Interview with Nicole ABE Titus about Julia Seabrook’s inaugural show, Miss Universe

People gather outside Julia Seabrook Gallery at 660 Franklin Ave for opening night. Imagery courtesy of Xingze Li.

By CLARE GEMIMA, March 2023

Julia Seabrook Gallery’s inaugural show, Miss Universe, opened earlier in March, and aims to explore the diverse experiences of femininity through a variety of print and photographic media. I was lucky enough to interview the hot topic curator of the show, the fascinating, and passionate Nicole ABE Titus. Featuring a talented and diverse group of artists, Miss Universe seeks to define and depict the multifaceted nature of modern womanhood. Through themes of beauty, strength, sexuality, desire, frustration, and need, these artists showcase their incandescent talent and skill. The show's participants include both emerging and established artists, Maggie Holland, Anna Friemoth, Chris Carr, Gabriele De Cos, Lewinale Havette, ABE, Lane Sell, Adam Pitt, Anne McMahan, as well as work from printmaking greats like Nancy Spero and Emma Amos. 

Clare Gemima: Firstly Nicole, it was such a pleasure to meet you at your gallery Julia Seabrook last week. Congratulations on your inaugural show, and for your new massive endeavor into the curatorial, and gallerist playground of New York City. How did it feel to open with Miss Universe?

Nicole ABE Titus: Opening with Miss Universe felt like the right thing, especially since it came during Women’s History Month. We poured our hearts and souls into planning and executing Miss Universe, from concept, to recruiting the talent, to promotion, hanging the art and ultimately to welcoming our guests. I’m very proud of everyone involved, especially the artists and my staff. And I was proud to open up the renovated space to the many art lovers who attended our opening, including so many who came from our Crown Heights community.   

Clare Gemima: How long has the dream of opening a gallery been in the making for you? 

Nicole ABE Titus: The dream of opening an art gallery has honestly been mine since I was in high school. I’ve been an artist since I was a child growing up in South Carolina, but I never really knew how difficult it was for artists to find places to display and sell their works. As an adult, I was frustrated that so many galleries are owned and controlled by elite gallerists and were not open to artists from outside their closed networks. I dreamed of fixing that. For a time, Julia Seabrook Gallery existed only in my imagination. Then in 2020 during the pandemic, I transformed that dream into a version of reality, a miniature diorama complete with tiny works of art. That was still far from the JSG of today. It took many months of planning, designing, working with renovators, finding the right staff and artists to make a dream a reality. Seeing it come to fruition in real life is the realization of a lifelong dream. Dreams can come true, if you let them. 

Clare Gemima: What is Julia Seabrook’s main mission, and what sets you apart from the other galleries in New York City?

Nicole ABE Titus: Our main goal is to be able to create a transparent space for emerging artists, and both seasoned and novice art collectors. My overarching goal is to sell art. But I want to sell important new art from disfranchised artists that lack entry into the elitist gallery networks. I also want to engage with the Brooklyn community to bring new art to the attention of those outside the art world. I believe that our willingness to work with emerging artists can help them meet their early career goals, and that’s what I hope will set us apart as we move forward. Also, I am a young Black woman, but none of that influences how I pick the artwork. We don’t go by race, age, or sexual orientation. We just go by what art looks best. We want to show work that is unique, engaging, sometimes provocative, but always interesting. 

Clare Gemima: The show features emerging and established artists that define what it means to be “a woman post-modern,” and those that touch “on themes of beauty, strength, sexuality, desire, frustration and need.” I am really interested in your personal outlook specifically though. What does “Miss Universe” look like to you, and have you ever seen ‘her’ in the wider context of art history?

Nicole ABE Titus: There are so many examples of great women who could embody the Miss Universe ethos. One is Gertrude Stein. As a Jewish, lesbian, expatriate, living in Paris between the wars, she was able to create a catalog of important literary works while also building such influence that her gatherings helped to shape the parallel worlds of art and literature for decades to come. That's what I see when I think of Miss Universe: someone who meets extraordinary challenges through strength, intellect, talent, hard work, and style. But you don’t have to be a famous figure in the world of literature or art or anything else to be Miss Universe. My own mother is also Miss Universe. Any woman who knows who she is and works to become who she wants to be outside of the shadow of a man can be Miss Universe. Miss Universe is not a person; Miss Universe is a state of being.

Clare Gemima: Miss Universe showcases artwork created by a broad range of artists, some less known, some emergent, some well known, and some very established. Do the artists relate to each other in any way outside of the show's statement?

Nicole ABE Titus: Yes, the artists all relate to each other. They all exhibit the traits and values of Miss Universe. They are all strong and independent people who have persisted against the headwinds the art world has thrown their way. They are a diverse group that works in different styles, employs different techniques and media, but they all stand out for their strength, intellect, dedication to hard work and, most of all, their limitless talent. Their work strikes a timeless chord that resonates far outside their own communities. Many of the artists physically live in the Brooklyn community, but their artistic communities are much broader and more inclusive than that. 

