April 24, 2017
We interviewed Kameelah Janan Rasheed, 2017 SOAPBOX Alumni Honoree, about what inspires her work, her connection to The LP, and more. Read to find out what she had to say”
What is your bio in six words or less?
Perpetually curious artist, writer, and educator.
What motivates or inspires your creative practice?
I am inspired by what it looks like to think publicly and to create a space for others to do the same.
You grew up in the bay area in California, but have since then made a home in Crown Heights. Can you tell us about your relationship with your neighborhood, and how it may have shifted over the years?
I was born and bred in East Palo Alto, CA, a small former farming town in the Peninsula about 15 minutes away from Stanford University. Despite our proximity to more financially affluent areas, we did not share in that wealth. For what my city did not have in financial wealth, it had it cultural and pedagogical wealth. East Palo Alto is the city that I learned the love of reading in our school’s publishing center where I wrote, illustrated, and published over a dozen books before I left second grade. It is the city where I learned to love science while collecting water samples at San Francisquito Creek with Mr. Barksdale, dissecting coyote scat with my third-grade classmates at Coyote Point, and fed lab mice to an eagle that often visited our school. It is the city where my intelligence and creativity was reaffirmed. It is important not to be lulled by nostalgia. My city also experienced its sets of problems. I can confront the nuance of these issues, but what’s been most upsetting is that these sets of problems have been the most dominant in the narration of our city’s rapid gentrification by tech companies. In this battle to justify the narrative of a poor and disorganized city saved by revitalization efforts, stories like mine and many other residents are shuffled into the margins. To that end, I have been interested in what role our city’s historians and archivists play in the fight to preserve not just fair rents, but also historical sites and ephemera in my community.
How did you first get connected with The Laundromat Project?
A few artists that I admired were previously fellows, and I decided to apply and join what seemed from the outside like a nurturing and rigorous community. Upon joining, I was excited to experience a sense of community and rigor that exceeded my initial imaginings.
What impact has participating in the Create Change Fellowship had on your practice?
The Create Change Fellowship provided a space to consider strategic listening and nuanced engagement as productive processes for strong collaborations. This ethos has impacted how I approach both long-term and short-term collaboration as well as my personal relationships. I am grateful to have participated in program that made both intentional process and product priorities.
You explore the relationship between power, history, and the archive, which we’ve seen in exhibitions of your work such as Future Perfect/indices & marginalia at The Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn. How does this process help us understand the present and propel us forward into the future?
A text I return to frequently is Stuart Hall’s 2005 interview with David S. Scott in BOMB Magazine. I appreciate this conversation because it established such a generative conceptual framework for thinking through how we narrate the relationship between the past, present, and future. In particular, he argues for a consideration of historical narration that isn’t reliant on convenient, immaculate, and comfortable narrative arcs like those of the romantic revolution, or this idea that there is a clear progression into an equitable future. Instead, he advocates for an engagement with tragedy, suggesting that it seems to be an “appropriate mode of emplotment for an historical moment in which the guarantee of former futures has waned, in which the great narratives of emancipation have become, at best, enfeebled” as we exist in the space of “out-of-jointness between our former languages of opposition, hope, and change, and the world they were meant to criticize.” While this was written in 2005, I believe it still resonates today. There is a glitch. We, at times, are articulating a resistance to the current state of affairs through a lens of nostalgia and romance that is not compatible for fully confronting this protracted moment.
In my work, I am not interested in resurrecting nostalgic or romantic pasts; rather, I am invested in engaging with the messy bits of history, the stutter, the disobedient bits that resist both linearity, and the comforts of teleological endings. To that end, I do not think we can get to the future if we do not contend with the uncomfortable present and interrogate the ways that we have narrated the past. I find that at times, there is a hurry into an assumed future and this doesn’t leave space for a practice of durational looking at our conditions. As I work through archives, I am considering how we read, write, consume, distribute and archive the histories (and futures) of black folks. In doing this, I am interested in making sense of the archive as both as liberating space to assert the visibility, but also a space riddled by a colonial momentum that looked at the collection and institutionalization of information as another tool to extend power. To that end, archives and their relationship to time interest me because it is an invitation to consider the political and politicized nature of narration. In my sprawling archival installations, I engage with the narration through the aesthetics of the stutter, the glitch, the disjuncture, and temporal rhythm.
You’ve had an impressive career as an educator and artist. How do you balance both, and how does each role influence the other?
My work as a former high school teacher and now a curriculum developer helps me think through how the concept and design of my work engage with pedagogy. Particularly, I am invested in open texts, open meaning, and what it means to invite the audience to engage in more rigorous cognitive work in an exhibition space.
It is certainly difficult to work 40-60 hours a week, then go back to Brooklyn and get to work in my studio. As I have gotten older, I have grown more vigilant with time. As such, in my personal life and professional life, I do not take on anything that doesn’t feel aligned to my purpose. My purpose at this point is to make work across a range of disciplines that personally feds my curiosity while also advancing narratives and discursive opportunities to consider a more nuance way to make sense of history. Being vigilant with time is not enough. In the past two years, I have also been lucky enough to have a few close friends and a partner who have been great professional, emotional, and spiritual supports that can ground me as I navigate all of this.
You come from a non-traditional background as a artist, having studied education and public policy. What would be your advice to those without formal artistic training or fine arts degrees who are developing their own practice as artist?
Explore. Most of what I’ve learned has come through experimentation and taking on short apprenticeships. More than anything, it is important not to associate all learning with formal schooling. Much of what I learned about making art came from tinkering, informal research, and observation.
What is your favorite book, film, and / or album about NYC?
Spike Lee’s film “Crooklyn.”
“free-association”—tell us the first word that comes to mind:
Kameelah Janan Rasheed (2013 Create Change Fellow) is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, former high school public school teacher, and writer working in installation, photography, printmaking, publications, and performance. In addition to her full-time work as a social studies curriculum developer for New York public schools, she is currently an artist-in-residence at Smack Mellon and on the faculty in the MFA Fine Arts program at the School of Visual Arts. She has exhibited her work at Jack Shainman Gallery, Studio Museum in Harlem, Bronx Museum, Queens Museum, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, among others. Rasheed has forthcoming solo and group shows in Philadelphia, Boston, Portland, and New York City for 2017 as well as 2018. Recently selected as a finalist for the Future Generation Art Prize, she is the recipient of several other awards and honors including Harpo Foundation Grant (2016), Magnum Foundation Grant (2016), Creative Exchange Lab at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (2016), Keyholder Residency at LES Print Studio (2015), Triple Canopy Commission at New York Public Library Labs (2015), Artadia Grant (2015), Queens Museum Jerome Emerging Artist Fellowship (2015) Art Matters Grant (2014), Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant (2014), among others. She has spoken and facilitated discursive programming at a number of institutions such as the New Museum (forthcoming), Montclair Art Museum (forthcoming), Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, Queens Museum, The Museum of the City of New York, the Center for Book Arts, Creative Time, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Interference Archive, Northwestern University (forthcoming), Maryland Institute of College of Art (forthcoming), Hampshire College (forthcoming), School of Visual Arts, Parsons, The New School, NYU, Columbia University, Barnard, and the University of Illinois. Her writing has been published in The New Inquiry, Gawker, The Guardian, Creative Time Reports, Hyperallergic, MoMA Blog, Walker Art Center Blog, among others. A 2006 Amy Biehl U.S. Fulbright Scholar to South Africa, she earned her B.A. in public policy at Pomona College and he Ed.M at Stanford University in Secondary Education. Learn more about her at www.kameelahr.com.