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Histories Collide: Fred Wilson, Nekisha Durrett, Lisa Corrin, and Jackie Milad in Conversation at the BMA

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“What images and thoughts emerge when myths and histories collide?” Lisa Graziose Corrin, a founding curator of Baltimore’s celebrated Contemporary Museum, asked this question to a panel comprising the artists featured in Histories Collide at the BMA earlier this month. The exhibition features Jackie Milad, Nekisha Durrett, and Fred Wilson—whose seminal Baltimore exhibition Mining the Museum Corrin helped organize back in 1992 at the Maryland Historical Society. 

The artists were candid about their art practices and shared anecdotes of their lives, even pinpointing moments in time in which their lives previously intersected without their knowledge. As they all shared throughout the night, one main thread remained: the importance of who tells history and how it is shared.

“My works are not endings. They are beginnings,” explained Fred Wilson, “They’re to think about the reframing and rethinking of these histories, why it’s happened, and how they were intersected. But also, how we have changed how those relationships to suit an audience.”

Fred Wilson’s “Artemis/Bast,” centered in the BMA exhibit, embodies the concept of collision between histories and culture and inspired the other two works in the show. The plaster and paint sculpture is composed of two found objects. The lower half is a white figure of Artemis, a Greek goddess, cut off at the neck upon which sits a black feline head of Bast, an Egyptian goddess.

Both deities are associated with the same concepts, including fertility, the moon, and protection of women and children, but their place in history has been largely separate. “Artemis/Bast” does not stop at pointing out the similarities between these two mythological figures, but rather makes a grander statement about the erasure of Africa’s cultural contributions and the whitewashed retelling of the Ancient World through Greek and Roman sculpture. 

 

Fred Wilson discusses "Artemis/Bast" at the BMA
Histories Collide at the BMA, foreground "Frontier" by Nekisha Durrett, with work by Fred Wilson, and Jackie Milad in background
BMA's Cecilia Wichman and Dave Eassa introduce Nekisha Durrett, Fred Wilson, Jackie Milad, and Lisa Corrin
I really wanted to acknowledge that “West and the rest” was co-opted by Europe and they framed themselves that way, so that they were the important figures in the discovery of these historic arts.
Fred Wilson

This piece was first shown in 1992’s Panta Rhei: A Gallery of Ancient Classical Art, at Wilson’s former New York gallery, Metro Pictures. The exhibit consisted of sculpture that, similarly to “Artemis/Bast,” depict a historical retelling of the cultural collision of Egypt and Greece. During the panel discussion, Wilson explained how this exhibit was inspired by two different experiences: his trips to Egypt and Black Athena, a book by Martin Bernal.

“I had my own thoughts about what was going on in historic times and certainly how it was framed,” Wilson said. “But he (Bernal) literally wrote ‘the book’… I was profoundly intrigued by these things. The notion that the relationships in that area of the world, especially between Greece and Egypt, were brought forth in and fabricated by the West, rather than the actual histories of those regions.”

Behind the artists, a slideshow of photos of various artworks from Panta Rhei were shown to the audience. Notably, the sculpture “Figure Atlas” was discussed. The piece is a sculpture of a Greek man bearing the heavy weight of miscellaneous art history books which were once part of Wilson’s own library.

Corrin opened up a discussion of how this piece stands as a critique of the antiquated notion of “West and the rest,” particularly within scholarly settings. To that, Wilson said, “I really wanted to acknowledge that “West and the rest” was co-opted by Europe and they framed themselves that way, so that they were the important figures in the discovery of these historic arts. The majority of the works [in Panta Rhei] are just these combinations that expressed my feelings about the problematic of the West and Egypt.” 

“The histories that collide are not just the histories of the Greco-Roman civilizations and Egypt, but also art histories and ways of framing these moments,” Corrin expressed. 

Fred Wilson, “Artemis/Bast,” image courtesy of the BMA

“For “Artemis/Bast,” I really wanted to, in visual terms, make this collision very clear and obvious,” answered Wilson. “I wanted to stop people in their tracks to think about why I would make something like this and how it reflects to me–not about European history and its relationship to Egypt, but also what the average person retains in their mind about that relationship. I want people to be able to think about these two related issues. I’m just changing the narrative that is normally spoken about these two, because the connection between Europe and Egypt is not really discussed. To do this is really not about the decapitation of Artemis, it’s really about a physical sculpture that brings that question to the fore.”

 

Fred Wilson speaking about Panta Rhei: A Gallery of Ancient Classical Art, 1992, at Metro Pictures
Works by Jackie Milad in Histories Collide with Fred Wilson's "Artemis/Bast" sculpture in the background
Fred Wilson's "Artemis/Bast" at the BMA in Histories Collide

As the conversation transitioned to Jackie Milad and her artwork, she started off with an anecdote shared with some fellow artists the night before. “When the BMA opened up after lockdown, Pierromy sonand I, came and I was surprised to see that “Artemis/Bast” was installed. I had no idea that Fred’s work was on loan here at the museum. I said to Pierro at that very moment, ‘I want to show my work next to this work.’”

When Corrin asked how she approached the topic of colliding histories, Milad opened up about her background within a multicultural Honduran Egyptian American family. “History was something that I was taught by my family, the history of our heritage and the socio-political history of the countries that my parents are from.”

“I was very lucky to be able to go to museums and spend a lot of time with museum collections from those two places,” said Milad. “And what I realized is that history is very messy. Once you start digging, it is messy, it’s chaotic. It’s incredibly layered, textured. And of course, there’s a lot that we don’t understand and stuff that we do understand.” This is something that continues to excite and inspire the artist, as she strives to make works as complicated, overwhelming, and chaotic as history is. 

