Profiles in Genius
For our latest issue of Studio, Communications Director Elizabeth Gwinn interiviewed artists Dawoud Bey and Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Both artists are 2017 recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant,” awarded annually to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative or intellectual pursuits.
Elizabeth Gwinn: You both developed strong ties to the Studio Museum early in your careers. Dawoud, you were an exhibiting artist and Museum employee, and Njideka, you were an artist in residence. How has the Museum impacted your life and your work?
Dawoud Bey: The Studio Museum is the place where I first began to find my community—young black artists like myself and older black artists who became my first inspiration and mentors. I’ve had a close relationship with the Studio Museum since the early 1970s, when LeRoy Clarke and Valerie Maynard were in residence. I’ve gone on to form deep relationships over several decades with a number of artists in residence, including Willie Birch, David Hammons, Charles Burwell, Maren Hassinger, and Kerry James Marshall. I also met Mel Edwards, Jack Whitten, and other artists of the generation before mine. They became longtime friends and mentors as well.
In 1977, I was asked to teach a photography class at the Studio Museum. Carrie Mae Weems, now one of my closest friends and confidants, was a student in that class. It also provided my first affirmation and experience of teaching, which I have now been doing for several decades. My first solo exhibition, Harlem, USA, was held at the Studio Museum in 1979. That exhibition brought me my first critical notice and was the beginning of my life as an exhibiting artist—a very significant turning point for me, when my dreams and aspirations became reality. In the ensuing years, when I needed freelance work to sustain my practice, the Museum provided that as well. You can find my name in eight-point type in the photo credits in some of those early catalogues!
Quite simply put, I don’t know what kind of a career I would have had were it not for the Studio Museum. As the only place at the time where I could have exhibited my early work, it pretty much made my career possible by providing that initial platform.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby: I spent my first year after graduate school (2011–12) as an artist in residence at the Studio Museum. That experience was invaluable to the development of my art practice. The program gave me much-needed time and space to experiment. Studio visits by mentors, artists visiting the Museum, and fellow residents helped me figure out how to add nuance to my work. The support I received from the Museum and its extended family has been critical to my progress. For that whole year, I was able to work in the studio practically every day. This level of immersion is a luxury that is unheard of for most young artists and, much like a language immersion program, it accelerated my developing my artistic vocabulary.
It’s hard to overstate how magical my time at the Studio Museum was. Within a few weeks of starting the residency, I felt completely welcomed. Every day, I walked into the Museum to a big smile and chatted with Tim at the entrance desk. Whenever I needed a break, I would pop down to the administrative offices. And the Museum space, with its incredible shows, was two floors below me when I needed an artistic stimulus. The support did not end after that year. My first two exhibitions in Los Angeles (at the Hammer Museum and Art+Practice) were organized by Jamillah James, who I got to know at the Studio Museum. A number of other shows came about because the curators had seen my work at my Artist-in-Residence show, and some of the other residencies I’ve done have been at the nomination of a Studio Museum curator.
The Studio Museum played a prominent role in my ability to envision being an artist. Early on, seeing works by contemporary artists of African descent—works depicting people of color by artists of color—exhibited at the Museum not only made me more ambitious in my goal but also opened up art institutions that previously I did not feel acknowledged by as a viewer or potential exhibiting artist. The older artists of the diaspora have set the pace—and cleared the path!—for artists of my generation. The Studio Museum has established a legacy of promoting work by artists of color, the momentum of which has propelled me and others, and will continue to do so into the future.
EG: Dawoud, you’ve said that you were first introduced to Harlem because of your family’s history in the neighborhood, but what keeps you coming back? Does your time in Harlem inform your other work?
DB: Harlem keeps me centered. Because it is the beginning of my own personal narrative, I return to it periodically as a way of remaining rooted. The neighborhood is no longer as it was when my mother and father lived here, but there is a place memory that lingers; I still remember and am inspired by its past. I believe that the deeper meaning of a place lies within the ways in which the present overlaps with the memory of the past—when I am in Harlem, I’m experiencing both. This is what brought me back in a more sustained way, recently, to make work that visualizes the intersection of a newly emerged present with a physically receding past, to use the visual poetics of photography to show how global capitalism is reshaping this community. As the place where I first worked out my ideas about the relationship between place, history, narrative, and the black subject, and the medium of photography, Harlem always figures somehow and somewhere in my consciousness.
EG: Njideka, how did working in Harlem inspire you?
NAK: Since my work is often autobiographical, I frequently model parts of my interiors after my living spaces, so it follows that the architecture and light of Harlem found their way into my work. Also, at that time, my studio at the Museum was the largest I had ever worked in, which encouraged me to work at a larger scale that offered a more immersive viewing experience.
One of the themes of my work is cosmopolitanism, and I truly felt it while living in Harlem. I think the biggest contribution Harlem made to my work isn’t something visible I can point out in a work and name. Rather, my time there was very fruitful and, frankly, I attribute a lot of that productivity to the sense of happiness and well-being that I felt residing in Harlem. In all the places I have lived in the United States, Harlem is where I felt the most comfortable. I loved walking around such a multiethnic place and feeling like I belonged—I never felt like I stood out, because I was surrounded by people from everywhere.
It was also while living in Harlem that, inspired by the many stores carrying President Obama portrait fabrics, I began collecting portrait fabrics from my family members. These unique fabrics are common for celebrating special occasions in my home country of Nigeria; they are printed with patterns that feature headshots of honored individuals and are commissioned to commemorate weddings, burials, and political campaigns. Seeing them on the streets of Harlem gave me the idea to collage them into my paintings.
EG: The MacArthur “genius grant” is one of the most celebrated awards an artist can get. How does it feel to be recognized in this way, and what do you think its impact has been, or will be?
DB: Having been working for some four decades now, to me the MacArthur Fellowship feels like an important affirmation of my work. It has certainly made my already busy life even busier! It is certainly a very good feeling. Enough artist friends of mine had already received this recognition, so I had hoped they might find me eventually! But at the end of the day, all one can do as an artist, I believe, is to keep working, and to strive to make work of consequence that provokes and participates in a meaningful conversation, both with history and one’s own moment.
NAK: It still feels surreal. So many people who inspire me are MacArthur Fellows. I heard Bryan Stevenson, the founder of Equal Justice Initiative, speak recently and was in awe of him. Being a MacArthur Fellow alongside the likes of him makes me want to work harder, and push myself to make pieces that are even more critically engaging.
The monetary grant that comes with the fellowship will allow me to strike a healthier balance between research and production, which will hopefully improve my paintings. For example, I am about to start a piece that will go up in the Brixton train station in London. Brixton, like Harlem, is a cosmopolitan neighborhood. It is where the first wave of Caribbean immigrants to the United Kingdom settled. It also has a large African population. Thanks to the MacArthur grant, I can afford to take time off to travel to Brixton for a long research trip before I begin the piece. This alleviated pressure means that I can take more risks, experiment more, and have more room to fail. I think this flexibility will result in growth in my artistic practice.
This interview has been edited and condensed with the permission of the artists.