Interview with curator, Blair Ebony Smith
By Rikki Byrd, art writer/critic, Northwestern University
In the past year, COVID-19 has impacted how people around the globe have related to and reoriented themselves toward their living spaces. But even before the pandemic, Blair Ebony Smith was thinking about these ideas as she developed her exhibition Homemade, with Love: More Living Room, which meditates on the ways that home informs the worldmaking and placemaking of Black women and girls and the way that they make room for themselves, whether that be at home, online or in this instance, in a museum gallery. Through her multimedium curation that includes works on view by a host of artists such Carrie Mae Weems, Margo Humprey and Jen Everett, and by inviting Black girls into the space to participate in COVID-safe programming, Smith offers a compelling and necessary approach for thinking about the ways Black women and girls relate to space and forge traditions, memories, trends and more. Below, Smith discusses how she arrived at the thesis for the exhibition, her community-centered work with Black girls and some of the works on view.
Rikki Byrd: Tell me a little bit about yourself, so you are postdoc at the University of Illinois and you have your PhD from Syracuse. Is that right?
Blair Smith: Yes, I got my PhD at Syracuse University in Education, but I've done a lot of work here at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. I actually moved out here in 2015 to do my dissertation work and work more closely with Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truths (SOLHOT). I went home to Virginia to be with my family and finish writing my dissertation. I came back here from Virginia to do the postdoc with Krannert Art Museum. I'm continuing to do work with SOLHOT and think about Black girlhood.
Rikki Byrd: SOLHOT was already established or that's something that you created?
Blair Smith: It was started by Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown in 2006 here in Champaign-Illinois.
Rikki Byrd: It seems like you have been invested in this work around Black girlhood for some time. Could you talk about your investment in that and interest?
Blair Smith: I guess I can start with undergrad. So as an undergraduate, I went to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. I was just really into hip hop. I was able to co-found this organization called Student Hip-Hop Organization (SHHO). We would organize concerts and other events on campus. I did a lot of music-related , hip-hop things. As far as school, in my senior year, I didn't really know what I wanted to do, and so I met a professor that had just started a Community Studies minor, and I was just like “That's so dope.” At the time I was into hip hop and feminism. A lot of the courses that I was taking were Black studies and gender and women's studies classes. A lot of things that I was researching and writing about were about women in hip hop, Black women. At that time, I got into the new Community Studies minor, I started thinking about what community-engaged research looked like, what that could be especially as it related to Black women, girls and the hip-hop generation. Doing that research, I came across Dr. Brown's work. She has a book called Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy. That book is really about the creation and start of SOLHOT. So from there I was like “Okay, well this is something that maybe I can do, and continue to do with things that I'm interested in.” So from there I went to graduate school in Syracuse and stayed connected to SOLHOT and thinking about/doing Black girlhood.
My mother actually passed away in 2014. That was a really pivotal moment for me. Around that time, Dr. Brown with SOLHOT homegirls started a public campaign called Black Girl Genius week and that really allowed a lot of people to come and experience SOLHOT that didn't live in Champaign. I was able to move to Illinois and work more closely. That kind of grieving process and kind of moving here and being able to work more closely with SOLHOT. Moving closer to people choosing me and Black girlhood as a collective being, taught me about Black girlhood in a way that wasn't based on biological identity or academic achievement. It was more about us coming together. What happens when we make and organize this space with Black girls where our celebration/genius is most important?
I also make music [and] do a lot of sound things. A lot of the music and things that I do is also really centered around Black girlhood, working with Black girls, actually making music with girls, so my dissertation is about the sounds and music that come out of that work personally and with SOLHOT. So, I've been able to continue that work as a curator with Krannert.
Rikki Byrd: What motivated you to start exploring your work and interests via curation? It sounds like, of course, the fundamental aspect of it is [that] a seed was planted in undergrad and there was a lot of engagement with text. And then it seems like there was a lot of engagement with community-centered work. I'm wondering if you could talk about your turn to curation specifically and how that informed your development of the exhibition Homemade.