Just as history is ever-expanding, so is her art practice. “I use older work that I cut up and re-contextualize into newer work. It’s a constant evolution. I think of these pieces that I make as paused, as opposed to finished per se. I will go back to a piece in the studio while it’s being produced and cut it up and maybe repurpose it and mix match.” 

Jackie Milad. Image courtesy of the BMA.

Jackie Milad’s artworks are large scale mixed textile and paper collage paintings on hand dyed canvas adorned with acrylic, paint markers, plastic beads, brass, and more. The work is vibrant and colorful, very clearly encompassing Milad’s philosophy of depicting the unpredictable chaos of history, as each layer of the collage informs the next. The collages’ grand scale and their fringed edges are reminiscent of tapestries, remarked Corrin. “How do you know when the work is finished?” she asked. 

“That’s what I mean,” answered Milad. “That is part of the process of really trying to capture how history feels. There is this never-ending push so that the work isn’t static. It doesn’t end up in an archive collecting dust. It is an object that will continue to inform the next layer. It has a life. It’s a living being.” 

By combining her personal histories with the larger concept of depicting the history of her cultural heritage, Milad continues to create collisions within her own artwork.

“My parents would take me to the museum, the Met, the Walters, here [the BMA],” she said. “My father very often would say, ‘This is your heritage.’ My reaction usually was, ‘I don’t see it, the connection. I don’t see how this is related to our family.’ Because a museum is not messy. It’s not chaotic or layered. There’s no collision happening at museums for good reason. In preparation for this work, I traveled to the British Museum and was able to spend time one-on-one with objects of antiquity from Egypt. I took notes and drew these objects. This process of drawing objects is very personal, and it creates a relationship. I was surprised by how emotional that experience was. I took these drawings, brought them back to the studio and did a digital print of them. You see this and other objects are included. It’s like a repatriation of these objects into the work.”

 

Panelists Nekisha Durrett, Fred Wilson, Jackie Milad, and Lisa Corrin
Works by Jackie Milad at the BMA in Histories Collide
Jackie Milad and Lisa Corrin

The audience then learned about another connection between the artists’ lives. Nekisha Durrett shared she was a student at The Cooper Union, a college in New York City, where Fred Wilson was a professor.

On that coincidental moment in time, Durrett expressed to Wilson, “You never were my teacher there, but I do feel like I have been your student. It is your body of work that I always return to as a sort of measuring stick. One of the things that I think that you do so brilliantly is to strike this balance between the poetic and literal, which is something that I’m always striving toward.”

The idea for “Frontier,” Durrett’s piece in the exhibition, came about as she worked on a different work of art, a commission to create a portrait of Harriet Tubman for a foundation in Delaware. She was inclined to approach this portrait commission in a way that challenged herself.

“I started thinking about what I knew about Harriet Tubman, what I didn’t know about her, and when I learned what I know about her,” said Durrett. “As I grew to know more about who Harriett Tubman was, it wasn’t until much later when I actually realized that she, like me, was from Maryland. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, what a missed opportunity for my elementary school teacher to not mention that the very same soil, or similar soil, that we were playing on outside at recess was similar to the soil that Harriet Tubman led friends and family members [through] to safety and freedom.’ That just would’ve been a beautiful connection, which is what led me to the soil.”

“It occurred to me to go to sites in Maryland that were specific to her history and I found myself at a church,” said Durrett. “Then I found myself collecting soil from this church, which I ended up making into a pigment and rendering a photograph of Harriet Tubman. It was a very time-consuming process. And so I listened to a lot of audio books while I was making this work. I listened to Harriet Tubman’s biography, and there was a line where she describes having a dream where she’s flying over the landscape in its darkness, and often the distance she sees a white line.”

The white line is the main focus of Durret’s “Frontier.”

 

Nekisha Durrett at the BMA
"Frontier" by Nekisha Durrett in Histories Collide at the BMA

The large scale piece consists of a black reflective circular panel with a line white light coursing perfectly through the middle. The outside of the reflective surface is framed by soil Durrett collected at the foot from the same tulip poplar tree known as the Witness Tree. After the work was completed, Durrett made a discovery that is arguably spiritual.

“In my work, I tend to lean toward large and scaled up,” said Durrett. “In some ways, sometimes the scale and size of the work is determined by the parameters of the material. In this case, I maxed it. I figured out what is the largest size of the black reflective material that I can find, then I scaled it from there. The really amazing thing, that I did not plan, was that this piece is about the exact circumference of the poplar tree where the soil was collected. The significance of that poplar tree is that it is the same tree that was standing when Harriet would return to this site time and time again to free her family members. Before they set out on their journey, they would hold hands in a circle around the tree and pray.” 

Histories Collide is an epicenter for the interacction of international histories. The exhibition takes us from B.C. era Mediterranean, to 19th century Maryland, and back to modern day Baltimore, illustrating what occurs when different moments in time come into contact with one another. 

Throughout the panel discussion, Fred Wilson, Jackie Milad, and Nekisha Durrett highlighted the importance of knowing and questioning who exactly is sharing these histories, as well as how and why they’re being presented to us.

Historic narratives change and fluctuate with the passage of time, but there is power in the stories we learn and share. These three artists continue to conceptualize how both well-known histories and personal narratives can be shared with the public. I look forward to seeing when this moment in time will collide with the future, as it is bound to happen.

Watch the BMA’s Video of the conversation here.

 

Nekisha Durrett, Fred Wilson, Jackie Milad, and Lisa Corrin
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