Arguably the most prolific in her use of self-portraits within landscape, Carrie Mae Weems’ elegant figure has crossed the lens of several different bodies of work starting with her 2001 Dreaming in Cuba series. Unlike the other artists discussed, Weems more often than not stands in opposition to the lens, as if leading a group behind her. Exaggerated by robes or gowns, Weems’ figure floats into the frame, inserting the Black, female body into spaces from which its presence was forgotten or previously denied entry.
Launching her art career after a two-year pilgrimage retracing the TransAtlantic slave trade with Buddhist monks, Xaviera Simmons’s concern with wilderness explores spirituality in art. In previous works, Xaviera has used photography to create (self) portraits in both constructed and natural environments that question African-American identities and their relationships to those settings.
Although all of these artist perform for the camera, Renee Cox’s work is most dramatic in its telling of the stories of Black female figures like Queen Nanny, the only female national hero of Jamaica. Taking advantage of the physical strength expressed by her own, muscular body, Cox is concerned with self liberation and challenging the predetermined roles imposed on Black women.
Continuing this photographic tradition, Faustine’s work brilliantly hits at the intersection of two major socio-political conversations of the 21st century: the #BlackLivesMatter and body size acceptance movements. Standing on sacred, scarred or political North American spaces, Faustine’s self-portraits ultimately function as archaeological documentation. In its robust form and stoic posture, her body is a blatant reminder of chattel slavery yet also channels (art) historical representations of the feminine – from fertility goddesses/Venus figures to ancient Egyptian statuettes.
Faustine’s use of poetic captions with each photograph is particularly unique as she educates the viewer of what lies beneath these commonplace landmarks and tourist attractions. As commentary on issues that haunt our past and present realities, the images in White Shoes and in Faustine’s follow up exhibition at Baxter St are timeless, visualizing the cycle of (our country’s) birth, (economic) growth, death and rebirth.
Nona Faustine’s solo exhibition, My Country, closes this week at Baxter St. You can also see her talk at the Brooklyn Museum this Saturday, January 14th.
Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther Party, The Black Female Self in Landscape and In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes.
Andrea Wolf is an interdisciplinary artist interested in how images accrue meaning culturally. Her project Weather Has Been Nice uses algorithms to decompose images taken from mailed postcards.
Martha Naranjo Sandoval
We’re going to talk about a couple things, but let’s begin with Weather Has Been Nice. How did you start this project?
About three years ago I discovered an open source pixel-sorting sketch and processing by Kim Asendorf, but it was only for still images. I liked how the pixels shifted, distorting the original image and also endowing it with movement. I was also curating a show for Miami Basel that focused on landscape and technology. Those two things started to merge, and I thought it was a very interesting way to explore landscape by decomposing it. Memory is a very important aspect of my work. I already had a few postcards, but I wasn’t into collecting them yet. Then things just started to click. I had the idea of working with landscapes and I had these postcards that show idealized scenarios which connects with the discourse of tourism and the question of what you are supposed to remember. Decomposing these images shows that landscape as memory is not only something outside ourselves, but also a construction. It’s a personal construct and a social construct.
I was thinking about all that needs to happen to these postcards before they arrive to you. The photo been taken, the postcard been designed and printed, then been bought and written on and sent. Then someone else receiving it and then discarding it, and then you finding it and scanning it and turning it into something else.
In general I like working with found footage and appropriation. I share that feeling about the story of these objects. Things that are so personal end up in flea markets or junk shops. I’ve always thought it would be very interesting to document the history of even just one postcard. But that’s another project entirely.
I decided to work only with written and mailed postcards. When I began collecting postcards, I needed a restriction; a criteria of selection. There might be aesthetic criteria too, they had to be in color, and I was specifically looking for landscapes because I was trying to explore them visually. Then the fact that they had been written and mailed became really interesting. I’m fascinated with the social and the personal; the relationship between personal memory and cultural practices of remembrance. I had to consider how to make this more evident in the pieces themselves, But I didn’t want it to be something very explicit. Finally I came up with the idea of inviting different sound artists and sound poets to create soundscapes with those texts.
This project has gone through several iterations. Every time you show it, you want to bring something else to the table. It’s not a closed project; it feels like an evolution. How did you decide to be so open?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. The media I work with lends itself to this kind of progression. Also, making one piece requires so much work and production, and after I show it I start to think about what else I could do, or what I could do differently.
I’m comfortable thinking of my work like an open-ended series. It’s more complicated in terms of a commercial point and determining how to sell the work, but by showing different versions you also see it grow progressively.
I think the installation for Weather Has Been Nice, as it was presented at NEW INC’s Showcase at the New Museum and then at Sala de Arte CCU in Chile is at its peak. Those where large-scale installation but now I’m thinking of producing smaller, individual pieces for each postcard,
I have a show coming out next year in a gallery in Chile that is a different context for showing this project. I have the idea of making individual pieces for each postcard, and then also the idea of making prints and flipbooks. There are so many things that I can do, particularly with this project. If I continue finding more postcards and scanning them, why would I limit it? Why would I say “No, it’s done”? No one is telling me it has to be done. If there’s a point where I feel like I have to move on, I will.
