Travis Alabanza reframes the traditional gallery with THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S
14 Jun 2017
THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S currently showing at Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery until June 17th is less an exhibition than an example of art effecting real and sustainable change for a local community. Artist and curator Travis Alabanza has, in collaboration with Transmission gallery, created a show that transformed one of Glasgow’s most prominent contemporary art galleries into a safe space and public resource for local QTIPOC artists and creatives to use and enjoy.
“When I first arrived in Glasgow, I realised that I was one of the only visible black faces contributing… I was asking, ‘where are the black artists? Why aren’t they here? Why is the only black artist here not even from Glasgow?’” stated Alabanza.
Motivated by a desire to see the gallery give back its space and resources to underrepresented POC artist voices in the city, Alabanza worked with Transmission to create change before offering any further work to the gallery.
“Transmission have really committed to actual meaningful change… I said I wasn’t comfortable, and they’ve been a good example of enacting actual institutional, structural change” Travis states of the meaningful collaboration between the artist and gallery. Transmission has since worked hard to improve its board, at the time of writing, 50% of the committee are women of colour and the upcoming series of exhibitions centre black and POC artists.
Marking the start of their change, Alabanza’s exhibition THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S is a group show presenting the work of over 20 black artists exploring and documenting how the black body functions in traditionally white spaces. For Travis, it was important for the exhibition to exist as a group show:
“They hadn’t had any visible black art taking up space… I wanted to use this opportunity to share resources and to share space. I thought, OK, I can have my work here, it can look cute, I could get paid… Or I could create a hub where black artists could organise and make work and collaborate.” THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S features not only the work of Black artists working and living locally, but also opens up the gallery space as a wholly public resource.
THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S installation at Transmission Gallery
“Is the gallery still a useful space?” Travis asks, “Galleries as galleries are using up a valuable public material – space. I wanted to repurpose Transmission, use it for black coded elements, events, actions.” In the centre of the gallery space at Transmission, Travis has built a living room with literature from black writers, installed afro haircare tools and products, and even opened up the more functional elements of the gallery (such as its Wi-Fi and printers) for public use. “Everyone should feel that they have ownership of this space. It’s less about me and my work and more about the collective use and requirements.”
Of the artists currently showing at THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S, many are involved in performance and live action artwork. Nina Mdwaba is one such artist, who has contributed both documentary work and live performances to the show.
On seeing a social media call out for black artists in Glasgow, Nina reached out to Transmission and Travis Alabanza. “The lack of diversity in the local art scene can be a little disheartening. Travis made it clear that they wanted to see black artists use the predominantly white gallery space, and Transmission was able to provide that space… I think that is amazing” she said.
Nina’s work for the exhibition explores her own life experiences, using performance to restage and emphasise formative occasions and events in her life: “I guess I would say I’m showcasing myself and my story as an African woman, for the most part… NdinguNina was the piece I performed on 27th May, which I wrote and performed… NdinguNina follows the narrative of a Xhosa girl, Nina, who fights to maintain her African identity in a world that largely caters to The White Man, who aims to assimilate her and misappropriate the best parts of her African identity. She repeats the phrase ‘NdinguNina’ (‘I am Nina’) throughout to affirm her African identity.”
This use of the space as a safe environment to explore deeply personal artworks is something other featured artists have commented on. Artist and regular gal-dem contributor Joy Miessi is also showing work, with two paintings on display. Commenting on the opening private view of THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S, Joy says “[it] created such an amazing atmosphere and made me rethink my behaviour in the gallery and how I can use space. There was warmth created and I’d never felt that within a gallery, I felt at ease and comfortable walking around the gallery space.”
After Travis reached out to artists for responses, Joy got involved online: “Travis had sent me this great email introducing themselves (we’d never met beforehand, so it was a bit like a 90s movie) and had spoken about how this exhibition would be challenging the conventional art space/gallery behaviour, allowing the artist to have free reign and allow the space to become ‘home’. I knew instantly that this was something that I wanted to see and take part in.”
Malik Nashad Sharpe is another artist involved in THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S whose work is rooted in the desire to take advantage of a safe space centring the works of black and QTI artists. Malik’s performance for the opening weekend of the show, “I am still standing right there” used the gallery space to explore the weight of blackness in today’s socio-political climate. Malik says “it’s really a long-winded (literally) choreographic thought… Joyousness is increasingly feeling like a laborious affair in my work at the moment.”
Malik Nashad Sharpe
For Malik, creating work for THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S allowed for an escape from the worries of typical gallery work. “I made ‘I am still standing right there’ specifically for THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S, and so knowing all of the conditions that would exist as I made the work. But nothing will ever prepare you for the violence you may experience in contexts not built for you, or with you in mind. Travis did an amazing job creating what I feel is like the first context I have ever known specifically for Black/Queer and Trans artists. And that is a scary proposition to accept that there really aren’t many spaces for other artists.”
For Travis and for the artists involved in the show as it is, THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S will live beyond June 17th. Travis hopes to make the project an annual insertion into the Glasgow art scene, and Transmission’s commitments to improving diversity within its organisational committee and roster of exhibiting artists have already taken a much needed step forward. The project is an inspiring one, and one that Alabanza hopes can be replicated elsewhere, saying “I want this to be a model of work for other outside-of-London spaces. I’d love to release a pack or pdf or resource on how I put this together, in the hopes that other black artists can use it to challenge their local spaces to make structural change.”
For Malik, the project has offered opportunities to build work both personally and publically: “I have three big hopes. I hope me and Travis open an art space completely built and catered to the aesthetics of QTIPOC, with an explicit focus on Black people because that is an overdue essential in this world, right now. I hope that my work continues to speak to people in big and small ways. I hope that we all continue to have the strength to make work that is true to the things we want to say, despite this phobic present.”
The importance of collaborating in such a tense socio-political environment is not lost on Alabanza, who states “For me, it is about bringing such a variety of Black artists together to show the depth and broadness of our work – which so often is flattened in white institutions.” For Alabanza, the broad range of work on show in just one show is indicative of the importance of more such exhibitions exploring these voices. THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S showcases “film and autobiographical work from Zinzi Minott and The Blackhouse, or writing and zine culture from Jacob V Joyce, Rudy Leowe, Christopher Kirubi – or photography work from Lana Hughes and Matthew Williams – the work is so varied, contrasting and beautiful.”
THE OTHER’D ARTIST/S runs until June 17th at Transmission Gallery in Glasgow.
Adelana Hughes, Christopher Kirubi, Christian Noelle Charles, Daniel Brathwaite-Shirley, Dominique White, Harvey Dimond, Jacob V Joyce, Joy Miessi, Malik Nashad Sharpe, Matthew Arthur Williams, Nina Siphesihle Pinkie Mdwaba, Symoné, The Black House, Tobi Nicole Adebajo, Xana, Zinzi Minott.