The first time I knew that I would probably be moving to Portland, in 2019, I started googling different word combinations, looking for art projects and spaces in the city that would be cool to visit and learn about. KSMoCA was one of the most intriguing results; a museum inside an elementary school sounded like the kind of shift I had been expecting from this form of institution. It presented a unique setting to think about the possibilities of art practices impacting other systems, processes, and communities, particularly school and family.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) is a contemporary art museum and social practice project inside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, a Pre-K through 5th-grade public school in NE Portland, OR. As part of its programming, the museum hosts a series of artist lectures that, like the rest of our social spaces during the pandemic, had to migrate to virtual platforms like Zoom and YouTube.
Moe is a third-grade student who presents part of the lecture series and is also the official photographer of the museum. I interviewed them and Nikki, their mom; the family has been actively involved in the museum’s activities since Moe was in the first grade. We talked about photography, sharing good times with family, the joy of meeting new people, gender identity, and how boring it is to sit and look at screens all day long.
Diana Marcela Cuartas: Thank you for sharing your time with me! I would love to know more about you two, so let’s start with your names.
Moe Ali Hassan: I’ll tell you about myself. My name is Moe. I love photography. I like designing stuff. I’m nine, close to ten and about. I also love looking at nice clothes and seeing if I can make my own version of them. I’m also transgender. Lots of the time, I’d do this: I can find female and male outfits to make some type of cool outfit. Like, say there is an outfit that has something like a ponytail that comes with it, I can sketch it and find something cool about it.
Diana: And what’s your full name, because I know you’re Moe, but…
Moe: Muhaimine Shammil Ali Hassan. I think I may change my name soon. I’m not sure if I’m going to change my last name or my middle name. I’m still deciding on if I’m going to change it or if I’m just going to keep it straight on where it is.
I also just enjoy listening to music. My dad is a music artist, so in my family we do lots of music. Something that I do for my reading teacher—not my librarian but the person who has helped me learn how to read since I was little—is sing to her every week for about four days. I choose a random song I like to sing and tah-dah!
Diana: And what about you, Nikki?
Nicolette Hall: I go by Nikki, but my full name is Nicolette Hall. I’m an artist too, I do paintings and photography. I used to do social work and social services but I got really burned out. It was starting to affect my health. And about a year before COVID started, the grant that I was working under ended, and the position I had ended too. So my partner—Moe’s dad—and I discussed it, and I was able to stop working.
Then, a year later, COVID hit! So I’ve been working on my art, having that as a focus. Which is challenging for me because I don’t have a lot of confidence in my art.
Moe: That’s something that I keep working on with her.
Diana: Because you have a lot of confidence! That’s something that I’m jealous of.
Nikki: Yes, he does have a lot of confidence. So yeah, right now, I’m focused on, basically, making sure that he is doing well in school. Doing that as best we can because it’s definitely a challenge with virtual learning.
Moe really had a hard time with the school in terms of distance learning. He’s not someone who learns well online. So we’ve been trying to do other things. We just found out from his teacher that she will be doing limited in-person learning starting next week, two days a week. We’re excited about that because she’s gonna be focusing on arts and social-emotional learning versus academics. So Moe is looking forward to that.
Moe: And then something else about this is, early in the school year, I was sometimes not completing work. It’s hard for me because I’m someone who likes in-person learning, because I actually have social contact. And most of the time, I like doing it that way instead of like this, just sitting. Because all we do is just- I actually made a joke about this. All we do is sit down and do this [miming typing frantically].
I definitely just did a fake typing, like I was typing on a computer because that’s ALL we do.
Diana: Can you tell me a little more about your relationship with KSMoCA? What’s your first memory of it?
Moe: Well, my first memory was meeting Anke. She is a great photographer.
Nikki: Anke was his first mentor. We worked with her through the end of his first-grade year and through the summer towards the second. She actually met with him once a week during the summer, but she had to move back. She is from Germany, and she had to move back because her visa was up.
Moe: What’s a visa?
Nikki: Her permission to live here, even though she’s not a citizen.
Moe: I hate that.
Nikki: We still are in touch with her via email, and Moe talks with her on Facetime or Zoom sometimes. So your first memory of KSMoCA was with Anke?
Moe: Yeah, and learning how to use the camera.
Diana: How did you meet with Anke? Someone told you, “Hey Moe, we are doing this. Would you like to join?” How did that happen?
