Writing Area 919

I didn’t make it to the opening party for Area 919 last weekend, but I like to imagine that if I had, I’d have imitated the movements of a small child, insofar as I’d be playful and hop around but I would not—definitely not—touch the art. I’d bend over to peer through the open circles of Casey Cook’s undulating sculpture Whoa, Nelly! Through the holes my eyes would settle upon a painting on the opposite wall, which would mean they’d fixate on the dark grain of Damian Stamer’s Requiem. What at first looks like a contained interior scene—an abandoned piano, an old chair—slowly begins to expand: objects composed of scraped paint uncover other objects, until, hey, is that a tree branch up there? Looks like it. The wall placard explains that Stamer “create[s] haunting environments borrowed from the rural landscape of north Durham County, where he grew up.” I’m reminded of a recent holiday drive through north Durham, and then through Oxford, and then through southwest Virginia. I remember the darkness under the eaves of stately Oxford houses, which made me think about the riots Tim Tyson writes about in Blood Done Sign My Name. But I also remember how the sunset gathered on the long flat lawns outside the downtown, lawns abutting forests that looked like they could go on forever. If I could tie all that together in a painting, maybe it’d look—or feel—something like how Stamer’s looks and feels to me now.

A snapshot of Area 919. Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum website.

In my opening remarks for this year’s Ethics Film Series, which began this week with The Visitor, I gave some background for the theme—“Sound Beliefs.” I’ve given this background before, in writing and in speech; I repeat it, like a mantra: I wanted to pick something, some things, that felt both tactile and complex. I use this phrase as if the two terms stand in opposition, but when I say it they always hang together. I felt the same urge as I stood between Cook’s sculpture and Stamer’s painting, and then again when I stood between Cook’s sculpture and Neill Prewitt and Yuxtapongo’s installation Exploded Hipster, whose contents—local band and record label shirts, a stray Converse shoe, all crowdsourced from the Triangle’s music community—snake outward on the white gallery wall. Tactile, yes; they’re t-shirts, once hugged by warm bodies, some of whom I probably know personally, many of whom I probably follow on Twitter. I imagine a landscape of friendship and artistry, idiosyncratic and colorful, abstract and necessarily unfamiliar, to a certain degree (i.e., who did that Merge t-shirt belong to? Ah, yes, we’ve once made eye contact). But I also see that landscape, in front of me. I almost want to stick my arm through, to try it on for a while.

Area 919 is powerful in its assertion of a creative world through the hanging together of multiple creative worlds. This is something that art, and its curation, do well. “All of [the artists of Area 919] contribute to a vibrant and innovative artist community, helping to establish the Triangle as a growing creative center,” the exhibition detail reads. In effect, that exhibition detail is writing the community into a space, just as its artists are writing, painting, molding, imaging their selves, and their works, into a space. I feel similarly when I read the words of the women featured in “A Food Sisterhood Flourishes in North Carolina,” and the words of the many commenters, insisting that the New York Times should have included another woman chef, another women-helmed restaurant, to more holistically honor the vibrancy of North Carolina’s food scene. That web would look different, yes—as it would look different, from the get-go, from any one chef’s, or artist’s, perspective. And so it would from yours or mine.

It’s possible, but not easy, to build community on the foundation of diversity; it’s possible, but even less easy, for that sense of community to be validated externally in a way that feels fair, representative, and holistic to those who did the work in the first place. And yet that is the work that remains: the getting up in the morning, the painting, the writing, the meeting people, the attending (or not attending). The pieces included in Area 919 honor that work by bringing different worlds together in one space: so tactile that you, and you, and you, can peer through the circles, too.


Ethics Around Campus: ‘Americanah’ at the Nasher Museum of Art

Blogger’s note: As we move into the fall, I’m going to use the Insider space occasionally to investigate “Ethics Around Campus.” This includes events, talks, exhibitions, performances, and general Duke campus happenings outside of Kenan that align broadly with our thematic programming and focus on engagement, analysis, and debate of ethical issues. If you’re savvy with our website, you’ve likely seen “Ethics Around Campus” highlighted before—it’s at the bottom of our main page, in RSS feed form. Throughout the semester, as usual, the feed will be updated with links to various campus events. I’ll highlight a few here—partly out of my own curiosity for what ethics can be and look like at a university, and partly to connect Kenan’s work with other campus work, and vice versa. 

Adichie’s novel. Image courtesy of NPR.

