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Variable West: Can you talk about how Nat Turner Project started? Was there a specific event or moment that acted as the catalyst?
Melanie Stevens: maximiliano and I were in graduate school and found common ground in our frustration with the invisibility of work by artists of color—this lack or refusal of application of rigor and critical thought to works which addressed or even vaguely alluded to racial and cultural marginalization. So, we decided to take a space and convert it into a platform that centers the voices of artists of color. We started with the bathrooms of our studios four years ago. And so it began…
VW: A semi-public/shared bathroom is such an interesting space to start in. It’s loaded with notions of intimacy, inclusion/exclusion, and basic human needs. How did that space shape your early programming?
maximilliano: When I look back at our bathroom phase, I think of humanity’s first age, the golden age; before we knew too much of the art world, we had no resources but the most control. We had monthly exhibition openings, and we paid for everything out of our pocket, but it was so much fun, and still to this day some of our most radical work. We revisited the bathroom in 2018 as a part of TBA, curating an exhibition “swallow” by ariella tai, in the bathrooms of PICA.
VW: What do you think is the most important thing (or few things) that the Portland art and creative worlds lack?
MS: This question is highly dependent on which Portland art and creative world one affiliates with, right? Because it is not a monolith. I’ve found myself in the midst of many different robust communities here, all of them rich with specific things to offer, none of them perfect and all-encompassing. The flaw in the PDX arts community is the same flaw one would find in every major metropolitan arts community in this country: this very specific attribution of any one niche (usually: white, cis, middle class) as the default or the foundation of an entire arts ecology/ideology. Which is simply just a well-constructed (and well-funded) lie for specific ends, right?
VW: Absolutely. It’s an important point to note that the local issues of any art community are the issues of the global art community, and vice versa. The programming you produce through NTP works to alleviate many of those issues—lack of diversity, lack of critical discourse, lack of support—are there other ways the local community has worked to enable a more equitable support for artists of color?
MS: Yes, definitely. One of great things about Portland is that marginalized communities here (please keep in mind that I speak from a Black lens so some of this is experiential and some of this is from a place of observation-having to collapse/represent everything under one umbrella is a conversation for another day I suppose) are an incredible mix of rigor and criticality and extreme kindness and generosity. So you have places like Ori Gallery and BAEP (A Black Arts Ecology of Portland) that are directly sharing spaces and resources with Black artists, as well as organizations like PAALF and APANO who integrate city-planning, political ideology, and theory with their core values. As well as countless other groups and individuals of various range and reach. Also, because Portland is a small big city, a lot of these orgs are interconnected in some way. So if you want to learn about something or participate in something, there are things in place to help you find a way to do that. Other places I’ve lived, it has not been nearly as intuitive, unfortunately.
VW: What do you think is the greatest benefit those same worlds have to offer?
mm: A positive aspect of the Portland Art community is how accessible people and places are. You can reach out to strangers, via email for example to set up a studio visit, regardless of their status within the Portland Art community, and usually people will be receptive and down to meet and share their time and learn about you, your work. I don’t know about other places, but that’s a thing people here say about Portland being “accessible.”
VW: Can you talk about the Drinking Gourd Fellowship? Where does the name come from, and what can we expect from the inaugural cohort?
mm: The Drinking Gourd Fellowship started in 2019, with ten fellows, I think nothing can be expected from them, Since that was our motivation, giving funds without stipulations or requirements. The Drinking Gourd Fellowship is not project based but meant for the lives and practices of Black, Indigenous, and POC artists in the Portland Area. We did have an exhibition at Ori Gallery at the end of 2019, for all Fellows that wanted to participate.
VW: NTP often collaborates with other venues and organizations. How does that cooperative model relate to NTP’s goals?
mm: NTP’s goal is to get Black, Indigenous, and POC artists paid, exhibited and supported, so we achieve our ends by whatever means, save minstrelization and the like.
MS: We see ourselves as a fugitive, migratory space; a refusal to stay fixed or static; a practice based on the realities of the precarity of Black life which is inherently reflected in Black art practice. Our positionality dictates that this is the only model which is sustainable.
VW: How does your fugitive, migratory sensibility support your goals? The goals seem simple: pay, support, and exhibit BIPOC artists. But, of course, systemic inequalities create countless blatant and hidden barriers. How does your existence as a fugitive, migratory space help (or hinder) your work to dismantle these systemic problems in the art world and beyond?
MS: I like to think our existence as a fugitive space supports our goals in a lot of ways. Having the “freedom” to move between institutions without being tied down to a brick and mortar (and all that comes with that) means that we are not beholden to a fixed set of agendas or missions. Thus, we can make our own, case-specific, rules as we go and change them as we see fit, to adjust to any changes that occur. There is also a kind of refusal of authorship/ownership that is happening here too but that is a more complicated thread I think. The downside to this is we have to work a bit harder with outreach to make sure that folks know that we’re here and can engage accordingly. And that is good work, often fun work, but work nonetheless.
VW: The pandemic has changed life as we know it, how has NTP had to adapt to the new restrictions and has it led to any generative or positive surprises?
mm: NAT TURNER PROJECT is always changing and evolving, based on current projects and interests, the pandemic allowed us to shift focus from in-person exhibitions to mutual aid, and our growing podcast series WHO ALL GON BE THERE.
VW: Are there any programs you have coming up you can share?
mm: Depending on when this comes out, We are currently (Jan–Feb 2021) raising money for our fourth round of our Relief Programme, which we started in 2020, and have given over $20k to Black, Indigenous, and POC artists in the Portland area so far. We will be accepting applications for recipients in March 2021.
We also have other projects in the works, that are too early to speak on, but things coming from NTP.
Each Sponsored Connection is a pairing of two interviews. Read the interview with Converge 45 Executive Director Mack McFarland.