Sponsored Connection: Nat Turner Project

Sponsored Connections are a new kind of sponsored content that prioritizes transparency, community engagement, and a more equitable advertising model. Read more here.

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.

White text on a tomato orange background. The letters in the word CONVERGE are arranged in a square grid, with the lower right corner occupied by the number 45. Below the square, text reads ART ON THE 45TH PARALLEL.

Sponsored Connection: Converge 45

Sponsored Connections are a new kind of paid content that prioritizes transparency, community engagement, and a more equitable advertising model. Read more here.

Variable West: Converge 45 was founded in 2016 by Portland, OR, gallery owner Elizabeth Leach. You’ve been an active member of the Portland art world for nearly twenty years. How have the needs and motivations of local artists and arts organizations changed in the past four years?

Mack McFarland, Executive Director: The past four years have been like no other in my life. Putting the pandemic aside (as if!), I would start with the state of our federal government, as these larger political movements have impacts into all aspects of our culture. I would look back as far as President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court and the Republic Party’s blocking and eventual stealing of that seat. This move solidified a bitter partisan divide, as the election results that year set up the dark four years of fascist, anti-environmental, white supremacist federal politics we find ourselves in today.  

This, combined with the founding of Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, has had an enormous impact on the kind of cultural production being undertaken and funded in our country, region, and city. Of course, not every project in Portland or the US has been politically motivated, but looking at the exhibitions and major awards in Oregon since 2016, you can see a clear leaning towards equity and diverse representation, and at times artists with a social justice focus. This is a positive outcome, I feel very strongly that the arts have a role to play in the creation of a safe and equitable society, and recent events are galvanizing others to feel the same way.

In terms of needs, it is much more difficult to parse out those shifts in the past four years, especially for individual artists. Rising rent costs and rapid development created a lack of reasonably priced and accessible housing, studio, office, and display space. This has been a key factor in the needs of artists and organizations alike. Given where we are now in the pandemic, and the contraction of our economy and space use in the city’s core, I do wonder how that will shift in the next twelve to thirty-six months. Within organizations, I have seen a strong desire for more diversity and inclusion training (the same ones Donald Trump banned federal works, contractors, and grant recipients from having) for the staff and board members.

VW: It seems like a lot of the hurdles for Portland artists and art organizations have been the same for a while, but were exacerbated by the pandemic. What do you think is the most urgent challenge for the Portland art community?

MM: Lack of secure jobs, rising cost of living, high rent and real-estate costs, small pool of collectors, and a shortage of funding for projects and life. This has been the list since I arrived in Portland in 2003, though the rent prices did not get out of hand until a few years later. The other challenge that is often mentioned is the lack of critical writing and documentation of our scene. Variable West has greatly helped with that that, as have others like Oregon Arts Watch, Art & About, Oregon Arts Commission partnership with The Ford Family Foundation on the Oregon Visual Art Ecology Project, 60 Inch Center, the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s art writing platform Art Discourse, and others. The same challenges of jobs and cost of living impacts writing for our community, meaning there is not nearly enough funding to pay these writers and even fewer outlets to obtain funds. There has not been a local, dedicated to visual arts, full time (with benefits) staff writer within a magazine, newspaper, or organization for some time.  Of course local discourse is only part of the pie, like all cities outside of the art market center, Portland does not garner much column space in national publications.

That also brings to mind a challenge we face, our vulnerable institutions, especially with the current and still to come economic downturn. Even before COVID, many of arts and culture spaces were dealing with the economic circumstances I listed above. How do we maintain these spaces? As the planet moves towards a well distributed vaccine and we can get past the agoraphobia of the pandemic time, I wonder what the return to normal open hours and gatherings will be like. What spaces will we have and want to return to? How do we as an arts community apply our platforms and creative energy towards social and economic justice? How do we do this together, collaboratively, with a local focus, where impacts can be swifter, and relationships built for the long term.

VW: Can you talk a bit about the role has Converge 45 played in supporting local arts?

MM: In the past, Converge 45 has funded a series of projects that have been impactful for local artists. This could be by helping artists create new bodies of work, connecting them to a curator outside of the region, and to other artists both near and far. As a new and unique organization in the arts amalgamation of Oregon, Converge 45 is still defining it’s place. At its best, Converge 45 is a catalyst for collaboration, bringing curators, artists, and institutions together to create an outcome that that no one could do on their own. One result of these efforts is the introduction of new viewers and the consolidation of audiences between institutions and art forms. Converge 45 stives to couple its programing to the moment by connecting its Guest Artistic Director to the energy within the artist’s studio and offices of curators, enhancing and amplifying the local and drawing that dialog into the national and international conversation.

VW: As Converge 45 develops its identity in these rapidly changing times, what can the organization do to better serve the local art community?

