Miatta Kawinzi: Soft is Strong. Curator-Mentor: Ronny Quevedo

Page 1


137­ West 25th Street New York, NY 10001

cuear tfoundation.org


Curator-Mentor: RONNY QUEVEDO

April 8 - May 12, 2021


Libration, 2019 HD color video projection, four-channel audio, elastic, and thread Dimensions variable Installation view at Red Bull Arts Detroit, Detroit, MI Photo by Clare Gatto



SOFT IS STRONG Miatta Kawinzi

( to reconcile the sky&ground ) the body, like time, unfixed a clearing a queering a shadowed fullness

a black grace

( how do you conjure flight? ) a freedom dream

a witnessing

repair reparate respirate this ballet of enunciation, breakbeat of meaning, boombap of the tongue what was static, loosed become elastic, porous new cartographies of gaps out of which seeps black light 4

how we spin jewels from terror how we spinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn threads taken apart to be re-stitched together what was separate, joined to stretch so taut but never break this bridge called my back a ladder called me back time’s weave and weft

the heft

footsteps ascending ; the people could fly the people do fly the earth’s heartbeat remixed ; a conjured song -

that soft be strong. 5

gatherin' space, 2016 HD color video projection, two-channel audio, and aluminum foil sculptures 128 x 163 x 249 inches Installation view at 205 Hudson Gallery, NYC

I am a multi-disciplinary artist working with language, the voice and body, analog and digital media, objects, space, and sound to explore practices of re-imagining the self, identity, and culture through abstraction and poetics. Born to a Liberian mother and Kenyan father and raised in the U.S. South, I grew up with and continue to experience frequent rhythms of motion and movement that inform my drive to uncover and reflect on African Diasporic connections across time, space, and geography. In addition to cultural hybridity and notions of belonging, I am exploring social, material, and emotional dualities and multiplicities. Tracing a performative and experimental impulse, my work 6

speaks a language of softness to also illuminate and question structures of hardness, positing fragmentation as a site of possibility and meditating on dual notions of fragility and strength. Building upon the Black feminist tradition, I experiment with visual, verbal, sonic, and embodied languages in gesturing towards a poetics of liberation. In the face of the historical and ongoing assault on Black lives nationally and globally, I aim to both hold space for loss and probe at the potential for regeneration and renewal. In this exhibition I am exploring the reparative potential of softness to hold us through the tumult, over the fissures; scattered seeds a cartography of continuance.

Miatta Kawinzi (she/her/they/ Special thanks them) is a Kenyan-LiberianInfinite gratitude to the Creator American multidisciplinary artist, and the Ancestors always. writer, and educator raised in Immense thanks to my Mama Nashville, TN, and Louisville, and family, my communities and KY, and based in NYC. She our necessary way of holding received an MFA in Studio Art each other up, the entire amazing from Hunter College and a BA in CUE team, Ronny Quevedo, Interdisciplinary Art & Cultural Adeola Olakiitan, ray ferreira, Theory from Hampshire College. Erik Patton, Michael Blake, Her work has been presented at Kiyan Williams, Jamal Jordan, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Francheska Alcántara, kara lynch, MoMA PopRally, Red Bull Arts Tulsa Artist Fellowship, Opeyemi Detroit, BRIC, Maysles Cinema, Olukemi, POV Spark, Barbara and the Museum of the Moving Hammer, Queer|Art, the Bemis Image, among other spaces. Center, Red Bull Arts, Alfred She has been awarded artist University’s Institute for Electronic residencies in spaces including Arts, Integrated Digital Media at the Tulsa Artist Fellowship (Tulsa, NYU, NMAAHC, Nikki Giovanni, OK), POV Spark in partnership Toni Morrison, all the dreamers with the Smithsonian's National and magicians throughout the Museum of African American Diaspora forging freedom and History & Culture (NYC, DC, finding flight: known and unknown, and Venice, Italy), Red Bull Arts then and now and beyond—and to Detroit (Detroit, MI), the Cité everyone spending time with this internationale des arts (Paris, work. I give thanks. France, with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council), Beta-Local (San Juan, Puerto Rico), the Bemis Center (Omaha, NE), and the Bag Factory (Johannesburg, South Africa). Kawinzi has been awarded a 2021-22 Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship, the 2019 Bemis Center Alumni Award, and the 2018 Barbara Hammer Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant administered by Queer|Art. She has taught art at Hampshire College and the University of Richmond and worked as a museum, youth, and community arts educator throughout NYC.


