This spring, The Studio Museum in Harlem was proud to partner with the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW) for the Harlem Semester, a bold public humanities initiative fostering dynamic exchange between Barnard and Columbia students, and the local community. Siting faculty instruction within some of Harlem’s most celebrated cultural organizations, the coursework deeply engaged the host institutions, and provided students with site-specific curricula and access to key staff, archives and resources. Tracing the genesis of the venture, Tina Campt—BCRW Director, Chair of Africana Studies and faculty coordinator of the Harlem Semester—recalls, “We are proximate to Harlem, and Harlem is one of the cultural capitals of the African diaspora. What would happen if we were to actually offer a coherent cluster of courses that was not teaching about Harlem, but was instead teaching Harlem through the institutions and the people who have made it such an amazing place?”
To unpack the radical potential of this ideology to shift how Harlem is explored through contemporary art practices, Leslie Hewitt—artist, Barnard faculty member and 2007–08 alumna of the Museum’s Artist-in-Residence program—designed a course entitled “Freestyle and Displacement in Contemporary Art Practices.” The visual arts seminar mines the wealth of critical thought, writing and practice emanating from the Museum’s seminal 2001 exhibition Freestyle, which featured the work of twenty-eight then-emerging artists, including Sanford Biggers, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Kira Lynn Harris, Jennie C. Jones, Dave McKenzie and Julie Mehretu, to name a few. In the course syllabus, Hewitt explains, “Freestyle helped usher a generation of artists into public discourse and scrutiny, highlighting a cacophony of influences, histories, and art tendencies. The wide array of artworks and approaches to art making that it put on display challenged the art world and questioned conventional thinking about art made by artists of color in the twenty-first century.”
For many in the field, and particularly young artists of color seeking to enter it, Freestyle marked the birth of an expanded canon that confronts the many barriers between contemporary black art and mainstream discourse. Aside from the physical space the exhibition claimed, it also forged a new conceptual space for “post-black” thought and practice, in which emerging artists were able to build complex identities, independent from the dominant, categorical language of the time, which subsumed them within the shadows of established artists of color. “This exhibition is neither a definitive survey nor a comprehensive exhibition, in the scope of its subject, but rather an attempt to look at this exciting moment with eyes wide open for what’s to come,” Thelma Golden writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue. “Freestyle is part of the long-term strategy at The Studio Museum in Harlem to seek out, support, and present the work of emerging artists in the African Diaspora and beyond. Freestyle allows this generation of artists to add their voices to the prevailing dialogue and debates while expanding the platform of contemporary art.”
Drawing from the continuum of artistic license ignited by this exhibition, and building upon Barnard’s prompt to engage the Museum’s history in scholarship surrounding Harlem’s cultural legacy, the Museum invited Hewitt’s students to participate in a month-long residency, alongside Artist-in-Residence program alumni and Museum staff. During the month of April, four seminars were sited at the Museum, and featured lectures by Thelma Golden, Irene V. Small, Courtney J. Martin and Rashida Bumbray. The seminars covered a vast array of topics that surfaced in Freestyle, including temporality, simultaneity, subjectivity, displacement, forced migration, diaspora and community. “Studio Lab: Freestyle and Displacement in Contemporary Art Practices” served as a testing ground for interdisciplinary practice, in which participants explored the impact of these issues on the complex ways contemporary art is produced, exhibited and discussed.
Marc Andre Robinson—artist, 2004–05 artist in residence and Studio Lab participant—reflected on the cosmic shift Freestyle set into motion recalling, “I saw Freestyle when I was in graduate school at MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] and it had a huge impact on me. Seeing that exhibition put some momentum behind my general desire to move to New York after graduation, and gave me something real to focus on outside of a vague notion of what it meant to enter the art world. With Freestyle came the sense of breaking down barriers, of movement, and the freedom to pull from as many different influences as I liked. I feel like Studio Lab resonates with an experience like that and, by design, creates new possibility—a space rich with conversation and dialogue, much like Freestyle did.” In addition to Robinson, six alumni of the Artist-in-Residence program participated in Studio Lab with their distinct voices, as they reflected on their own formative Museum moments. Representing a seventeen-year span of the Artist-in-Residence program, Elia Alba (1998–99), Sanford Biggers (1999–2000), Saya Woolfalk (2007–08), Valerie Piraino (2009–10), Lauren Kelley (2009–10), Sadie Barnette (20014–15), EJ Hill (2015–16) and Jordan Casteel (2015–16) narrated the collective history of the Museum through their deeply personal experiences with it.
It was the profound candor of the Studio Lab platform that resonated most with Yadira Capaz, a junior at Barnard majoring in urban studies with an interest in how the arts make cities thrive. “Having this deeper engagement with administrators and the community of resident artists made me realize how vitally impactful the Museum’s legacy is. As an artist sharing this heritage, the conversations and histories I heard made me feel supported in a space where I didn’t have to justify my existence, and my context was understood,” Capaz says. Most participants reflecting on this experience similarly articulated a profound respect for the Harlem Semester’s goal to build sustainable community through engaged scholarship and increased access.
From a museological perspective, this elastic model for multidirectional and intergenerational learning explodes the tradition of how art history is taught, and demands the field reexamine the role of the artist and the responsibility of institutions in relation to our own canonization. While Studio Lab inspired contemporary readings of historic events and texts, it also pioneered an altogether new language through which the Museum could reimagine its work, impact and mission. Activating a matrix of Museum stakeholders, the initiative dared us to take stock and rearticulate a shared set of values for all those making, learning and dreaming uptown. As the Museum approaches its fiftieth anniversary in Harlem, it is my sincere hope that this type of “dynamic exchange of ideas about art and society” will continue to define the future of our work, and that collaborations such as the Harlem Semester will enable us to more fluidly respond to our neighborhood, neighbors and needs.
Published in Studio Magazine, Summer 2016 Issue