Blair Smith: That's an amazing question. I think I've been thinking a lot about how I've come to it. I think it’s part of the work that Dr. Brown has done here at the University of Illinois for the past 14-15 years. She worked in education, and I know she also had appointments in Gender and Women’s Studies, and worked closely with the School of Art and Design, across campus to create critical arts-based classes and classes around Black girlhood studies in public humanities. I think, even with this postdoc that the museum has, she's done a lot of work really bringing that to life, and I think making space for postdoc and curator positions with the museum that's not necessarily traditional in that sense. I think that with Homemade with Love, I’ve really been able to think about this space as not only a gallery space, but also just this living space, and also a space that is intentional about making it so Black girls can see it as theirs, together.
Rikki Byrd: It looks like via some of the images that there's actual activation of the space via Black girls in Champaign. What did that activation or engagement look like pre-pandemic?
Blair Smith: A lot of the engagement with the museum has come during COVID. Pre-COVID, we've been working with the middle school and so typically we go to the middle schools, maybe after school or in a band, or doing a lunch hour to work with some eighth graders. It really transitioned into just building relationships with parents. Social media is a great place where SOLHOT homegirls have been able to sustain connections with Black girls. Many of my conversations and points of contact have been with parents versus teachers. SOLHOT, being with Black girls, doing Black girlhood celebration can happen and happens a lot of different ways. This year we did interactive sessions with a small group, which are private with Black girls and so it's just us, and so we used the exhibition space as a studio, gathering place. We have different rituals that we do, and then we do different activities that get us talking, playing, being with, and getting to know each other as a group. Getting to know each other often involves engaging sensation through play, art-making and thinking that remembers Black girls and us together. Some of our productions this year have included collage art with artist on view, Nimot Ogunfemi. We worked with some printmaking professors to make some T-shirts that were based off of some Gees Bend quilts, printmaking techniques. We do different activities to get to know each other. One of my homegirls and graduate students, she's a filmmaker and does some work about movement and dance, so she co-led us in one of the sessions at a nature park that we have.
Rikki Byrd: In the original development and installation of the exhibition was it works that you brought in, and objects that you brought in, and then, once you all figured out how to safely bring in the girls that's when their work started to be incorporated into the exhibition or was it all there from the very beginning?
Blair Smith: It really started with a process. With the museum we do launch meetings months to a year before exhibitions are set to be installed. Homemade was envisioned and launched pre-COVID. This was really an opportunity to say to other curators and museum staff, “Hey, this is my vision.” It's a combination of my personal items. There are some artworks from the museum collection by Black women artists. I also pulled from SOLHOTs archive. We have archives of artwork. I brought in personal records and also children's books that really inspired the vision for the exhibition. So those are also part of the exhibition. And then certain things kind of came in during the installation period. I knew I wanted to include furniture. It was a process to figure out how we were going to do that. There's a habitat restore here so some of the big pieces of furniture we got there. A few museum staff donated mirrors and lamps to sort of fill in the space. Once we kind of got some footing with that I invited in some other homegirls to give input. One of the homegirls, her mom came by and brought some old Black figurines. For the Gees Bend quilt, we actually made a quilting table. Laniyah, a 9th grader, had a chance to help make that table. She's an amazing sketch artist, and so I presented the idea of doing a mural for the art studio. She came up with a sketch during the installation period, we both painted and sketched it on a wall so that was an amazing opportunity to work closely with a young person and help curate the space.
Rikki Byrd: So why home? Why did you choose home to explore the idea of Black girlhood?
Blair Smith: I think the answers are layered and non-linear. I'm always thinking about home in its literal sense, thinking about my mom, my grandmother, my dad, my uncle, both of my parents are deceased and so home in that sense. Thinking about Richmond [Virginia] where I was born and spent my childhood. Connections in those ways. I'm also thinking about home in “homegirl” in this Black feminist, Black woman sense, which is also just really a foundational way of doing SolHot. We really look to Combahee River Collective and Barbara Smith. I’m also thinking about Bernice Reagan and thinking about home as a coalition. M. Jacqui Alexander. I’m about her ideas of home and thinking about that in regard to Black women, girls, making space and home. I'm also thinking about the ways that people contextualize home for Black women and girls, often seen as people at-risk at home or without a home. Home for me, it's also my mom, my grandmother, SOLHOT, too.
