"The Best Art In The World"
Shrine to Beauty
May 6 through June 20, 2021
By DONOVAN IRVEN, June 2021
Kimberly Camp has lived a life in parallels. One as an artist from a family of artists who developed a flare for rare materials and mixed-media projects requiring a variety of skills. The other as a museum director and CEO with a reputation as a firebrand daring to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in the art world at large. These days, her focus has returned to painting and her one-of-a-kind dolls assembled from materials from around the world that embody their creator’s eclectic background. She recently worked as one of three curators on a project with A New View Camden, which opened April 22 and transforms highly visible vacant lots along Camden, New Jersey’s transportation corridor into multi-purpose community forums hosting temporary art installations to combat illegal dumping. The collaboration came about after Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded Camden a million dollars through the 2018 Public Art Challenge program that funds urban restoration and education through public art. Her voice is used to guide visitors across Camden to view the installations. Camp’s role in this project highlights her ability to navigate between worlds, in this case, facilitating a public-private partnership to advance the arts and their ability to rejuvenate a community. Her work is currently on view in Shrine to Beauty, the inaugural group exhibition at Filo Sofi Arts’ new brick-and-mortar gallery, which runs through June 20. Otherwise, you can find her at her own Galerie Marie in Collingswood, NJ making things happen and reading tarot.
Camp’s dolls are a mature iteration of an interest emerging in childhood, especially the creation of doll-sized clothes and costumes. The idea of reclaiming, retaining, and cultivating the aesthetic significance of a domestic object, such as a child’s doll or quilt, is one that connects Camp to a tradition of Black women artists who innovate fine art, in part, by calling attention to the beauty and aesthetic power of everyday materials, highlighting the craft components that were discouraged or at least deemphasized in midcentury fine art. Sowing, quilting, fashion design and costuming, these were associated with women’s work. Incorporating these elements into fine art was another means of validating the skill and knowledge that went into crafts. That is, validating the skill and knowledge of women, Black women in particular.
An early stage of the dolls’ development was concerned with producing figures that represented Black people and culture. Called “Brown Babies” when they were introduced at the 1982 Kwanzaa Bazaar, hosted at the International House in Philadelphia, Camp’s dolls sported traditional African attire. She was learning how to source the materials she needed and, lacking availability, began dying her own fabrics and painting hand sewn heads and bodies.
Within a few months of the Kwanzaa Bazar, Camp was accepting orders by mail. Faith Ringgold fell in love with the dolls, connecting Camp with an editor at Essence magazine. The largest dolls were featured in the Chrysanthemum Festival at Longwood Gardens, outside of Philadelphia. They eventually caught the eye of Lou Torres at National Geographic, who thought the dolls that emphasized traditional dress from across the African continent would be perfect visual content for the company’s children’s magazine. That was in November 1983. Camp was selling about 2,000 dolls a year and her repertoire of materials, fashions, and techniques continued to grow.
In some ways, the dolls address the history of Black representation in popular culture. Dolls in particular are examples of cultural artifacts that, when they are mass produced, tend to presume white people to be the default, general consumers of those artifacts as commodities. The push for Black dolls, for toys for Black children that looked like them, that recognized their social relevance, position, and encouraged them to see themselves as agents in the world, as part of a community, is one thread in the larger story about increased representation by culturally significant goods that circulate within a popular culture that Black people have, historically, heavily influenced, mostly without mainstream recognition. Camp expresses a dynamic of Black art that resonates with the history recounted to me by Dindga McCannon wherein Black artists were creating spaces for themselves, which amounts to establishing new markets for their art. From Camp’s perspective, the influence of Black artists in mainstream American culture was more about capturing a Black market, not about listening to the demands of Black people who, as Camps says, “always made our own.”
Camp contends that she benefited from the groundswell around representation that had become unavoidable in the 1970s and maintained momentum well into the Reagan administration. Strangely, the opportunities that were opened by the increased demand for Black women on the job market meant a kind of division was established in Camp’s professional life. On the one hand, there was the art and on the other was a career in museum administration.
As I talked with Camp about this professional fissure in her life, I was reminded of the remarkable book by Gloria Anzaldúa, Light in the Dark/Luz en Lo Oscuro. Anzaldúa develops the idea of “nepantla” from a Nahuatl word that means to be in the middle of something, in the thick of it, and has come to stand for a kind of in-betweenness within Chicanx and Latinx philosophical discourse.
