Working Together to Amplify African American Arts & Letters

This fall, several programs and exhibits in Tucson will celebrate Black artists and writers. Organizers of each collaborated to share ideas and resources for tapping into community knowledge and connecting audiences to the material. In anticipation of upcoming public events, we asked them to consider how their work involved “thinking like a folklorist”:

  • Letters to the Future: Black Women / Radical Writing, book launch, exhibit, salon and interviews based on the anthology of writing edited by Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin, which includes late-modern and contemporary work by Black women from the United States, England, Canada, and the Caribbean. Kore Press, publisher.
  • 30 Americans, a traveling exhibition from the Rubell Family collection featuring works by significant African American artists of the last four decades. The exhibition explores race, gender, and historical identity in contemporary context via artists in various mediums with diverse subject matter and perspectives. Tucson Museum of Art: Oct. 6, 2018 through January 13, 2019
  • What is the Color, When Black is Burned? The Gold War, Part 1 an exhibit by Frohawk Two Feathers, the alias of artist Umar Rashid, about the composite and fictitious Frenglish Empire. Using Greco-Roman and Egyptian iconography alongside tattoos and hip hop references, the exhibit encourages viewers to reflect on how certain events become historical truths while others are relegated to the background, or forgotten altogether. University of Arizona Museum of Art: September 15, 2018 through March 24, 2019.
Frohawk Two Feathers
Frohawk Two Feathers, Map of the Caribbean – 1794 Come for the resources. Stay for the food. Bring your entire country. It’s Paradise, 2012, Acrylic, Ink, Tea, and Coffee on Paper

How has your work with these programs aimed to amplify particular voices or perspectives?

LISA BOWDEN, Publisher, Kore Press: Letters to the Future, a new publication by Kore Press, is an anthology of radical writing by Black women artists that on the one hand intervenes on the notion that conceptual or experimental writing is white writing, and, is a beckoning of a livable future where Black people, women in particular, can not only live safely but also thrive. So, these are acts of writing, imagining, and presenting work that upend normal expectations of how one reads, or knows what writing is, or what a poem can do. Social and political acts that perhaps are saying “normal” rhetoric isn’t working, isn’t making sense. Things need to be said in new ways to impact change. So, the project is amplifying these voices, via the book, a community gallery exhibit at TMA, a salon at the Dunbar Pavilion, and interviews. In particular, we will hear and learn from Dawn Lundy Martin, Erica Hunt (the editors) and giovanni singleton, and Ruth Ellen Kocher. Dr Stephanie Troutman and Debi Chess Mabie are working with us on the salon.

Letters to the Future

CHELSEA FARRAR, Curator of Community Engagement, University of Arizona Museum of Art: We have a relationship with Debi Chess Mabie, the Community Impact Fellow at The Dunbar Pavilion African American Center for Arts and Culture, and reached out to see if she would collaborate and advise us on this exhibition and the associated programming. The Museum tries to acknowledge our blind spots and limitations and not try to program for a community but with a community. It always takes longer, but it’s more meaningful, because we learn so much as we go. I knew a little about Dunbar and its history as a segregated school but not fully, so being able to tour it with Debi helped me understand it so much better to be able to work towards creating a bridge of knowledge between the UA and the community at Dunbar.

MARIANNA PEGNO, Curator of Community Engagement, Tucson Museum of Art: My work at the museum is focused on what it means for an exhibition to be relevant and connected to the Tucson community. In this case, we have an amazing exhibit, 30 Americans, that features all African American artists and one African artist. It takes up six gallery spaces. So how do we connect the Tucson community with it? For five months we’ve been working with a community advisory committee, discussing the artworks and how to present them to the community and identifying community partners to help us do that. We really wanted to work more with the community.

DEBI CHESS MABIE, Community Impact Fellow, The Dunbar Pavilion African American Center for Arts and Culture: The more I do this work at the Dunbar, the more profound an understanding I have of just how diverse the Black community is. Not just a difference in perspectives and cultural experiences but in geography. People have moved here from other places and have different lived experiences. There are urban experiences, rural experiences, Southwest experiences, which are so different from coastal experiences. My job is to be mindful of all that diversity and not continue to lump blackness into one view or even two views. Right now the immediate notion of Blackness in the minds of non-Black people—and even Black people, too—is the urban hip-hop experience. But 75, 100 years ago the predominant narrative was an “Up-North” narrative, when African Americans migrated north from Mississippi and Alabama and other states in the South starting in the Industrial Revolution. For a long time that Black experience overshadowed the Black immigrant experience of African Muslims, which we tried to fit into a particular African American narrative. It’s all part of this Black experience because of our skin color. Myself, I’m not even a part of that narrative. I’m a product of Affirmative Action and fully integrated schools. So the challenge is to push on those narratives and create environments and forums for the full spectrum of Blackness, to inform conversations about race and culture and equity and inclusion and diversity. What the exhibit at TMA is doing, for example, is putting all of that on the table, these very disparate experiences of Blackness. Not every experience, but a more comprehensive collection than we’ve seen before, which creates an opportunity for the conversation to start.

Xaviera Simmons
From 30 Americans: Xaviera Simmons, One Day and Back Then (Standing), 2007. Color photograph, ed. 2/5, 30 x 40 in. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection

Have you employed any particular ethnographic practices (interviewing, hanging out, observing, noting patterns) in curating or bringing to light this particular project/program?

LB: I’m not that comfortable with the word “curator.” We are helping steward this work by publishing and collaborating on a series of launch events that require “hanging out” with the work, with these artists, studying their projects, and bringing them into the public sphere in collaborative ways to talk dialog and be a part of the larger community, to build relationships, inspire empathy, connection and effect change.

