A New Standard for Uplifting Black Narratives Through Conscious Curation

When the memory of the past and the potential of the future we long to see converge to meet us here, which direction do we turn?

by Frederica Simmons

Bayou (Donald Thomas), «4 of Afros» (2020) at the Seward Community Co-Op, 317 E. 38th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55409 (photo by Bayou [Donald Thomas])

Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2021/22 Emily H. Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the first of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an email-only exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers.

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Over the course of centuries, the nation’s white supremacist hegemony has established a culture of Black disenfranchisement that has permeated every corner of the United States, maintained by systems of racial inequality and police brutality. In the state of Minnesota, this legacy has proven to be particularly pervasive, so for many it came as no surprise that Minneapolis would become the site of an ongoing uprising. In the wake of the recent murder of Amir Locke on February 2, 2022, following the murders of Winston “Boogie” Smith, Daunte Wright, Dolal Idd, and George Floyd, the city has been confronted with a reckoning as to whether Black lives truly matter to Minneapolis.

After the catalyzing uprising in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, many cultural institutions have sought to represent themselves more equitably — that is to say, more diversely — to the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community at large. This pursuit of equity has fallen heavily on the shoulders of BIPOC cultural workers, as institutions rush to communicate their inclusivity to majority White audiences. Performative efforts by White curators to create connections in the BIPOC community have resulted primarily in single exhibitions rather than continuing dialogues. Curators are critical in providing narratives and influence to the public that is often taken for granted by museum and gallery visitors. Curation can be both invisible and omnipotent: without the curatorial guidance, there is no meaning, no story. When curatorial work is viewed as preeminent, practitioners risk falling into patterns of self-assured superiority and operate from positions of power hoarding, assuming, as a result of their specialization within a particular field, the role of universal authority on such topics. This rapidly individualizes and isolates the process, often with negative consequences for diverse populations. When White curators seek to express BIPOC stories from their own perspectives, what is lost? Any opportunity for authentic truth to be conveyed.

Simone Alexa Tincher-Lewis, “Stand Together” (2020) at Midtown Global Market, 920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, MN 55407 (photo by Simone Alexa Tincher-Lewis)

As a result of these approaches, with few exceptions, collaborations between White curators and BIPOC contributors are driven by a desire to serve a White audience, first and foremost. Thus, BIPOC collaborators are frequently tokenized, and their input is marginalized at best. At worst, these institutions fail to respond to the movement that is immediately outside of their white walls, ignoring direct calls for equity in the museum space in favor of maintaining donor and board interest in the status quo. This status quo is consistently rooted in anti-Blackness, whether overt or systemic, and in turn reveals the leadership structures that lie beneath the facade to be antiquated racist and imperialist apparatuses. The haste with which art institutions have elected to respond to social conditions that have been thoroughly established over the course of decades reveals an anxiety to respond without the empathetic and informed reflection necessary to produce a truly critical line of inquiry. 

For the BIPOC community of the Twin Cities, the months that followed May 2020 have been defined by communal solidarity, empathy, and care. We have endeavored to redress the immense trauma that surrounds us. Unfortunately, Minneapolis — not unlike other sites of major civil rights movements — has borne the burden of opportunists whose activism serves their own interests. Campaigns by established corporations and grassroots organizations alike, when constructed overnight, operate under the guise of seeking social change; as outsiders they lack experience with the communities they inhabit or the forms of organizing they are attempting. While we all enter this work from different points of knowledge and praxis, novices who elect to represent themselves as authoritative figures in the field move in a frenzy to avoid having their inexperience revealed. In turn, this rush leads these activists to perpetuate the same harms as the institutions they so often denounce. 

Maiya Lea Hartman and Sierra with Creatives After Curfew, “Stronger Together” (2021) at House of Mercy Church, 436 Roy St. N., Saint Paul, MN 55104 (photo by Maiya Lea Hartman)

Surrounded by outdated practices and bare-minimum standards, what does conscious curation look like? Fostering a culture of community care, placing the humanity of the people behind the art before the artwork itself. By rooting the work in care of this kind, allowing the artists the space and grace to express their own narratives instead of promoting an institutional agenda, we end the cycle of self-interest and power hoarding that refuses access to so many in a field already shrouded in mystery. Welcoming BIPOC artists, curators, and others into the curatorial process creates a space for accountability, and allows for a balance in power that identifies and counteracts the pitfalls of tunnel vision common to individualized leadership before those choices cause greater harm to the public. We can then pursue a dialogical curatorial practice that exists to serve the public and enrich the community, providing Black visitors with a reflection of themselves rather than a projection of the White impression of Blackness.

This White impression is pervasive. As a Black woman born and raised in south Minneapolis, I am all too familiar with the framing of Black experience through a White lens. The cultural stereotype of “Minnesota Nice” supports the alleged right to comfort that is integrated within white supremacy: presenting an air of mild-mannered courtesy through false smiles, tight lips, and gritted teeth. In actuality, this stereotype enables forms of demonization and misogynoir that underlie the weaponization of Black emotional expression and produce exclusionary boundaries, both verbalized and unspoken, across predominantly White spaces. 

The museum field, not unlike much of the world, suffers from White solipsism that informs every level of how individual institutions function internally and in relation to those around them. I have witnessed firsthand how this solipsism not only continues to fail the Black and Brown communities that work within and surrounding museums, but detrimentally affects the individual organizations as well. In response, for my community I curate as an act of protest and disruption of oppressive culture. I seek to uplift the narratives of the BIPOC community by cultivating relationships, allowing living artists and their descendants to speak for themselves within the parameters of the exhibition. I work to fill the gaps glaringly evident to my people but unseen to the eye of the oppressor. This, in turn, allows for the development of a world-building process uniquely our own.

Simone Alexa Tincher-Lewis, Taylan De Johnette, Leslie Barlow, Maiya Lea Hartman, and Bayou (Donald Thomas), “Standing Together” (2020) at the Seward Community Co-Op, 317 E. 38th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55409 (photo by Simone Alexa Tincher-Lewis)

Frederica Simmons

Frederica Simmons is a Black American curator, scholar, and museum worker uplifting frequently overlooked narratives in pursuit of racial, gender, and sexual equity in art history. More by Frederica Simmons


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