Artists on view pre-installation and throughout the process were also a part of this vision/imagining home and making it a space that Black girls might see as theirs. Jen Everett, cyan cian, Kamari Smalls, Tiffany Harris and Jessica Robinson think about and play with home in their art and scholarship in ways that move me to think deeply about my own connections to home and Black girlhood. For instance, In a prayer with the Clearing installed in the Spring, cian brings Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison’s beloved and her own grandmother’s voice together with her own movement with land to bring spirituality and mysticism into conversation with Black girlhood. I’d later discover in an interview with bell hooks that the Margo Humprey print, Lady Luck Says Take A Change, was also an intentional making and exploration of home, land and spirituality through Black femaleness. And then it’s definitely certain texts I was reading during the time when I was thinking about what I wanted to do with the exhibition. One of those texts was on J. California Cooper Homemade Love. That's also a really big connection to my mother. She really read and loved J. California Cooper’s short fiction.
RB: My mom too!
BS: Yeah. So, when I started reading that text and the author’s notes specifically too. She's talking about home and what it means to make it. I was like “Oh like that's kind of where I want to go with that.” I think, as far as this specific vision of it, I think it really started there. Also June Jordan. I'm definitely going to shout out Alexis Pauline Gumbs too because she writes a lot about June Jordan and her thinking about living room in this literal, physical sense, but also you know I think in this very imaginative [way]. Like let’s imagine a world that we want to be [in]. Let’s actually make it. I really wanted to explore that, and I also really wanted to explore that in regard to thinking about Black girlhood, Black children’s experiences. That's something that's really near and dear to me that I think comes out a lot in Black feminist work that I don't really think that folks really connect to. Black feminists, Black women writers in general, they talk about the importance being and working with young people a lot. That's important to me thinking about Black arts too and linking that to home. Thinking about Nikki Finney.
Rikki Byrd: I love that idea of living room and kind of making my living room. Do you think that art making is a part of that kind of making? A phrase that you see kind of used a lot is claiming space or making space, but I really want to hold on to “making living room” because I think that it's providing the level of specificity and leaves open space in a way that I don't think is necessarily negative, but making living room is …
Blair Smith: Very specific.
Rikki Byrd: Yeah. There's a specificity to it. I'm wondering if you're thinking about art making or generating a space for them to make art is a part of aiding them in exploring making living room?
Blair Smith: I'm definitely grateful to really play around with what that means, and in action with the girls and the art studio and activating the exhibition in a way that brings Black girls together in our everyday ordinary genius. One of the things, I'm going to tie this back to [June] Jordan, too. Her children's books specifically. One of the books is called New Life New Room. That book kind of just changed my life. It’s so simple and sweet. It's about a family that lives in a public housing community in New York and they're about to have a baby and the older siblings are trying to figure out how to make room for this baby. And they're doing all of these different things to this room, painting the walls, painting the windows. It really inspired me. We've been able to do that with SOLHOT, with the collage art. One of their favorite things to do is make Tiktok videos and tape pictures with the mirrors installed, in between activities. That's making more living room, too.
Rikki Byrd: And I also think that it's really incredible too because even when you think about the gallery spaces in the museum, as much as it shows beautiful things or things for us to think about, it's somewhat of a prohibitive space. You have directions, you have literal restrictions in front of you [like] “Please don't touch,” “Please don't sit,” please don't do all these things. So, what's so incredible about this exhibition is that it really is an experiment too in kind of breaking that a little bit or asking what if what if the gallery space can be playful? What if the gallery space can invite sensorial experiences? So, I really appreciate this invitation that your exhibition provides because I think that, especially as we're living through a pandemic, it is pushing us to think creatively and differently about how we engage art and how we engage museums. I do want to talk more about some of the objects that you have in the exhibition. You have the Gees Bend quilt and I have to hear about that, because my great grandmother was from Little Rock, Arkansas and she was a quilter. How did you even get this quilt?
