Tag Archives: voice

Leading Voices – Past, Present, and Future

Written by Jessica Kay Ruhle

“By looking at the art we can talk about topics that people don’t usually like to talk about.” – Rumaisha Tasnim

“Each viewer sees the art. What you see in it is your truth, it doesn’t have to be my truth.” – Kelsey Trollinger

Recent high school graduates Rumaisha and Kelsey spent much of the past two years at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. As original members of the Nasher Teen Council (NTC), they led public programs, installed exhibitions, met artists, and created their own art. Their quotes are from artist talks they gave this month at an exhibition of work by the teens at a downtown gallery. Paintings and collages from the exhibition Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush inspired much of their work.

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Artist talks by Nasher Teen Council members, June 2017.

As they spoke about the power of art to encourage meaningful conversations and validate individual experiences, Rumaisha and Kelsey–along with the other council members–joined their voices with countless other leaders who recognize the critical role art plays in civic discourse and the growth of a community. During times of uncertainty, political upheaval, and protest, we have to seek out these voices, both past and present, which celebrate what we know to be true about the critical need for influential artists and art institutions.

John F. Kennedy, a powerful champion for the arts, stated, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.” His message, from over fifty years ago, still offers inspiration and leadership on the political role of art in a democratic society.

In a 1963 speech from Amherst College given in honor of Robert Frost, Kennedy begins with praise for the role of universities and an important reminder that “with privilege goes responsibility.” He asks the listener, “What good is a private college or university unless it’s serving a great national purpose?” He insists that the benefits and pleasures of an academic institution are not merely for the graduates to achieve individual economic advantage. Instead, he argues, the cultural agreement is that graduates must use their advantages for the public interest.

After reminding universities of their cultural obligations, Kennedy praises Frost and his poetry. More broadly, he celebrates art as a democratic institution and applauds artists as foundational to America’s greatness. He states, “For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist [. . .] becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Rather than considering artists “who question power” a threat, he welcomes their critiques as “indispensable.”

Nina Chanel Abney critically examines the world through her body of work and requires the same of her viewers. Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, her first solo museum exhibition, addresses politics, celebrity gossip, race, gender, power, and more. In it, Abney spotlights some of the most heated topics in American culture and boldly holds accountable those who misuse their power.

In The Boardroom, 2008, the nearly naked, sometimes bleeding bodies represent the financial leaders who valued profit over stability and led to economic collapse. Either depicted as clowns or wearing yellow gloves that allow them to keep their hands clean from their dirty work, Abney literally strips these men of the power and prestige often afforded to them by their business suits and corner offices.

Six years later, in a more abstracted and digital style, Abney turns her critical eye towards the issues of race, gun violence, and police brutality in the piece UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP), 2014. While her geometric “emojification” of this work differs greatly from the painterly style of The Boardroom and other earlier works, Abney still uses her platform to question societal power structures.

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Kelsey Trollinger, NTC member, leads discussion of UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP), 2014, photo by J Caldwell.

In his Amherst speech, JFK states, “the highest duty of [. . .] the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” Abney echoes his voice in more contemporary language saying, “I like to just drop the bomb and start the conversation and then leave out the room.”

The gallery conversations that Abney starts with UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP) often include visitor descriptions of the scene as chaotic and confusing. As viewers examine the painting, patterns emerge. Visitors identify elements that remind them of pinball machines, streetlights, and the visual noise of cable news channels, the internet, and New York’s Times Square. Visitors consider her use of language. Viewers may read the simplified language, such as “POW” and “YO”, as references to digital culture and the abbreviated communications of texts and tweets. The discussion frequently shifts to Abney’s use of the “X” symbol in this piece and questions of who is a target, who is silenced, and who has a voice. Reading “FUCK T*E *OP” in the top left corner of this painting, conversations may include what language is, and is not, censored, both in her work and, more broadly, in society.

As a leading voice, Abney opens up the conversation to everybody by sharing her visual vocabulary without fully translating the meaning. Remaining intentionally ambiguous about her work, she encourages others to bring their life experiences to their viewing of the truths she depicts and create their own interpretations.

Abney’s examination of societal power structures and contemporary digital culture continues with the most recent painting in the exhibition, Catfish, 2017. Abney says of this piece, “I feel like I am combining everything here.” A monumental portrait of selfie culture, Catfish depicts provocatively positioned female figures who meet the viewer’s gaze directly and self-assuredly. Surrounding the women are dollar signs, many of Abney’s “X” symbols, and language that again reflects the brevity of the digital world. Whatever assumptions a visitor first makes about these women are questioned by the Catfish title. The term “catfish” suggests the bottom-feeding fish, as well as the practice of misrepresenting oneself online, often for financial gain. With this painting, Abney simultaneously incorporates the aesthetic of digital culture and questions how representations of self are used, or misused, within that culture.

