The Smithsonian Gets Experimental and Field-Tests a New Forum for Bringing Artists to the Public

A Two-Day Festival in the historic Arts & Industries Building brings community, artists and scholars together for a “Culture Lab”

Sita Bhaumik, Saqib Keval, Jocelyn Jackson and Norma Listman (People's Kitchen Collective) Les Talusan
Anida Yoeu Ali (The Red Chador) Les Talusan
Zohra Saed, Anida Yoeu Ali, Sham-e-Ali Nayeem Les Talusan
Robin Ha, Yumi Sakugawa, Keith Chow Les Talusan
Geronimo Collins Les Talusan
PJ Gubatina Policarpio and Ida Noelle Calumpang Les Talusan
Desirée Venn Frederic and Tony Walker Les Talusan
Desirée Venn Frederic, Frank Chi, Samantha Simpson Les Talusan
PJ Gubatina Policarpio Les Talusan

Prior to Memorial Day weekend, media consultant Frank Chi had never shown his digital work in an exhibition. And when he had visited museums, it felt more like sitting in a lecture in school than having an interactive conversation. “CrossLines: A Culture Lab of Intersectionality,” hosted by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center at the historic Arts & Industries Building, was wholly new; and Chi and his video “Letters From Camp” were a part of it.

“I’ve never viewed myself as an artist,” Chi says. In the video, young Muslim Americans ages 7 to 13 read letters that young Japanese Americans wrote from World War II incarceration camps to Clara Breed, a librarian in San Diego. The youngsters are reading the historic letters to the now aged survivors of Japanese American camps.

“As a first experience, this is incredible,” Chi says. “Museums aren’t interactive in the way that a lot of these projects are.” He witnessed event visitors reacting emotionally to his work, like parents clutching their children. The parallel experience between the young Muslim Americans and the authors of the letters was hard to miss. “You can tell that they knew there were people in this country who did not want them to be here,” Chi says.

That kind of encounter between artist and the public, in which the venue works as facilitator rather than traditional gatekeeper, is part of the point of “CrossLines,” says Lawrence-Minh Búi Davis, a curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

“We are crafting and framing this event as a new kind of museum experience. People have been responding really well to that and saying they like the interactivity, the participatory and cross-cultural nature of it, and the intersectional nature speaks to them,” he says. “It’s the kind of stuff they want to see in museums.”

Despite the timing of the event, which overlapped with the large annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums, with Memorial Day weekend, and with the 2016 Rolling Thunder Run, 11,606 were in attendance, according to Búi Davis. Having a conversation between the public and the artists was paramount.

“We don’t have a museum space. Rather than looking to create exhibitions that will travel, and rather than trying to schedule time in another museum, we’ve been thinking about what kind of museum do we want to be,” Búi Davis says. “We create experiences that are mobile and nimble.”

Timing the event around the AAM conference presented the opportunity to allow museum officials and staff members to see “the art of D.C. that speaks to D.C. issues,” he says. “Most of the D.C. artists we are showing have never shown at the Smithsonian, and are showing in smaller festival spaces. Some of them are working street artists.”

Visitors appreciated the close encounters with those artists.

Malachi Williams, age 10, was one such cognoscente. Clutching a freshly inked screen print designed by artist Matt Corrado, depicting a skull, wearing a broken army helmet bearing the words “Love Life,” Williams had selected that design for his keepsake from four other options. A bullet lies in front of the face just beneath some foliage. Asked by a reporter why, Williams says: “I like the skull head, the feathers, the cursive on the army helmet, and that the skeleton has no nose but has eyes, that’s confusing.”

The work was destined to hang on his door at home, and he appreciated getting to talk to the staff from Soul & Ink, a Silver Spring, Md.-based collective, as they live printed his souvenir. “First they made it. Then they printed it. And then they put it under this heating, electric thing to warm it, so that it can dry,” Williams says.

Soul & Ink was among 40 artists and scholars on hand at the Crosslines event “doing their thing,” per an event brochure.

Anida Yoeu, a Cambodia-born and Chicago-raised performer, wore red, sparkly clothing, fashioned like traditional Islamic feminine garb, and stood on a platform surrounded by American flags and small white flags bearing the Arabic word “peace.” The performance, in which she was silent, questioned the degree to which Muslim women can be accepted as patriotic Americans.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s multimedia installation “The Virtual Immigrant” examined the people behind the disembodied voices at call centers. “When you call a 1-800 number, a lot of times you are speaking to an Indian, who pretends to be an American for the work day,” the artist says. “When they go back home, they become Indian again, and so they virtually immigrate for the work day.”

She conceived of the project after becoming a U.S. citizen, when she learned that an Indian man, whose American mannerisms she admired, had developed that comfort with English at a call center in India.

Gregg Deal’s performance piece entitled, “The Indian Voice Removal Act of 1879-2016” poses the question: “Whom do you trust to tell your story?”

Deal, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, created a tipi in the exhibition space, and invited visitors in, where they found the artist in traditional attire. When asked a question, though, Deal turned to a colleague, who acted as interpreter. The latter intentionally did a lousy job of translating, and a game of broken telephone ensued. If a visitor asked Deal why he painted red ex marks over the portraits adorning the tipi, the artist might tell his “translator” that it was about disenfranchised indigenous voices. The latter would improvise and tell the questioner that Deal’s favorite color was red.

“We don’t get to tell our own story,” Deal says of his performance piece, where his indigenous voice gets distorted through a white voice. “We are deliberately messing with people, and messing with that communication, but because he’s saying it, they take what he’s saying at value, and they don’t question if there’s a problem.”

It is “dehumanizing” to be treated as an object because of how he is dressed, Deal adds, noting that some people were snapping photographs of him without permission.

David Skorton, the Smithsonian secretary, had just come out of Deal’s tipi, where he found the paintings “compelling.” He also enjoyed “Kitchen Remedies,” created by the People’s Kitchen Collective, which invited visitors to share memories of foods that they grew up with, which helped make them feel better. Visitors then tasted remedy recipes in a “pop up pharmacy.”

“As a doc, and someone who has been interested in alternative medicine, I find two things about it fascinating,” Skorton says, who is a board-certified cardiologist. “The first is that they have this communal table. And second, that it’s packed.” Skorton called the overall event a “very important experiment” in bridging conversations between the public and the Smithsonian.

“I’m not calling it an experiment not to be off-putting. I really think that’s what it is so far,” he says. “I think chances for the public to interact with us are needed. … I’m going to take it all in and see what I can find out.”

That encounter between the public and artists is at the core of the People’s Kitchen, said co-founder and chef Saqib Keval, who was serving three “remedies” from co-founders’ childhood: raw fennel (to settle the stomach and cleanse the palette), tangawizi concentrate (a honey, ginger, and spicy dish from Kenya) which the group was calling the “People’s Kitchen cure-all,” and a Japanese dish, which had been aged for over a year. Another remedy on hand was a cure for heartbreak.

Sitting at a table at one of the entrances to “Crosslines,” Maryland-based painter Jawara Blake was drawing with colored pencil on graph paper to add to Wooden Wave’s “Imagine Your Community” treehouse mural. The medium was “not my typical,” he says, but noted of his design, “Everybody needs abstract art.”

“I love the idea of people feeling drawn to artistic endeavors who are or are not artistic themselves. It reminds me of home,” he says. “Art and community are the same thing.”

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