How these Black women curators are empowering artists to tell their own stories

For Donna Jackson, art has always been a way to explore the emotions and experiences that make up the complexity of her identity. 

The experiences of being a Black woman and an artist represent what Jackson says is a “twoness” or what civil rights activist, sociologist, and author W.E.B. Dubois refers to a double consciousness.  

During the civil unrest that swept across the country last summer in response to the killing of George Floyd, Jackson found herself re-reading Dubois’ book “The Souls of Black Folk.” In the book, Dubois describes the unique experience of being Black and an American and viewing yourself through the eyes of others. The theory of double consciousness described over 100 years ago is what Jackson says still defines the Black experience today, and this idea inspired her to present an exhibit proposal to The Scarab Club’s Board President Mariuca Rofick.

The Scarab Club in Midtown has recently changed the makeup of its board of directors, which now include two other African Americans along with Rofick: Carol Morisseau and David Rudolph. Last summer’s racial reckoning was the “kismet of moments” that Jackson says helped to get her proposal approved.

“The board at the Scarab Club was more diverse. The events of last summer really opened up a lot of eyes and the proposal fell on the desk at the right time,” she says.
Model D spoke with Black women art curators like Jackson about how their respective institutions are evolving, how they use art to express intersectional identities of gender and race, and how they are opening doors for Detroit artists of all experience levels to make sure they are seen and understood.

‘For too long we have been invisible’
The focus on identity is the basis behind Souls of Black Folk: Bearing Our Truth, an exhibition that recently wrapped up at The Scarab Club. The exhibit focuses on the complexity of being Black in America and includes the experiences of 20 Detroit artists, including Sydney James, Desiree Kelly, Charles Miller, Carole Morisseau, Sabrina Nelson, Yvette Rock, and more.

“One thing this exhibit shows is how diverse we truly are in our thinking,” she says.
Through her own art, Jackson explores the narrative of femininity and womanhood and what they mean to her. She parallels her womanhood with being a global citizen, an urban dweller, and with being Black. Jackson understands the strength that comes from sharing and being able to validate her own experiences as a freeing one. “As Black women, I feel it is important because for too long we have been invisible.”
She also emphasizes the importance of telling your story, even if it’s difficult, because it helps create a greater understanding.

“It’s a vulnerability to share and to tell your story and your narrative. But sometimes we think of vulnerability and we think about weakness, but there’s a strength in sharing. If we do more of that I think people would understand more of what’s going on when it comes to being a woman in this society, an artist in this society, and being Black in this society,” she says.

Being seen and understood is a powerful part of telling your story. She encourages women to share their own narratives. Jackson curates Women’s Work, an online gallery created by DMJStudio that supports the creativity of women artists, in their own words and artwork, in Detroit, and beyond. 

“We have to share our stories and then honor other women as they share theirs too. That empowers us all.”

Opening doors for others
Jackson also co-curated Griot Speaks with Asia Hamilton, a photographer, curator, and founder of Norwest Gallery of Art in the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood.

“In African traditions, the griot is the one that holds the history, and they are also the storyteller,” says Jackson. “They are the ones that make sure every generation understands the generation before.”Griot Speaks, on display until March 31, serves as another outlet of creative release that uses various mediums of art to tell the story of contemporary Black life. Featuring the work of 12 artists such as Bree Gant, Oneita Jackson, and more, the exhibition is visual storytelling.

“Art is supposed to tell a story. Artists are bearing their souls, sharing an experience that they’ve had in any medium. They go hand in hand,” Hamilton says.

Curating exhibitions like Griot Speaks is just one of many ways Hamilton gives back to local artists. She chooses to mentor Black artists because she didn’t receive a lot of guidance in the art industry. For a time, Hamilton was trying to find her lane, while “bumping my head on everything.” Then she decided to carve her own lane, or what she calls “the birth of I’m gonna do it my damn self.”

The motivation was conceived due to the lack of instruction or blueprint for artists to follow. This further motivated her to help other artists get on their feet. Norwest Gallery serves as a space granting exposure to artists who may not receive it regularly, or at all.

She’s showcased young artists like Cyrus Tetteh, a photographer who has photographed the likes of famous Detroiters like Big Sean for the City of Detroit. 

“His work is so powerful. I love his eye,” Hamilton says of Tetteh. She views Tetteh’s imagery “as something special that needs to be put on display.”

“I want to encourage people and help them to get on their path.”

