In the Interest of Action is part of a new partnership between the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art and the Womxn of Color Arts Festival, a curatorial collaboration that uses exhibitions and other art events to call attention to the underrecognized work of womxn artists of color in Las Vegas and beyond. The exhibition runs through March 19.
This essay on the exhibition was written by Joy Boggs, the public Scholar in Residence for the Womxn of Color Arts Festival.
In the Interest of Action, the second exhibition in the year-long Womxn of Color Arts Festival (WoCAF), could not have come to the Barrick Museum at a more opportune time. Festival Artist-in-Residence and UNLV art alum Lance L. Smith produced a treatise on the (dis)ease of this inflection point in our nation’s history. Using the grammar of light and shade, depth and perspective, Smith creates a peaceful atmosphere in which we can wrestle with the question Martin Luther King posed in 1967: Where do we (as a nation and as a people) go from here? Chaos or community?
January 6 bore an ugly witness to the chaos infecting our country. A blood-thirsty mob, enrobed in evangelical piety, fueled by a rabid racial animus, laid siege to the U.S. Capitol leaving five dead. For those of us whose very bodies in the public square function as a canvas for white, cis-gendered violence, the attack on the Capitol is not a surprise. Rather, January 6 is the product of the well-honed practice of American amnesia and American denial.
The impulse to box up January 6 and store it away in some dark recess of the national psyche is strong. The fervent desire to look away and turn the page in the name of moving on provides a kind of temporary relief from our collective (dis)ease. However, true and lasting healing begins with (re)membering.
For Smith, the technology for piecing our democracy back together consists of memory and reflection. For example, the mixed-media presentation titled “Your Name” is an amalgam of music and dance scenes celebrating Black popular culture. Nestled in its core is a portion of an interview with jazz icon Nina Simone. A trained classical pianist famously rejected by the Curtis Institute, Simone fomented a music career celebrated across the generations. Looking directly into the camera, Simone contends the purpose of the artist is to “reflect the times”.
Like Simone, Smith reflects our times and points us toward the technology necessary to make ourselves whole again. In “Ours Do Overcome” Smith centers our attention on cowrie shells. An ancient symbol of the affluent and the sacred, the presence of cowrie shells emphasize Smith’s appeal for us to seek out and commune with the primordial knowledge of the one whom warrior-poet Audre Lorde calls the “dark mother.”
It would be easy to read In the Interest of Action, as a treatise on Black mysticism but that is merely skimming the surface. To be clear Smith is no mystic nor is the show a veneration of Otherness in black face. What Smith does, ever so purposefully, is call us to slip off the mental shackles of the Enlightenment where the connection between body and soul are severed. By doing so, Smith argues the case for the necessary, and too often dismissed, labor of artists. An artist’s labor is intrinsic to the preservation of the democratic project. One has only to reflect upon Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb to understand the speed and power with which art (re)connects body to soul. It is through the artist’s labor that we are restored to wholeness and stability. It is in this sense, Smith moves us to (re)conceptualize the meaning and experience of firm ground.
From where I sit, firm ground for Smith resides not in the external world tainted by conspicuous consumerism. Rather stability can be found in the lush terrain of the interior where body and soul meet. There is no better expression of Smith’s argument for art as a liberatory practice than “Sunsum” (soon-soom). In the mythology of the Ashanti people (of modern-day Ghana), the term Sunsum invokes the place where body and soul meet.
Standing at the threshold of this sacred joining, Smith, with the gentle firmness of a trusted confidante, presses us to literally look in the mirror and inspect our reflection. The invitation reads, “Look at yourself. Look for the faces of those who came before you. Your existence is because of the endurance of your ancestors.” In this instance, Smith places us in the slipstream of the long arc of history. Will we call upon the power of our ancestors as a force multiplier and bend the arc toward justice? Or we will run away, choosing to forget what we saw?
Entry to the Barrick Museum is free. Visit Marjorie Barrick Museum website to read safety guidelines and make a timed reservation before you visit.
Support for this exhibition is provided by the WESTAF Regional Arts Resilience Fund which was established as part of The Andrew W. Mellon’s Foundation’s COVID-19 Response to sustain the arts and humanities.
Joy Boggs is the business manager for the College Fine Arts. Boggs is also the Public Scholar in Residence for the Womxn of Color Arts Festival hosted by the Barrick Museum. Boggs holds a MA in gender studies from DePaul University. Her research centers on the politics of black masculinity in popular culture. Her essay Men or Monsters? The Applied Uses of the Commercial Rap Artist appears in the new political science anthology "The Organic Globalizer" published by Bloomsbury Academic.