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At a time when many political and economic leaders ignore the responsibilities of privilege and dismiss the need for critical voices, artists and institutions can turn to the words of JFK for encouragement and guidance and to the contemporary artists, like Abney, doing the important work of examining societal structures. Emerging artists, like Rumaisha and Kelsey, are also adding their voices to the dialogue. They will continue the work of JFK and Abney, as well as shape the conversation in ways we cannot yet imagine.

To end his speech, JFK shares his hope for the arts saying, “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.” Fortunately, in many places, that America has arrived. It is imperative that we continue to seek new voices – historic and contemporary, spoken and visual – to lead the continued march forward and together.

What voices – established or emerging – are leading you today?

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Rumaisha Tasnim, NTC member, leads discussion in Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, photo by J Caldwell.

Additional Information:

More about JFK’s 1963 speech at Amherst College –

https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/exhibitions/kennedy/documents

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/05/01/jfk-amherst-speech/

More about Nina Chanel Abney –

http://nasher.duke.edu/abney/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/nina-chanel-abney-and-the-premonition-of-social-change_us_58ab2254e4b0fa149f9ac91d

https://vimeo.com/143994438

More photos from the Nasher Teen Council exhibition In Our Own Worlds

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nashermuseum/albums/72157684473570616

Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, is at the Nasher Museum through July 16, 2017. After that, it will travel to multiple locations.  Go check it out!

  • Chicago Cultural Center: February 10 – May 6, 2018
  • The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles: September 23, 2018 – January 20, 2019
  • Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY, Purchase: April 7 – August 4, 2019

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About the Author

Headshot, JKR - 2JESSICA RUHLE is Director of Education & Public Programs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Jessica has worked at the Nasher Museum since 2010. Previously, Jessica worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Marbles Kids Museum. Before arriving in North Carolina, she worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jessica has an MAT in Museum Education from The George Washington University, as well as a BA in Art History from Davidson College.  Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Nasher Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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Header Image: Ayubi Kokayi, NTC member, performs spoken word in front of The Boardroom, 2008, photo by J Caldwell.

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Reflecting on a Hybridized Museum Practice

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on ArtMuseumTeaching.com during August that focuses on the recent book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (2014). Find links below to additional posts in this series by several of the book’s authors, and please join us for an Online Book Club via Google Hangout on August 20th.

Written by Marianna Pegno and Traci Quinn, University of Arizona

In our chapter entitled “Collaborating with Communities: New Conceptualizations of Hybridized Museum Practice” in Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today (2014), we explore Homi K. Bhabha’s ideas of hybridity and cultural translation as they apply to our own practices.  We focused on two programs — Peaceful Migrations and Giving Voice — wherein participant voice was key to creating content, programmatic structures, and exhibition design.  In this reflection we demonstrate how these guiding frameworks continue to inspire our practice as museum educators and researchers, and further explore how we utilized these ideas while developing an exhibition entitled [IN] Translation.  Focusing on the concept of hybridity, we reflect on three continuing issues:

  1. the difficulties of including many voices;
  2. persistent hierarchy and departmental separation in museums; and
  3. our desire to include the museum visitor as a key player in hybrid museum practice.

Bhabha (1994) explains hybridity as an act that “entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (p. 5).  Through this lens, we view the museum as a place of multiple meanings that produces a mixing and mingling of ideas, opinions, and creative visions. For museum educators, it can foster new ways of thinking about educational practice, programmatic structure, and exhibition content not as separate entities but as collaborating endeavors.   Thus, through the process of developing [IN]Translation, our goal was to work with audiences and artists to rethink how the museum pedagogy can be more experiential in nature.  We were working to transform the museum into an empowering environment that conversed with multiple narratives rather than simply our own curatorial or educational voice.

 Thoughts After Publication

InTranslation installation view
InTranslation installation view

We continue to grapple with hybridity as it relates to museum education and institutional structures.  In the development of educational programs we are trying to include as many voices as possible — which is not always easy.  We have continued working with refugee families who participated in Giving Voice to develop in-gallery activities in which participants collaboratively created narratives about artworks in the museum.  As a result, some of these reflections were affixed as a wall label next to the respective artwork, empowering refugee participants to display ideas about an artwork. While the institution has been more accepting of our work to reflect hybridity within the museum space, it is not as widely pervasive as we would like and only selectively displayed and included.

In relation, we constantly face inquiries and pushback from individuals and colleagues who are unfamiliar with the projects or who have no desire to make museum practice more collaborative across departments and with audiences.  The projects we discussed in the book chapter and the projects we continue to develop & research take significant effort and time in order to avoid falling back into the institutional habits of hierarchy.

