“Kellie Jones is an art historian and curator deepening our understanding of contemporary art of the African Diaspora and securing its place in the canons of modern and contemporary art.” | video by MacArthur Foundation
The following conversation is from a March 14, 2016 emerge interview with Kellie Jones, the venerable curator, art historian, and professor. An additional Skype dialogue took place on March 17th. Subsequent to our conversations, Dr. Jones was named a 2016 MacArthur Fellow.
ASHA VEAL BRISEBOIS: Something that I’ve become really interested in from reading Coco Fusco’s work is ‘intercultural performance.’ I used to think of terms like ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism,’ but I’m interested in this term, even though it has a negative history. Moving it forward, in a way that there’s not a one-way ‘gaze’…and having actual exchange instead. I feel like that’s something that you do in you work, and I’m wondering what you think about that term.
KELLIE JONES: I can see that being used in the way she used it and the way Joe Roach and others have used it, to be about exchange. I would use it, but I would still keep it in a defined area to be about performance. I don’t know if you can really apply that to the work as a general concept because then you get into ‘what if’…‘Are we performing?’ ‘Where does performativity come in?’ I think if you want to talk about reaching across boundaries beyond an art context, I would use something else. I will tell you a little anecdote that somebody told me. They were interviewing someone for a position and there’s ‘diversity this,’ ‘diversity that’ and the candidate said, ‘You know, do you want to be diverse or do you want to commit to anti-racism?’
You bring up Coco Fusco, and we were all together in the 80s in Britain when the black British scene was happening. A number of us were over there, really drawn to that after just coming out of living through—mostly as children—the black arts movement, and what that gave us…knowing that we needed feminist critique, knowing that we needed a queer critique, and we saw that in the black arts movement in Britain.
That was the first time that I remember hearing the idea that there’s ‘diversity’ and then there’s ‘anti-racism,’ and just because you have diversity it doesn’t mean it’s anti-racism. We also really want to be more inclusive to include gender and sexuality in that as well. There’s other terms that, I think, can be even more broad.
In terms of what intercultural performance does for a performance arena, I think it’s important. It’s about exchange. It’s about thinking about other cultures, primarily in the way I understand it, and I wouldn’t throw it out.
“…KNOWING THAT WE NEEDED FEMINIST CRITIQUE, KNOWING THAT WE NEEDED A QUEER CRITIQUE, AND WE SAW THAT IN THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT IN BRITAIN.”
WISDOM BATY: I’ve been thinking about, in my practice and pedagogy—about how black women activate the art canons. How we think about curating spaces and places, and seeing if there are some commonalities and unique approaches, that we share. Do you see commonalities in the ways black women in particular, or women from the African Diaspora, curate art museums, galleries, the white cube?
KJ: I would have to look at the curators and think about if there is a commonality. I would say ‘no’ initially, because everybody’s different and people are coming from different spaces. Somebody is in Cali, somebody is in Texas, somebody is here, somebody’s in New York, somebody’s in Atlanta. There are different challenges and there are different institutional spaces and different institutional models that they’re dealing with. So, I would say ‘no’ on the face of it, but it would be lovely to really think about. I think the people that I know who are curating are interested in—if there is one very, very general commonality, and it may be a commonality with others as well—they’re very interested in women’s voices, not leaving those voices out of the discussion.
It’s still easy to do when you’re teaching art history, to just go with, even if you’re dealing with black artists, artists from the African Diaspora, you have to still push to put the women in. There has to really be a critical look at what you’re doing, and if that’s what it takes to put women in then that’s what I would say women are doing.
AVB: Related to that, another question, as this issue of emerge is about practice…it’s interesting to think about being an independent curator, but I wonder if that’s a hard way to go in terms of having some sort of institutional support behind you? I’m wondering what you think.
KJ: As with work generally, you’ve got to have a day job to support your habit whether you’re a painter or an artist, whatever kind of art you do. Is there a point at which you no longer need a day job? Sure, but I think that normally you will have something that will support you.
My model is that I was working in different institutions. I went to graduate school and people kept asking me to curate shows. I worked part-time for the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis while I was in graduate school, and did other projects like the Johannesburg Biennale when Okwui Enwezor asked me to do that. I always thought I would go back into the museum. That was my goal. When I got to the end of the PhD, I had great offers in the museum field but then I had an offer to teach at Yale University. So I became a professor, but then of course people were still knocking on the door saying, ‘Hey, don’t you want to do this, that, the other?’
