Host Anthony Pinn sat down with Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

ANTHONY PINN: It seems to me that part of your work as a curator is forcing the recognition and the visibility of those who have been marginalized and rendered invisible.

VALERIE CASSEL OLIVER: Absolutely. That is my North Star. And that is very important whether and primarily it is building that repository, because if you think about in particular, African American art history, There is still so much that’s unknown. And part of it is to build a repository. Part of it is to provide a library, if you will, of information for generations of artists to come for generations of individuals, Black, white, regardless of their ethnic background, who could understand and appreciate the contributions of artists who are working from this particular cultural space. It’s not flat. It’s not a monolith. So you get the complexity of that as well. So you frame the question about museums being church, whether it’s a church, I think of museums as libraries, and you have to, you have to contribute to that repository, then in order for people to understand to appreciate it has the capacity as any art form, to transcend conversations and notions of difference. And because of that, you have this entre to understanding and shifting perception and perspectives that ordinarily are not offered to someone just in a one-to-one dialogue. Art has the capacity to do that. And it’s, it’s really powerful to be able to present artists and give them a platform to do exactly that.

The myth of the isolated artist

VCO: The myth of the artist is someone who is hermetically sealed in a studio, and nothing else matters. They are just focused on the creation of work. But that is a myth. Artists are citizens of this world. They put their pants on, they walk out into the world they have encounters, and the things that they create, are reflective of the totality of who they are. Maybe it’s it’s, it may be an offshoot of an encounter that makes them begin to think in terms of how do I respond to this in a visual way. How can I respond? Nick Cave, for instance, after seeing the beating of Rodney King, came up with this idea of the sound suit. That was a direct response to seeing a man such as himself, a Black man being brutally beaten by the LAPD. And so it is like, what would armature look like? How could I disguise myself? What would it look like if I moved around in something that was protective? And so artists oftentimes respond that what they’re creating is in response to the world around them. Beverly Buchanan was responding to the disappearance, the erasure of communities, the ratio of communities in rural areas that were once Black townships and a ratio around simple economic attrition, people would leave, people would leave and cities or towns would just go they would just die. And so what she was creating through the little shots through the forest alone series were monuments and memorials to those spaces that no longer exist. And so artists are always respond During it may not be a complete narrative that we can enter into and know the complete story. Sometimes they’re fractured. Sometimes there are only little fragments that they provide to us, but they are responding to the world around.

AP: I think something about our conversation begs the question of values, and how values get expressed, artistically. So I’m wondering if you would just if you would talk a little bit about the kind of social values that you have worked to highlight and exhibitions? And let’s let’s start with the dirty south, right? What are some of the social values, the values of Black folks that you’ve worked to highlight?

VCO: Well, that we’re still here. Against all odds, you know, that there is there is the the understanding of oneself in spite of, of a framing that others would like to present, it is a value of joy, of belief of labor, their multiplicity of values of giving back from one generation to the next, of protection. You know, there there is the core of understanding that we persist in spite of forces that we want to eradicate. And so how do we retain a particular kind of dignity and a way of moving through the world? How do we project a project, a kind of existence beyond the moment that we live in? And how do we protect generations coming behind us and infuse within them, the understanding that they not only belong, but they have opportunities to thrive in spite of it all. So there is the sense of persistence and preservation that exists and joy that comes out of what should be trauma and tragedy, it’s not sitting within that, and it’s not allowing those things to dominate, or to dictate how we move through the world.

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Anthony Pinn

Anthony Pinn is one of the foremost scholars of African American humanism, author of more than 20 books, and the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University.