IN DEFENSE Ronny Quevedo, Curator-Mentor Miatta Kawinzi offered me Nikki Giovanni’s poem In Defense of Flowers as a text that orients their work. The poem stoked a common tone we share in making visual work and its emotional resonance—the state of the overlooked and how its tenuous physicality demonstrates resiliency. As we repeat their presence in our respective visual languages, they are transformed into icon and symbol. Through collective consciousness we can bask in the flower’s strength and longevity. Its defense is our responsibility. Kawinzi’s work defends multiple symbols of strength. This is construed by the strands of thread and string that hold cowrie shells. The recanting of an anthem to signify a homeland. The shared cultural act of acclimation through text and television. These signifiers are attempts to chart plenitude— the act to locate oneself in multiple places, rooted in different soils, counters the incorporated act of oppression and racism that haunts our personal histories. Kawinzi’s work treads this land of dualities and opacity. When one is looking for a sense of self, there is no map. One’s thoughts are lone, in between 8

knowing and not knowing. There are voices and guides we come upon as one cultivates a sense of consciousness. As markers of truth and assurance on this journey, they are fleeting yet resounding. This space of liminality is where Miatta Kawinzi’s work exists. It leaves a trail of what we know, what seems familiar, and then it hands over all presumptions to an inexactitude. Contrary to a map, Kawinzi’s work offers the journey of what formulating thought entails, directing us to a non-linear boundary, freeing us of colonial, pre-determined realizations of self. Kawinzi’s work sets you up on the precipice of meaning, only to interrupt it with a parallel history, negating your fixity in time and place, proposing a new beginning. In a specific reference, A(f)mrka, Kawinzi’s use of the moving image and text extends this opacity of origin. It recalls Edouard Glissant’s allegorizing of alluvium as a result of diaspora, a sediment of accumulated history and thought. Paired with Giovanni’s homage to the dividends of fertile ground, Kawinzi’s typographical video collage claims a new relation to the letter and word. Where do we find ourselves when we interrupt the logic of syllabic ritual? How is

language a substitute for song if it at Albany (2019); Pacha, Llaqta, does not hold a note? In between Wasichay: Indigenous Space, the space of white text glowing on Modern Architecture, New Art at the blue screen of a cathode ray the Whitney Museum (2018); and tube television, Kawinzi plays with the traveling exhibition Monarchs: the function of words. In mirroring Brown and Native Contemporary them with two televisions, the work Artists in the Path of the Butterfly calls into question our reason for (2017-19). His work has been its prevalence, asking us why we reviewed in Artforum and are defending these actions. Hyperallergic, and is highlighted in Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, Politics * by Arlene Davila (2020). His work is held in the permanent collections Ronny Quevedo (b. 1981, of the Whitney Museum of Guayaquil, Ecuador) works in American Art, the Denver Art a variety of mediums including Museum, and other worldsculpture and drawing. He renowned cultural institutions. received his MFA from Yale Quevedo is a recipient of a Jerome University (2011) and BFA from Hill Artist Fellowship, Queens Cooper Union (2003). Quevedo's Museum/Jerome Foundation work was been exhibited at the Fellowship for Emerging Artists, Denver Art Museum (2021), the and A Blade of Grass Fellowship Albright Knox Gallery (2021), Foxy for Socially Engaged Art. Productions (2021), Upfor Gallery (2019), James Fuentes Gallery (2019), the Whitney Museum of American Art (2018), Socrates Sculpture Park (2017), and the NEXT SPREAD BACKGROUND Queens Museum (2017). Solo New Patterns (detail), 2021 presentations include Silueta, Colored pencil on paper transferred Rubber Factory (2019); Field of Play, to digital print Open Source Gallery (2019); and Dimensions variable no hay medio tiempo / there is no halftime, Queens Museum (2017). NEXT SPREAD INSERT Group exhibitions include ACE: The fragrance of our blooming, 2021 Art on Sports, Promise, and Archival pigment print 24 x 20 inches Selfhood, University Art Museum 9



