Director’s Desk: Fresh Talks Bridge Art & Science

All of us at the National Museum of Women in the Arts hope you are safe and well. This week I want to share inspiring talks by the talented, passionate speakers from our Fresh Talk series, the signature program of our Women, Arts, and Social Change public programs initiative. These dynamic conversations provide a platform for women to share creative ideas and solutions that address today’s social issues. Over the past five seasons, we have brought prominent women in the arts together with individuals in other fields for 25 creative conversations on gender, equity, art, the environment, identity, social and economic opportunity, and more. All Fresh Talks are recorded so that you can enjoy them at your leisure.

A blonde woman stands at the podium in NMWA's performance hall, speaking in front of a packed audience. On the pull-down screen to her left, a slide with the word "MUTUALISM" in all caps in displayed.

Fresh Talk speaker Natalie Jerejimenko speaks about the mutualistic relationship between humans and the natural world.

At this moment, I’m reflecting on talks that explore the intersection of art, science, and the environment. In March 2016, Natalie Jeremijenko, an artist, engineer, and program director of the Environmental Health Clinic at New York University, helped us consider the question, “Can an artist use science and technology to heal the environment?” Jeremijenko bridges art and science by “prescribing” creative health solutions for the environment, working to redesign our relationship to Earth’s natural systems.

In May 2017, we convened a group of women representing environmental and arts-based organizations to answer the question, “How can the arts inspire environmental advocacy?” Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, emphasized the power of photography and video in telling the stories of vulnerable communities living in the shadows of oil refineries, drinking contaminated water, and navigating food deserts. Miranda Massie, director of the Climate Museum, discussed how museums can use the power of art to evoke emotions, engage new audiences, and reframe the conversation about climate change to focus on hope.

Most recently, in September 2019, we hosted iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago and renowned philosopher and professor Martha C. Nussbaum on the occasion of Chicago’s newest exhibition, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction. In a wide-ranging conversation, they discussed the emotional intensity of Chicago’s artistic contemplation of her own death—and the deaths of entire animal and plant species at the hands of humans. Chicago reflected on people’s disregard for the complexity of Earth’s ecosystems and “lack of awareness about the consequences of human actions in terms of disrupting this miracle of life.”

Five diverse women pose happily in NMWA's performance hall, in front of a projected slide that says "How can the arts inspire environmental advocacy?" They smile wide, one woman points happily at the camera, and another throws up a peace sign.

Fresh Talk moderator Kari Fulton (far left) and speakers Laura Turner Seydel, Miranda Massie, Jacqui Patterson, and Amy Lipton pose after their grounding, hopeful talk about the arts and environmental advocacy.

All of these Fresh Talks demonstrate how artists can be agents of conscience in the world. During this time at home, I hope that you will find ways to immerse yourself in the arts and their ability to address the current issues we face. Please add your voices via social media using #FreshTalk4Change and tagging @WomenInTheArts. We look forward to gathering with you at the museum again, one day soon, where we can experience the power of the arts together.

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Interview with Fresh Talk Speaker Maia Nuku

A headshot of Dr. Maia Nuku

Dr. Maia Nuku will speak at Fresh Talk: Adorning Wakanda—Accessory to Action on June 30

Dr. Maia Nuku is the Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nuku was born in London and is of English and Maori (Ngai Tai) descent. Her doctoral research focused on early missionary collections of Polynesian gods and their extraordinary materiality, which sparked an interest in drawing out the often eclipsed cosmological aspects of Oceanic art.

On June 30, NMWA welcomes Nuku as she takes part in FRESH TALK: Adorning Wakanda—Accessory to Action, a conversation about the aesthetics of gender equity. We asked her three short questions to get us thinking:

What is one experience, project, or person that made you recognize that you were doing important work? Being of Maori descent has impacted my curatorial practice in the sense that, over time, I’ve moved away from the idea of the gallery as simply a place where we present art from a particular region. Instead, I’ve shifted towards an understanding of it as a place of encounter: a place to dialogue and confront complex colonial histories. I prefer to approach the galleries as a place to host in the manner that Pacific people are accustomed to do. In this way it becomes a very active and dynamic space. When I host Maori and Pacific islanders in the galleries and see that they feel comfortable in the space and that they’re moved to engage with their ancestors naturally just as they would at home, I feel that we are on our way to getting something right. It’s encouraging to feel the warmth of their response and the excitement they feel at sharing their culture with visitors from around the world.