I work mostly in photography, and I can keep going because it’s my family and my family keeps growing. But it’s nice to hear you talk about a different kind of process and still being open-ended because in the end, everything you do is part of your practice.
It’s open-ended, but it’s also limited. You establish some rules or some common practices for a specific work or series to develop. It’s not that suddenly I’m bringing in portrait postcards. It has a line. It has a path. I’m sure it’s the same with your photography practice.
You trace borders and frontiers, and some of them you can push, which is also interesting. Some of the most interesting things in the work happen by mistake –for example, I might be projecting something and I see the reflection on the floor and I wasn’t looking for that, but it looks great and maybe that is the thing.
I think it’s a disservice to you and your work and your practice to limit yourself. On the other hand, it’s important to work within certain ethics and logic and specifications for each project.
What I really like about this project is that we usually think of moving image as the progression of different images, twenty-four images per second. What happens in Weather has been Nice is not that, but it’s still moving image. It blew my mind when I realized that instead of being a video in the common sense it was an algorithm that in real time was affecting a still image. I like how it subverts what moving-image can be.
When I started, I wasn’t aware that I was subverting what we understand as moving image. I was interested in unraveling or unfolding an image. I was reading a really cool book by Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking on An Empty House. It’s essays and his writings. It’s kind of like an artist’s sketchbook.
One of the essays resonated a lot with me. It was about how HD image has prompted this obsession with being very realistic, with high fidelity and getting sharper and sharper, and at the end of the day that’s not necessarily the most real image. If you only give image the value of a mimetic representation, then maybe it is, but what does an image really is when you think about the real image?
An in this essay he writes, “to search for the image that is not an image, not a realistic rendering, but an artifact. ” That resonated and stuck with me. In many ways that’s what I think about memory and that’s what I think about the images of ourselves and of the world that we put out there, so I just wanted to question our methods of representation and the value we bestow on images. I mean, this is a super real image of a landscape when it’s kind of unfolding before your eyes. Also, we have this need to create logic out of what we see, even if it becomes very abstract and with geometrical shapes, a lot of people still see a landscape in the abstracted version of the first initial image.
I also wanted to talk a little about REVERSE and how it influenced your practice to be in charge of this huge project for so many years. [REVERSE is a non-profit artist-run organization dedicated to expand the conversation in Art and Technology].
In many ways it was a great experience. It made me more aware of my administrative counterparts when I’m an artist, and helped me understand the expectations of a gallery or an organization—like the importance of meeting deadlines and sending images when you’re asked for them. When I was running REVERSE I couldn’t understand why I had to go after artists to get their images for a press release.
It also helped me be more organized in general. At the beginning REVERSE took away from my practice. Preparing the space and figuring out how it should work consumed so much time and energy. But it also allowed me to engage with a much broader artist community than I would have just working in my studio by myself. My network grew so much, and not just visual artists, but sound artists and curators and organizations doing similar things.
It put me in a position where I knew more people and also had to look for more people. If you’re curating a show, it takes you away from your regular group, your social connections, and your comfort zone. It opened a lot of new opportunities for me to learn, to see, to rethink my work. I saw so many performances and different artists and works going through the gallery and that clearly influenced the way I was thinking about my work.
Even though REVERSE took some time away from my main studio practice, I had a privileged seat in watching a lot of different artists who were in a similar point in their careers as I was, and maybe a few who were further along and a few who were just starting out. It gave me a lot of inspiration and information.
How did it all start?
It was like a real estate marriage. I had this idea of how cool and interesting it would be to have an art space with art studios, and a gallery and build a community. I had a vision of a place where I would like to work and be as an artist, but I wasn’t actively looking to make it happen. If I had planned it better I probably would have gotten a few partners.
I had to leave my apartment because they were raising the rent and it just didn’t make sense for me to stay there. I lived in Williamsburg, near REVERSE. One day I saw that a really cool spot—a garage in a great location, that now has been turned into a fancy restaurant— was available for rent. I wasn’t looking for a commercial space, but I like real estate porn, so I called.
I met with the broker, and I was like, “This is cool, but I actually need an apartment.” So he showed me another place a block away. It was crazy: upstairs there was the apartment, and downstairs it was this small warehouse open space. I can be very impulsive, and I got super excited. I talked with the friends I was planning to live with about the upstairs situation. I also have a good friend who works in construction, and maybe two or three weeks before this we had been talking about the idea of having a space. He said, “If you ever do that I’ll help you build it up.” He had done that with other spaces. I called him and I was like, “Piro, remember our conversation? I think it’s happening.”
A lot of things just came together. I had very good friends who supported me. It sounded like a great idea to live there and have the space. I already knew enough curators and artists. I had been showing as an artist. I had the community from ITP. I knew that I could put the word out there and that to kickstart it I would invite curators to guest-curate.
I had my business plan to build walls in the larger space and create studios to rent out to artists, which would help sustain part of the space. I didn’t anticipate the amount of work involved in not only building it, but also managing it. So I just jumped in and went for it, and it grew like a monster.
