Toshi Reagon (photo by Zak Krevitt)

Watching Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum of Harlem, swaying to the blues of Toshi Reagon’s BIGLovely in a crowded room at the Park Avenue Armory, felt like a fitting end to a symposium called “Interrogations of Form: Culture in a Changing America.” Wearing a button-down floral shirt, a flowing skirt, and tall, two-toned suede boots, Golden moved effortlessly in the crowd; she seemed part of the scene — neither above it nor beyond it. Nearby was dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones. Svelte, handsome, and smiling, he seemed to be absorbing every moment of Reagon’s fiercely engaged remix of R&B history with her own impassioned style.

This concert, concluding a long day of panel discussions, reinforced a theme:  the need for artists to physically congregate, to make new — and safe — spaces and to enliven these spaces with soul, connection, energy, and spirit. Seldom are these amorphous concerns noted on project proposals, curatorial agendas, or marketing strategies. When one is asked about “intended outcome” on a grant proposal, for example, does anyone answer “spiritual communion, brotherhood, positive energy exchange”?

Onyedika Chuke on the Art and the City panel (photo by Zak Krevitt)

A collaboration between the Armory and the Studio Museum, the symposium took place on February 17. It aimed to assess how current political conditions have influenced or changed art production. Golden moderated the sold-out keynote conversation, which featured Bill T. Jones, spoken-word poet and playwright Marc Bamuthi Joseph, artist Julie Mehretu, and musician Toshi Reagon. Preceding the panel was the performance of a Native American traveling song by Kevin Tarrant of Hopi/HoChunk tribes. Tarrant explained that there is a Cree saying: “The people who walk the rough road travel safely.”

The road has indeed been rough for people of color in the art world and elsewhere. When Golden kicked off the discussion with the question: “What does it mean to you today, I mean literally today, to be an artist,” it was not simply a feel-good crowd-rouser. There is an urgency to the question, an assumption that the role of the artist today, in a political climate veering toward fascism, is different than it was in a proverbial yesterday.

An artist should be able to pursue life “beyond agonizing exhaustion,” Marc Bamuthi Joseph replied emphatically. He continued that there should be an ongoing “engagement with boundaries, an evisceration of boundaries, and a rebuilding of the moral infrastructure of this country.” Mehretu stated that there must be an “insistence on maintaining and protecting creative inventive space and really investigating who you are as an individual and what space you want to either explode or explore and make for yourself and what language you want to continue to push and invent.”

Marc Bamuthi Joseph (photo by Zak Krevitt)

Jones intoned, “An artist should be the freest person in culture. An artist should be someone running naked in the streets thumbing their nose at all received wisdom,” while Reagon added, “We must try to understand why we were so destructive and change that.”

During an earlier session titled “The Poetics of Resilience,” moderator Tina Campt, a professor at Barnard College and Columbia University, summarized the current cultural condition for black artists as a paradox: There is more anti-black violence than ever in communities at the same time that there is a tremendous outgrowth of black aesthetics, art, and literature. She then posed the question, “So what does it mean to make culture in the moment of this paradox?”

Responses ranged from the need to make spaces where one can safely withstand being watched and consumed, to the creation and curation of art that sets up active encounters rather than passive viewing. Performer and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili noted that artists must figure out “how to navigate so they aren’t easily consumed”; in other words, the speed with which art becomes capital potentially leaves artists behind and changes the meaning and intent of the work. She also posited that spaces need to be created or curated where whiteness is better understood because it is not easy to see normalized or systemic power structures. Curators can make these structures visible by not allowing people to be passive spectators, and by making spaces uncomfortable. Okpokwasili cited one of her performances that included a 30-minute tremor, an extended gesture of pain to be endured by both dancer and audience.

Bill T. Jones (photo by Da Ping Luo)

Another panelist, artist/photographer Leslie Hewitt, explained that she had to find a way to wrest free from photography’s white history. By looking to different traditions, such as sculpture and dance, she was able to access different aspects of photography and understand notions of framing. Taking risks and entering a discursive space where meaning is not fixed, she said, is where play and discovery can begin. Okpokwasili added, “In the space of play is also the space of doubt, the unknown. I am not interested in a perfect exegesis of what an audience has seen. Can we get lost together and resist being consumed?”

These strands of dialogue, spoken by predominantly black artists to a mixed audience, felt powerful, even if the symposium’s time and thematic limits only allowed participants to skim the surface. Together, these voices created the “collective vibration” that Okpokwasili and others championed throughout the symposium. Could the terms of the art world really change from a historic model of the individual and competitive creative genius to notions of collective power and proximity? Saidiya Hartman, a professor of English at Columbia, said the defining moment for her was around 2000, when Thelma Golden and Lowery Stokes Sims left their posts at the Whitney Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively, and joined forces at the Studio Museum of Harlem. The exhibition Free Style, featuring 28 emerging black artists, initiated a paradigm shift or the start of an eruption. The Post-Black art movement had female leaders who provided spaces for diverse and complex, difficult artwork, and for unresolved issues to be advanced as questions rather than assertions. It was a refreshed curatorial model.

Kevin Tarrant (photo by Zak Krevitt)

Bill T. Jones — who has advocated for black identity, history, and visibility for decades — leaned back in his chair and concluded, “It is still hard to bring black and white people into the same cultural space, watching something at the same time.” With dismay, he asked, “How many black folks are actually in positions of running organizations?”

Julie Mehretu responded that there are now many exhibitions of black artists and institutions hiring black curators. Her impulse to create engaged and protected spaces extends to a collective in the Catskills she belongs to, in which food production, collectivity, and art production come together on preserved acreage away from the art world’s centers and against the tidal wave of gentrification.

None of the panelists addressed the existing framework of the white box. It felt as if that hegemonic, white, male notion was already tedious and inconsequential. The new spaces for thinking about and showing art have not yet been codified. Perhaps these are sites of interruption, as when a marching chorus unexpectedly paraded through the Armory hallways and into the meeting rooms in the middle of the symposium, singing a spiritual protest ballad, “I shall not, I shall not be moved. Just like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved.” Tina Campt simply responded, “The concept of a chorus as opposed to soloist … a modality of creating over the singularity that is so privileged.”

“Just keep walking into rooms where you aren’t respected,” advised performer Eisa Davis. “If you don’t fit in anywhere, create a new world from scratch,” added Latinx director Yara Traviesco. More specifically, artist and archivist Onyedika Chuke advised, “Talk about art history while listening to Trap music while looking at Delacroix.”

Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely (photo Debra Brehmer)

“Art sharpens the intellectual muscle,” said Jones. This was followed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s wise words: “Politics ultimately is a nexus of the people. What is useful for the people? Love is useful. It is not just an esoteric, marginal phenomenon that may happen if you are lucky. … Art is useful in the sense that it is an instrument by which we can recognize the humanity of one another. It is one of the few social instruments we currently have in which empathy is the currency of choice. Think about inspiration as a democratic ideal.”

“Interrogations of Form: Culture in a Changing America” took place at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) in collaboration with the Studio Museum in Harlem on Sunday, February 17.

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Debra Brehmer

Debra Brehmer is a writer and art historian who runs a contemporary gallery called Portrait Society in Milwaukee, WI. She is especially interested in how portraits convey meaning.