I’ve been able to do a curatorial practice as a de-institutionalized curator for many years. In fact, I’ve worked more part-time at this point curatorially than full-time in my life. I find that has worked for me because I’ve been able to focus on the idea part and that’s what I realized was the most interesting part to me. When you’re in an institution, you’re fundraising for the institution and there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of that in academia also. I still have to do my institutional work there.
I think everybody’s different, to craft a type of career in life that makes sense for them.
You’re a mom, Wisdom, how does it work for you in your day? That’s major because you bring a person into the world, that is a priority in life and other things are good but you’ve got to work around that. It’s going to be different.
WB: It’s very different and complicated. The institution is not very accepting of parents, especially single parents, and especially this institution. This is something that has been a rude awakening for me, starting back into graduate school. It would not be possible if not for my support system. Talking with other women with children especially black and brown parents has been extremely helpful and insightful.
“THE BEAUTY OF IT IS WHATEVER YOU WANT YOU CAN DO IT. THAT’S HOW LUCKY WE ARE. BUT YOU NOW HAVE TO DREAM IT AND ALSO BE OPEN TO THE THINGS THAT YOU, LIKE I SAID, THAT YOU DON’T THINK YOU WANT.”
KJ: Betye Saar had three children. She’s pretty amazing as she turns 90 this year. She talked about being a woman artist, because people always say, ‘You’re going to do a mid-career survey of a female artist? They’re going to be 90 years old when you do the mid-career survey.’ The canon has always looked at women later. It’s ridiculous. The other thing is, in the 70’s, when you had the women’s movement, parts of that women’s movement were saying, ‘No children. We just want to be women and we just want to be competing.’ A lot of black women were not with that type of discourse. They were like, ‘No. We are mothers too.’
There’s a whole other narrative of the women’s movement in the 70’s where you can see that tension, and it’s not just black feminism and white feminism, or womanism, as coined by Alice Walker. You can see Betty Star and Faith Ringgold both pushing back and saying, ‘No, we are making the world better for our daughters.’ I’m not going to say feminism, black feminists didn’t say that, but there was a stream of feminism which was not about children. So, that’s something that I think is also important.
AVB: My mom, she always says, ‘Black folks have the worst PR!’ [all laugh] She does, that’s what she says. I wonder if this is part of—honestly, as I think about it—how through writing projects or curatorial projects, you can change that PR. On a global scale, which can make a lot of difference at home. Or even if it doesn’t, it perhaps gives you more access to having a different, wider life. Is this something you think about in your work? I know you’ve done projects where, I believe, was it in Brazil? It was one of the first black artists to win a biennial award? Did you feel that? What was it like in that type of moment?
KJ: It was exciting. I wasn’t even 30 years old. It was Martin Puryear.
My practice has always been about, since being a young person, African American and Latino and Latin American artists. Did I think I was changing the world? No. I just was doing what I was doing and people have been very interested in that.
I did a show of all women for Johannesburg [the biennial]. I got some critique: Why are you doing a show of all women? Aren’t we past that? I’m like, ‘Okay, just push out the haters. I’m still doing this.’
Here we are in post-Apartheid South Africa. It’s 1997, Nelson Mandela is elected in ’94. So, you’re in a place that is new. You’re walking there as a black woman who’s in charge and people don’t know what the hell to do with you and they don’t think you’re black, first of all because you should be ‘colored’ when you’re there and you should respond as a colored person. I said, ‘I don’t know what that is. I don’t respond to that.’
But the beautiful thing about that project, was the women. I told them, ‘Come with your tools, come with cordless tools.’ Because I learned that in Brazil. We went with cordless tools, and transformers. I just love the idea of all these women coming to do site-specific installations and a room of one’s own, after Virginia Woolf, and making these things and we’re ordering all these people around. It was fantastic.
It was also inter-cultural. I had women from all over the world. Aruba, England, Mexico, Cuba, South Africa. For me, that was the exciting part. Was it going to make history? I wasn’t thinking about that. At the end, we went to Robben Island, the prison that was turned into a museum. And at that time, the former guards and the prisoners were docents. They were tour guides at the museum. They had been locked up or working there, and then all of a sudden they were tour guides. It was deep. Of course, the biggest attraction is Nelson Mandela’s cell. You go there and you see this cell is like right in the space we’re talking here, not even. The man lived there for 18 of his 27 years.
“…IT WAS ALSO INTER-CULTURAL. I HAD WOMEN FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD. ARUBA, ENGLAND, MEXICO, CUBA, SOUTH AFRICA. FOR ME, THAT WAS THE EXCITING PART. WAS IT GOING TO MAKE HISTORY? I WASN’T THINKING ABOUT THAT.”