I try to be a little bit more conscious in my decisions now. It was great, but maybe it’s better to think things a little bit more through. On the other hand, if I had thought it through more I might not have done it. I think that at some points in your life you have to take those leaps of faith and go for things, but I’m older and more tired now.
It was a great space. It also reminds me of what you’re saying about your work. You had limits. It was meant for a special kind of art that might have had a hard time finding a home.
That was definitely one of the missions. I didn’t want to limit REVERSE to new media or art working with technology, but it became super clear that that was a common thread. It was very natural because of my art practice, and because of the people I know and my ability to understand work that other places might have turned away. I was very happy to push it in that direction. But we established that it was more a conversation about technology than technology was a requirement for every exhibition. For example, we could have exhibitions about painting and architecture. This idea of being interdisciplinary and trying to understand how technology affects us as a society, culturally, and also how it affects the art-making process. A lot of people working with art and technology came to us because we were one of the places offering a space for it.
A lot of the things you said about managing REVERSE reminds me of us [Martha and Groana] working together right now.
I think we get carried away by thinking, “It would be awesome to do this.” Then when we’re doing it, it’s like, “Oh, this was so much more work than we thought it’d be.” It is not only curating the list of artists, but reaching out, researching, coming up with an interview strategy, then meeting up, recording, editing the recording, transcribing, editing the interview, reaching out again with the artists, picking the images…
Any words of wisdom?
My advice is, don’t think about all the work that’s involved; just follow through. Woody Allen says that comedy is tragedy plus time. We tend to forget because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t do anything. Imagine if you remembered how terrible you felt during pregnancy or how difficult birth was—no one would have more than one child.
These are things that you learn. Then for the next big project you might be able to set boundaries a little better because you will know how much you can do. And—this is very important—you have to learn to listen to yourself about how much you want to do.
I also learned that sometimes you have to invest to make good things good and to achieve the outcome that will eventually get you the financing you need. I also value my time. It’s important to put a price on your time. Like, how many other things could I be doing while I’m transcribing that would get me further toward my goals? Where should I put most of my effort? Is it really in transcribing or is it in editing the interviews and diagramming the book and thinking of all of it together? Of course we are limited by our resources, but sometimes you have to invest a little in order to get much more out of it.
I had to make a decision. I couldn’t continue with REVERSE and have my practice. I had to decide which one was more important for me, and which one to push forward. I chose my practice, because for me REVERSE was like a super big art project. I didn’t want to be a gallerist first and foremost and an artist on the side.
So, my advice is to push through. You’re already in it, so make the best out of it. And think of all the good things you will get out of it. Not only in what you make or what you accomplish, but in having interesting conversations with different artists.
It wasn’t easy to learn all this. Believe me. I probably still don’t apply everything I’ve learned.
This project was born out of a studio visit. I met with a curator, and he told me that my art was not Latin American enough for his show. I said, “What is that? What does that mean?” Then Groana and I decided to showcase Latin American artists to explain how so-called Latin American art is not a thing.
I think that goes in line with an older view of Latin American art. It’s someone that has an image of Guayasamín, the painter from Ecuador, or, very political art. I think that’s still part of it, but nowadays the boundaries are so much more blurred. My art would probably not be Latin American at all for that curator.
It’s very important to consider what it means to be an artist from Latin America. How much does that really define you or your art? What does it mean to be an artist from Latin America in New York? I can see how that could be an easier place to situate yourself because there’s a specific market for it.
I have a lot of issues with paperwork that asks you to define yourself and your identity. I’m from Latin America, but I’m also Caucasian and I’m also Jewish and my grandparents are from Eastern Europe, so what do I mark? It’s great when you can check more than one box, but it’s a very limited view of what a person is. I can’t help but think of Deleuze and Guattari and El Devenir [Becoming]. This idea of identity as something that is constantly transforming. I understand we won’t get bureaucracy to see it that way.
It still feels very binary, and I think the world in general is moving to a different place. I wouldn’t know what to tell that curator. Maybe he should visit more studios of artists from Latin America and see what they’re doing. Maybe his opinion will change. I would like to have a definition by his standards. I bet it’s very political or ethnic.
I don’t think there’s a degree of how Latin American you can be. I think that whatever I do just because I am Mexican, it’s Latin American art. We were really upset. That’s why we’re starting this, because I think there’s a way of defining what’s not you in terms that feel comfortable to you.
I know a little bit of your work. You work a lot with your family photos, and they’re not photos from a typical midwestern American family. People think that if you’re from Latin America, you can’t be blonde or have very light skin. And there is an expectation that Latin American art will be related to crafts. It’s very ignorant—not only about the current state of affairs, but also about history. The Spanish, the Portuguese, the Italian, the French, the English all came to Latin America and grabbed their piece. At some point there was a mixture, and something different will come from that. I’m getting upset.
When it first happened, I was very upset. It’s hard to respond to something like that. I know it’s unlikely that anything I’m going to say will change anyone’s mind. But his comment empowered us.
