How I Became An Art Curator For Transfiguration And What I Learned

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This past summer, I was introduced to Savannah Spirit for an Openletr interview entitled We Are Our Own Muses on the art show she curated for Undercurrent Projects. After the interview was published, I decided to no longer publish an interview without physically meeting the person, because this is a more meaningful way to work, and I wanted Openletr’s interviews to touch personal stories requiring genuine conversations. So I invited Savannah for coffee, mainly to thank her for her interest in Openletr and for doing a woman-focused show. After an hour of chit-chatting, it felt like I had known Savannah for years; we shared a lot of the same values. She complimented the well-curated interview, highlighted how crisp the selection of imagery was, and said “you should curate art shows.” I laughed, and replied “I put lots of time selecting every visual going onto the website. I think it is one of my dreams to curate shows.” At my surprise, she got excited, and offered to introduce me to Katie Peyton, the owner at Undercurrent Projects gallery, whom I met a couple of weeks later over coffee. And again, it felt like I had known Katie for years. Our conversation revolved around women’s issues: from sexual abuse to feminism and politics. She was thoughtful and empathetic, and we agreed on working together.

As a first time curator, I had no clue where to start, but I knew I wanted the art show to be meaningful and representative of the fight I had undertaken as the founder at Openletr, shedding light onto women, creating equal representation, inclusion and diversity. So, I started looking for inspiration within my own space, and stumbled upon a poem I had shared on December 24th 2015 on Instagram during a trip to Senegal.

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“I know

this transformation

is painful, but you are not falling apart; you are just falling into something different, with a new capacity to be beautiful”

William C. Hannan

I presented the idea to Katie. She loved it. Then, I reached out to Nathalie Levey, the owner at Color Brigade Media, PR extraordinaire, who initially introduced me to Savannah and immediately got onboard. I, then, decided to call the show “Transfiguration,” which literally means: “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.” I wanted to explore the meaning of life, to question the triggers to a state of transfiguration, and what this translates itself into for women across eras, cultures, and social conditions. I also wanted this to be a socio-political endeavor with the aim to break boundaries, break silence and taboos, to call women to stand up and speak out, to challenge the status quo with unabashed convictions and with the knowledge that no lasting change occurs without pains and fears, that together we can, and today, as women, we are closer than ever before. The goal was for “Transfiguration” to reflect the journey into what we are as women, what we could be, and must become despite the adversities, a glimpse into the intricacies of the mundane with an inevitable conscience awakening.

Throughout the process of selecting the artists, it was important to include women from different countries, and I did struggle a bit finding the right artists for “Transfiguration,” and even more so when I found the ones whose art spoke strongly to me, as these were painters, illustrators, and photographers. How was I going to make it work? Typically, curators go for either the same palette or medium. But this was nothing like the typical curation. I decided to focus on the subject, and make it work regardless. I ended up choosing 50 paintings, illustrations, and photographs by 7 woman-identifying artists from Crimea, England, Germany, Mali, Nigeria, and the US depicting the many states, forms, and emotions women bear in silence.

While I did make one of my dreams come true, I learned a few important lessons:

  1. Design your life. At some point, sit down and ask yourself what is it that you want out of life. Pick the things you enjoy doing the most, and figure out how to incorporate them into your activities. I have read many articles, and realized that a lot of people are scared to do this, and most of them think they should pick one thing, and do it over and over again to avoid confusing their audiences. To me, this means you are living your life for others. To put it into perspective, don’t be afraid to run a tech company by day and be an artist by night. At the end of your life, you want to look back and realize that you’ve done the things you wanted.

  2. There is a point in life where values become more important than anything else. As an example, you rather build a community of people who share the same values as opposed to having as many friends as possible. This goes hand in hand with lesson number one. Once you think about what matters, you will start making the right choices.

  3. It is okay to be clueless. Nobody knows everything, but everyone can figure things out throughout the process. Not knowing should not determine your not doing. Be open minded to receive from those who know, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most people are ready to help, but you will never know until you ask. This is very much connected to ego, once you let it go, you let go of the fear to look silly, bad, or what have you, start taking more risks, and things fall into place.

  4. A couple of days before “Transfiguration” launched, and being her thoughtful self, Katie called me, worried the poem may be out of place given it is the work of a man, mainly by fear of patriarchy. For a moment, I thought of switching it up, finding one written by a woman, and in reality I had had the same thoughts. But I wanted to stick to my reality and the things that inspired me, and we agreed that feminism is not about dimming the good men’s lights, but rather highlighting the good women.

“Transfiguration” will be on digital display until December 27th 2018 at Undercurrent Projects. Artists credit: Fatoumata Diabaté/Negpos; Joanne Leah; Meryl Meisler/Steven Kasher; Dawn Okoro; Irina Tsypilova; Tana Torrent; Nicole Washington.

Author Fatima Bocoum

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