WB: We’re talking a lot about decolonizing methodologies in our research study classes. Thinking about what scientific research has historically been, or ethnographic research, and also thinking about ways that indigenous people or people of color go into the field of research, finding their space within this canon or research. The interesting aspect for me is I always had this opinion of ethnography as this very racist exploitative thing that just made me cringe…but then again, the other part of it is that people are using these methods to critique what has been and to also pull from communities in ways that are engaging and not thievery, especially people of color. With your curatorial practice, do you see it as a practice of research building?
KJ: Absolutely. To ‘curate’ is such a big word these days in our world. Somebody’s going to curate their Facebook, or they’re going to curate the Beauty Box. I get it, but to me there’s the research aspect. That’s, to me, what I love, researching, finding out. History is so full of so many exciting things to me, and different stories that you don’t know and haven’t heard. So, to uncover those, particularly in cases of black women, what we have done is not talked about as much historically and so, to bring out those stories is great and then, even if you’re talking about, thinking about things more historically, if you’re thinking about stuff on the contemporary side, you want to do research. So you want to know these things and do that kind of research on the people and when you can go to their studios.
WB: I was looking at a video of you and your father, talking about your book that just came out. It was super interesting to hear his poem. I think you read the poem actually.
KJ: I read the poem that he had written about me. He wrote this poem and then I was born later. He dedicated the poem to me, but he had actually written it before I was born.
WB: Yeah, then he said that a point in the poem, it was him looking into the room and you’re talking to somebody, but you’re really just on your knees. Are you praying or are you discovering something? That came later, right? So, when I was listening to it in the beginning, just hearing the poem, I was like. ‘Oh, she’s praying as a little child.’
KJ: Discovery is important. I think that’s what I was trying to say. If you think you don’t want something, think a little harder about what it can do for you or the possibilities it might present.
WB: Then, how much of that is also about being vulnerable and accessibility, do you think?
KJ: That’s a good question, because that idea of vulnerability is frightening and it’s particularly frightening I’d say to women because what that signifies for us is something different than a man. So, I don’t know about that word for women, for me. I think being open to something is good. Vulnerable, I’m not a big fan of that word.
WB: Given the history of the art market, how do you locate revisionist practices of specialized art markets—that of the black art market? How do you consider ideas of cultural preservation when it comes black economics, community building, and value?
KJ: I see this as two questions. One is about cultural preservation, and one is about the market. I think they’re in some ways related but they’re two different things. When you’re talking about the black art market, what’s exciting now is that it’s changing somewhat…there are times when black people’s stuff is valuable and then it goes down and then it comes up again. But if we don’t think about it in that way, if we just think about it from where we are today, say “this is a great moment for artists for color, for African American artists in terms of value.” That museums in the west, like the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, are all interested in collecting works by African American artists. The Whitney Museum. So we see it not only in a commercial side where it’s going to private collectors, but also that museums are in the game—and that means preservation. If it’s in the museum this is then giving it a longer life, that it is really going to be part of history.
As for the market part? In the black art market, who is buying who is collecting? The participants are not only African Americans. These are not black people in the Diaspora necessarily. So, how are we defining—what do we mean by a black art market? Is it being the objects for sale? Because, and this has been the problem historically at least through the 20th century, maybe the 21st century, but let’s just think about the 20th century. When people were trying to develop a market where black people, let’s say, could purchase work by African American artists or so on, they couldn’t sustain a commercial space, all of the spaces just above Midtown Gallery in New York. They go to a non-profit model. A profit model is not going to work for them. They don’t have a collector base to sustain them because these communities don’t have money. So, they go to a non-profit model. So, this is a good thing. Also, many people, make these objects that are bought by traditional white collectors and then they make things that are cheaper; prints, note cards, calendars that people can purchase. If you’re somebody like Charles White, who they’re going to have a centennial show of in 2018. I think many artists are thinking about that.
It also goes back to the Mexican murals example—a lot of revolutionary examples—where people in Mexico in the 20’s and 30’s were making murals for people to be able to see and enjoy art. Then, on the other side, they’re also doing print portfolios and print work because those are less expensive and people can put those in their homes.
When you get to the 60’s it’s the same thing. You look at the Chicano Art Movement and the Black Arts Movement, they’re making calendars and so on. Again, to get art in people’s hands so I think there’s a couple of things you want to think about: What is the market about? What is the goal of the market? Is it to survive as a gallerist? Is it to survive by selling as an artist? Is there another idea where it’s about education and pedagogy? I think in the case of the black art markets, if you’re going to talk about something like that, there’s always been a broader idea because it has not traditionally maintain itself. Now, these artists are able to. So, that is a little bit of a different model and we have to think about it in other ways. If we’re talking about heritage and preservation then you have this kind of move towards the non-profit. On the other hand in a more traditional European or western model your dealing more with sales and basically just that.