That’s great. And I understand the feeling of not knowing what to say in the moment. I would probably ask the person to define Latin American art—not to correct him, but just to know what he thinks. C’est la vie. That’s too French.
It’s not Latin American enough.
Tell us how you got into art, how you became an artist.
I actually studied journalism and communications back in Chile, and people in Chile tend to make a big point of it, like, “Oh, she’s a journalist and an artist.” I’m like, “I’m not a journalist. I don’t work as a journalist. Yes, I studied that and it’s not like I’m denying it, but just because I went to college and got that degree doesn’t make me that.” I worked in all type of media while I was studying and I came to the realization very early on that I didn’t like journalism, but I liked documentary films.
I always liked working with research and nonfiction material. I did my last semester in Barcelona and I loved it. I saw that they had a master’s in documentary filmmaking so I went back to Chile to graduate and then went back to Barcelona to study documentary filmmaking.
I liked more the theory classes than the actual practice just because they were going through all the subjects that I’m really interested in: the meaning we give to images, specially as an index of truth, cultural visual operations, and collective memory and storytelling. So I got very excited about all that and then… – I’m taking the long road to answer this, but it’s just that it wasn’t like a specific moment when I was like, “I’m an artist”.
I actually wanted to stay in Barcelona and it was much easier to stay as a student and it wasn’t as expensive as it is here to study, so I enrolled in this Masters of Digital Art because I loved editing and video and I saw a lot of classes there that I thought could be helpful in my practice. I had classes of programming, this is going to show how old I am because our classes, I think it was the last year that they taught programming with Action Script, but we also had Pure Data and stuff like that. And, oh my god, did I suffer at the beginning. I was like, “What the hell am I doing here?” I never saw myself as a technical person. With video, yes, that came super natural to me. Editing, I loved it.
Then after the first month of being like “What am I doing here? What is this?” I started making peace with it and I saw the amount of opportunities that open up when you are able to control the tools to create the work that you want to do. Not that I’m a great programmer, but that was something that interested me. And when I started working on my thesis project with another friend, an artist, it proved to be useful. It was the first time that I actually started using home movies and we programmed this whole project.
It just was this kind of natural progression that took a while to settle and understand. I was still thinking “I’m going to do documentary film”. I’ve always been very interested in film in general, so I didn’t see that right away, but things just kept taking me back to thinking of film even in a different way and not as a movie that you have to watch in a theater.
Then for different personal reasons I had to go back to Chile. I had this online project that was memoryFrames and I showed it to some people that were working with art and technology and they invited me to join an exhibition that they were curating, but I needed a physical interface and I had this idea of a machine that would emulate the metaphor that we were doing on the online version, but I had nothing done. I had a month to build that. It was kind of horrible, but also great. There was a moment when I was in Chile that I had to find my place that I realized that was what I wanted to do and that I had to start reaching out to the community of people working with Art and technology.
There was this one time that I met this very well established artist in Chile with a long trajectory. Again, he thought I was a journalist because the person who introduced us told him that. We started talking and he was like “Oh, but you’re not like interested in doing an interview. You’re an artist.” That was the first time that I had to say, “Yes, I’m an artist.” It takes a while to feel comfortable with that statement – years. But at some point being in Chile I said “Okay, this is what I want to do and this is where I have to put my energy.” Things started happening and exhibitions started to pop-up and then I applied to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at Tisch, NYU. The only program that I applied to was ITP. I got accepted. I got a scholarship from NYU.
I came here and at some point I felt the same that I felt with the Master’s in Digital Arts in Barcelona. I was like “What the hell. This is so much technology.” I just don’t like technology for the sake of technology, I only like it if it allows me to say something. Here I am now. I can’t shake it off. I guess it’s part of me.
If there’s one thing that I really appreciate of the American culture is this idea that you can reinvent yourself and that maybe you should. That failure isn’t a bad thing. The important thing is when you show your strength and how you recover from that. That is a big contrast with what I was telling you about Chile and how I’m still labeled as a journalist. “Yeah sure, but not really.” I chose a different path than the one I did when I was eighteen going into college knowing really nothing. I think it feels good to be able to have flexibility. As an artist I think also it’s good to have that flexibility because you see so many artists sometimes trapped in a successful formula. Many times that is also a demand from their galleries and the market. I assume that if you become like a super big artist, you have all this pressure to continue being that successful. I think it’s great to have the freedom to explore within your own artwork and within your own practice and not be stuck with something.
I just learned how to knit, so who knows? Maybe my next work will be like a knitting piece. I don’t think so, I don’t think I’m going to get that good, but I think it’s good to have that opportunity. In general, I’m more drawn to artists that are versatile and ductil; you can see that in their work.
You mentioned being really interested in documentary. Do you see your practice being documentary in a way?
No, but I can see the relationship. I don’t deny being a journalist. I think that what I went through really informs my work. I choose to work with materials that come from real life of real people. I work with other people’s memories, so I have this interest in nonfiction as a starting point, but then what I do with that is not necessarily what you would expect from a documentary film.
