On Claiming Your Seat At The Table: An Interview With First-Time Curator Jaelynn Walls
On February 22, 2019, “One for Us,” an exhibition featuring the work of 20 women of color from all parts of Texas, debuts at Big Medium Gallery in Austin, Texas.
According to the curator Jaelynn Walls, “the works included in this exhibition examine the current landscape of artists attempting to better understand their own identities within the radically troubling social milieu of the 21st century. Whether it is finding power within that marginalization or examining the origins of their otherness, the 20 artists are able to explore this idea of identity in nuanced and complex ways.”
Leading up to the exhibition, #BBATX’s Communication Design Assistant A’nysha Fortenberry sat down with Jaelynn Walls to discuss the exhibition’s mission and purpose. In this Q&A with Walls, the two explore why it is important to have women of color well-represented in cultural institutions and why we’ve got to help each other fight for a seat at the table.
About the curator, Jaelynn Walls: Walls is a second year BA Art History and Plan II Honors double major pursuing a Minor in African and African Diaspora Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the current Plan II Education Intern at the Blanton Museum of Art. Primarily interested in curation and research on contemporary American art, she has contributed to curatorial projects at The Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, The Menil Collection and Sugar Hill Museum in Harlem, New York. Walls also runs a web-series called Art in Color, in which she discusses and highlight’s the work of contemporary artists of color in the Blanton’s collection. Her current curatorial project is One for Us, an exhibition taking place at the Big Medium Gallery from February 22 to February 25.
Written by A’nysha Fortenberry
Q: Let’s start with your background. What got you into exploring curation and the arts industry, as a whole?
Walls: In high school one of my friends mentioned that the Houston Contemporary Art Museum had a teen council and they needed new people to write content for them. I interviewed, got the position and I was on the teen council for two years. Through that experience I was able to meet with a collective of different curators, artist, and people doing projects around the country involving art and community. This is what sparked my interest in photography and curatorial work.
Q: What were some of the initial conversations that led to One for Us, and how did you approach turning the show’s concept into a reality?
Walls: This summer I worked at a museum in Harlem, New York called Sugar Hill, and as a curatorial intern I was charged with the task of learning about all these different artists and doing different pieces about them. I was looking up artists like Shola Lynch who actually went here [University of Texas at Austin] and Mickalene Thomas—just all these Black women artists. I felt so inspired and I felt like I had sort of been cheated out of this experience of learning about them. I had taken survey courses, which are essentially courses about all of the important artworks, yet somehow I had missed out on all these revolutionary, great women artists. During my internship I felt like I could just create a show highlighting up and coming artists from Texas.
So I called up a bunch of galleries. I was like “Hello can I use your space for this?” and everyone was saying no. I finally got through to Big Medium and they were extremely excited to work with me. At the time, I was just calling and saying "Oh, I have an idea for a show, I just want to highlight women artists from Texas.”
Over the course of the summer, I began to develop the idea for One for Us , too. The title just comes from having one show for us, “us” being women of color in the South. Most of the artists that I find interesting have this idea of identity formation within their work, like figuring out who they are within an art historical context and a social context and coming into that knowledge through their artwork. So that's mostly what the show is about. It's about figuring out who you are as a woman of color through your work or even sharing with people who you are through your work.
Q: What does having a seat at a table mean to you?
Walls: It basically means having a say in a discussion, right? It's having the power to make decisions, which is very important, especially in a sort of curatorial or art historical context, because the people making greater decisions are those with several seats at the table. They tend to be the same people who have always been making decisions about art in art history, which is white men and sometimes now white women. And that would be fine, except for the fact that these people perpetuate what I was talking about earlier, which is Western canon.
Marginalized voices need to have a seat at the table—a seat at the art table, specifically the greater art table—because museums and cultural institutions are supposed to acknowledge everyone's experiences. If you go into a museum and all you see are European paintings or artwork that is focused specifically on one type of person or one idea, then you understand that to be what is important. It's like, “Oh, this is a place where people pick what's on the walls. So what they picked is what I'm supposed to know and what is supposed to be important to me.” It can definitely skew a person's understanding of what belongs in a museum. So, by diversifying the people that are at that decision-making table, you are changing what is seen as important.
Q: You had an open call for artists to participate in One for Us, and then narrowed your selection down. What was that decision-making process like?
Walls: I got upward of 70 responses, and I had to narrow it down to about 20 artists. That was hard but that's what curation is. I sent the [open call] out to several art teachers at high schools and universities around Texas and general people I knew in the art world. A lot of them had very positive responses to the idea, and that further pushed me to make this show happen. It seemed like people were acknowledging that there is this gap that exists and that the show was an opportunity, not necessarily to fill the gap or fix the problem, but just to be able to highlight voices that are otherwise not going to highlighted.
While searching for pieces to feature, I essentially tried to pick out works that worked well within the vision that I had. I wanted works that spoke specifically to how the artist’s identity functioned societally for them, but also emotionally or publicly. I looked into how they were performing their personhood and how that factored into their work.
Q: What is the impact that you're hoping for from this showcase?
Walls: I really want people to know that not only do women of color creatives and artists exist, but our work is worth displaying. Our ideas are worth thinking about and worth having in cultural spaces and institutions. You can say, “Oh, well there's the contemporary art section and there's that one really famous Black artist or that one really famous Mexican artist.” And that's really great. But there are many artists of color and they're creating work we need to see. I also hope that other artists of color can see that there is a space for them in the contemporary art world.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who’s starting a new project for the first time? How can they take the leap as an emerging creative or curator?
Walls: I personally feel like I get a lot done because I'm not afraid to be told no. It's like the worst thing, the absolute worst thing—no exaggeration—that can happen to you is that people say no. And a no is just something to scratch off the list. Then you move on to the next person, and they might tell you yes.
So, my advice is just don't be afraid. Don't be afraid to ask people for things. Tell people your bad ideas, so they can tell you how to fix them. Pretend you're an adult and talk to other adults, as if you know what you're talking about. That's important.
One For Us opens on February 22 at Big Medium. The show will remain open through February 25. Click here to learn more.