THIS SPREAD AND NEXT Composite still from A(f)mrka, 2021 Video diptych for CRT TVs, two-channel SD color video, two-channel audio: vocalization, cassette tape recordings, synthesizer, and original electronic score 6 minutes 6 seconds





Video still from SHE GATHER ME, 2021 HD color video, 16mm color film transferred to video, two-channel audio: vocalization, cassette tape recordings, synthesizer, and original electronic score 10 minutes 50 seconds




Process still from SHE GATHER ME, 2021 16mm film scan


Video still from SHE GATHER ME, 2021 HD color video, 16mm color film transferred to video, two-channel audio: vocalization, cassette tape recordings, synthesizer, and original electronic score 10 minutes 50 seconds



She Flew, 2016 Digital photograph Dimensions variable



Video still from SHE GATHER ME, 2021 HD color video, 16mm color film transferred to video, two-channel audio: vocalization, cassette tape recordings, synthesizer, and original electronic score 10 minutes 50 seconds



Miatta Kawinzi’s artistry is attuned to the pulse of their inner life, and often holds diverse states of being together with precision through a complex and wide-ranging poetics. In the exhibition, Soft is Strong, a strain of this poetics works through fragmentation and articulates a sense of being while Black, which is extended through the exhibition’s highlighting of softness, fragility, and multiplicity. These modes of existing are still often deemed weak by a heteropatriarchal order, and derided as feminine, self-indulgent, or not worthy of emulation. Counter-notions to this order have, however, long existed in Black feminist thought, whose literary and aesthetic references resonate in this exhibition. As Toni Morrison asserted, being a Black woman writer was never a shallow place to think from—what she calls a “wakeful” position of working from the margin produces work that is lush and intricate, affording deeper wellsprings of revival and possibility.1 Kawinzi’s commitment to multiplicity extends not only to the relations between their references—which include Morrison and Nikki Giovanni—but

to their choice of working with a swathe of mediums, across the image and performance, through performative gestures of sound, video, photography, and sculpture. All of these are deployed in this recent body of work. Footage of a railway track overlaid with another moving frame of the ocean begins SHE GATHER ME (2021), one of two experimental video works in this exhibition. In this video, Kawinzi sings a personalized rendition of Dat Old Black Gal in a soothing manner reminiscent of aural accompaniments performed through chore-hours in Black domestic spaces.2 The 11-minute video is interspersed with clips of moving imagery, including a stark grey concrete building and pastoral scenes indicating what the artist describes as real and imagined geographies of the African diaspora. White texts are visually spread across the video, spatially broken into different pictorial compositions on the frame of various landscapes. This compels the viewer to pause, and look at different points on the projection to achieve cohesion. 25