Moe: I actually was interested in using a camera at that time. I asked. I went there like, “You know, is there any way that I can learn how to use the camera?”, and they were like, “On the second floor is KSMoCA”.
Nikki: He used to speak with Miss Michelle Peak a lot. He’d go and talk to her. He’s very social at school, everybody knows him.
Diana: I know!
Nikki: So, through conversations, Miss Peak contacted me and asked if I would be okay if he participated in the Mentor Program, and then it kind of developed. We got to meet Anke, and then she was suggesting that we continue through the summer, and we were able to do that.
Diana: And how did that sound to you?
Nikki: As I said, I’m an artist too, so I was really excited, and Anke is a super cool woman. So it was really neat once I got to know her and her interest in Moe. She had also worked with Moe before to set up a display— I think it’s still up in the school. He had his first art installation through the KSMoCA program as the photographer, with pieces that he took. Was that with Anke, or was that with Roz?
Moe: It was with Roz. Let me explain. Technically, it was my art exhibit. My grandma, my dad, and my mom were there. I can’t remember if my cousins were there. So, I took a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King and a bunch of very cool things.
Nikki: He gave a talk, an artist talk for his classmates and the couple of us who were able to come. It was right before the school closed.
Moe: Yeah, I had a microphone, and that was my first art exhibit. I think once I get back into the school, I may be able to do another one.
“I was bullied, so I want people to know that just because of your gender or skin color, it doesn’t mean you’re different, or not the same, or you can’t play with them just because of those things. That isn’t fair. Why not let other people play with you just because they’re white or Black or a boy or a girl or both?” Excerpt from Moe’s text for The Imagine exhibition at the King School Museum of Contemporary Art 2020. Image by Elija Hasan.
Diana: So you got involved with KSMoCA because you were interested in photography, and I know you are the Head Photographer for KSMoCA. What does that mean?
Moe: So, technically what my job as a Head Photographer is, say they are taking pictures of very fragile pieces of art somewhere, they would bring the photo to me and say, “Hey, is this okay?” and I would look at the photo and…
Nikki: Being KSMoCA Head Photographer started when Anke left. She was the photographer for all of the KSMoCA events and even went on field trips, photographing the involvement of the students at King School and the art that they bring in for the museum aspect of the program. Part of her working with Moe was to help him with his photography. So he would take the photographs of the artists’ talks and all the things that usually were documented before COVID started.
Moe: Now I think I may do another art exhibit sort of thing but online, like an Instagram thing.
Diana: Do you have an Instagram account?
Moe: My mom does. I was also working on something right when COVID hit and was like, “I cannot finish this in time!” I was going to take a picture of all the students and all the staff, and I would put pictures of them on a wall and say, “Thank you, staff, for helping all the students here learn and help with their emotional state.”
Diana: So you have been the Head Photographer for around one year?
Moe: Coming up to two years.
Diana: What do you like to photograph? What’s your style?
Moe: Sometimes, when I’m walking around or hiking, I will bring my camera, and as we’re hiking, I’ll see something beautiful. I once saw this skeleton of a leaf, and I thought that was cool. I was planning on picking it,and then was like, “Look, maybe you can just take a picture of it.” I also like taking pictures of my family.
Nikki: Moe really likes taking pictures and videos of people. When we would go hiking, I was like, “Oh, let’s go and take our cameras and take pictures of nature and scenery.” But Moe is much more interested in taking pictures of people than the landscape, I’ve noticed.
Moe: When I get a laptop, and I’m able to edit my videos and other stuff, I’m planning on making a project that I’m going to present to KSMoCA, but I haven’t told them! [laughs] I’m working on a project, but technically it’s going to be like a secret.
Diana: And do you have a favorite photographer?
Moe: I would say my favorite photographer, that I know, would be my mom. My mom, Anke, and Roz are all good photographers. So these three people in my life have been the people who represented my whole state of mind for photography.
Diana: Moe, I have seen you presenting the KSMoCA lecture series. How do you feel in that role?
Moe: Being a presenter is technically something that I would do. I like doing it. I would do it anytime except on Fridays. And I also like that I get to know different artists.
Nikki: Moe has also talked for years about doing his own YouTube channel. We are actually working on getting that going. As a parent, I’m super cautious about that kind of thing, and I get really nervous about it, but his dad is more open to it, so we’re working on it. So he is practicing and presenting. That’s one thing about KSMoCA—it has been a practice for him too, to see how KSMoCA has it all planned out for a YouTube show.
Moe: And Tiktok! It shall be named The Moe Show!
