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Edwin Ramoran starts off the conversation. (all photos courtesy of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation)

On Friday, August 5, I attended a dinner held at the 8th Floor, an exhibition and event space founded by philanthropists Shelley and Donald Rubin and artistic directed by Sara Reisman. The evening was a co-production of the 8th Floor and the artist Elia Alba, who has been organizing a project called The Supper Club since 2012. The social engagement project primarily consists of Alba providing dinner for selected artists of color and recording the conversations, which are usually prompted by provocative questions concerning the intersection of visual culture and race. This dinner was the 20th conversation Alba has produced, and it was a large affair, conducted with wait staff serving the 19 guests seated around four long tables that formed a square. After we had dined on chicken piccatta with artichokes, both turkey and cheese empanadas, spring mix salad and mango-wrapped mozzarella, curator Edwin Ramoran started the conversation.

Ramoran wanted to address what has lately seemed to many at the table that evening, an concerted onslaught against vulnerable communities: resistance to the presence of immigrants and the rejection of refugees, Islamophobia, homophobia, police shootings of unarmed civilians, and generalized gun violence. Prior to the event, Ramoran had formulated and distributed to the guests the following questions to start the conversation:

  • How do you currently define sanctuary?
  • Where do you find sanctuary?
  • What are your current, past and/or future activities, creative and otherwise, that offer protection to you and others?

Justin Allen makes a point.

Ramoran began with his own answer, a personal recollection of finding what felt to him like a refuge in house music, specifically the Body and Soul party that is legendary for a generations of New Yorkers. For Ramoran the feeling of being in a sacred place was a parallel to the experience he had attending church with his family who were devoted Seventh Day Adventists. He wondered out loud what other events, practices, or places might, like that party of soulful release, keep bringing people together. This line of questioning quickly turned into considering whether a place of sanctuary is the same as a place of safety. Virginia Grise, a Chicana artist and playwright argued that they were not, because sanctuary hinges on the idea of protection, which is distinct from safety. Rosamond King, a performance artist and poet made the incisive but dispiriting observation that no place is safe. Alba, paraphrasing Arnaldo Morales, an artist from a previous dinner, followed on this, noting that given the looming environmental crises precipitated by climate change, “the planet is going to shit and race isn’t going to matter.”

Laurie Prendergast talking about our relationship to privilege

Contemplating the difference between safety and sanctuary led the artist Maria José to assert that she finds sanctuary within herself, particularly because as a transgender person she consistently feels under threat in spaces populated by the mainstream public. Even worse, she claimed that she felt that way in spaces populated by gay men. Nicky Paraiso, an actor and performance artist affirmed her position, stating “gay men are the worst.”

I worried about the solipsism of Maria José’s position and brought up my discomfort with settling for an inward sanctuary, as opposed to a collective one. This concern led the room to talking about empowerment and privilege, with some acknowledging the privilege of being in the space of the 8th floor, enjoying food and wine. Elia Alba suggested that we all were privileged by being able to sit at a table being served good food (which Alba has made herself). In one of the few moments of palpable tension, Laurie Prendergast bristled against the idea that this meant that she or anyone else at the table could rightly be called “privileged,” though they were currently enjoying a privilege.

Everyone together

This led to the claim, made by Sur Rodney Sur that “they” want to keep people of color and the LGBTQ community fearful, and wants to choke off the opportunities to band together. I alternatively suggested that everyone is fearful, particularly the straight, white, privileged men who have been very vocal in supporting Trump’s candidacy for president. The conversation soon found it ways towards some tentative conclusions: sanctuary can be created though safety does not exist, and the conversation we were having was a clear example of this sanctuary being created through collective effort — and in intergenerational aspect of that conversation needs to be systematically pursued, because the younger people of color or members of the queer community face struggles that are historical, as if for the first time. Together we found that in our flawed, distempered culture to be free is not the same as being free. Some go to the dance club to be free, that is to taste that state of being. But at some point, one has to leave and venture home, where some of us are not free.

The exhibition In the Power of Your Care closed at the 8th Floor on August 12. The next show, Enacting Stillness, opens on September 21. Alba has photographed her dinner guests, and this series of portraits will be presented as an exhibition at the 8th Floor in the spring of 2017.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The American Age. His book...

5 replies on “A Supper Club Invites Artists of Color to Discuss Sanctuary and Safety”

  1. “…straight, white, privileged men…”

    I often wonder what kind of discussions identity politics activists in the arts genuinely want to have with people, and with whom, in their mission for social justice, when so easily and relentlessly turning to villainization and caricature. Discussion requires mutual respect. If people aren’t willing to work for that, they aren’t ready or prepared to have the interaction they claim to want.

    1. I really don’t think it’s anyone’s intent to “villainize or “caricature” straight white men. However, when you look around, it’s obvious that straight white men of privilege hold mostly every position that has the power and influence to make the huge changes we need to make in all of our our societies institutions. They have held those positions since this country’s inception, and that’s a fact. They are in a unique position to help our society evolve to a place where everything could be more equal and balanced, yet all we keep getting is a resistance, which is mostly coming from that very group that seems to get angry and threatened by the mere mention of change and diversity. I’M NOT SAYING IT’S A MONOLITHIC GROUP, but the amount of power they hold is definitely out of proportion to their numbers. How can things ever change if the only lens through which things are being viewed is theirs, or the only point of view that is taken seriously, are their views and opinions? At this critical juncture they need to concede some of that power to other voices, in order help bring about a more balanced and inclusive perspective on how we should precede as a nation, from this point. Examining straight, white, male privilege and how it affects our society is not villainizing, it’s observing, doing some critical thinking and coming up with the fact that the common denominator is, pretty much, always the same and THAT needs to change.

      1. Dear Renee Stout,

        Thanks for this. You are spot on. In the US we are so primed for rancor and anger in our public discourse that simple (and truthful) identification gets interpreted as condemnation.

        1. You don’t have discourse, Steph. You have support groups where you speak “truth” to each other.

          When you’re ready to listen, then you’re ready for “discourse”.

      2. In other words, not prepared.

        Drop the we/them rhetoric and you’ll get closer. There is no “we” and “them” to have a conversation: individual people do that.

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