This allows me to question methods of representation and social discourse and a lot of things we are taught to believe and pursue. I’m not saying that documentary films can’t do that. Some of the French filmmakers of the New Wave era did it beautifully, like Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda. Or the Dadaists like Buñuel from Spain. I think that was a super interesting time of questioning the value of the image and storytelling. The challenges now have gone a little bit further than back then, but I like to go back to the roots because I really like their work.
I haven’t made that connection between your journalist background and Future Past News, which is like journalism but in a very different way. [Future Past News is a Virtual Reality installation that juxtaposes a 1937 newsreel with today´s news]
That’s the most journalistic piece that I’ve done. I was editing the present news and writing all these texts to scroll down the screen. I took it very seriously and I think that’s probably because of my foundations. I also wanted to be very accurate with what we were showing.
I think it’s pretty far from what a lot of journalists practice today. I don’t know how many media professionals are questioning what they hear from different political or social actors or putting things in context. Either they have an idea of fake objectivity they want to pursue and they lack context, or they have a very biased point of view but aren’t honest about it.
I don’t think I was thinking about that either. It was just like it was so much in my face. I had this newsreel from 1937, with all these things happening and they’re all these things happening now. It just felt so similar… And when I talked to Karolina Ziulkoski about it, we were both like, “yes, it’s crazy, we need to do something with it” I think it was more like giving context to something. It’s really crazy because we’ve received some very hateful comments on social media from Trump supporters. They’re really good at trolling.
I guess it never crosses your mind when you put up a work like that.
I had a sense it was controversial, but because it’s art I thought it would be viewed by an audience that had similar thinking and beliefs. But then it’s online and it’s out there and it’s on social media and anyone can see it. If I had to choose again the main image to promote it, I would probably pick something different—we have one that shows Hitler in the old newsreel and Trump on the phone.
Of course, I’m not saying Trump equals Hitler. In context, I’m saying the situations are very similar. I think that what he does is very similar to the way dictators and populist fascism work. I think that in choosing that image we narrowed the conversation. It was very easy for people to be binary about it.
And people can choose not to see the full conversation. Some people just read headlines and assume that the note is about something.
What’s even more dangerous and worrisome nowadays is that a lot of people get their news from Facebook. That means they are only looking at items that are tailored for them from outlets and people that share the same views. That narrows your worldview so much, and it kind of exalts the ideas you already have. I wish people read the headlines from different media. I can’t deal with Fox News, for example, but I still like to know what they’re saying because I think it’s important to be informed and to get different points of views.
Elia Alba is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice revolves around building community. I caught up with Elia at a rooftop in mid-town Manhattan for drinks on a chilly fall day. (Featured image: The Spiritualist, 2014. Maren Hassinger in Inwood HIll Park, NY.)
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
My parents emigrated in the 1950s from the Dominican Republic. They grew up in the very same town, but actually “met” and fell in love here. I think it’s because the Dominican community was small. They weren’t in Washington Heights; it was the Upper West Side! My parents married in 1958. My grandmother arrived here first in the 1940s, and she lived in West Harlem.
My grandmother came to New York during Trujillo. She was a very interesting person, very independent. Barely any education but traveled the world and learned how to sew and worked for milliners and coat designers and did all kinds of things. She worked ten months out of the year and traveled two. She did that for a long time.
Your mom worked in the garment industry?
Yes. Her last job, she was as an assistant designer, making the patterns for Betsey Johnson. Then she made knockoff dresses somewhere else.
My mom used to work in the factories when they were here.
Did you grow up on the Upper West Side, or did you move around a lot?
I don’t know what Dominican woman didn’t.
My mom used to brag about how we lived on the Upper West Side in a six-bedroom apartment with two fireplaces. It was $145 a month, and that was a lot back then so my mother would rent out rooms. My father hated that there were always other people in the house, so we had to move. We moved to 175th and Broadway, which was very Jewish. Then my father got tired of apartment living, and we moved to a house in the Bronx. I was 6, and my sister was 5, and we lived there until they decided that drugs were taking over New York (this was the late ‘70s). They packed it up and decided they were going to raise their daughters in the Dominican Republic, and yo, what a culture shock!
It was 1978, and I was 15, but it was 1943 over there! Girls did not wear shorts. Talk to your mama; she’ll tell you.
My parents decided to put me in this ritzy school that was really crazy. My first understanding of class was in the DR! I remember once, these girls invited me to go bike riding in the park. It was heavily chaperoned. They came to get me, and I had on a tank top with spaghetti straps and shorts. When they arrived and saw me, they said, “We can’t go out with you like that. You look like a hooker.” I was like, “What’s a hooker?” I was 15 years old! So I had to go back in and wear a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. It was July in the DR. It was the worst bike ride ever. I don’t think my mother was aware how lame the DR was at that time. It was my introduction into how things functioned there.
How long were you there?
I was there a few years, until 1981, but it was my core years. I really feel it formed me in some kind of wacky way. It made me all uptight about things.
When I got to the States, it was just different. I was open-minded but very conflicted. I learned a lot about class and color. I always felt ugly in the DR. I had to press my hair too. They made me put chemicals in it.
