“History is felt, I’m always thinking about how can we experience history bodily.”ABIGAIL DEVILLE
Last summer, I visited artist Abigail DeVille at a gallery in New York City’s Chinatown where she was installing a show called The Museum of the African’s Experience in America: the work of Biko curated by Abigail DeVille. In the gallery space, bright light illuminated white pegboard walls where broken mirror pieces reflected an expansive, salon-style view of highly textured paintings, collaged found objects, and historical printed material. Around the corner, a large wooden china cabinet displaying ephemera and memorabilia invited further exploration. Through a doorway was another room filled with large sculptures, portraits, and three-dimensional wall pieces scattered across deep blue walls and pedestals under a celestial sky of lightbulbs. In her introduction as curator, Abigail wrote of the artist: “BIKO is a lover. Lover of all things Black and a preserver of the stories held within the body of the Black experience in America…. Biko and I share the same artistic DNA, using the impulse of history as the most critical and elusive material to wield.” Her own artistic hand was visible in the gallery, and those gestures were in service to Biko.
Later, on the train leaving the city, I began to wonder if Abigail viewed her curation of Biko’s work as part of her artistic practice. In the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State, we often discuss the ways that repositioning an artist’s role in a project, claiming unconventional elements of a project as art, and using collaborative methods can add layers of meaning to an artwork. The context of this show seems like one for fruitful discussion related to these topics, as it was primarily about centering Biko’s work, but two artists developed the space together.
Biko is an artist and museum creator who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Abigail wanted to bring his varied work to a larger audience. To prepare for his first solo show in New York City at 601Artspace, Abigail worked with Biko to select and compile works from his collections. In an interview published in the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2005, Biko explained that his Museum of the African’s Experience in America at the time held over 13,000 objects and started with a Black Panther button he got in 1969. In this ongoing work, some objects appear as he finds them and others he transforms. He blends archival and art practices by annotating collected objects with collage, paint, found materials, papier-maché, reproduction, and portraiture. In a recorded conversation that accompanied the show, Abigail spoke with Biko and fellow Pittsburgh artist Christine Bethea about their friendship, his work, his process, its origins, and the way they see it in relation to their community and other people. In her own work, Abigail makes site-specific sculptures and installations with symbolic found materials to excavate lost, buried, and marginalized experiences. She builds cosmic spaces that vacillate between layers of past and present and future, propelled by the weight of the materials she uses and her exhaustive research.
Their obvious symbiosis in the show’s physical environment made me want to ask her about how she now considers herself within it — how does reverence, collaborative curation, and her artistic hand factor into the way she sees her role in showing Biko’s work? To me Abigail is a friend and an inspiration, and I’ve provided fabrication support for several of her performance-based works. She reminds me to search for what is hard to find, and I always learn a lot when speaking with her. One night, months after the show closed, I asked if she had time to answer a few of my questions informally via text message.
Mo Geiger: In this art and social practice program, we talk about the forms that collaboration can take, and the meaning of it in different contexts. Do you think about the Biko show as part of your own art practice?
Abigail DeVille: I think that is what initially drew me to his work. The rawness and honesty in his storytelling. There is a relationship he has with material that I admire. Sometimes in large-scale projects with many moving parts, you forget about the original relationship between you and material.
Mo: Yeah I could absolutely see that in the pieces — an intense relationship. But what’s your role in the curation of his work and that show in particular, as an artist and excavator of stories and material? Sharing them with a different audience outside of Pittsburgh?
Abigail: I think it’s hard to imagine myself as a “curator.” I was approaching it as an artist creating a platform for viewing. I wanted to create a space that would elevate the work for a New York audience. I did want his story to travel. We are currently working on proposing the show to multiple institutions in the south and midwest.
I thought his collection story was interesting and I hope to reconstruct as much of it as possible for future iterations.
Mo: Ah that’s amazing!! It’s really striking work that seems to want to move around and be alive. Can you describe what attracted you to his collection story? And what do you mean by reconstructing?
Abigail: He had many objects that seem to have been lost over the last 10 years. During multiple health crises. I know he had more than one [ku klux] klan uniform, slave shackles, etc. I don’t know where these items are but I hope to recover them in addition to some more examples of his papier-maché sculptures.
He talked about working for a guy named Oran Z that had a very large collection of Black memorabilia.
That’s what inspired him to create his own.
Mo: I didn’t realize he witnessed a collection and then wanted to build another. Did you feel a connection between your own process of working with material, and the act of compiling stories, sculptures, and significant objects with him?
Abigail: I think there is a definite kinship. He processed his own experiences, relationships into powerful portraits. He is honoring and historicizing his present and honoring our collective past through the preservation of the objects he collected. He was also using them as an education tool and gave multiple workshops for community groups for many years. His project feels radical in an intimate way. I don’t know if my work has the same kind of intimacy. I think because of the scale I’m speaking to a large national collective consciousness.
Mo: I could feel your deep respect for Biko and this work in the rooms. I just sat there and felt it for so long before it was even done. Ok, one more question, speaking to those spatial strengths: can you describe what you made it feel like to walk through space? How did Biko and his spirit help you figure that part out?
Abigail: I think I was responding to the ambition of the work. The color blue especially. The BBC has a documentary series I refer to a lot. One specifically about the history of the color blue. Blue is the color of our dreams. It’s the last color named in almost every language. It was originally a variant of black. It has a deep history for African Americans. I think there are vague references to Yemanya and the Atlantic ocean as a mass grave and a storage place for buried treasures. I wanted to create this dream space for Biko’s portraits. The coolness of blue was a perfect counter to the hot palate of Biko’s work. The storefront with pegboard was thinking about storefront museums and historical societies. Who has the authority to retell history? We are all historians. History is felt, I’m always thinking about how can we experience history bodily.
Mo: Was building a platform for him an artistic act? In it, were you channeling the intimacy he created in works physically smaller than yours?
Abigail: It was an artistic act. I think I played to my strengths of organizing information spatially. I am not sure his work has been given the same consideration in the presentation. His art is all heart and it was my way of honoring him to set the stage for viewing.
Abigail DeVille (she/her) is an artist whose recent exhibitions include Light of Freedom at Madison Square Park, New York and the Hirshhorn, Washington D.C., Brand New Heavies at Pioneer Works, New York, and The American Future at PICA, Portland. DeVille’s work has also been exhibited at The Whitney, Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New Museum in New York, the Punta Della Dogana in Venice, Italy, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. DeVille has designed sets for theatrical productions at venues such as the Stratford Festival, directed by Peter Sellers; Harlem Stage, La Mama, and Joe’s Pub, directed by Charlotte Brathwaite. She has received a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute, a Creative Capital grant, and an OBIE for design; and has been nominated for The Future Generation Art Prize in the 55th Biennale di Venezia. DeVille was the Chuck Close/Henry W. and Marion T. Mitchell Rome Prize fellow at the American Academy in 2017–2018. She teaches at Maryland Institute College of Art and is a critic at the Yale School of Art. More info is available here.
Mo Geiger (she/her) is an artist and graduate student in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. Trained as a theatrical designer and technician, her work now blends elements of sculpture, craft, social practice, and multimedia performance. She creates interdisciplinary, often collaborative, site-specific artworks and designs that have appeared in art galleries, theaters, museums, public places, and local organizations. She is a co-founder and member of Valley Traction performance collective, and she is based in Boiling Springs, PA. More info is available here.
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