Letters to the Future contributors, from left to right: Dawn Lundy Martin, Ruth Ellen Kocher, giovanni singleton, Erica Hunt. Courtesy of Kore Press

In what ways has this project or exhibition made space for the transmission of knowledge, culture, tradition?

LB: Our public events around this anthology—the launch, the readings and conversation, the salon, the interviews–are a way to make space here in Tucson for receiving knowledge (creative practice, poetic/ cultural production) specific to these Black women, who range in age from 30s to 90 and are from all over, with very varied backgrounds and practices. Kore is located in the Dunbar Pavilion, and we have worked with Debi on programs that hopefully are relevant and meaningful to building relationships with the Dunbar community. We are interested in how these voices will impact communities in Tucson–the small Black community along with Native and Latinx, queer, Asian communities. Can the Letters to the Future events contribute to a dialog around the radical art and justice practices that are taking place in Southern Arizona, and can the conversation build connections and alliances? Especially in these times, how can we be expanded by this work? How can our communities grow from being in conversation with these particular thinkers and artists and their works? Those are some of the questions that have guided the work.

MP: I am looking at how we can reach out beyond our institutional walls, how our artworks and exhibitions can reverberate in the community. I am always thinking about how to take an exhibit and make it a dialogue. For this exhibition, I’ve been doing that a lot more. Here at Tucson Museum of Art we are thinking a lot about how to reach beyond our institutional walls, diversify our educators, critically engaging with language, rethinking how we train docents, and how to reach new audiences.

CF: The artist, Two Feathers, aka Umar, will facilitate timeline workshops, in the spring of 2019, with any participants from Dunbar or residents in the neighborhood who want to participate. These workshops are meant to mine relevant histories of the local and the underrepresented. Whereas a museum might then take that original work to show in its own space, here, those timelines will then stay at Dunbar to fill in gaps of history and stay within ownership of the community. It’s about being careful to not take history from one place and exhibit it a separate museum, which is a colonial practice that we don’t want to replicate. We will create digital reproductions of the work, in photography or video, based on what participants prefer.

Jean-Michel Basquiat
From 30 Americans: Jean-Michel Basquiat, One Million Yen, 1982. Oil on canvas with wood and jute, 60 x 58 x 3.75 in. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection

In what ways is your work with this project creating connections between distinct cultures?

MP: We’re really working hard to train our docents to be good hosts. We worked with Dr. Michael Engs, a retired editor and administrator from Pima Community College and amateur historian focusing upon the history of African-Americans in Arizona. He stressed this idea of a host as a responsive facilitator, using active listening and giving people time to look at art works and asking a question and seeing where conversation starts to go, rather than simply standing in front of a piece and talking about it to viewers. We are also looking at ways to integrate interdisciplinary opportunities through partnerships with organizations such as Barbea Williams Performing Company and musical performers in relation to the visual arts.

CF: One way that we’re hoping to be able to connect exhibition with local lived history is by using digital humanities in the gallery didactic. Dr. Bryan Carter, a professor in the Africana Studies program who works on advanced visualization and digital communication, is consulting with us to add augmented reality to the exhibit’s interpretive material. This will enable us to include interviews with Two Feathers, with Dr. Michael Engs, an amateur historian, and with Debi Chess Mabie. Using augmented reality, we’ll be able to digitally stitch in historical characters and diverse perspectives into the exhibition.

DCM: It’s important also to say that TMA and UAMA—not so much Kore Press—are white institutions, meaning that historically they have served and catered to the white gaze. I’m speaking about the institutions, not the people who work there. So being very mindful where two of these projects are taking place and being cultivated is really important. It’s a very powerful statement, that Marianna and Chelsea are making a commitment to bring these exhibits to those spaces, using their resources to see that this work is supported and furthered. So for our part, we are taking full advantage of that to make sure we are engaging in conversations that are courageous. We’re at a moment in time where there is a concerted effort to have an open, honest dialogue around race and authorship, ownership, and agency.

Frohawk Two Feathers
Frohawk Two Feathers, I Get the Paper So I Don’t Care. Admiral Devcalion, of the prirateer (pirate) fleet of Batavia. Leaving the Caribbean with an undefeated-at-sea record to return to Batavia to defend his country from a resurgent military presence, 2012, Acrylic, Ink, Tea, and Coffee on Paper

Do you see your work at all as helping to unveil beauty “hidden in plain view,” which is how we sometimes talk about the work of folklorists?

CF: I mentioned not knowing full history of Dunbar. This is a place that’s not even hidden. It’s just blocks from campus, and yet we don’t really talk about it. I was excited about Umar’s work in this context. He’s an amateur historian and he goes through various histories and stories from indigenous cultures and African American communities in the places where he exhibits. Frohawk identifies as Native American and Black, critically and playfully he plays within these storylines to pry open the untold histories of the local site. He works with the idea of “What if.” What if France and England were somehow unified in the 18th century and these forces came to colonize the area now known as Arizona? On the UA campus, there are so many students who aren’t from Tucson, and this is a way of becoming more immersed in those hidden histories.

DCM: Because we created an advisory council of thinkers and amateur historians, what I see emerging is a community of people who’ve had their own interest in Black art and artists who have been doing their own research, educating themselves based on their own interests. They’re now seeing this knowledge being validated and supported in a larger sense. They are engaging in conversations that maybe they’ve only had with themselves or just a few others for so long and now seeing a way to inform the wider community. For me there’s such beauty in seeing Michael Engs, for example, be involved in something now bigger than Arizona heritage tours, and Barbara Lewis, the Dunbar historian, have a broader platform to share the truth of Dunbar. There’s been an opening for our griots and our knowledge-keepers to have their voices respected and heard.

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