The video switches between digital hung within a patch of plants. and analog clips; in watching The merger of these landscapes these, the viewer’s experience with gestures or traces of leaps between different habitation resolves the artist's temporalities embedded within feeling of dislocation, and reveres these landscapes. Rhythmically land as a site of care for the body. assembled as though a visual jazz, SHE GATHER ME enacts gathering, footage after the song concludes and creates a sense of belonging, is spliced with gestures of hands across various sites including reaching out with palms open, and New York City; Johannesburg, weaving through grass. The video South Africa; Detroit, Michigan; is replete with a polyphonic score Santo Domingo, Dominican that fuses organic sounds of breath Republic; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. and synthesized vocals. As a whole, the abstracted landscapes of Kawinzi’s work To be intimate with Kawinzi’s do not finalize belonging as poetics is to be attentive to the a settled thing—as is not the question of origins. Born and experience of the Black diaspora— raised in the Southern United but situates belonging within a States to Liberian and Kenyan concert of fragments, possibilities parents, the artist affirms how embraced and left open-ended for growing up in multiple geographic, continuous construction. cultural, and linguistic spaces influenced the parameters of their Another work in the exhibition, practice. This resulting hybridity New Patterns (2021), moves undergirds SHE GATHER ME, in dialogue with visual culture titled after a phrase drawn from from Ghana. A monochrome a short monologue in the 1987 photograph of two hands clasp novel, Beloved, by Toni Morrison. a sunflower with the words “in “She gather me, man,” says the defense of flowers,” borrowed character Paul D, in a moment from Nikki Giovanni’s prose poem of tenderness with Sethe, the of the same name, splayed across maternal protagonist of the story. the bottom of the photograph With deep knowledge of the towards the edge of the frame. necessity for ‘a gathering’ that This image—The fragrance of our could hold our being in whatever blooming (2021)—is placed over a form, Paul D characterizes this wallpaper inspired by the colorful gathering as such: “The pieces Ghanaian Kente textile patterns. I am, she gather them and give A commingling is present here. them back to me in all the right The image on Kente connects order.”3 The act of gathering can the African diaspora to West be an internal process to achieve Africa, opening onto a meaningful resolution, or a form of grace interpretation of duality carried given through acts of care and by the Akan adage, baanu so a communing. In Kawinzi's video, emmia: when two carry, it does the body appears in movement not hurt. Interdependence, within different landscapes, and is reflected by two or more people suggested by a white undershirt shouldering effort together, 26

expresses communal relations that have long been practiced in African traditions. The dynamics of village clusters since pre-colonial systems of extended cohabitation conceived forms of care beyond limiting and individualistic ways of navigating the world. Such care is a way of survival through others, or many.

beyond normative perceptions, arguing that they are not only additive pleasures, but can relay other intricate intimacies that words fail to transmit.

If Giovanni has nudged us toward reconsidering these floral beings, Kawinzi asserts the multiple values that flowers may invoke. However ephemeral, flowers An alternative symbology of are significant not only for their flowers, and the gestures of beauty in a state of full bloom, reaching and holding, signify but for their transformations richly across the works in Kawinzi’s over time.5 Attention to flowers exhibition. River City (2021) reveals a sensitivity and openness exemplifies another instance of to the world around us, and can Kawinzi’s hybrid material approach, stimulate our awareness of being comprising a photographic alive. When viewed as a single diptych connected by a meshwork installation, River City presents made from blue cotton threads a vista that functions as an and a cream cowrie shell. Flowers embodied site where a cocktail of appear again. The photographs emotions can occur. By integrating are inverses of one another, and the life-giving symbology of each frames a hand holding a flowers with gestures of one hand sunflower stalk. Dwelling with what holding or two palms clasping, the recoded symbol of flowers the photographs reconstitute could mean—and the exhibition’s the image of Blackness away implicit defense of this imagery— from its negative, racialized requires a glance at unfavorable connotations. The Black body, en stereotypes associated with masse, is rendered tenderly and them. Prior to contemporary tender, allowed a rich palette of ecofeminist critiques that all it might mean to be human. reclaimed femininity from Poetics are also expressed through patriarchal botanical metaphors, the works’ haptic materiality. In classification systems have Blue Mantra (2021), blue threads often applied and instituted the are assembled and knotted gender binary and assignments with cowries—the thickness and of femininity to nature.4 As a result, length of thread vary, even as floral associations often carry they are evidently connected. As perceptions that mutually devalue materials, threads are delicate yet emotions, nature, and women. In malleable; they may be taken apart quotidian use, flowers are often or woven together. In this work, deemed to be romantic objects the blue threads exert a sense of expressing emotions ranging from presence, evoking the exhibition's happiness to grief. Nikki Giovanni overarching relationship of has defended flowers and their strength and fragility, and the emotionality by elevating them chromatic undercurrent of 27