A portrait from the 1870s of a Maori woman who wears a black Victorian style blouse with lace ruffles, two white-tipped feathers in her hair sticking straight up, and black tattoo chin markings

Portrait of Maori woman; Samuel Carnell studio, Napier, New Zealand, 1870s; National Library of New Zealand

Can you describe a moment in which you realized the power of adornment? In my early 20s, I visited an exhibition of early portraits of Maori women called Moko: 19th Century Portrait Photographs of Maori. It featured large black-and-white studio portraits taken in the 1870s by photographer Samuel Carnell in Napier, New Zealand. Many of the women photographed were from the Ngati Kahungunu iwi (tribe) and, seeing the pakeha (European settlers) in town visiting the studio to have their portraits taken for cartes de visite and to send home to family, decided they wanted similar portraits. Wearing black taffeta and moiré-silk Victorian style bustle dresses, their features were off-set by the dark ink of their tattooed chin markings (moko kauae), dramatic white-tipped huia feathers in their hair, and greenstone hei tiki pendants worn around their necks. Ribbons and brooches typical of the Victorian era were pinned to their dresses. I was fascinated by the clash of Maori and European cultures, which seemed to be an encounter between history and art, fixed in a single photographic moment which hinted at otherwise-untold stories. These photographs affected me personally. They were a mirror of the two cultures from which my own bloodlines are constructed. Seeing them was a turning point: soon after, I decided to leave the work I was doing, began to study history, art, and anthropology, and started my journey into museums.

What is one way that your work engages with gender equity and/or gender roles? Gender and gender roles have been constructed and re-evaluated in the Pacific over time as necessary—they’re not always strictly defined; Pacific cultures have also always had a space for the non-binary which was not necessarily defined, labeled, or prescribed. So the continued work—by scholars, curators, Pacific artists, and cultural practitioners—to recover the coordinates of indigenous cultures in all their glorious nuance, detail, and complexity helps us to tackle and confront issues of race, gender, and equity. As we immerse ourselves in the detail of indigenous knowledge, we see and feel other ways of being in the world, and we glimpse more equitable ways of interacting which we can build upon.

In FRESH TALK: Adorning Wakanda—Accessory to Action, Dr. Maia Nuku joins in conversation with Douriean Fletcher, Marvel Comics’ jewelry designer for Black Panther (2018), and Dr. Ayana Omilade Flewellen, Co-Director at Estate Little Princess Archaeology Project.

How have we communicated gender and power through adornment in the past, and how does such a rich history translate to adornment practices today?

Watch online starting at 4:30 p.m. (EST) on June 30: nmwa.org/freshtalk4change.

—Grace DeWitt is the spring 2019 public programs intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Meet Fresh Talk Speaker Ayana Flewellen

In her forthcoming book, A Black Feminist Archaeology of Adornment (working title), Dr. Ayana Omilade Flewellen investigates how clothing, hair alterations, jewelry, body piercings, scarification, and other methods of self-making shaped the identities of African American farmers in post-emancipation Texas. Flewellen uses the word “sartorial” to define these forms of bodily modification and adornment, practices which are deeply influenced by systems of oppression and power.

A headshot of Dr. Ayana Flewellen, who stands in a white blouse with a silver necklace; the blurry background is a landscape of lush green trees and mountains in the far background.

Dr. Ayana Flewellen will speak at Fresh Talk: Adorning Wakanda—Accessory to Action on June 30

For Flewellen, archaeology is responsible for turning over every stone—both in physical practice and in critical discourse. By applying understandings of gender, class, and race to preconceived history, Flewellen has become a leading figure for intersectional anthropology and the growing field of black feminist archaeology.

