More of this, please: Making space for equity

Every good thing starts with one step and to get more of this we need to talk about how to take that first step, but we also need to be willing to have more critique. Equity is not a one-time event, and we need more of these small steps to get there.

Aaminah Shakur


“Equity Not Equality” by Eliza Fernand. Photo credit Holly Bechiri.

This essay was inspired by to Jenn Schaub’s “More of this, please: Action.” Schaub’s essay was exciting to me, as I nodded along to so much of it. It has led to several fruitful conversations ever since, and offered me an opportunity to consider what I too want to see more of in Grand Rapids.

When we read these types of articles (and the title alone certainly suggests this is what to expect) we hope to be told who to celebrate — who is doing things we like. And, yes, I promise, that is what I am going to give you a taste of if you read on. It is perhaps even more important, however, to note that we need to temper our celebration with some real talk.

Let’s start there. We, collectively, are not consistently doing the things that need to be done or doing them the right way. Trying isn’t enough, and celebrating those who try isn’t enough. We need to be willing to stop supporting those who aren’t trying, those people and organizations who are obstinately doing things the wrong way, those organizations who do not represent the best of what we can be, and who demonstrate they do not share our values. We also need to be willing to talk about the failures in the trying. The desire to celebrate and “be positive” often leads us to fear or ignore critique, to refer to critique as negative or hating. But we cannot move forward in a good way if we aren’t willing to hear where we didn’t quite manage to do what we thought we were doing, how we could have done it better, and whose voices were sidelined so we could celebrate our efforts.

So, for “More of this, please” I say first, we need more critique. We need more conversations that aren’t just telling us how great we are. We need conversations where we acknowledge when we have been the assholes. We also need to accept not all critique is about having a conversation, and that too is ok. Sometimes we really just need to hear the anger and frustration thrown our way, and work through the critique without looking for ways to respond to it and defend ourselves, but responding by actively doing better.

These are a few things I have been pleased to see, efforts I applaud — while noting quite clearly that equity is not a one-time event, nor is it the responsibility of one organization to “lead.” We need to stop being self-satisfied with “that one show already happened,” as if a quota has been filled. We need to be willing to apologize and make amends when we get things wrong. We must be willing to do the research and labor that happens on the backside of curation, as Heather Duffy and Michele Bosak have taught me, to pull together new voices and perspectives that need an opportunity to be heard. And we need to keep doing the work, over and over.

For the purposes of this article, I am looking at a singular effort by the entities in this list. I am focusing in on how they did one thing well, because every good thing starts with one step and to get More of this (taking more steps along the path) we need to talk about how to take that first step.

Ain’t I, New Work by Le’Andra LeSeur (Spiral, March 2018)

Still from “An Overwhelming Response,” video by Le’Andra LeSeur. Image courtesy the artist.

This was a one-night only live performance plus three video installations of new work by LeSeur. You may remember LeSeur for her two-video installation “Searching” at the Fed Galleries at KCAD during ArtPrize 2017.

The three videos shown addressed LeSeur’s experiences of sexual violence. Two were deeply personal, while one used video of Ayanna Jackson (who testified against Tupac in 1993 for sexually assaulting her) with a text overlay of various comments found on social media over the past few months since the #MeToo movement has taken off. The comments are negative reactions that refer to women who come forward as “groupies,” “liars,” and “looking to get paid,” among other things.

“Subject to Your Approval” by LeAndra LeSeur. Video courtesy the artist.

LeSeur’s live performance was a vulnerable and physically exhausting example of stamina and demand to be acknowledged. The exhibition took place at Spiral, a small one-man gallery in one of the live-work spaces of Avenue for the Arts, owned by Steven Vinson. It was one of Spiral’s most attended events, because as a tiny gallery not many people come by generally. First Fridays are a dying phenomenon locally, which I would argue should be reconsidered and re-conceived if they are to continue happening. This exhibition brought people out who don’t attend First Friday anymore, and some people who don’t attend events on the Avenue at all. It was a moving look at how the epidemic of sexual violence and hyper-sexualization of Black women while ignoring their experiences of violence impacts one Black woman in particular.

More of this, please: Black women being given the space to speak for themselves, and people showing up to listen.

The Shape of Self, work by Riva Lehrer (Fed Galleries at KCAD, Spring 2017)

“Eli Clare” by Riva Lehrer. Photo credit Marjorie Steele.

I don’t just want to talk about showing work by a disabled artist, though that too is important. I don’t want to only tell you that Lehrer’s work in this show was especially meaningful because the paintings were portraits of other disabled writers and artists who chose how they would pose and be portrayed, though that matters as well.

What I want to talk about is the efforts by the Fed Galleries, directed by curator Michele Bosak, to partner with DisArt and look at ways to make the galleries themselves more accessible for more disabled people. Hanging height was examined and lowered so that people in wheelchairs would be able to see them as well as standing visitors. DisArt created an audio walking tour that explained to visually impaired people the space they were in and what was showing. Along with the portraits by Lehrer, there was a video installation, playing in large scale on the gallery wall, of Lehrer’s TedTalk, “Valuable Bodies.” It was an intentional choice to use the version that included captioning so that people with hearing impairments would be able to enjoy it.