I think the 21st century is really interesting to see what will happen with that.
“MY PRACTICE HAS ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT, SINCE BEING A YOUNG PERSON, AFRICAN AMERICAN AND LATINO AND LATIN AMERICAN ARTISTS.”
WB: It’s interesting you brought up how are you defining this specialized market, who’s buying these things. In this article about the black art market, I think four out of the ten collectors of art were white. Who’s actually purchasing these groups of or collecting these groups of artworks? Then, I think about Patric McCoy and Diaspora Rhythms in Chicago on the South Side, and I think but then there’s that model. Patric and three other people organized in the early 2000’s as a group of black art collectors. They promote the collection of living artist from the African Diaspora. Patric’s house is actually a museum.
KJ: Yes! I met that man. Yes, I do know him. A fantastic model to research further.
“I THINK THAT ART IS A WITNESS IN MANY WAYS TO ITS OWN TIME.”
AVB: I saw a Kara Walker show one summer, and I think it clicked for me, the possibility to interrogate stories of race, to interrogate narrative and history, in a way that I had not thought about doing outside of writing.
There’s a quote that I really like by Chus Martinez, that ‘Art today is located in a space, uniquely productive for the interrelation of knowledge that would otherwise never intersect.’ I was wondering what you felt about that quote, and what the types of knowledge are that you are always hoping to have intersect in your work?
KJ: That’s a good question. I’ve always felt that way. So, it’s not new to me. You know what I think art is about…it goes back to this one fundamental thing really—that art lives in the world like we do, and it experiences things. I always think of objects as active in many ways, because they do affect people. People coming from other disciplines think that’s weird, but art really has an impact on you. Art, in that way absorbs histories around it. It represents histories, but it is part of even more. So sometimes when you want to find out what happened in the world, you look at an object and it will tell you. It absorbs things. It absorbs politics. It absorbs people’s goals for the medium. It absorbs people’s hopes and dreams and thoughts. Not just the maker, but how it lives in the world. How people respond to it. Does it get damaged? Does it get left to the side? Is it venerated? How does what it’s made of bare witness? In my own time period, maybe not yours…the making of acrylic paint is so new, the late 50’s, early 60’s. That is about how the world changes. The electronic media (your time period). When people start using these things, it’s about how the world changes. So it absorbs all those things. Art is a witness in many ways to its own time.
AVB: I really like the project that you all did, Black Venus 2010: They Called Her Hottentot.
AVB: I think a lot about ways of doing projects and trying to get people to look at one another differently, regarding race and gender. Do you think the history that we’ve come from is something that can be overcome? Or do you think it is just innately human that people objectify one another, as opposed to trying to have some sort of connection?
KJ: I want to separate that. One, is Venus Hottentot and Sarah Baartman. And the other is, ‘Can we overcome these things?’ Absolutely, and it’s all about being in touch with people. When you live in a segregated world or a world that is separated from others, and you don’t know them, you make up stories about them. Maybe media, other things, writings, or pictures contributed to your thoughts—that are wrong thoughts—or you make all sorts of assumptions that are not true about people. I think when you have contact with people through time and work with people, that changes. When you marry people. When you fall in love with people. That changes whole families and lives.
Looking at histories like that, I think that Hottentot Venus or Sarah Baartman is…she still brings up issues, there’s still books coming out, more and more about this figure and what happened to her. It’s really related to so many other kinds of imagery that we need to overcome. I mean, understanding somebody who’s passed…how much do we really know? We can fill in a lot of gaps, but I think what was great about that book, is that a lot of people just responded to different things. Artist, historians, art historians responded, and I think at a certain point that figure was really powerful for us about claiming something that people thought was strange and saying, ‘No, this is beautiful.’ I think that’s an important way to go forward. I think in my own writing, because the essay took so long to be published, I revised it. It was a conversation and then I added the kind of history of who Sarah Baartman was, and then going from the idea of Hottentot Venus to Saartje Baartman and then people saying, ‘No, we don’t want to call her ‘Saartje,’ because it’s a diminutive.’ Then going to Sarah and seeing how, even from the time of my involvement with Johannesburg and this essay, that her remains get buried. So for me that was very fascinating just to show the changing. As you pointed out, how things change in the world and that they can change. So maybe she’s emblematic of that as well.