We are thrilled to host Flewellen, Co-Director at Estate Little Princess Archaeology Project and President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley, at NMWA on June 30 as she takes part in Fresh Talk: Adorning Wakanda—Accessory to Action, a conversation about the aesthetics of gender equity. We asked her three short questions to get us thinking:

  • What is one experience, project, or person that made you recognize that you were doing important work? My maternal grandmothers are at the center of my work. My first book project is an ode to their lives. Through material culture and documentary evidence, I explore how women, like my great-grandmother Dovie Lee Tyler, lived and labored in Texas and how they adorned their lives in the face of racism, sexual exploitation, and economic disenfranchisement.
  • Can you describe a moment in which you realized the power of adornment?As a child, witnessing the women in my life allowed me to see the power of adornment at a very young age. I grew up in a household with my mother, who loved bright colors. She also handcrafted and sold jewelry, in addition to working for a number of nonprofits before she went back to school. It was from her crafted pieces—seeing the care and skill that went into their production—that I understood their intrinsic value and the power they held for the wearer.
  • What is one way that your work engages with gender equity and/or gender roles? My research looks at the formation of identities from slavery through freedom within the African Diaspora in the Atlantic World. Doing this work requires an intersectional lens that allows for the creation of historical narratives that revel in the complexities of the lives of people of African descent.

For Fresh Talk: Adorning Wakanda—Accessory to Action, Dr. Flewellen joins in conversation with Douriean Fletcher, Marvel Comics’ first licensed jewelry designer and official adornment artist for Black Panther (2018), and Dr. Maia Nuku, Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

How have we communicated gender and power through adornment in the past, and how does such a rich history translate to adornment practices today?

Watch online starting at 4:30 p.m. (EST) on June 30: nmwa.org/freshtalk4change.

—Grace DeWitt is the spring 2019 public programs intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Meet Fresh Talk Speaker Hilary Sample

In 2003, Hilary Sample co-founded MOS Architects, an architectural firm credited with award-winning design solutions and a new business philosophy in architecture—not to mention an offbeat and self-aware sense of style. Buildings aside, the firm has created furniture that mimics architectural maquettes, a collapsible puppet theatre, a low-resolution quilt, Early-Modernist Avant-Garde soap reproductions, and software programs that are both whimsical and stunning.

Tonight NMWA welcomes Sample, principal architect at MOS and associate professor at Columbia GSAPP, for Fresh Talk: Writing the Balance—a talk about rewriting predominant narratives. We asked her three questions to give us a taste of what we can look forward to:

  • What does gender equality look like in your field? Shifting beyond the discussion of equality and moving towards a discussion of quality over quantity of opportunities.
  • What is one thinga source of inspiration, character trait, skill, or toolthat has helped you overcome obstacles in your field? Focus on the future.
  • Can you describe a moment that made you recognize that you were doing important work? Every day offers a new chance to engage in creative work. I am grateful for the opportunities and relationships that shape a creative life, from teaching to writing, to practice, to motherhood.

In Fresh Talk: Writing the Balance, Sample joins Amy Padnani, creator of the “Overlooked” obituary series at the New York Times, and Jodie Patterson, LGBTQI activist and author of The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation. By exploring how these three women have challenged normative perspectives in their fields, Writing the Balance will investigate how gender equity can be shared through language, and what progress means for underrepresented genders across disciplines.

—Grace DeWitt is the spring 2019 public programs intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Superwomen Assemble: Meet the Women Saving Comics

“Images play a crucial role in defining and controlling the political and social power to which individuals and marginalized groups have access,” stated filmmaker Pratibha Parmar. “The deeply ideological nature of imagery determines not only how other people think about us but how we think about ourselves.”

Ashley A Woods’s artwork for NIOBE: She is Life

Ashley A. Woods’s artwork for NIOBE: She is Life

FRESH TALK: Who are the new superwomen of the universe? on June 14 will show how comics, in particular, can highlight what a society values through the heroes they revere. The imagery surrounding heroes often reveals ingrained notions and perceptions of people. In the comics landscape, hulking, white male characters are often the ideals—if not the standards—for heroism. Often the imagery surrounding women, people of color, and other marginalized groups skews towards abusive imaginings or stereotypes. Recently, however, more people within the comics community are making strides to subvert that trend.

Meet the women changing the universe of comics at the final Fresh Talk program of the Women, Arts, and Social Change 2016–17 season. Guest speakers include ComicMix.com columnist Emily S. Whitten as the moderator and Carolyn Cocca, author of Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation. Young Adult author Gabby Rivera will discuss her role writing for the queer Latina superheroine of the Marvel universe, America Chavez. Fresh Talk also features Ariell Johnson, the first black woman to open a comic book shop on the East Coast. “There are a lot of black girl geeks in the world but we are not at the forefront,” noted Johnson. “This store is also kind of a statement—we’re here, we’ve been here and we’re going to keep being here.”

