Monday, September 21, 2015

David Adjaye and a few close artist friends' offer up inspired debate over Architectural Grad Student's provocative Question

click images for larger view
 The first Chicago Architecture Biennial doesn't begin until October 3rd, but already things are already heating up with events relating to the opening last Saturday of the Art Institute's blockbuster exhibition, Making Place: The Architecture of David AdjayeLast Wednesday, the Tanzanian born, Britain-based architect was in conversation with exhibition curator Zoë Ryan, and on Saturday, Adjaye  and Ryan were back for a panel discussion, The Art of Architecture - David Adjaye's Collaborations with Artists
Other participants included Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden, artists Lorna Simpson, Chris Ofili and Chicago's own Theaster Gates, and Okwui Enwezor, director of Haus der Kunst in Munich, which co-curated the exhibition.
Lorna Simpson
It was an engaging discussion, which we hope to draw upon when we write further on this dazzling show, but for now I wanted to concentrate on what happened at the end of the main program when  a student at the University of Washington in St. Louis asked a question that immediately caused the panelists to sit up and take notice.
A rush of energy spread throughout the room and fueled deeply engaged responses from each panelist, which began with issues of race, moved on to the questions of how a young person makes their mark in an indifferent world, and ending with a a spirited exchange on the origins of creativity. I'm sure for most of my readers, this is shear TLDR, but I found the discussion fascinating enough that I'm recounting it here in my imperfect transcription.

This is the question from which it all began:

“I look around at the audience here, very different from what I experience at home in St. Louis, especially as one of the only Afro-American males in the graduate program at Washington in Art and Architecture."

“Just don't give up,” responded Adjaye.

“Well, I'm glad you say that, because that's what my question is pertaining to, everyone on stage and everyone in the audience. How could you suggest and offer information to young people to help them stay guided on the path to achieving their goals? Defying the odds, creating spaces for themselves in communities where there is no Theaster Gates, where there is no Thelma Golden to stand there and have a community of people around her to show that it's possible. I've lived in St. Louis for maybe seventeen years and it's quite detrimental to live in an environment that's so segregated. "

"What could you guys share with us to let us know that we can do this? And I'm not just speaking for myself but also for other current graduate students here in the audience."
Theaster Gates, David Adjaye,Zoë Ryan
Adjaye: You know, I think - and I congratulate you on going into a profession where you don't see role models, and you don't see other professionals. That says a lot about who you are.

"You on the stage. I can see you on the stage. I get to travel to Chicago or to New York as a graduate chancellors fellow for the university , I'm paid to be there. But I want to be at home, also. How can I help my home a cultural center for black people to know that it's OK?

Okwui Enwezor: When David and I started at the Royal College, it wasn't like a sea of black people . (laughter)

Adjaye: FYI - and there were no people on the stage either.

Enwezor: If you need to do it, do it on your own. Don't look for your posse, do you know what I mean? Just get on with it.

Adjaye: What is so important is that you are becoming or want to become someone who works in the built environment. You don't know how much of a purpose that is. Okay, I know that it's difficult when you're doing it. It's always difficult when you're at the front of a surge. Think of yourself as the tip of a spear, and kind of make an opportunity - manifest yourself in your community. Actually start to do things. I mean Theaster was not always Theaster Gates. He was a guy, just doing things.

(at this point Gates got a big laugh from panel and audience alike as he stood and mimed the transition from a stooped, close-to-the-ground early Theaster Gates to the ultimate straight-postured, fully-evolved "Theaster Gates")

He became Theaster Gates. Because he did things that people recognized. So, you know, the models are there. The models are there.
Lorna Simpson, Theaster Gates, David Adjaye
Theaster Gates: You know, also, I think there's something interesting to me between what Chris is saying and what David is saying . One part of the "get on with it" is what Black Brits told me when I came to London when I was very young, kind of talking about the challenges of being black in the United States.

I think that in a way because black Brits came to London with a kind of autonomy, the question of blackness or blackness in relationship to a white Brit, that was never really the kind of anxiety. There were other things like, I just need work. So there's a way in which black anxiety that we deal with or black trauma that not everybody has that same kind of psychological load. How do you start to shake off some of that psychological load so that you can just kind of get on with it? But shaking off that psychological load is actually the complex part and I don't know if there's anyone that can help - there might be tactics that can help you shake off the psychological load , but if you're the only . . .