Individuals that do not have a relationship with the projects are often reluctant to participate in shared planning – or simply cannot dedicate the necessary time. We believe that their experience in the field is invaluable to the success of collaborative efforts, and yet we are met with frustration when they remain separate from educational motivations and thus the program participants.

Another issue that emerged throughout the development of our chapter and ongoing practices was our inability to anticipate visitors’ responses to exhibitions and educational endeavors addressing racial, political, and cultural interpretations of hybridity.  When addressing such content, many visitors revert to stereotypical views that we are hoping to complicate through hybridized co-creation.  Thus, we have been pressed to develop new experiences in the gallery that foster hybridity within the audiences’ interaction with the museum space and artworks.   This idea of including visitor voice was one of the central components to the curatorial and educational design of [IN] Translation.

Thoughts on [IN] Translation

 Visitor participating with Kristen Cochran's "Notes to self" from the exhibition [IN]Translation ARTIST WEBSITE:  http://kristencochran.com/home.html
Visitor participating with Kristen Cochran’s “Notes to self” from the exhibition [IN]Translation
ARTIST WEBSITE: http://kristencochran.com/home.html
Through [IN] Translation, which was displayed in an exhibition space where were not beholden to a defined structure or hierarchy, we were able to explore these above concerns further and reflect upon our practice under conditions that fostered an ideal hybrid between education, curation, artist, and visitor voice.   More specifically, we designed educational installations to supplement the works of art, most of which included opportunities for visitors to add visual or text elements and share stories and reflections. The goal was for the works and the participatory elements to hold equal weight in the design of the exhibit.

[IN] Translation featured eight works of art: one commissioned multi-media work by collaborating curator and artist Anh-Thuy Nguyen, plus seven juried works.  The educational component of each artwork was planned with the artists throughout the development of the exhibition, in order to ensure that the artwork was not inappropriately changed or compromised by the educational elements.  This exhibition provided us an opportunity to challenge hierarchies within a gallery space. We were able to show how the multiple positionalities of educator, curator, artist, and visitor inform one another – migrate within, around, and through one another – in order to foster a different sense of a museum experience.

[IN] Translation was an opportunity to play with the boundaries that normally exist as impermeable divisions between curator, artist, educator, and visitor; we could question how these roles could be seen as transitional, or process based.  Within this exhibition we recognized how ideal this space was, especially considering that freedoms from hierarchical structures will not always be present in a more traditional museum or gallery setting. However, the instance of hybridity, in which these four voices were all present, gave way to dynamic conversations and learning opportunities and are worth noting for our future practice in more traditionally defined spaces.  As we evolve as researchers, museum educators, and collaborators, our goal is to continue to develop programming that positions experiential learning at the core of curatorial and educational design.

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS

TraciQuinnTRACI QUINN: Doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the department of Art and Visual Culture Education. Traci’s research focuses on museum and community-based education.  Currently, she is researching instances that challenge the hierarchical structure of museums and exhibition design and how exhibition and program can be collaboratively developed.  After working in museums and community-based organizations for over 7 years, Traci has experience in the various facets of museum education including: program development, docent training, grant writing, community outreach, and institutional partnerships.   As an art educator and a researcher, Traci is committed to the development of museum-based education as a catalyst for culturally rich and dynamic experiences.

MARIANNA PEGNO: Doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the department of Art and Visual Culture Education. Marianna’s research focuses on community and museum collaborations exploring instances of decentered authority and equitable partnerships. Having worked in museums for more than 8 years, Marianna has experience in museum management, educational programming, and curatorial practice.  She has developed inclusive museum programming including tours for the visually impaired, K-12 enrichment programs for at-risk youth, and a multi-visit program for refugee families.  In practice and research, Marianna aims to transform the museum into a community-centered institution, which is responsive to the voices of its constituency.

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

“Building Canopies for Multiculturalism: (Re)Turning to the Visitor,” by Joni Boyd Acuff & Laura Evans

“It’s Not Always about You: Facilitating Critical Self-Reflection in Others,” by Keonna Hendrick

“Eggs, Oreos, and Solidarity: MCRP in Our Daily Lives,” by Melissa Crum

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Online Book Club Hangout (VIDEO)

On August 20th, ArtMuseumTeaching.com brought together a group of authors and editors of the book Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today for a live discussion via Google+ Hangout.  Those joining the Hangout included Joni Boyd Acuff, Marianna Adams, Briley Rasmussen, Alicia Viera, and Veronica Betancourt.  Please find the video archive of this conversation below, and enjoy!

Don’t Have Your Copy of the Book Yet?  No problem.  As part of this collaboration with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers through this series of posts about Multiculturalism in Art Museums Today, we are able to offer ArtMuseumTeaching.com readers a special discount.  To receive a 25% discount, go towww.rowman.com to order this book and enter the discount code: 4S14ACUEVA