Ashley A Woods’s artwork for NIOBE: She is Life

Ashley A. Woods’s artwork for NIOBE: She is Life

Illustrator Ashley A. Woods will share her experiences drawing for the series NIOBE: She is Life, the first internationally distributed comic with a black woman author, artist, and central character. Woods imbues renderings of Niobe, the title character of the series, with an earthly quality that enhances her supernatural features, while not obscuring her humanity. The series, charting the adventures of the fantastical half-elf, half human warrior, explores issues ranging from racism to religion. Woods’s artwork for the series provides long overdue proof that black women in fantasy comics are not out of place. If anything, they are powerful voices that need to be heard.

Save your spot for Fresh Talk on June 14 to meet the new wave of superheroines entering the comic universe, leading the fight for justice and dispelling traditional stereotypes. Follow the conversation through #FreshTalk4Change.

—Kimberly Colbert is a summer 2017 intern in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Carrie Mae Weems and the Art of Change

In September, the National Museum of Women in the Arts launched a new public programs initiative, Women, Arts, and Social Change, focusing on women and the arts as catalysts for change. On Sunday, November 15, the museum hosted the second program in the series, FRESH TALK: Carrie Mae Weems—Can an artist inspire social change? The event’s audience provided thought-provoking commentary over Sunday Supper, through Twitter, and via comment cards. Here are a few highlights:

Carrie Mae Weems:  Keynote on an artist’s responsibility:

Weems gave a candid description of her artistic journey, saying that being an artist is “a very difficult thing to do, because you’re constantly living emotionally.”

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Carrie Mae Weems speaks at the second Women, Arts, and Social Change program; Photo: Kevin Allen

Weems’s project Social Studies 101 directly addresses the issues faced by the marginalized community of her hometown of Syracuse, New York. Syracuse has the highest concentration of extreme poverty among African Americans and Hispanics in the country. As part of her project, Weems created and displayed public billboards and lawn signs with messages including, “Stop the Senseless Violence” and “Our failure to respond is the problem!” Weems inspired the audience to think about the impact they can have on their communities.

Can art inspire social change?

Carrie Mae Weems was joined onstage by Raben Group president and founder Robert Raben. Washington Post columnist Lonnae O’Neal moderated the conversation, posing questions about the roles and spaces for art in current social justice movements, concepts of intersectionality, and the relationship between arts and policy.

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Left to right: Lonnae O’Neal, Carrie Mae Weems, and Robert Raben discuss how artists can inspire social change; Photos: Kevin Allen

During the discussion, Raben mentioned that much of what is known about the Civil Rights era is limited to a handful of stories, which have been curated by mainstream audiences. The annual March on Washington Film Festival, produced by the Raben Group, uses film, music, and art to share other relevant stories surrounding the period’s events and heroes—while inspiring a renewed passion for activism. Raben challenged, “If you care about social justice, you must care about changing the narrative.” Tweets about representation, identity, and otherness flooded the #FreshTalk4Change dialogue:

  • @VMPhoto3 quoted Weems [MT] How do you live a life without otherness. Mic drop.
  • @KiaWeatherspoon “Our history is miss-told” @RobertRaben #FreshTalk4Change
  • @eferry “Energized by Carrie Mae Weems on using art for social change #FreshTalk4Change #RBC”

Creating space for change:

Over Sunday Supper, attendees participated in lively discussions on  social justice issues among a diverse crowd. On one comment card, a participant said their experience “changed my opinion of what a museum can be.”

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Sunday Supper attendees discuss social justice with Carrie Mae Weems; Photos: Kevin Allen

Weems prompted the crowd to share their questions about how to integrate art with social change. Many artists in the audience mentioned that they hadn’t considered using art for social justice previously, but hoped to make it a key component in their future art-making practice.

The conversation initiated by Raben, O’Neal, and Weems empowered the audience to take ownership of their own stories as artists and social leaders. The conversation doesn’t stop here. Join the discussion and add your voice on Twitter with #FreshTalk4Change.

—Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell is the public programs coordinator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.