I'll give the example of black girls at the Art Institute who want to talk about hair and white faculty members who don't want to talk about black hair, So if you're in those situations where . . . your autonomy isn't empowering , your autonomy is constantly being a kind of barged in upon by an oppressive force, I think that in those moments , that's where strength lives. That's where you gird up and you're like - I'm gonna talk about hair. And never neglect the potential power of your colleagues no matter who they are. In fact, there's fuel all around you waiting to help propel the work and that fuel ain't racial fuel. It's just diesel.
Chris Ofili, Thelma Golden
Thelma Golden: . . . you're sitting on the stage, and there are a whole lot of first and onlies, right? And in a certain way, exceptionalizing like that gets a little boring after a while, right?  Because you do have to get on with it. But I also think that what you understand is that when you're looking for community, and you're looking for support, for your ideals, to not think of it in a localized way.

We've been talking today about collaboration, and the professional relationships, but on this stage there is this huge personal relationships that have crossed different cities. London to New York, or to Munich, to Trinidad, back to Chicago, and finding the idea of community as not being local. Of being able to understand your vision and your aspirations in this wider group of people, who . . .  are there to support the sort of individual efforts, but also what are the mutual efforts, and the mutual ideals that we all might have.

Enwezor: I think that what is very crucial for any . . .professional, you have to begin by asking yourself what kind of contribution you want to make in your discipline. Whatever it is, it's really about your discipline.  The reason I became interested in David's work is not because he's a fellow West African. I think it's important that you begin with how do you contribute to your discipline? And at the same time, to reflect on the fact that when you ask that question, it's going to be an uphill battle.  I think it's a battle between the context and yourself . . . you have to learn most simply to be a guest, but also to be a host. And that means there's a kind of give and take in that sense.  Because if you start becoming a host, you start beginning to invent a world, an ecology of possibility.

So maybe the point is that you shouldn't really stay in your neighborhood . You should venture out, in that sense. And I think that doesn't mean that you cannot return. But I think you have to start at that possibility of uprooting yourself.  You have to imagine [that] cosmopolitan idea. Because that's how ideas travel.  That is how you enter into broader conversations, that's how you gain the benefit of really bringing your own world into the conversation.
Okwui Enwezor, Chris Ofili
Chris Ofili: I think that David's managed to find a practice that allows him to explore himself, in relation to the world, in relation to his own industry, in relation to his own possibilities. So I refuse to separate person from the work. I think it's like taking the air out a balloon and expecting it to go up.

I think that David is who he is and I think that if people chose to see that as an affliction, that's their problem.

Enwezor: That's actually not what I mean. My interest is that on the very highest level of practice, I'm interested in David's work. This other connection is also central in understanding the depth of that practice.

Chris: Well, OK, it's not an argument, but actually I feel quite strongly about it than you that in trying to understand what the work is, the root is through the person,

Enwezor: Oh, absolutely.

Chris: And I think that what we're seeing unfolding in time is a person in the form of architecture. That's my - maybe because I'm close to David - but that's what I see. That's the way I view it. I'm not saying this to you, but I think that there's a theoretical approach that can see it other ways, and separate those parts, but I can't.

Enwezor: I think it's an interesting point.  Nevertheless I don't see David's practice purely from an autobiographical lens. And I tell you what, because for me it's very interesting in the discussion about his relationship to African abstraction.  David is looking at this storehouse of references that people are not using. And he said, if people are not going to use it, I am going to use it. And of course, that has to do with his relationship to a place but that recognition is not writing an essay that is only autobiographical. It's to say there is a cultural archive, that has depth, that has incredible complexity. That you can take this cultural archive and be able to read it in a way that emerges to become a universal language.
And this is what, I believe, if you look at the building in Washington [The National Museum of African History and Culture], from this kind of naturalistic form of the Yoruban column that ends up in this abstraction of the bronze Corona, [it] is magical. And I think what I see there is not David's personality. It's his intellectual distillation of this thing happening.

Chris: Then why would you want to separate the personality from the intellect? I don't see the point. (laughter)

1 comment:

jack said...

thanks for reporting this timely and so important dialogue, Lynn...

(BTW, my undergrad alma mater is "Washington University in St. Louis")