Self portraits by artist ABE hang in the corner of Julia Seabrook Gallery. Imagery courtesy of Xingze Li.

Clare Gemima: You are also an artist yourself, and have included your striking series of photographs in Miss Universe. I found these works so powerfully personal, and hung in a really interesting manner.  In your words, can you tell us what was going through your head in the studio when you first decided to make this series?

Nicole ABE Titus: I was actually in a relationship with a man at the time who ended up burning my paintings. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most supportive relationship for a young artist to be in. He wanted to control me, but at the same time he would always tell me that I needed to be strong. One day, I went into my art studio, which was in a garage in Pennsylvania at the time, and I made this photo set. I was trying to get him to understand how it felt to have to constantly pretend that my feelings were invalid. He didn’t get the message, but it has been clear to the many people who have viewed this series since. 

Clare Gemima: Anna Friemoth’s work, Miss Universe I, is heavily influential to the exhibition’s title. What was it about this work that sparked that discussion with your team?

Nicole ABE Titus: Before we had a clear name for the show, we had just two artists lined up: Anna Friemoth and Maggie Holland. At that time, we believed that would be enough and we were ready for a show. Over the next few months as we began planning, we came to realize that, as fabulous as the work was, the show was not strong enough with just Anna and Maggie - it needed something more. Still, we did not have a name for the show. As we began recruiting more artists, we were most attracted to figurative works of women, some of which were actually created by men. We had all the pieces together and we were looking around and I saw Anna’s piece and I was like “Miss Universe that’s it!” So in a way the show named itself. Sometimes you have a concept you want to get across based on a title, but more often you know what you're trying to do with a piece of work or an event and the name comes later. A lot of factors go into naming a show and finding the right name can be critical. In this case, when we looked at the work, we knew without a doubt that we were looking at Miss Universe.

Anna Friemoth. Miss Universe I, 2021. Archival pigment print. 56 x 43 in. Imagery courtesy of Julia Seabrook Gallery. 

Clare Gemima: I had initially reached out because I had read you were showing a work by Emma Amos. After having learnt more about her life through her retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum, I was really in awe of how it was possible for your gallery to show her. How have you come to access Pool Lady, 1980?

Nicole Abe Titus: Once the show began to focus more on printmaking and photography, it became obvious that we needed to add some gravitas and Amos did that for us. I have to thank Ann McMahan directly for acquiring that artwork. I told her that we needed more influential artwork to go beside some of the works that were less known, and she went out and contacted her longtime friend, master printer Kathy Carracio, and that’s how we were able to visit her studio. Upon visiting her studio, we looked at multiple works, but ultimately decided upon this one to show. I’m very happy that we did. We knew that she had a current piece up at the Met and wanted to draw audiences from there also. It actually took us about three visits before Carracio agreed to let us put the work in the show. We even had to get the artwork framed specifically to Carracio’s liking. But I’m very happy that we were able to get this work because it really makes the show amazing. I’m very proud to have a pair of established artists in the show, Amos alongside Nancy Spero.

Emma Amos. Pool Lady, 1980. Color etching and aquatint. 23 ¼ x 21 ¼ in.  Imagery courtesy of Julia Seabrook Gallery.

Clare Gemima: Being that you are only 28 years old and solidly building a foundation for your gallery, while operating within a male dominated industry, how is Julia Seabrook Gallery in a position likely to make its own mark on history?

Nicole Abe Titus: We are already making history. I’m very proud of the fact that I was able to open this gallery on my own, with my own funds, without loans, and without relying on my female identity or my black identity. I lead with artwork. We are one of the largest art galleries in Brooklyn right now that shows art full time while engaging with the community. This is not a hobby for myself or anyone in my team. Julia Seabrook gallery is set up for longevity for ourselves and for our artists.

Artist, Curator, and Gallerist Nicole Abe Titus poses in front of mixed media piece by Lewinale Havette. Imagery courtesy of Xingze Li.

Clare Gemima: What is the best advice you could give to arts enthusiasts and/or the wider public about how to best support Julia Seabrook Gallery?

Nicole Abe Titus: The best way to support us is to follow us on Instagram (@juliaseabrookgallery) and add yourself to our mailing list. Beyond that, buy artwork. Tell all your friends about us. If you have anyone who is opening a business that needs art, I hope Julia Seabrook Gallery is the first thing you think about. If someone is buying a home and they need artwork, I promise you that we have artists who can fulfill that need. Additionally, our next opening is on April 20th showing Vermont artist Chip Haggerty in his first solo exhibition. We hope to see you there, or at one of our other art events.

Authors Note:

Owned by Nicole ABE Titus, Julia Seabrook Gallery prides itself on offering a welcoming and accessible entry point to the art world for up-and-coming artists, as well as a supportive and thriving environment for established talent. Do not miss the last week to see this exciting and thought-provoking exhibition. For more information, please visit: WM


Clare Gemima

Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.

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