Blue Mantra (detail), 2021 Separated and re-joined cotton thread and cowrie shells Dimensions variable

blue(s) as a sign referencing the African American blues tradition. In Western popular culture, Blackness is rife with projections of resilience, as seen in the trope of the “Strong Black Woman” or the representations of African American men in the post-Civil Rights era.6 Such objectifications dehumanize even when intended as celebratory. Blue Mantra recasts such prevailing notions of Black strength by locating single lines of thread within a network. The support of fragility by other threads indicates an openness to compassion and community even in melancholia—in this way, the networks demonstrate how 28

vulnerability is in fact a rightful state of being. The exhibition’s poetics triangulate flowers, softness/vulnerability, and Blackness—this ensemble calls to mind bell hooks’ inquiry into the question of a Black aesthetic. Charting a discourse through her memory of childhood in living spaces, social spaces, and her engagement with the Black Arts Movement, hooks reaches a conclusion that is non-reductive and expansive. She writes:

Remembering the houses of my childhood, I see how deeply my concern with

aesthetics was shaped by black women who were fashioning an aesthetic of being, struggling to create an oppositional world view for their children, working with space to make it liveable. She did not inherit her contemplative preoccupation with aesthetics from a white western literary tradition […] We must not deny the way aesthetics serves as the foundation for emerging visions.7

hooks’ definition offers aesthetics as crucial modes of perceiving and becoming, and foregrounds phenomenological considerations through ways of dwelling in space—including social spaces of relation and inhabitation. What it has meant to grow up in a Black household, to be mothered by a Black woman, to navigate the world and art-making as a Black artist, is ennobled by the poetics of Soft is Strong, across its fragmented parts: a craft of the blues, voices from the South, tactile transferences of nurture-consciousness from one’s foremothers. In a social landscape laden with numerous tools of oppression, resistance often comes in the form of making visible one’s own contract of freedom. When Kawinzi contemplates their liberation in the space of poetics, they affirm it as “a place where things don’t have to have the same kind of logic imposed in external spaces— things can have their own internal logic of freedom.” Freedom as an internal and continuous

assertion also trickles outwards and externally, in the way we gift softness to the social spheres we inhabit. Softness is pleasurable, as it ensures a depth of life attuned to a sensuality that we might understand by way of James Baldwin’s words—“to be sensual is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”8 For more equitable worlds, could we conceive of softness and its sensualities as a universal right, particularly for a discourse of Blackness whose prevailing definitions in mass culture prohibit it? At a time of ongoing brutality against Black lives worldwide, staying soft is bound to the necessity of continued demands for the liberation of the oppressed. Through the exhibition’s spatial poetics, the viewer is reminded that staying soft is an oppositional force to the negative constructions of vulnerability as a sign of weakness. To be soft, to deliberately instill softness, offers a spot of respite and alternative ways of survival, reckoning, and healing. * 1 Paraphrased from a profile of Toni Morrison’s literary works. Hilton Als, “Toni Morrison and the Ghosts in the House,” The New Yorker, October 27, 2003, URL: https://www.newyorker. com/magazine/2003/10/27/ghosts-inthe-house. 2 American Folklife Center, “Dat Old Black Gal,” Library of Congress. Accessed November 30, 2020,


URL: https://www.loc.gov/item/ essay may be reproduced without flwpa000005/. prior consent from the author. Lilly 3 Toni Morrison, Beloved, (Vintage Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the International, 2004): 306. program this season. 4 For more on the gendered perspectives practiced in early * botanical studies, see Kelly McLeod, “From Feminized Flora to Floral Adeola Olakiitan (they/their/it) Feminism: Gender Representation and is a writer and transdisciplinary Botany” at New Minds Eye, 29 August curator working between Lagos 2015, URL: https://newmindseye. and New York. Their praxis is wordpress.com/2015/08/29/ invested in poetics, marginal from-feminized-flora-to-floral-feminism- technopolitics, and queerer logic gender-representation-and-botany/. for emerging biofutures. Olakiitan 5 From edited conversation with the holds a BSc in Microbiology with a author, November 11, 2020. Subsequent focus in virology and an MA from quotations unattributed to other the Curatorial Practice Program, references are by the artist. School of Visual Arts. Qra33, 6 See “Looking Back at Black Male: founded in 2018, is their transversal A Conversation with Thelma Golden, studiolab designing projects and Hilton Als, and Huey Copeland,” 12 spaces of critical nuance and play. December 2014, Whitney Museum of Currently reseeding, it will launch American Art. URL: https://whitney.org/ a participatory counter-capitalist media/143. dreamwork in April 2021. 7 bell hooks, “An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional,” Lenox * Avenue, Vol. 1, (1995): 71-72. 8 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Mentor Jeannine Tang is (United States: Vintage International, Assistant Professor of Modern & 1992): 43. Contemporary Art History at The

