Visual Arts / Q&A Spelman’s Andrea Barnwell Brownlee readies for Havana Biennial debut
Posted by Debbie Michaud @DebsMichaud on Mon, May 7, 2012 at 3:27 PM
- Dustin Chambers
- Andrea Barnwell Brownlee in the Spelman Museum of Art galleries
On May 11, the Havana Biennial will open its 11th edition in Cuba. For the first time in its 28-year history, an American curatorial team will be part of the official program. That team is made up of Atlanta’s Spelman Museum of Art director Andrea Barnwell Brownlee and Valerie Cassel Oliver, senior curator at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. In 2008, the pair co-curated and presented Cinema Remixed & Reloaded: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image Since 1970, which assembled 48 works by 44 black women film/time-based media artists in a smart examination of an overlooked group of art-makers. The show took home a Best of Atlanta award from CL that year for “Best art exhibit in a museum,” and was nominated for an Association of International Art Critic’s award in digital media and video. Havana Biennial director Jorge Fernández was also a fan and invited Brownlee and Oliver to revisit the exhibit for the 11th event. Brownlee and Oliver spent five months retooling the show — renamed Cinema: Remixed and Reloaded 2.0 — to include 8 works by Maren Hassinger, the collaborative artist team Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, Tracey Rose, Berni Searle, Lorna Simpson, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Kara Walker, and Carrie Mae Weems. Brownlee discusses her time in Cuba and the “Why now” of involving an American curatorial presence in the Biennial’s (one of the longest-running in the world) official program.
How did the opportunity arise to be one of the first American curators in this Biennial?
The project really started many, many years ago. Valerie Cassel Oliver [senior curator at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston] and I worked on the exhibition, Cinema: Remixed and Reloaded. From everything we could see, there were so many examples where black women artists were just not included in the dialogue about this fundamental and important medium, and we set about the task of really examining that and looking at the works that had been created using various platforms, various mediums.
I took a group to Havana last year and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, who was in that first show, was our guest host, and it was amazing. We had the opportunity to do a lot of behind-the-scenes things, like meet artists and do studio visits. She introduced me to a number of people, one of them being Jorge Fernández who is the director of the Biennial. We remained in touch and had a number of conversations and received an invitation to submit a proposal. For a number of reasons that were primarily based on logistics, organizing a large retrospective didn’t seem to fit the bill. But we certainly wanted to have a longer conversation about this project, Cinema: Remixed and Reloaded, which he loved. The opportunity to revisit that project came about, and we explored a number of ways that it could be in alignment with this sort of larger framework and theme of this biennial.
So how are you adapting it?
We had 44 artists in the original show, and certainly taking all of them and presenting all of their work would have been amazing; it would have just been phenomenal because we didn’t feature anyone in that show that we weren’t really passionate about their work and believed in it. But the reality of finances and space hit us very, very hard. We did a number of things in terms of our first pass. We looked at things ranging from the reaction of viewers in our respective spaces (it was first presented here and at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston); narrative, because we wanted this to be accessible, we didn’t want to include narratives that were not going to be understood. I can think of three examples of works that I am very, very passionate about but it wouldn’t have the same reception [in Cuba] because of the amount and the details of the narrative that were included.
How does the exhibit you’re co-curating fit into the Havana Biennial’s stated mission this year of examining “the relationship between visual productions and the social imaginary… the way people imagine their social space and express themselves through cultural and historical references, and to the symbolic dimension they acquire through art.”
I think the fact that [the Havana Biennial] has never had the opportunity to look at a single exhibition focusing on black women. It has just simply never happened. Issues around race are really complicated in Cuba, so I think what we are bringing to the table is the opportunity for these specific artists and hopefully many, many others to be brought into an international dialogue in a very deliberate and unapologetic way. In many instances, these artists have never presented their work in Cuba, and have never been to Cuba with the exception of two artists. We are optimistic about sharing work that is compelling, in many instances complicated, and really rich matter for conversation.
What has the experience of visiting Cuba been like?
Like many Americans that go to Cuba, often you come back with more questions than perhaps you left with, and more questions unanswered. In terms of it being sort of this time capsule that’s been in many respects off limits for discussion and certainly for travel, I take it as an extraordinary privilege that I’ve had the opportunity to go and experience it on a few occasions now.
In terms of my expectations, I wanted to see the architecture. I wanted to see how art was treated. I wanted to see how artists were treated. I really wanted to dive headfirst into those concerns. Our focus has been on the artists and culture and how people live with, experience and encounter it. My visits there, my expectations have always been exceeded; we’ve always been treated with just a tremendous amount of respect. It’s my anticipation that bringing a number of countries together for that month-long biennial it’s going to be amplified.
What kind of creative dialogue did you find between regular citizens and between artists?
Well I think it’s important to underscore that [dialogue has] been suppressed from our perspective, but certainly not from other artists that are from other parts of the world. It certainly is robust, it’s thriving, it’s sophisticated. In many instances, the financial resources are not what one would hope for or strive for, but it’s this incredible support system and gets it done at all costs, I mean it’s very real, and it drives artists to create some of the most amazing work, and use resources natural and other.
Cinema Remixed is the first time an American curatorial team will be included as participant in the Biennial’s main program. Why now, do you think?
In terms of “Why now?” I do believe that there is a wider commitment, not just in Cuba, but a wider commitment to making sure that opportunities to have this dialogue, those opportunities arise and do present themselves.
What we’re really proud of is the artists that we did include. It’s intergenerational — not just the established artist or the emerging artist. Even though there are only eight artists, it really does capture the original show. We were primarily focusing on southern Africa and the U.S. just because of space and resources. So [the timing] is really rooted in this interest in continuing, furthering and expanding dialogue. I fundamentally believe that.
There have been other instances whereby American, U.S.-based curators have done other shows — what Jorge [Fernandez] describes as being ancillary and not really part of the sort of official Biennial. I think that the “why now” is really firmly rooted in the fact that not only because the work is important but the timing is right for global dialogue and for global exchange. It just really promises to be enlightening and eye opening and well attended and illuminating and it’s really going to engulf this island nation.