I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to Artadia for the invitation to visit Atlanta, Atlanta Contemporary for hosting my lecture, and to the artists who opened their studios to me. My curatorial practice engages primarily with notions of power and the legacies of black cultural production in America so, I was particularly interested in visiting Atlanta to see how their institutions are shaped by the city’s demographic (according to the 2010 US census, Atlanta’s black population was about 54% compared to Philadelphia’s 43.1%, where I currently reside.) I’ve structured this response as a way to highlight conversations that I had while conducting studio visits with a diverse group of artists: Robbie Land, Andy Ditzler, Cosmo Whyte, Jiha Moon, Jerry Siegel, Jason Benson, Larry Walker, Paul Stephen Benjamin, and Angela West.
Shortly after arriving, I headed to the experimental filmmaker Robbie Land’s studio. I was not familiar with Robbie’s practice prior to the invitation but was interested in the ways that he was experimenting with film and nature after seeing he had done work with the Florida Lightning Research Facility. We looked at several new works in progress and ended up focusing on a new film where he was exposing fallen leafs found in his local park with film. We talked about process and sequencing and soon turned to a conversation on Guy Debord’s notion of the Dérive and how to best translate that into a film. It was then a quick jaunt over to Andy Ditzler’s home where we chatted over tea and cookies about John Q, an “idea collective,” which he is a founding member. Andy gave me an overview of their practice which complicates the distinctions between art production and research. I am usually interested in forgotten pasts, and many of their projects deal with LGBTQ histories that have been erased. I was particularly interested in their ability to link seemingly distant narratives around queerness, history, and power. I ended my evening with a studio visit with Cosmo Whyte, an artist whose work I was familiar with, but had not had a chance to see in person. Cosmo has a practice that utilizes performance, photography, and drawing and we spent a considerable amount of time discussing the complications between objectivity and subjectivity. He was generous enough to introduce me to the community of makers in his studio’s buildings, and we have kept in touch since our initial meeting – Cosmo will be in Philly in the next month or two, and we plan on catching up then.The next morning, I met Jiha Moon at her home to see some new ceramic works she was creating for an upcoming exhibition. Jiha’s practice incorporates mediums and iconography often associated with traditional Korean practices while interrogating the slippages between eastern and western culture. We ended up having an interesting conversation about translation and the failures of language. I then met with the photographer, Jerry Siegel who documents southern culture. We chatted about our love of dogs (he has a beautiful portrait of his late-dog hung prominently) and some of the stories behind several bodies of works. These visits are incredibly fast, and after trying Jerry’s favorite gingerbread cookies, I had to dash over to Atlanta Contemporary. There I met with studio resident Jason Benson, who I’ve known since we studied together at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago about a decade ago. It was lovely catching up with him and hearing his thoughts on the Atlanta art scene in comparison to San Francisco and Chicago.
After my studio visit with Jason I had some time to check out Lonnie Holley’s solo exhibition, I Snuck Off the Slave Ship. Holley is a legend, and it was a delight to see his assemblages and to chat with curator Daniel Fuller about the work and the process of forming the show. I then lectured about my practice and my then, in progress exhibition Speech/Acts, which was a group exhibition featuring Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Steffani Jemison, Tony Lewis, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, and Martine Syms. The exhibition explored experimental black poetry and how the social and cultural constructs of language have shaped black American experiences. This lecture marked my third talk around the formation of the exhibition and allowed me to articulate ideas I had mostly spoken with Cosmo about around abstraction and language as an alternative to figurative work and the complications that it holds particularly for black figures. The Q&A was primarily about the controversy of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket as I was in Atlanta the same week of Parker Bright’s and Hannah Black’s responses.
My following morning visit with Larry Walker began with a tour of his family’s art collection – which takes up the majority of wall space in their home. Before meeting Larry, several of the artists I had conducted studio visits with told me how important he was to their practice. It was easy to see why; we spoke about the process of archiving one’s career and mostly about his pedagogical practice in teaching younger generations. It was a real honor to have a conversation with him. After Larry, I met with Paul Stephen Benjamin who showed me some monochromatic work that he was creating. I had seen some prior documentation online, but it was great to see the materiality of the work in person. The highlight of our visit was entering a small room inside a garage that housed under 100 televisions for Paul’s video installations. Stacked and lining the perimeter of the room I had a chance to preview God Bless America, a hypnotic remix of Aretha Franklin, before seeing it in the Studio Museum of Harlem’s recent exhibition Fictions. My final visit was with the photographer Angela West. We looked at a new body of work combining photography with painting – more accurately painting with a paintball gun. However, we ended up centering our conversation on a series of portraits of her father and his friends. The work explores the performance of white southern masculinity and felt like a project to return to during the current political climate.
My final day in Atlanta was spent visiting museums and galleries and hosting a dinner with local artists of color (not all Artadia) with my ICA colleague Maori Holmes. These dinners are part of a series I have been doing to form community and to host informal conversations with black artists and arts administrators. What struck me most about this trip, was the diversity of artists in the Atlanta area, but the lack diversity on the administrative side of the institutions (I am speaking to mostly curatorial positions.) I am interested to see how the city changes over the coming years as many cities have recently made strides in critically thinking about who museums represent, both inside and out.
Meg Onli is a curator and writer whose work attends to the intricacies of race and the production of space. Since joining the Institute of Contemporary Art as an Assistant Curator she has worked on the exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now and is currently organizing a group exhibition entitled Speech/Acts, which assembles a group of artists who are working with Black poetics. Prior to joining Institute of Contemporary Art she was the Program Coordinator at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. While at the Graham Foundation she worked on the exhibitions Architecture of Independence: African Modernism and Barbara Kasten: Stages. In 2010 she created the website Black Visual Archive for which she was awarded a 2012 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. In 2014 she was the recipient of a research grant from the Graham Foundation for the collaborative project Remaking the Black Metropolis: Contemporary Art, Urbanity, and Blackness in America with curator Jamilee Polson Lacy. Onli holds a Master’s degree in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her writing has appeared in Art21, Daily Serving, and Art Papers.