Anzaldúa addresses how people’s identities take shape nepantla, in between different social milieus that push and pull them in different directions. Moreover, they adjust to their different roles across those various social spaces, adapting to different identities that they must perform in different context. The phenomenon of code switching is a useful analogue here, helpful for understanding that people adopt different ways of speaking or dressing in order to function smoothly within different social situations that make different demands on them. But this means that we are often torn between different worlds, that sometimes the demands coming from different social quarters are in conflict with one another.
Camp was always attuned to the potential conflict of interests that could arise from her work as an artist and as a museum director. She was conscious and careful not to leverage clout in the museum world to advance her career as an artist. She also felt, or was variously made to feel, somewhat out of place in the world of museum administration.
There was often the tacit, and sometimes not so tacit, assumption that she, as a Black woman, should not be in museum administration, certainly not with a position of power, and especially in positions of power that hold sway over European art. Camp has viewed this, and insisted throughout our exchanges, that this is white people’s problem. It is white people whose perceptions of Camp’s fitness for the role is filtered through their perceptions of her race. The diversity angle was a secondary benefit to the boards on whose behalf Camp was working. In each of her positions, the optics of diversity was merely a boon added on top of the professional credentials and connections that Camp brought to the table.
For her own part, Camp largely felt empowered in these roles, saying she felt almost as if there was a “golden aura” around her – that, though she was tasked with enacting the vision of a board, there were many positive things happening all at once. She leapt at the chance to run the Smithsonian’s Experimental Gallery, which she did from May 1989 until December 1994. It was the late Cheryl McClenney Brooker that convinced Camp to apply for the gig running the Experimental Gallery. Although Camp had an MS in museum administration, knowledge and familiarity of the field and its demands, at first, she didn’t want to work at the Smithsonian. Taking a position there would be like entering the belly of the beast. The Experimental Gallery demanded something fresh, something adventurous. Camp fit the bill, innovative as she was when it came to developing and promoting diverse communities around the nation, and presenting as she did, the firebrand in fuchsia and pumps. There was actually some shock among her co-workers, to hear Camp tell it, when she arrived on the job in spectator pumps and hair twists pinned close to her head, and not the wild colors and Senegalese twists in her hair, word of which had arrived ahead of her.
Cutting against expectations in this way can be liberating, but it is also painful. Anzaldúa herself recognized the pain that comes sometimes with living nepantla. Circumstances can also change over time. It is one thing to move knowingly between communities. It is another entirely to feel an institution’s professed values changing around you.
The aura that Camp had felt earlier in the 1980s was fading. The positive momentum of affirmative action policies, such as it was, eroded as the Herbert Walker Bush years wore on. The Experimental Gallery, once seen an exciting space for innovation and experimentation, was increasingly viewed with suspicion, as a risk amid increased scrutiny from politicians and the religious right. She was even accused of being “un-American” by the late Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
It was time to move on, this time headed to Detroit to help build and open the Charles Wright Museum. From there, Camp landed in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion to take up the position of executive director at the Barnes Foundation in 1998. The financial situation at the Barnes, the subject of conflicting reports in the media, is something I know Camp will be speaking about more fully in the not-so-distant future, in a book that’s been years coming to fruition. It’s her side of the story to tell, though I believe Camp’s account of the changing financial stability of the Barnes Foundation from 2000-2002 – that in 2000, revenue streams that would secure the Foundation’s future were in danger, but that by 2002, those fortunes had changed. The word “bankruptcy” wasn’t on the lips of any Barnes Foundation representative until 2003, when chairman of the board Bernard Watson speculated that the Institute was unlikely to receive the financial support it needed.
From what I can tell, based on Camp’s account of her travails with the local politics of Merion, the Foundation suffered in that location from what legal scholar and theorist Cheryl L. Harris describes as “whiteness as property.” Having lived in or around Philly from 2007 until 2012, I had been to the Barnes property in Merion many times – the Foundation holds one of my personal favorite collections of art in the world, just edging out Musée d’Orsay with the expansive selections from Cézanne, and the significant piece by Matisse, “Le Bonheur de vivre” from 1905/06. I made the offhand remark that it was “nice” in Merion, to which Camp expressed a visceral, negative reaction.