I, like many others at Duke right now, am reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. It’s kind of a neat feeling, to read a book alongside a huge network of people, many of whom I don’t know, as we all spend our 9-to-5s doing and studying ostensibly quite different things. Doing something in common—like reading a book, or, say, playing on a kickball team—can blast us out of isolation and into the sudden, personal sharing of something. You dog-eared that passage, too? How did it resonate with you?

David C. Driskell, Woman in Interior, 2008. Screenprint with mixed media on paper, 37 1/4 x 25 1/4 inches (94.6 x 64.1 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC. Gift of Franklin and Sheila Jackson, 2008.12.1. © David C. Driskell. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

If we’re lucky, we can come together through these mutual realizations. Duke has done something clever in the past few years by building the Summer Reading selection—typically reserved for first-year bonding exercises during orientation week—into a university-wide conversation. Faculty and staff book clubs (including Kenan’s), as well as initiatives like DukeReads, read and discuss the book together. The author comes to campus for a lecture in the fall. And beginning with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (the 2011 selection), the Nasher Museum has curated a small exhibition in tandem with the Summer Reading Book’s themes. This year, the exhibition—on view in the Nasher’s Academic Focus Gallery—includes works from the Nasher’s permanent collection, ranging from West African wood tools to contemporary paintings, photographs, and mixed-media works by the likes of Jasper Johns, the Guerrilla Girls, and Henry Clay Anderson, among others. The curated collection gives life to Adichie’s story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerian lovers growing up in recent decades between Nigeria, the United States, and the U.K. Together and apart, the pair navigate displacement, immigration, race, and identity. The novel takes its title from the term “Americanah”—used to refer to a native Nigerian who emigrates (often to the U.S. or U.K.) and returns to Nigeria with foreign affectations. When Ifemelu returns to Lagos after several years abroad—during which she becomes famous as the blogger behind “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black”—some friends call her, mockingly, “Americanah.”

The Nasher exhibition interprets these themes broadly and pulls together a sharp collection of works. The hallway is spatially tight, which gives the exhibition a conversational effect: Dan Perjovschi’s Postcards from America sits opposite Vik Muniz’s American Flag; a Nigerian Janus Headpiece looks diagonally toward Dan Driskell’s Woman in Interior. Pieces talk across time, as if saying, hey, this is what being an outsider in America felt like to me then, and here’s what a barbershop—in London, or Durham, or Lagos—looks like to me now. The gem for me, though, is the accompanying gallery guide. A handful of Duke administrators, faculty, and librarians were asked to respond to various works in the exhibition, drawing in their experiences reading Adichie’s novel. The respondents, and their responses, are wonderfully diverse. Karla FC Holloway, James B. Duke Professor of  English and Professor of Law, unpacks Driskell’s painting via quotations from Toni Morrison, Destiny’s Child, and Ralph Ellison. She likens Adichie’s Ifemelu to the “quilted concoction,” the “diasporan woman” of Driskell’s painting. Li-Chen Chin, Director of Intercultural Programs, writes—in response to Vik Muniz—about immigrating to the United States from Taiwan. “The last thing I did before I left Taiwan was learn to ride a bike because in many university brochures I had received, the ‘American’ students were always smiling and either standing next to or riding their bikes on campus.” Her words push us to consider what it means to “look American,” or to “be American.”

Guerrilla Girls, Pop Quiz from the portfolio Guerrilla Girls’ Most Wanted: 1985-2006, 1990 (printed 2008). Print on paper, 17 x 22 inches (43.2 x 55.9 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC. Museum purchase, 2011.6.1.12. © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

The final work on the first wall is Hurvin Anderson’s 2010 Barbershop Print. Ben Adams, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, wrote a long anecdotal piece in response, recalling trips throughout his childhood to the hair salon with his grandmother. He ties in one of the main plot points of Americanah: Ifemelu travels to Trenton, NJ from Princeton (where she is on a humanities fellowship) to have her hair braided before she returns to Nigeria. “What Ifemelu had hoped would be an afternoon of braiding,” Adams writes, “turns into a detangling of hair, race, and the immigrant experience in America.” Adams then talks about his grandmother’s own conflicted salon experience, and the function of the salon or barbershop generally: it can be a space of both community formation and community unraveling, where the individual can “literally or figuratively look in the mirror” and draw a distinction between “‘us’ and ‘them.'” In similar ways, Americanah—both the book and the exhibition—remind us of both the precariousness and power of community. It dares us to form our own, too.


Americanah is on view in the Academic Focus Gallery at the Nasher Museum of Art through October 12.