MM: The organization is asking that same thing. We are in the process of finishing a strategic plan that we began earlier in 2020. As I moved into this role, I have been and will be speaking with the curators, directors, gallery owners, and artists that we have collaborated with in the past to hear about those experiences in order to strengthen or continue the successes and to revamp areas that need it. As you say, the moment is one of fluctuation and even revision, and it is clear that the cultural community needs to be in conversation regarding these shifts, playing our part in shaping our city, state, and country. This year we saw activists remove several monuments from their pedestals, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harvey Scott and others. Many more have been removed by activists and government officials across the country in the past decade. One of Converge 45’s initiatives for 2021 will be to develop opportunities for our communities to process the conditions and impacts of the public monuments in Portland, both those that have been removed and the ones that remain.  We will be working with the artist and educator Jess Perlitz, who for several years has taught a class on monuments and memorials, as well as the design team Omnivore (Alice Chung, Julie Cho, Karen Hsu)as we seek to knit together a civic dialog and set of  events, allowing us to build towards a new understanding of collective histories, public space, and civic memory.

VW: You’ve entered this position in a historically chaotic year. What do you think are the biggest hurdles you’ll face?

MM: In the short term, a major challenge is future planning with all the unknows of the pandemic. We have had a lot of different visions for the 2021 programing and things are beginning to solidify now, however, attempting to envision a series of exhibitions and events while schools, theaters, and event spaces are closed is quite difficult. Still, we will have a robust and critically engaging set of events for 2021, both online and in person, to grapple with the question: what is an appropriate monument for this time and place? We are also planning for beyond 2021, and will engage in a process to select a new Guest Artistic Director who will be responsible for creating a city wide scaled project for 2023.

VW: What excites you the most about your new position?

MM: There are two of aspects of Converge 45 I am most passion about: its collaborative nature and its curatorial focus. Our region has several gifted and accomplished curators working within spaces we think of as institutions, as well as in artist run spaces or independently. I want Converge 45 to be a place where they can conference, develop relationships, and conspire. In a similar vein, collaboration has been a large part of my curatorial and artistic practice for many years. This could be because I have many of my ideas while in conversation, but also I don’t think you can be an effective facilitator for your artist as a curator if you don’t approach some aspects of the work with collaboration in mind.  

VW: Can you tell me about the #ActForArt project and how it responded to art in the pandemic?

MM: August of 2020 would have been a culminating moment for Converge 45’s Guest Artistic Director Lisa Dent’s program, Facing Between Centers, with exhibitions and programs at Portland Art Museum, PNCA, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Contemporary Art at Portland State University, the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, and Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, among others. 2020 was the second year of Dent’s three-year curatorial program that “engages artworks as complex forms of aesthetic, cultural, and political choice,” continuing the program she began in 2019 with the exhibition The Autopoets, co-curated with Stephanie Snyder at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College, and artist talks by Liz Glynn at PNCA and Alfredo Jaar at Portland State University.

However, a global pandemic hit. So, like much of what we all once had planned for our year, things changed. With Dent, Converge 45 agreed that it was impossible or impractical to carry out the 2020 program, adding the continued uncertainty of what lay ahead for cultural institutions, along with Dent’s work as Executive Director at ArtSpace in New Haven, we agreed to close Facing Between Centers.

Following that, MaryAnn Deffenbaugh, then Converge 45 Execute Director, with Board Chair, Elizabeth Leach, and Program Assistant M Prull, turned to the Curatorial Committee, made up of myself, Stephanie Snyder, and Meagan Atiyeh to plan and implement a project, a response, to an unprecedented moment in history where physically gathering together to have cultural experiences became a public health crisis. Utilizing the outdoors and the form of the poster quickly emerged, as did the need to call out the power of art and the outstanding artists and arts organizations around our region. When we began to think of this project as a moment to advocate for an engagement with art, to support artists, museums, galleries, and educational institutions, Converge 45 expanded the team was expanded to include folks like Kandis Brewer Nunn, who have a deep commitment to the arts and artists of Oregon.

Starting on August 3rd, we have distributed over 800 posters around Oregon, several to outdoor spaces, many to business windows, like Debbie Thomas Real Estate, Canopy Hotel, Alchemy Jeweler, Omnivore Design, and others, as well as several cultural organizations, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Bullseye Glass, and then a pop up exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center that their curator Carissa Burkett set up.

VW: You chose the Nat Turner Project as the pairing for this Sponsored Connection, can you talk about the thought process behind that choice and the impact NTP has on the Portland art community?

MM: Nat Turner Project (Melanie Stevens & maximiliano) is a force and has been since they opened their first project in 2016. Not only have they mounted an extraordinary set of exhibitions and events over the years, they also produced publications and podcasts that examine and documents Black, Indigenous, and persons of colors lives and creative practices, sharing all this to a wide audience. Then, amidst the pandemic, NTP adapted their Drinking Gourd Fellowship grant, teaming up with Black Art Ecology of Portland (Sharita Towne) to offer BIPOC artists financial relief during the mass job and income loss created by COVID 19. While Converge 45 was working with the organizers and artists of the #ActForArt project, it was clear that all parties wanted to support these artist relief efforts and to that end, all proceeds from the sale of artworks and posters were split with NTP artists’ fund.