I begged to have my hair relaxed at nine years old.
Of course! We all did, and our parents didn’t help us, making us feel uncomfortable about looking the way we did because they felt uncomfortable. I’m not even angry with them, but it’s interesting because I think my family and those that I was around pushed the straight-hair thing. It was actually white folks that would tell me, “Oh my god, your hair’s so beautiful. Why are you doing that?” It was kind of weird. Like, “What? Who are you with your straight hair talking like that? Get out of here.”
Did you always have to balance a day job with your artist practice?
All the time. Is the next question, “How do you do that?” or “Why do you do that?”
Are you happy with your day job?
I don’t hate my day job. I actually like going to work, because I’m very independent with how I want to do things. I don’t want to rely on grants. I don’t like writing applications. I do have to say that there are times when I wish I lived more of an “art life,” especially when it comes to residencies. It would be nice to just get up and go, but I would be stressed out about money.
Right. That’s where I’m at right now.
I also had a kid, and I just felt like, “No, I can’t put him through that lifestyle. I’m just not going to do that.” I know people have done it, but that’s just not my thing.
I want to be able to do work and just do my art practice on my own terms and have the money to do it. It’s a choice. Just like you make that lifestyle choice to be that artist that wants to live grant to grant. No one should criticize your choice for working. I did know I didn’t want to work in an art institution. That would zap me. I didn’t want to give them my creativity in that way. I think I’m creative in my job, within its limitations, but it doesn’t zap me of my creativity. It doesn’t tap that source.
How did Supper Club start?
The Supper Club started in 2012, so it’s been going for a minute. I am having a solo show at The 8th Floor Gallery in fall 2017, where we will show all 60 portraits. The 8th Floor is an exhibition and events space located in Chelsea. It was established in 2010 by The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation. The foundation is dedicated to promoting cultural and philanthropic initiatives. They have been hosting and funding the Supper Club since 2015, so I am really excited to be presenting the project there.
A lot of my practice is about bringing together different kinds of communities, and I wanted to make a book that was about artists of color, but not necessarily black and Latino. It has Southeast Asian folks, Arab folks some mixed-up folks because I feel like that’s really where the color conversation should be residing.
Initially, I was just going to make portraits, and I asked my friends. Not everyone in the book is my close friend, but rather people I’ve known along the way. Then I started thinking about how I wanted to give these artists a voice because it’s not enough just to take the picture and write a description. Recess Art came on board, and we began talking about hosting dinners, having conversations, and recording them. Initially, it was just going to be three dinners with three groups, of the artists that I was photographing.
That first dinner was intense. It brought up important issues for folks of color that people don’t like talking about but can’t deny. For example, either you’re not black enough, or you’re not Latino enough, or you can’t be part of this conversation because you’re Southeast Asian. All these different positions came up. It wasn’t the intention of the first dinner. I just wanted to let people talk. I didn’t say anything or give them any prompts, the way I do now.
Let me backtrack. The prompt for the first dinner was when I asked Wanda Ortiz to come in as her performance character “Chuleta” and be a provocateur and poke people to talk. She was the “host” for those first three dinners. After the third dinner, I realized that I wanted to keep doing it. At first, as I said, it was only the artists I was scheduled to photograph, which was 50 at the time. I’m up to 60, and that’s it.
You have 60 portraits already!? That’s insane!
It is insane. I remember when I was talking to our buddy LaToya (Ruby Frazier), and I was like, “I want to do one hundred!” She says, “Elia, you’re crazy! You should do twenty or twenty-five.” I said, “Twenty-five is not enough. That is definitely not a conversation.”
It’s like a spotlight.
And then who are the rest that you don’t see?
Fast forward. Recess and I started the dinners. We didn’t host another big one. We started doing smaller dinners with groups of five and six people, and we ordered takeout. Now the dinners take place at The 8th Floor. Sara Reisman, the artistic director, wanted to work with me. She’ll tell you, “I wanted to bring this to Rubin’s because I wanted to sit at the dinner table, and I knew that was the only way I was going to do that!” Because I kept it only non-white folks for a while. I was adamant about that. Although I did loosen it up in 2014 and allowed some good friends to join because of the nature of the work they were doing. I felt they could sit at the table. They were quiet, which was interesting.
Because a lot of times, that’s the problem, right? Just listen. We just need you to listen. Don’t try to tell us what’s right or what’s wrong.
I think the first white person I had at the table was Maris Curran, a filmmaker who had just finished working on a project called Five Nights in Maine, which deals with an interracial relationship. The film was very powerful because it dealt with this interaction between a black male whose wife dies and he goes to visit his mother-in-law. The film revolves around that visit.
So that’s how The Supper Club started. I was really lucky to have Recess jump start this project. I always say this over and over; Recess is about ideas, which is very unlike a lot of arts organizations, where you have to submit a full-blown concept. Recess just liked the idea so much that they funded the first dinners. They funded the first photographs. That really jump-started the project. It’s taken so long because I had to move on from them. Then I ran out of money. I did a Kickstarter. I started to take more pictures, and then I ran out of money again.