New School in New York, where she teaches contemporary art and exhibition history. She has This text was written as part of the published widely in Artforum; Art Critic Mentoring Program, Art Journal; Journal of Visual a partnership between AICACulture; and Theory, Culture & USA (US section of International Society; in addition to numerous Association of Art Critics) and CUE, anthologies and catalogs. In 2018 which pairs emerging writers with she co-curated the exhibition “The AICA-USA mentors to produce Conditions of Being Art: Pat Hearn original essays on a specific Gallery and American Fine Arts, exhibiting artist. Please visit Co. (1983–2004)” at the Hessel aicausa.org for more information Museum of Art at CCS Bard with on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation. Lia Gangitano and Ann Butler, org to learn how to participate in and co-edited the accompanying this program. Any quotes are from book. She is a 2020 recipient of interviews with the author unless the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts otherwise specified. No part of this Writers Grant.



CUE Art Foundation is a visual arts center dedicated to creating essential career and educational opportunities for artists of all ages. Through exhibitions, arts education, and public programs, CUE provides artists, writers, and audiences with sustaining, meaningful experiences and resources. CUE’s exhibition program aims to present new and exceptionally strong work by under-recognized and emerging artists based in the United States, and is committed to exhibiting work of all disciplines. This exhibition is a winning selection from the 2020-21 Open Call for Solo Exhibitions. The proposal was unanimously selected by a panel comprised of artist Guadalupe Maravilla, curator Sohrab Mohebbi, artist Ronny Quevedo, and curator Legacy Russell. In line with CUE’s commitment to providing substantive professional development opportunities, panelists also serve as mentors to the exhibiting artists, providing support throughout the process of developing the exhibition. We are honored to work with Ronny Quevedo as the curator-mentor to Miatta Kawinzi.

BOARD OF DIRECTORS Amanda Adams-Louis Theodore S. Berger Kate Buchanan Vernon Church Marcy Cohen Blake Horn Thomas K.Y. Hsu Steffani Jemison John S. Kiely Vivian Kuan Rachel Maniatis Aliza Nisenbaum Kyle Sheahen Lilly Wei Gregory Amenoff, Emeritus

ADVISORY COUNCIL Polly Apfelbaum Katie Cercone Lynn Crawford Ian Cooper Michelle Grabner Eleanor Heartney Trenton Doyle Hancock Pablo Helguera Paddy Johnson Deborah Kass Sharon Lockhart Juan Sánchez Lilly Wei Andrea Zittel Irving Sandler (in memoriam)

STAFF Corina Larkin Executive Director Beatrice Wolert-Weese Deputy Director Lilly Hern-Fondation Programs Director Sharmistha Ray Development Manager Josephine Heston Programs Associate

137­ West 25th Street New York, NY 10001 cueartfoundation.org 31

CUE Art Foundation's programs are made possible with the generous support of foundations, government agencies, corporations, and individuals. MAJOR PROGRAMMATIC SUPPORT PROVIDED BY The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Anholt Services (USA), Inc. Aon PLC Chubb

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP Clifford Chance

Compass Group Management LLC ING Financial Services Merrill Corporation

The Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, Inc. The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation Wilhelm Family Foundation

William Talbott Hillman Foundation

New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts


All ar twork © Miatta Kawinzi. Front cover: Detail of River City, 2021. For Breonna Taylor. Back cover: Detail of I wish for my kin always the space to gently unfurl, 2021. Catalogue design by Lilly Hern-Fondation.