Each Sponsored Connection is a pairing of two interviews. Read the interview with Nat Turner Project founders Melanie Stevens and maximiliano.

A grid of four images surrounded by black borders. The top row has the date range 08/28 - 10/10 in thin, white, sans serif text in the center of the top border. The bottom row has the date range 10/24 - 01/09 in the same font in the center of the top border. There is a white border around the the two rows with one name in bold, black, sans serif text that reads, clockwise: Intisar Abioto, jayy dodd, ariella tai, homeschool. The image below Intisar Abioto is a black and white photograph of a long wall painted black, possibly outdoors. There are large photographs on the wall of people, with large white text above and below the photographs. The image below jayy dodd's name is a highly digital, glitchy portrait of dodd lying on a bed with her head propped up on one hand. The image below ariella tai is a video still showing actor Kerry Washington looking to the left, smiling with alert eyes. To her left, there is a red rectangle with a man's face rendered in only red tones. Under home school, there is a photograph of a dark room with a bright light emanating from the far wall. People in silhouette are seated, facing away from the camera. There is one person standing at a table or pedestal.

Antidote: Intisar Abioto, jayy dodd, ariella tai, home school

ariella tai – Statement for “Antidote”:

“don’t let the money make you” uses digitally manipulated images sourced from late 90s hit films “Set it Off” and “The Player’s Club” to consider both the prescribed and alternate narrative possibilities for black lesbian characters Ronnie and Cleo as they relate to alternate economies, deviancy, pleasure and resistance.

For home school’s contribution to ANTIDOTE at c3, curated by the Nat Turner Project, home school co-founder manuel arturo abreu presents a selection of three videos in the vein of their current research program, the alternative history of abstraction. This program rejects the European modernist origin myth of abstraction and the western autonomous, functionless objet d’art in favor of an older, more-vetted, socially- and spiritually-embedded, functional Black and brown abstraction. (1) The titular video presents the overall proposal of the alternative history of abstraction. Two others present specific case studies: (2) of Dominican cultural worker and musician Enerolisa Núñez, and (3) of the zombie concept as a response to the Haitian Revolution.

(1) An Alternative History of Abstraction, 2020. Here, abreu heeds Suhail Malik’s call for an exit from contemporary art and its historicism by rejecting the European modernist origin myth of abstraction in favor of the long timeline of the abstract; a few examples like Muslim aniconism, West African fractal pattern, Tang-era Chinese calligraphy; and the value of an interdisciplinary approach that understands abstraction not as sublimation away from the concrete / market / functionality, but as fundamental to mundane daily life, expression, and function. The germ of abstraction is the tongue itself: as an arbitrary linkage of sound and meaning, and as a way of articulating possible worlds, language is abstraction per excellence. From strange biological and physical constraints emerges the calculating potential of electric meat, i.e. the brain, and the history of human survival inextricably depends upon the reproduction of abstract culture which constantly constructs reality while wrestling with calculation, the “irrealis” or subjunctive, and the idea of “something more” than just surviving.

(2) Dejabo del agua: the wake work of Enerolisa Núñez, 2020. With her family band, Enerolisa Núñez, the “Queen of Salve,” performs Afro-Dominican religious music in the salve style, also called palo or atabales. We review some musical examples, examine the history and context of Núñez’s music and palo genres generally, and explore how Núñez navigates Afro-Dominican citizenship, or “no-citizenship” as Christina Sharpe says, in a context where palo seems to move into national prominence since the 90s, but is in fact reduced to “roots” or “folklore,” not recognized as retention of living African presence and resistance in the Dominican spiritual and social fabric. We analyze the specific exploitative context of Enerolisa’s collaboration with Dominican musician Kinito Mendez. Despite such marginalization, practitioners like Núñez continue to work in the wake to maintain the fullness of African spirituality in the face of the antiblack specter of “brujería” in the Christian Dominican mainstream, the commemorative national and corporate use of “folkloric” music, and what Sharpe calls oceanic time – “a time that does not pass, a time in which the past and present verge.” From a space under the water, Enerolisa works to heal herself and retain her family’s traditions. This video was originally produced for the 2020 Black Feminist Summer School.

(3) ZOMBIE: Fear of a Black Republic, 2020. Using film footage and critical analysis, abreu analyzes the development of the antiblack zombie trope in literature, cinema, and video games from its origins in the wake of Haiti’s liberation by means of vodou to its current deracialized form. In doing the work to recover the racial nature of this trope, we also learn more about the richness of Caribbean engagement with the imposed cannibal, Caliban, and zombie tropes– all iterations on the notion of “fetish,” developed by Portuguese and Dutch missionaries to pejoratively describe West African material and spiritual practices that hindered their colonial endeavors and rejected their Christian materialist value systems. Likely from repressed fears of being themselves simply brainless vessels for power, as well as from titillation by the idea of flesh-consumption (projection of the Eucharist), Europeans projected onto Haitians and Dominicans the soul possession trope, based on colonial misreadings of spiritual practice and theology on the island. However, the undead kills back.