Interviews

How to Curate a Yearlong, Three-Part Exhibition

Curators Jaishri Abichandani and Natasha Becker unpack Perilous Bodies, Radical Love, and the upcoming Utopian Imagination exhibitions — three exhibitions that formed one series for the Ford Foundation Gallery’s inaugural year.

Athi-Patra Ruga, “Umesiyakazi in Waiting​” (2015) (image courtesy of the artist and WHATIFTHEWORLD; photo by Hayden Phipps)

In March 2019, the Ford Foundation opened a dedicated gallery within its recently renovated Center for Social Justice. Lisa Kim, the Ford Foundation Gallery’s director, had been working in this role for just over a year at the time of the opening. For guidance, she looked to the evolution of the Foundation’s early mandate of promoting democracy and human achievement, to a profound commitment to combating global inequity. How would curators approach this challenge? Particularly in a space that is quite different, both in structure and audience, from more traditional institutions.? As the Ford Foundation Gallery presents its opening year of three interconnected exhibitions — Perilous Bodies, Radical Love, and Utopian Imagination — Hyperallergic’s Emily Hall Tremaine Fellow, Laura Raicovich spoke with the curators of these first forays in the space, Jaishri Abichandani and Natasha Becker.

The following was edited from two separate interviews.

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Hyperallergic: The Ford Foundation Gallery is not a museum, it’s not a commercial space, it’s not what we might have called an alternative space in the 1970s. Given that you’re the first curators who have worked in this space, what was it like for you to imagine and implement a program?

Natasha Becker:  I think the most powerful thing about doing Perilous Bodies and Radical Love for me as a curator is the impact of working in a context that truly supports difference, diversity, and inclusion in the arts. I think that made all the difference for me. The Ford Foundation sends that message; it’s in its DNA. The president [of the Foundation, Darren Walker,] has an extraordinary love of art and support for artists and art institutions, and he is a major proponent of diversity and inclusion in the arts.

Jaishri Abichandani: As an artist and a curator, I love being able to bring the incredible communities of artists that I know to the resources of organizations. When Lisa approached me to put together a curatorial proposal for her, it was a dream job because social justice has really been the base of all of my practice.

I proposed an exhibition in three parts. And she looked at it, and said, “Well, this is only a 1,900-square-foot space, let’s do this as three exhibitions?” Of course I agreed. Subsequently, Natasha, my co-curator on the [first two] iterations, was brought and she made fantastic contributions to the project.

Installation view, Radical Love, Thomas Lanigan Schmid “The Preying Hands” (2019) (image courtesy Ford Foundation Gallery)

H: Can you tell me about the initial impetus for your proposal? What is the narrative arc that you’re suggesting?

NB: Lisa brought me and Jaishri together because we had a common idea of exploring violence, beauty, and the environment. Jaishri was coming at it from a particular take on Naomi Klein’s work. I was coming at it from thinking about landscape and environment and how it’s a manifestation of the violence we enact on ourselves and each other and the planet.

JA: When I was researching ideas for my proposal, I came across a quote by Naomi Klein. She talked about the fact that now more than ever we have a political engagement thanks to social media, mass communication, and lots of new digital media. But these new conditions haven’t always translated into the type of political action and policy that we want. She attributes this situation to a lack of a unifying utopian vision.

Installation view, Radical Love (photo by Sebastian Bach, courtesy Ford Foundation Gallery)

She points to the fact that 50 years ago when people were coming into social justice organizing, they had total revolution in mind, so over the decades, social justice issues have been carved into professional silos. We no longer connect the dots to get traction around the idea of a more unified or integrated strategy.

The three-part exhibition is, in a sense, a translation of these ideas. I started by looking at violence through an intersectional lens, and first acknowledging the issues. These issues include war, the military industrial complex, refugees, land, and border issues. They also include systemic oppression which speaks to race, gender, and caste-based bias, as well as the condition of the planet suffering from human interventions.

Installation view of Perilous Bodies with (below) Tiffany Chung’s “finding one’s shadow in ruins and rubble” (2014); and (above) Sara Rahbar’s “America, Flag #54” (2017) and (right) “Land of the Free, Flag 55” (2017) (photo by Seph Rodney for Hyperallergic)

From these threads, the first exhibition in the series, Perilous Bodies, laid out and examined that violence. Then Radical Love made the case that the antidote to violence is love. It proposes laying aside the differences to understand that we’re at a moment of absolute urgency where all of us have to come together to manage the damage towards the planet. And that, ultimately, we need to lay aside capitalism, and nations, and religions to understand that we are a species under existential threat.

The next exhibition, which opens on September 17, is titled Utopian Imagination. It is the final show in the series and it is about imagining the future. We’re bringing together works from across the decades by artists of different ethnicities that address this space. It includes folks like Mariko Mori and the ways in which she was thinking about science fiction, Cannupa Hanska Luger imagined indigenous futures, and a whole load of new artists including Saks Afridi, a Pakistani artist based in New York who has created this fantastic project called The Space Mosque. Rather than exploring White men’s theories of utopian imagination, I’m really interested in foregrounding the imaginations of artists of color.

The point of the series of exhibitions is to create a sacred space with all of us as the protagonists.

Mohamed Hafez, “Damascene Athan Series” (2017) (image courtesy of Ford Foundation Gallery, photo by
Sebastian Bach)
Dread Scott, “The Blue Wall of Violence” (1999)

H: Let’s discuss Radical Love in greater depth. It’s such a generous exhibition. How did you manage to get so many dynamic, colorful, energetic, and rich artworks into a space that’s not enormous while retaining space for their individual contemplation? 

JA: I think it’s just from doing this work for 22 years, right? [Laughs.] The whole idea for the installation of the show was to bring the garden in the atrium of the Ford building into the gallery with the works by Ebony G. Patterson, and Lina Puerta, and Athi-Patra Ruga, and Maria Berrio. So the foliage comes into the space, and then it builds from there. The foliage refers to the natural world, and the larger gallery is organized very much like a cathedral or a temple. So each artwork is a deity.

H: You have a visually dense, color-rich environment in which you’re installing the works. This is by no means the white cube. You’ve completely erased that feeling. Was this your intention? Tell me about the way the artworks relate to the surfaces on which they’re placed.

NB: We always envisioned the show as a visual feast, opulent and rich and sensory. We envisioned that the environment would communicate this feeling, but simultaneously that the works would, of course, speak for themselves. Choosing a paint color was a complex conversation with lots of swatches flying by. Ultimately, however, it all came together when the work was in the space. While the gallery is not monumental, it has 20-foot-high ceilings which really helped maintain an airy feeling despite the intensity of the works.

JA: I really wanted to work with artists that are using a maximalist, opulent, baroque aesthetic. This is very much a strategy of resistance to the kind of aesthetic economics that are imposed upon us, the aesthetic austerity that’s imposed upon artists of color that is intended to evacuate visual histories and provide the White art world with an easily digestible hors d’oeuvre. That is not acceptable to me.

We wanted folks to understand that there are so many ways in which the works of artists of color can be presented that go way beyond the traditional white cube. I also wanted to contextualize the work from an emotional framework of love.

Utopian Imagination opens at the Ford Foundation Gallery on September 17, 2019 from 6-8pm.

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