Blair Smith: It's funny. My grandmother on my dad’s side, her maiden name was Pettaway. I went to family reunions on that side growing up, so every family reunion we talked about Gees Bend. My dad's cousins, Alvin Pettaway, he's a historian. He made a genealogy book that is pretty much linking my family back to the 1800s in Prince George's County, Virginia and so you know how it goes for Black people. Our family have some connection to the Petways, a slave-owning family. One of the things about Petway name, too, is that you'll see different variations, maybe one T or you might see two Ts. I learned about that growing up at family reunions so, when I was in undergrad, maybe a junior, I met someone who was an incoming freshmen at the time. Her last name was Pettway. I’m like “I know I’m probably related to her in some way,” so I asked her. She had connections to Gees Bend. I told her that’s my family and she was like “Yeah, my grandmother lives there, and she still makes quilts.” She's like “My grandmother can make you a quilt.” I was graduating at the time, and her grandmother made me a quilt for graduation. So, I’ve been sleeping with that. When this exhibition came along, and I thought about things that I wanted to add, and I think just also doing my own personal research outside of what I know about Gees Bend, I was like I have to include it and make it a part of this particular story about Black women and Black girls creativity.
Rikki Byrd: Awesome. There's also photographs from the museum's collection right? Carrie Mae Weems and I’m forgetting the others.
Blair Smith: Yes, printmaker Margo Humphrey and Doris Derby, who is photographer [and] also a graduate of the University of Illinois. Derby was widely known for photography of Black life during the Civil Rights era.
Rikki Byrd: Then you have Jen Everett, which is kind of this piece of found speakers. Right? I know that you have an interest and, of course, based on your dissertation, in sound. You have these objects [and] when we encounter them, they don't have a sound – photographs, the quilt so on and so forth, and so I'm just wondering in what ways were or are you thinking about sound in relationship to still photographs. Is sound at all informing the exhibition?
Blair Smith: That's an amazing question. I love that you mentioned Jen Everett’s work first. With those speakers you technically can't play them. Unheard Sound Come Through is an evolving installation. Particularly for this exhibition, she included records and tapes that are in conversation with black girlhood or just stuff that she listens to and informs her practice. I look at that as sound, too. Part of the listening station, the records, you look at some of those records you hear it, or you might just imagine what it would sound like. There's a type of sound. There is the sound from the films that come through, which loop. Jen Everett has a short film as well, it doesn't have any sound, but it's called Gestures and there's laughter or there's like different facial expressions, people talking so that's sound too. I'm thinking about activating it through the SOLHOT sessions. I definitely got a lot of good feedback about that noise and that sound. There’s not a lot of noise and sound in the museum, so when we’re in there that space echoes a lot. Films on view by cyan cian, Kamari Smalls and Tiffany Harris offer musical scoring through background noise, songs, loops, winds, singing, instrumentation and image-making. The listening station, as well as the records, there's a record player and a speaker there as well, that folks can play records on too, so that's a way to activate and get sound in the space as well.
Rikki Byrd: There was a video you sent me and some of the girls, I guess they're in the gallery space and they're laughing. That's something that is important that we overlook–– Black girls laughing. Black girls go through so much. Laughter is not prioritized. So thinking about sound in these really critical and creative ways is incredible or inviting sound or inviting you to reflect on sound is so important. My last question for you: I know you say you developed this pre-pandemic, so in what ways have you been thinking about home and the exhibition given in the past year we have been kind of confined to our homes in specific ways. Of course everybody's experiences of home is different right?
Blair Smith: First and foremost, I was thinking about it as a space that we could use to do SOLHOT, to be with Black girls. I wanted to think about that as some type of home away from home space that we could use because, especially in the Fall, everybody was on Zoom all day long. Even though it was just a small group, it was really also a time for us to take a risk safely and meet face to face make a home outside of home. Make home in the park or in the printmaking shop. I think I'm thinking about it in those ways. Kamari Smalls, filmmaker and homegirl with SOLHOT this year, made a short film to give a glimpse into our time with the exhibition. The exhibition also meant working with BFA students, Black art students on campus that do a lot of work and organizing with each other and so it's also been a space for them to call home. Huey Metropolis, senior BFA student, used the gallery space to gather with a group of students called FAA Black. Because outside of being in their dorms, there's no other public spaces that people can gather [at] and so they can come in every week for an hour and just hang out. I've definitely gotten feedback from people across experiences or limited identities, even international students, who weren’t able to go home [and they] came into this space. It reminded me of my grandmother. All of those things mean a lot to me too. In a theoretical sense, but actually like having that physical space has made another home space for folks to use.
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