This partnership has led to lasting changes in how the Fed Galleries present work and literally make use of space. They have also reexamined how curatorial and artist statements are written to make them closer to a relatively plain English and accessible language for visitors, especially during ArtPrize when thousands of people who do not have an opportunity to regularly engage with formal art spaces come through the galleries.

More of this, please: Making art spaces accessible in the broadest sense of that term, and including disabled artists.

(Full disclosure: I have been a student worker at the Fed Galleries at KCAD since May 2016, and prior to that I was a member of the Accessibility Committee of DisArt, which included co-creating and administering a very basic accessibility assessment for local arts venues. A major focus of my research and work as an undergrad at KCAD majoring in art history and minoring in museum studies is around efforts at making art spaces, art writing, and art conversations more accessible and inclusive.)

Equity Not Equality, ArtPrize entry by Eliza Fernand (Ladies’ Literary Club, Sept/Oct 2017 )

Image credit Holly Bechiri.

This three-piece quilt banner installation was inspired by Fernand thinking about the difference between equity and equality, and what that means in historical and contemporary contexts for women’s movements. Women’s clubs across the country were begun to provide women access to education they previously had withheld from them, with the goal of gender equality. The Ladies’ Literary Club was built in 1887 and, like other women’s clubs, catered exclusively to white women of a certain class background. The club eventually disbanded in 2005 and the building was bought by Calvin College in 2007, but then put up for sale again in 2014, though at present it still serves as an event venue.

Fernand was interested in interrogating the historical purpose of the club, which was exclusionary in practice, and the ways in which contemporary women’s movements continue to function without always recognizing that not all women are at the same starting place, so “equal” services do not result in real equity. It was exciting to see an outdoor visual display of this critique, and a testament to changing values that the Ladies’ Literary Club was willing to host the work and discussions about it.

More of this, please: Honest discussions about our own individual and collective contributions to inequity and how we can change that.

Here + Now (UICA, Spring 2017)

From the series “The Refutation of ‘Good’ Hair” by Nakeya Brown, “Hair Portrait #4“ was part of the UICA’s “Here and Now” exhibit. Photo credit Jeffrey Augustine Songco.

Curated by Heather Duffy and shown in conjunction with the “US IS THEM” exhibition, “Here + Now” was comprised of three small exhibitions of contemporary art by emerging and mid-career Black artists. “Abandoned Margins: Policing the Black Female Body” was a small collection of art guest curated by Janice Bond and featuring a variety of mediums and styles by 21 Black women. The other two exhibitions were solo shows for Nakeya Brown and Mario Moore.

Work from the “Here + Now” exhibitions. Photos courtesy Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.

These exhibitions provided an opportunity for visitors who came to see the “big name” artists in the Pizzuti Collection (“US IS THEM”) to also get to know the work of lesser known Black artists and engage with challenging new forms of art. Much of the art was particularly interesting for the “conversation” it engaged in with historical art movements, literature, and contemporary visual culture. Additional events helped to make the space more welcoming, accessible, and relevant to the local Black community.

More of This, Please: Exhibitions that support living Black artists and actively work to reach out to and include local Black community.

Who Tells the Story: Unpacking Conversations Around Art & Race (culturedGR at Fountain Street Church with GRAAMA, February 2018)

Image credit Isabel Garcia.

I really wanted to make it to this event personally but I could not miss class that evening. I therefore cannot speak to what happened at the event, only to the intention of it. The timing could not have been better, given how insulted I was by Fountain Street Church’s ArtPrize 2017 exhibition and their response to critiques of it. Remember, I said doing something right/good does not make up for doing something wrong. I would also argue that many of us are still owed apologies for the disrespectful way our critiques were handled. That said, culturedGR put together a panel of remarkable local artists of color (Monroe O’Bryant, Ericka Thompson aka Kyd Kane, and Sofía Ramírez Hernández, moderated by Steffanie Rosalez) to talk about how art is used to tell stories, how those stories are told based on who does the telling, and who has the right to tell those stories.

Images credit Isabel Garcia.

The crux of my critique of the ArtPrize exhibition was about people telling stories they have no connection to, and thereby inevitably telling them in hurtful and harmful ways regardless of their supposed intent. A conversation where four of the most vital artists of color in our community took to the stage to discuss these issues was very welcome. Consider also the work of the Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives (GRAAMA), whose exhibition “African American Artists Tell the Story” was the catalyst and visual companion to this panel discussion, as one more example of Black people being able to tell their own stories, share their own history, and define their own culture.

More of This, Please: Letting artists of color speak for themselves and giving them platforms to tell their own stories.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles from local arts professionals and arts lovers, as they share reflections on recent arts experiences and what they want more of in the new year. See all the “More of this, Please” articles here.

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