The Rubin Foundation came into the picture in 2015. There was, however, an important shift that came in late 2014. While I was having these small dinners, I realized I wanted to host big dinners again, but this time I wanted to cook. At this time I was funding the project on my own, and with the help of my friend and curator Rocio Aranda and her husband James Congregane, they granted me permission to use the recreation room, which had a kitchen, in their building to host these large dinners. I noticed that once I did the cooking, it shifted the dynamic to how people interacted. Now we’re talking about an exchange. Even when you’re buying dinner for people, it’s not the same. I would cook (and still do) comfort-type foods. Like Saya (Woolfalk) said, “It’s like coming home for Thanksgiving Dinner!” That’s the feeling.
That really shifted it for me. It really was about looking at this group of color collectively. I do feel that this is a conversation that no one wants to have. Or they do want to have it, but not really, because it becomes you’re against something when you’re not, or you don’t understand when you do. That’s the complexity, I think. A lot of it having to be Caribbean, because we were raised that way all the time. I think when you look at my work, it really is about addressing the complexity of race and complexity of identity, which people want to put in a fixed place, but it’s not. I don’t even believe people are fully one race or the other, even if they look it. There’s always other stuff going on. That’s a lot of what drives this, and it drives everything. I was shocked when some people agreed to sit for me. I like my portraits; some of them are fun, and some of them are serious, depending on the artist. Some people let me go to town with them.
I really like Juana Valdes’ portrait. It’s gorgeous.
Juana was like la diosa Olokun in the middle of the ocean. Juana’s portrait is crazy. I can’t wait until you see the others. The pictures reference other artworks or time periods. The Supper Club has all these little stories about how I photograph people.
I know people are different. I know certain histories that we bring into this country are different, whether it is forced or not, but there’s also similarity. Southeast Asians were dominated by the British for a century. They have that in their history! Folks of color have the imperialist oppression in their history. Why do we want to focus on dividing? I want to have that conversation. However, when I have these dinners, there’s always tension.
I always pray for a kumbaya moment. I did have one during the last dinner. I invite hosts now, and my last host was Edwin Ramoran and his question was, “How do you define sanctuary?” It was a table full of queer folks: Filipino, Latino, African-American. In the end, everyone went from sanctuary to safety, and about feeling safe as a person of color. Nobody felt safe at that table. That said something. It was just a beautiful moment. There was a teeny moment of tension, like a second, but then it dissipated.
In my 20 plus dinners, I’ve had maybe one or two where that kind of moment lasted. Everyone just felt it. But even at the first dinner, the last person you heard was Simone Leigh saying, “That was intense, but it was good.” It’s about these conversations that in my opinion have to happen. I think as black Latinos, this is a thing we have to go through because people want you to pick sides. If you pick the Latino side, then you’re saying you’re not black, which is not true! Ever!
Today I realized that you actually record the dinners. I just imagine walking into that situation and already being on guard, knowing that it is being recorded.
People were a little bit guarded, but I always feel a little alcohol doesn’t hurt none.
I always tell people, “Keep the conversation real.” Whatever is out of pocket will not be published, sometimes to keep the conversation going, you might have to tell a little story or two. You might have to be a little critical, or you might have to badmouth somebody. It’s not about gossiping. You need those kinds of fillers and those kinds of scenarios or points within the conversation so people can relax. Some people do come to dinner very structured. They’re like, “No, I’m not saying anything.” I’ve gotten to the point now where I feel, “If you ain’t going to talk, you can’t come.” I used to say, “You can sit down and just observe,” but no—that time came, but that’s over.
I provide prompts with questions, so people can start thinking, but the conversation might go in another direction. I might say, “What is sanctuary?” We could start talking about disco balls, and I don’t flip that conversation. I have to let it organically evolve, because if I start to shift-shape it, it will then be a talk at a university or something, and that’s not what it is. People are fine with it now. Some people get a little crazy; I’ve had issues.
What kind of issues? Tension between people? Because it sounds like mini therapy.
“No, I didn’t say that.” I’m like, “Yeah, you did.” “No, I didn’t.” Then I send them the transcript and they say, “Oh, but you can’t print that.” But people are getting a little better. There was a moment where some artists felt that if you had some political opinion about anything, somehow a curator or a collector wouldn’t collect you. But there are a lot of political artists that are collected, and they say anything. They say what they’re going to say. A curator? They’re doing a show on something, and you’re doing work like that, and they like you, and you have a reputation, and you have awards to back you up? They’re not going to not work with you.
But we are fearful as artists, so that was the initial challenge of this. Yeah, it is therapeutic. I think I wanted it to be therapeutic for me. I think it always starts from the place of the self, right?
Sometimes it makes me sad. Sometimes I walk out of there sad. Sometimes I walk out of there so angry. It really depends, you know?
How do you bring the idea of The Supper Club to a wider group?
