Written by: Lorelei Ramirez
It’s a rare thing to come across a person whose activism is so deeply ingrained in their personal practice that it seeps out of everything they do, where you can see that there is no separation from their beliefs and what they put out into the world. Jasmine Wahi, Brooklyn based curator, writer, and activist is definitely one of these people. Wahi is set on providing spaces for intersectional art and female empowerment through her many community integrated projects. She is co-founder of the non-profit Project for Empty Space and Gateway Project Spaces, facilities that provide equitable space for disenfranchised artists. Currently a staff member at The School of Visual Arts, Wahi pulls from her personal practice as a writer, curator and activist to teach intersectional feminism and art, entitled Feminism Is For Everybody: Navigating Art Praxis in Patriarchal Space.
Wahi’s appearance is telling of her personality, she is well put together, dressed in all black with tied back hair and a streak of blonde adorning her face, she is graceful and kind and extremely down to earth. We sat in the local coffee shop, chatting about her practice, her feelings around the commercial art world, artists and art she admires.
Was there a specific instance in your life that prompted the beginning of thinking about how art and communities interact?
I’m not sure if there was a definitive moment – I grew up in the DC area and spent a lot of my childhood wandering around the Smithsonian museums, which were [theoretically] oriented to be spaces of public engagement, because they were free. I always envisioned myself creating work (first artwork, and then later exhibitions) that both served and reflected the communities that I was engaged with. I think I’ve always held the belief that art and society are inherently symbiotic and that good art should reflect the good, bad, and ugly of what’s happening in society.
What are your feelings around the current system of the art world and art market and how are you attempting to differentiate your curatorial practice from the scene that has already been established?
This is mostly tangential, but I want to note that I don’t think there is one ‘art world’ or one ‘art market’ per se. We have created these ideas that there are these monolithic entities that dominate our overall culture, but that’s not the reality. With regards to the idea of the art market, which in this context is the mainstream art market, I think it is absolutely and unfairly skewed to perpetuate the success of white cis-gender male artists. My practice is predicated on two main agendas – 1. good art reflects society and community and 2. to make art and art spaces more equitable for both the audience and the artists. This means that my work aims to highlight and engage all women, all people of color, and particularly focuses on women of color. Additionally, it means that the work that I do is inherently rooted in socio-political commentary. I have little to interest in post-modern Formal Aesthetics, or in intrinsically elitist artist praxis that shy’s away from social commentary and exists in a self-satisfying space of aloof white patriarchal privilege. It doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically or conceptually, and I am emphatically uninterested in highlighting that type of work that perpetuates an air of exclusionary elitism.
What do you think about disenfranchised artists who don’t just talk about their marginalized experiences and allow themselves to explore topics that non marginalized groups are often free to explore?
The short answer is: I love it and I think all artists should speak their truth regardless of what others think of it. No one should feel obligated to make work about their experience of being ‘other’ just because they are. That idea is simply perpetuating the very fact of otherness. Artists should do and create what they want to: I think the act of making work, regardless of it’s content is a statement in and of itself. An artist of color making identity oriented work is still political just by breaking the bounds and stereotypes imposed upon him/her/they.
You are also currently a staff member at SVA’s MFA program, does your practice outside of that inform what you teach? What are you teaching there?
I am indeed on Faculty at SVA in the MFA Fine Arts Department. My practice absolutely impacts what I do, and I’m thrilled I have been given the opportunity to teach a new seminar course next semester on intersectional feminism and art, entitled Feminism Is For Everybody: Navigating Art Praxis in Patriarchal Space.
Does the social engagement you offer in “Project for Empty Space” and your other project “Gateway Project Spaces” ever involve reaching out to people who are not familiar with art or how to engage with it?
Absolutely. That’s part of our mission in making more equitable physical/geographical space is to create a dialogue around the work being shown. Our physical location lends itself very easily to a natural entree into this dialogue (being in a train station concourse makes us hard to miss). Besides that, our interactive temporal projects within different public spaces, are geared specifically to get all types of people engaged in conversation with the work.
There is a general stigma around institutional art spaces, particularly for POC: the perception is that these spaces exist for the intellectual and economic elite and not for the average person. This idea, in my opinion, is exacerbated by a few things; 1. The content of exhibitions i.e. The lack of representation of black/brown/female artists: 2. The cost of admission 3. The general air of elitism. The only way to combat this established perception around art is to dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, which is what we try to do.
Besides running two organizations you also write about art, and curate shows that predominantly deal with issues of intersectionality. Tell us a little about doing all of this, how you juggle it, etc.
I don’t sleep a lot or have a social life! That’s only a partial joke – I really don’t have too much of a life outside of my art world life, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love what I do.
You are actively carving a space out for particular voices that haven’t had spaces to thrive in, with your curatorial practices. Was it difficult to start this journey or was it something that you found fairly easy, and perhaps something that many should have been doing before you.
I wish I could say it was easy, but it wasn’t at all. It’s still a hustle and grind, even now. Making a viable and sustainable career out of what I do has been difficult to navigate, especially in New York, but I’m a strong believer in the idea that if you work hard you can make it, and if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Trying to create visible space for black and brown voices within the mainstream NYC art world has also been *slightly* challenging, but there are so many people making really INCREDIBLE work that has been able to transcend some of the prejudices and roadblocks. I think every curator should be giving greater visibility to artists of color!
Do you have any advice for struggling artists or curators that are looking to carve out a specific space for themselves?
This is going to sound cliché, but people should be true to themselves and not compromise their vision for trends. It’s the same thing that I tell collectors, collect what you like, not because it’s popular or a savvy investment, but because you really love it. Pragmatically, the advice that I have is to go out! Network, meet people in the industry of all sorts (especially artists if you’re a curator.)
And finally, what are some artists and curators you would like others to check out?
This list could really be endless but I’ll try and keep it short.
– Hiba Schahbaz www.hibaschahbaz.com
– Delano Dunn www.delanodunn.com
– David Antonio Cruz www.cruzantoniodavid.com
– Maria Berrio maria-berrio.squarespace.com
– Shoshanna Weinberger www.shoshannaweinberger.com
– Rebecca Jampol www.gatewayprojectspaces.com/team
– Chitra Ganesh www.chitraganesh.com
– Divya Mehra www.divyamehra.com