By NOAH BECKER February, 2021
This is a conversation is between myself and the important New York based curator Larry Ossei-Mensah. I was fortunate enough to have Larry join me to discuss his career and his current curatorial project co-curated by Robyn Gibson called Parallels & Peripheries at the New York Academy of Art until March 7th, 2021. He comes from the Bronx and he uses contemporary art as a vehicle to redefine how we see ourselves and the world around us. He comes from Ghana, and he's a cultural critic that has organized exhibitions and programs at commercial and non-profit spaces around the globe, from New York to Rome.
He runs a global collective called Art Noir that I asked him about, which is a global collective of culturalists who designed multimodal experiences aimed to engage this generation's dynamic and diverse creative class. Art Noir endeavors to celebrate the artistry and creativity by black and brown artists around the world via virtual and in-person experiences.
I hope you enjoy the following conversation for Whitehot Magazine.
Noah Becker: I wanted to ask you about the show that you co-curated called Parallels & Peripheries at the New York Academy of Art.
Larry Ossei-Mensah: Okay. So it's an exhibition that I was invited by the Academy to organize, and part of it started with a text that my co-curator Robyn wrote. Robyn is an alum of the Academy - Robyn Gibson. And she just wrote reflecting on her experience as an African-American woman at the Academy, the challenges of that and I think a lot of that really was inspired by the events that happened last summer, the murder of George Floyd and the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter Movement. I think also it's just a reckoning across industries... I think it's a reevaluation, I hope, across industries, particularly in the art world where institutions really have to look at themselves in the mirror.
Becker: Explain more about how you curated the exhibition...
Ossei-Mensah: Well, the institutions really need to kind of evaluate or begin to evaluate how complicit they've been in a lot of this systematic oppression, systematic racism, even down to things like microaggression - which I think we don't talk about a lot. You know, how challenging is it to be a student of color in an environment where there may not be many students who look like you, professors that look like you - how do you develop the tools to kind of navigate these spaces? And so Robyn Gibson wrote this text and the NY Academy invited me to collaborate with the organizing of this exhibition, meditating on the BIPOC community at the New York Academy of Art. So thinking about alums, thinking about current students, faculty, visiting lecturers - I started there.
So for me, that was an exciting opportunity. You know, one being cognizant that this is an academy's history. Having had friends who've worked there, knowing artists like Arcmanoro Niles, Naudline Pierre and others who are graduates from there in addition to Robin Gibson. And for me, this is an opportunity to ask a question, right? And so Parallels and Peripheries is a series that's been narrative. I launched it in 2018 after seeing, Take Me I'm Yours in Rome. I curated an exhibition and group show in Rome and I was at Villa Medici. You know, I was just reading about that show and I'm like, wow, it's interrogating these same set of ideas, obviously changing the artists who were part of the conversation for like 15 years.
Becker: Are the artists alumni of the New York Academy, or are most of them artists from outside the Academy?
Ossei-Mensah: The majority are artists who have an affiliation with the Academy. So, either they're teaching there currently, either they've graduated, or they're current students. And then we have a couple who are not alum, but were visiting lecturers at the Academy...
Becker: Right, because I was looking at some of the work and it's fairly representational, although maybe I missed some of it, is there some abstraction in the show or is it mainly representational?
Ossei-Mensah: No, it's not really about abstraction because I think the impetus, the subtext is practice and presence and really thinking about this notion of a certain presence in a space where you might not feel like you're seen. Right? And so, for me, as we were going through the process and it was something that we have reflected on. People want to feel seen...
Becker: So you were thinking about the NY Academy in a way?
Ossei-Mensah: Yes, and I think it was also an opportunity for the institution to kind of re-engage those folks - and so it's something I thought about. So it's not something that I glossed over, but I think when Robyn and I were talking about the show, (she has two ceramic pieces in the show), and I think Jean Shin has a sculpture in the show, so we were thinking about where are the opportunities to include other modes of making? David Antonio Cruz has a video piece in the show - so we thought about that. But in my gut, I was like, this, this just makes more sense knowing who the audience is going to be. And knowing that the Academy, that's what they're known for, whether it's sculpture or painting - it's knid of a representational history.
Becker: I've been to a number of the NY Academy galas and have been to the studios with the artists. It's definitely an interesting place and a much needed place for that kind of approach to figuration and that kind of thing. I'm not sure what New York would be like without it actually, it's launched a lot of really interesting artists.
Ossei-Mensah: Yeah and I think it's like, I think about the Academy, I think about the artistry. There's so many artists that I know who have made a career, some I would consider masters, who didn't go to these lauded MFA programs. But went to the NY Academy or went to the Art Students League or other kinds of programs that exist to really kind of just refine their craft and master their craft and I think that's one thing that the Academy definitely has offered to students.
Becker: And the other institutions?
Ossei-Mensah: I think many higher-ed institutions, there's still a lot of work to be done towards equity, creating an environment where you feel seen, and that's just kind of a natural human inclination - and it's been really great. The feedback that I've been getting from all the artists that have been participating, just being thankful, because the reality is that just because you get an MFA does not guarantee you're going to have this like hot shot career, right?
Becker: That's true and I agree...
Ossei Mensah: For some artists, they've been blessed and they're working, and they have things going on, and then others not, and that's just kind of the reality of how MFA's work. There were a couple of dealers that I know who went and they were asking questions about particular artists. And so my hope is that they engage those artists in a conversation and then hopefully that manifests into some type of working relationship or even just inclusion and future profit. WM
*For audio of the complete conversation subscribe to the Whitehot Magazine Art World Podcast on Apple or Spotify.
Noah Becker shows his paintings internationally. A visual artist, saxophonist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine, Becker has also written freelance articles for many other major magazines. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has also written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010) viewable on Youtube.
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