Here’s the thing. I discovered that in order to have an intimate conversation, we could have 20, 25 people tops. Twenty-five is a lot. Twenty, where everyone’s participating, is closer knit. We had one dinner that accidentally almost had 35 people. That does not work. It’s not a dinner; it’s a conference. You have to think of dinner at your mom’s house. My mom would serve 20 people. I don’t know what it is about that number, but that’s the number.
Late in 2015 and early 2016, I did two dinners in Washington DC, sponsored and hosted by Jessica Stafford Davis’ Agora Culture. That brought together an amazing crowd from DC and I did manage to get a couple of artists in the book to go to DC.
But how does a kid in the Midwest—in the middle of “nowhere” right now—create a similar space?
You start with your friends. I think people need to start with their own communities. I think we have this going on all the time; we just don’t think about it. My friend Clifford Owens, who was at one of the dinners in DC, reminded me of this. He said to the group at the table, “You know Elia has been doing these dinners since 2004 at her house. She’d make food, and we’d sit down, and we talk about art, we talk about race, we talk about politics. It just wasn’t recorded.” If I look back, that’s what my mother used to do. Make food and have her friends over, and they would hash out sports, politics, art, pop culture. This is no different.
You start with your community first, and you challenge your community. You challenge them with challenging questions. I organized a dinner in December 2014 that was the year that Mike Brown and Eric Gardner were killed. I wasn’t sure what we were going to talk about, until the night before the dinner. I emailed everyone and told them, “We’re going to talk about these killings because I don’t know how we can not talk about anything else at this moment.” Everybody came fired up.
One artist said, “Right around the time of Art Basel, everyone was up in arms about Trayvon Martin, but they still showed up to Miami. We went to Florida anyway.” All that came out. “What are the post-black artists thinking now? Take three seats back.” Things like that were coming up. Then there was another artist who said, “Fuck race! The planet is dying, and it’s not going to fucking matter!” Then Shaun Leonardo said, “I’ll worry about the planet when I don’t have to worry about a gun being put to my head.” That dinner had Coco Fusco, Lorraine O’Grady, Maren Hassinger, Kalup Lindsey, Arnaldo Morales, Clifford Owens to name a few. It was the dinner my filmmaker friend, Maris Curran attended.
We had this writer, Juan Thompson, who was reporting from St. Louis. He was studying to be an attorney and then switched to become a journalist on race issues. We had a curator from The Whitney. It was incredible. There was no kumbaya moment, but collectively everybody was upset with what was going down. My question was, what about Rodney King? That was in the early 1990s. What happened to those fools who beat him up? They’re walking around free.
How long do you think The Supper Club will go on?
Right now, I’m doing a residency at Lafayette College, where I am printing the portraits for the exhibit. I am also working on the book itself, and I have to start doing some writing for it. We are planning additional dinners too. The Rubin Foundation will continue to sponsor and host dinners, and I have been in talks with another arts organization to do the dinners nationally. How long will it go? It is unclear to me but I do see it going on for a while.
What was your major in undergrad?
I attended Hunter College and completed a special honors curriculum for interdisciplinary studies, and minored in studio art. I was a terrible painter! I gave my brushes away. I thought getting expensive brushes would make me a good painter. It did not. When you’re not good at something, you need to let it go. Because your creativity isn’t just around one thing. I know when I see a good painting, and I know when it’s not great too. God bless all the people that can paint. Painting is hard. Good painting is really hard. Not everybody can do it.
During school, I got a full-time job at L’Oreal. I was working with the sales department, with PR planning all the meetings and parties. That’s still going on! So I thought I was going to go into PR. Then I was like, “No, I want to be creative.” So when I graduated, I said to my boss, “I really want to get into the art department.” They had me do something for a Paloma Picasso’s fragrance called Minotaur. I designed the cover of the box and packaging for the spring collection in ‘94 or ‘95. By the way, nothing was on a computer. I did it all by hand!
I had so much fun doing it, and at that point, I discovered I was good with materials. I told myself, that’s where I need to be heading. I quit my job. I was about to turn 33, Jesus Christ’s age, and I enrolled in the Arts Students League because I didn’t know where else to go. I applied to Hunter for an MFA, and they liked the work I presented, but when I sat in front of the committee, I didn’t know what I was talking about. They said, “You should know what you’re coming in here for. You need to know what you’re talking about with your work.” I said, “If I need to know, that defeats the purpose of getting an MFA.” I was being argumentative, which was probably not a good thing. Of course, I didn’t get in.
I get it now; you should have somewhat of an understanding of what you’re doing. Not a full-blown explanation, but something. I applied again, and I didn’t get in a second time, but I did get into the Studio Museum in Harlem Residency Program, which was cool. I was working a lot with materials, doing abstraction work with a lot of sand and wood and paper, but then I got pregnant. I’m allergic to all that stuff, so I was like, “I can’t pop pills and be pregnant.” I literally changed my game. I went from working with materials like that to working with fabric. At the same time, I changed from abstraction to figurative. I think that’s how art functions. I don’t think 90 percent of the time it’s intentional, or that you’re totally aware, “I’m going to do this, and it’s going to be that…” You just evolve.