While the timing may have been pure coincidence, the message couldn’t be louder or clearer: it’s time for women to be seen, heard and recognized for their vision, strength and creativity.
On May 22, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill opened its summer season with “Set It Off,” an exhibition curated by Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas – collectively known as Two Black Women. Created specifically for the museum, from site-specific sculptures, paintings, ceramics and pieces, the exhibition features a wide range of works from an international roster of six artists, all of whom are women of color.
On a recent afternoon in May, Chevremont and Thomas took a break from setting up the show at the Parrish to talk via Zoom about “Set It Off,” sharing insight into the process and how they approached its preservation.
“We had both visited the museum on our own, but the first time we came together was when we were asked to organize the exhibition to understand space, light and location,” Chevremont said.
“We looked at space and started thinking. We have a working list of artists that we find interesting or would spark a conversation. We ended up with all the artists we approached, which is amazing. We have been very lucky here. We knew the bodies of work we wanted.
When asked where the name of the show came from, Chevremont responded by saying, “’Raise it’ means to make some noise, to do something big and loud, to make a statement. We are here. Six black women in this incredible museum. Look at us, see it. We create works that everyone needs to see.
“We have the agency. We are validated,” added Thomas. “Intervene, engage, learn. These artists will stay with you – they will leave a residue in your mind. You will be inspired and transformed.
For “Set It Off”, curators were given a fair amount of space at the Parrish to work in, including the museum’s central exhibition corridor as well as the galleries on either side, as well as outdoor spaces for larger exhibits. sculptural.
“That’s a lot of real estate,” Thomas said.
“It’s liberating,” added Chevremont.
Seeing the show come together during installation, Thomas marveled at how the Parrish’s architectural features heightened the experience of ‘Set It Off’, which features the work of Leilah Babirye, Torkwase Dyson, February James , Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Karyn Olivier and Kennedy Yanko.
“I feel like art should be seen in spaces like these. To showcase artists on this platform is amazing,” Thomas said. “Inside and out, it’s an incredible opportunity for us to offer this type of agency.”
“We definitely wanted to bring in more sculpture, because of the high ceilings and the vast open space,” Chevremont added.
“This space demands that, juxtaposition – the different types of works in the same space,” Thomas said.
The six artists featured in “Set It Off” may not be household names to East End audiences, but with this show they have been given a platform to share their unique vision. Although there is no overarching theme that runs through the entire show, Thomas noted that each of the artists used their talent to make a uniquely different statement with their work.
“Karyn Olivier talks about immigration and coastal refugees – we felt that was very important,” Chevremont said. “While February James comes from a personal story. They’re all discussing personal stories and what’s really going on. It’s a great mix.
“It’s their singular vision and they bring it to the fore and bring awareness to how they think and move in these moments,” Thomas added, noting that “Set It Off” takes place at the same time as the Parrish exhibition of prints by Jasper Johns. “For them to be in conversation with someone like Jasper Johns is great. It’s important to have artists’ work in unusual and unexpected contexts.
The range of materials the artists have incorporated into this exhibition is also unexpected, some of which are not traditionally associated with female artists. Among them are the large painted sculptural pieces by Kennedy Yanko. Although made of aluminum, metal and steel, the hard surfaces and edges of the works are transformed in the hands of the artist, folded like origami or softened through the use of color.
“Women are so, so strong,” Chevremont said. “It’s soft on the outside, but underneath they’re stronger than the men.”
“All of their work has this foundation – strength and softness,” Thomas added. “I think they all have that balance.”
For February James, a West Coast artist who grew up in Washington, D.C., revisiting the energy of strong women and others who came before them is a key theme in her site-specific installation “My Ghosts to Sit With.” , which occupies one of the Parrish Galleries.
A found dresser, a dining table and a pair of chairs are the central element of the installation, and on each element a layer of cardboard and paper paste, such as papier-mâché, has been applied and then painted. Surrounding the table and chairs is a simple fence-like structure that encloses and protects the items within.
The surrounding walls are adorned with portraits – some are faces painted in a similar hue to the furniture, others are full-length portraits of women adorned in fashions reminiscent of an earlier era. All speak to the ancestors who once occupied spaces and the remnants of those who remain long after they are gone.
In an interview with The Parrish, James explained that the installation came about when she found furniture identical to the ones she grew up with. Although the furniture itself is not historically significant or particularly valuable, the pieces represent the emotional richness of family ties and the importance these objects can play in preserving legacies.
“My aunts passed on the porcelain cabinet to my mother. It was a true adult rite of passage,” James said. “For my mother, when my aunt gave her the cabinet, it meant that it was an honor to take care of it.
“My mother is no longer there. She has passed. I thought about everything we put in objects. When that person is no longer there, the chair holds that person’s presence.
James came across the dresser online and when she went to see it in person, she learned that the man selling it had inherited it from a family member.
“I got chills when I went to visit,” she said. “I could see the emotion in him giving it to me. I felt responsible for that too. It was like the coin had found me.
Initially, James intended to leave the cabinet intact, but then she felt the need to cover it with papier-mâché, turning it into a kind of altar.
“I take this family tradition,” she said. “Making art out of it gives it value and new importance. As a family, we met either between the kitchen or the dining room. The frame around it resembled a frame of the house – what happens between the four walls.
In some ways, it feels like by imposing his unique stamp on the room, James finds a way to move on – as we all have to do in life. In fact, her 10-year-old son, Greyson, was at the Parrish with her during the setup process and is literally the next generation. With the addition of pulp and paint, rather than treating family heirlooms as revered relics of the past that cannot be touched or altered by the living, James brings his own spirit, and that of his son, into the conversation.
“I don’t think this room is in mourning for my mother,” she said. “I feel like the grieving process is oscillating. It’s a re-visiting of her energy. As I was working on it, I was thinking of her, calling her energy. I feel she’s there.
Likewise, the portraits on the wall surrounding the installation may seem specific and identifiable, but they are in fact clues to ancestors and those who came before us. James describes them as “the faces that cannot be photographed”.
“It feels more like an energy. I feel like they’re all aunts,” James says, looking at the portraits on the gallery wall. “’These are my ghosts to sit with.’ I felt like they held that space.
“I think the family history is with us and the stories,” she added. “All families have stories that we tell to keep us together and that’s part of the history and the blood. Objects become tangible things to hold, to take us back in time. I think the value is in our hearts.
“Set It Off” is on display at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, through July 24. Curated by Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas, it features the work of Leilah Babirye, Torkwase Dyson, February James, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Karyn Olivier and Kennedy Yanko. For more information, visit parrishart.org.