Diana: It seems like you feel pretty comfortable in the spotlight. What’s your favorite part of being a presenter?
Moe: I would say meeting new people.
Diana: Do you share the videos with your friends or family?
Moe: I share them with my family a lot.
Diana: And who has been your favorite artist at KSMoCA?
Moe: I would say all of them are pretty cool. But… I can’t remember his name; he did one talk about the Black Jesus. That was like..! [Surprised face] And then I was like, “THANK YOU, JESUS!”
Diana: And how about online school. How do you like that?
Moe: I feel BORED! I sometimes say to my mom, “I am going to die of boredom!”
Nikki: He has been pretty stressed with it. We’ve been working on making sure Moe talks to us about how he’s feeling. There’s been a few times that we’ve taken mental health days because, before this, we weren’t super big on screens. We didn’t do a lot of screen time at all. Screens were more of a rewarding sort of thing, like “Oh, yeah, you can get on your screen for 30 minutes.” Now he is on screens all day, so we try not to do too much else on the screen. But at the same time, he still really likes it as his reward for working hard. So it’s been interesting.
Diana: And how has that impacted or changed your relationship?
Nikki: I would say that’s probably the positive for me anyway, the fact that we get a whole lot of family time.
Moe: Yes! And we get to actually gather together. And we watch MacGyver.
Diana: And is there something you will miss from online learning once it’s safe to go to school again?
Moe: I don’t know what I would say. I think nothing.
Nikki: I like the amount of time we get to spend together.
Moe: That’s the ONLY thing I’d miss.
Nikki: I think I would miss that. Simultaneously, I still miss having time when I’m not acting as a parent-teacher, making sure that he’s focused and doing what we have to do for his learning.
Moe: I’m tired.
Diana: Don’t worry, we’re almost done. But tell me, what was the thing you miss the most about being in person?
Diana: One last question, what would you say has been the impact of KSMoCA in your lives?
Moe: The best part is that I know so many people who are kind. And lots of people in KSMoCA are transgender. They’re more open about that.
Diana: Okay, so I lied. I said that will be the last question, but I have another question: What does transgender mean to you?
Moe: It means that I don’t feel comfortable with people calling me boy or girl—having to be any of them.
Nikki: I think you’re more gender-neutral than transgender.
Moe: Like people who are theys. When you say they, it can be just one person who doesn’t feel comfortable just as a boy or a girl.
Nikki: Moe is at that point in his life where he is understanding gender and gender identity. He is not super happy with the binary aspects of it and is very vocal—which I think is awesome—about how important it is to be open to that. As artists, we tend to think of things from a little bit broader perspective in general, and at KSMoCA, I think that’s one of the big aspects of that. He’s gotten a lot of support.
Moe: All the artists in KSMoCA appreciate the people’s decision on that. Some people don’t feel comfortable in a boy’s body or a girl’s body, or they don’t feel comfortable in either, so they consider themselves a they. I knew plenty of people there—actually, all of the people there appreciated this decision and were supportive. Some people were supportive because they are transgender. So I do know some people who actually feel that way.
Diana: Well, thank you, guys. I was very curious, wanting to know a little more about you. I see you, Moe, at the lectures every week, and I was like, “Who is this person with all that energy?” Thank you for helping me with my homework!
Moe: Your homework is interviewing me?!
Nikki: Thank you so much too. This was really cool.
Diana Marcela Cuartas (she/her) is a Colombian artist and current student in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University. In 2019, she moved to Portland, Oregon, where she has been working independently for the promotion and exchange between Pacific Northwest and Latin American artists. Currently, she works as a family liaison for Latino Network, serving immigrant families through school-based programs at the Reynolds School District in the East Multnomah County area.
Moe Ali Hassan (he/they) is a third-grade student at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr School and the KSMoCA Head Photographer. Currently, they are the presenter for the KSMoCA Lecture Series, a virtual artist lecture series designed for elementary school students and their families. Moe’s first exhibition, The Imagine, was on view in March 2020 until the pandemic, and was curated by The Student Curatorial Committee.
Nikki Hall (she/her) is a mom and a lifelong artist/advocate from Portland, Oregon, who has been working in the social justice field for years. In the past two years, she has taken time to refocus on her art as a central part of her life. Nikki works with photography, watercolor, acrylic, and mixed media, and loves collaborating with other artists and volunteering with the KSMoCa mentor program. Nikki finds that her art and social justice work are closely intertwined, and because of this connection, both are stronger for it.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program