The Barnes in Merion was not accessible because the Barnes’ neighbors Merion did not want it to be accessible. It was viewed as their own private collection, something to be kept to them, something to which they had privileged access. The local zoning office prohibited tour buses and capped the number of visits to less than 400 people three days a week, admitted in 20-minute intervals. A few neighbors wanted unlimited access for themselves, while excluding people who lived one block across City Avenue where the population was primarily Black. It was assumed that the residence had a legally legitimate presupposition of special interest in the Foundation, which included an interest in excluding racially coded others from the property.
Ultimately, the Foundation was moved amidst tremendous controversy in 2012, just as I was packing up for Purdue, in Indiana.
Before and after this legal drama, there are the dolls. Outside the confines of these different communities, with different cultures, making different demands, were the dolls. Rather than a strictly parallel space, the dolls took up their place nepantla, in between, being born in the synthesis of cultures and materials.
Both before and during her time at the Barnes, Camp had been traveling extensively, picking up materials that caught her eye along the way. There were hidden regional gems to be discovered, as well as international finds not readily available in the States. For instance, she had discovered Japanese paper clay shopping at M & J Designs, a now defunct art supply store formerly run by the son of the Michael of Michael’s Crafts fame. While on a Smithsonian fellowship to Japan, sponsored in part by the Japanese Ministry of Construction, Camp made collecting as much of the material her mission.
She also discovered beads. Most important to Camp’s art, to the dolls and their identities, are special beads that arrive in our time through the twisted legacy of slavery. Trading beads, particularly Chevrons, Russian Blues, and Millefiore beads from Europe, were used as currency exchanged for enslaved people in West Africa from the 16th until as late as the 20th century. The decorative glass beads have become a precious commodity and symbolic ornament in Camp’s work. Dolls made with the trading beads fetch a much higher price, dragging us into the unsettling necropolitics of the contemporary art world – the politics of death that governs the flow of racialized people and goods throughout a social system.
Philosopher Achille Mbembe has argued that necropolitics subjugates life to the power of death. Certainly, the trading beads represent the ultimate subjugation of life to death – the enslaved enters into a living death, their very autonomy and sovereignty denied to them and handed over to the master who utilized the labor power of the enslaved for their own ends, even against the wishes of the enslaved themselves, who must soldier on in a mutilated state.
I was taken back to my conversation with Khari Turner, who insisted he does not want to trade in Black trauma. I’ve come to think the contemporary fervor for Black art speaks to the racialized elements of this necropolitics, especially where it risks justifying past atrocities on the basis that it produced great art. That is to say, there is a morally repugnant argument to the effect that great art requires great suffering, implying that there is good in suffering that produces great art. If Black identity and culture is somehow tied to enslavement, there is the temptation to view institutions of slavery as necessities of a sort, if not as outright moral goods, because they lead to the production of Black art. This is a convoluted and, I think, unconvincing way to look at the world, where necessity always rears its head in hindsight.
Nevertheless, there is virtue to be signaled, especially by white people, in owning art that pretends to honor Black suffering. Somehow, these works are supposed to remind us of the past so we will not repeat it. But they risk sacrificing a living future to a dead past, reinscribing the erasure of Black lives in order to lionize Black death.
Camp’s use of the beads offers a nuanced, more complicated aesthetic sensibility. The beads are abstract enough that we are not faced with the explicit representation of Black trauma commodified. But, like the country itself, the material trace, the symbolic reminder, of the past remains, integrated into a living present. In her own words, while enslavement is a painful part of Black history, their existence is a triumph, and Black art is, from this perspective, about Black joy and creativity.
This process of integration, of navigation between conflicting poles, is a theme running through Camp’s work in these various roles. She has lived a life in parallels, in between, a life nepantla, filled with the joy of creation and the challenges of holding her own against those who would alienate her. She remains a firebrand, a controversial figure whose outspokenness, I am sure, will continue to shake up the art world. I could hardly get a word in edgewise while we talked, and I listened to her story. It didn’t matter in the end. She’s a woman who gets things done. I still can’t wait to see what she’ll say next. WM
Filo Sofi Arts Disclosures is a series of philosophical reflections on art and its place in the world. It has grown out of owner Gabrielle Aruta's progressive mission to bring art and philosophy together in thoughtful public engagement.
Donovan Irven is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction currently serving as the Director of Philosophical Praxis for Filo Sofi Arts. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @donovanirven.view all articles from this author