‘This work is medicine for myself’

Dual Vision. Image Courtesy of MOCAD

For Jova Lynne, who returned to her role as curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) last September after getting laid off in April along with others, collaborating is a key part of curating and an equal part of Dual Vision, the latest exhibition on display until Aug. 8. The 40-artist exhibition features 20 individual projects, requiring a pair of artists to work together based on their shared medium. Some of the artists have never met before this project, and others have never collaborated before. Each piece represents dual creativity by allowing artists to have an explorative conversation of various methods and ideas. Although a collaborative effort, it was still met with its challenges. 

“Curating an exhibition during a pandemic and immediately following a big transformation at the museum of course comes with challenges. Being patient and working as a team to cross any challenge together was the strategy. Finding a balance around expectation and meeting an artist with grace and care,” she says. 

Dual Vision is one of four in-person exhibitions premiering under the leadership of interim director Laura Hughes. Last summer, more than 70 employees accused former Chief Curator and Executive Director Elysia Borowy-Reeder of creating a toxic environment isolating current and former staff members. In a series of letters drafted by former and current workers consisting of curators, educators, and various staff who make up MOCAD Resistance, which included Lynne, they accused Borowy-Reeder of abusive and racist behavior. Following an investigation, Borowy-Reeder was fired.

“Museums are going through a cultural renaissance, not just at MOCAD, but across the board. I think we are coming out of a hard time, but I hope that we can earn back people’s trust and thrive as a beacon of the arts in the city,” says Lynne. 

Since Borowy-Reeder’s departure, the museum has implemented a series of changes, including adding new members to the board such as dream hampton, the producer behind the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” which garnered an Emmy Award nomination; adopting a land acknowledgment practice; and offering programming such as Dual Vision that showcases the diversity of perspectives in Detroit.

For Dual Vision, the reception has been positive, and not only amongst the artists, but with the patrons as well. “This exhibition is a joyful one. In terms of viewership, people are coming in and saying this is the first time in a long time they’ve felt at home at MOCAD,” she says.

For Lynne, she is aware of the hard work that comes with her position as senior curator, as well as the time constraints on her own personal projects. The experience of being a Black woman in a leadership role makes her feel a deep responsibility to her community and to the work she oversees and creates.

“There are very many Black women doing this work, but there’s a beautiful number of Black women in the arts doing this work that are underrecognized.
“This work is medicine for myself and medicine for my community and that is deeply connected to Black womanhood.”

‘The most important show I’ve ever done’

Misha McGlownMove The World, an exhibit at The Irwin House Global Art Center and Gallery on West Grand Boulevard, looks into “the extraordinary lives of ordinary sisters and queens” and creates and celebrates the unique composite of the Black woman through various lens, a view that is often unrepresented in mainstream media.
Misha McGlown, director of Irwin House, realizes the importance of telling a story from multiple perspectives. 

In choosing the art, McGlown looks to “tell a story from many different perspectives.” In those differences she wanted each artist to show a facet of the Black woman in her “ youth, energy, power, sexuality, ordinariness, her sorrow and African heritage. I just wanted to make sure that each artist's work embodied something different about the Black woman because we are complex and multifaceted.”

Sweet Bitter Tangerine Mambo by Laura Gadson at the Irwin GalleryMove The World features the work of local Detroit and visiting artists Ricky Weaver, Dawn Okoro, Laura Gadson, Jonathan Harris, Jide Ade, Damien Mathis, Donn Thompson, Bai, and Brittini Ward, the exhibit’s poet laureate. 

The concept of Move The World was an impromptu idea created to celebrate Black History Month. The inspiration behind it, however, was motivated by the Black women organizers and voter turnout in Georgia, where Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated the incumbent Republian senators in the January runoff election. Led by Stacey Abrams, Black women in Georgia helped pull off the seemingly impossible political feat that gave Democrats a slim majority in the Senate.

“That really caused us to lean towards making the show about not only Black history but Black women and giving the show some extra life into Women's History Month,” she says. 

McGlown understands the important message that Move the World is making, not only in offering different experiences of black womanhood, but also the deeper message it sends to Black women — a message of acceptance, self-love, and understanding.  

“Some women and young girls I look at them and wonder, does she know? Does she know how beautiful she is, how powerful she is? And if she did, how might that change her life?”

McGlown has curated a lot of shows but this one is especially significant. “Most of my shows I try to have socially relevant themes, but I’m starting to feel like this is the most important show I’ve done.”

Move the World, which is showing until March 28, acts as a visual cultural statement for Black women, a statement that McGlown is proud to present. 

“Whatever role that art can play in helping us to see ourselves completely that's what I can contribute.”
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