“Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum” is the first large-scale exhibition exploring the artistic relationship between brothers and contemporary artists Noah Davis and Kahlil Joseph.
The exhibition, which opened on 16 April and runs until 19 June 2016 at the Frye Art Museum, celebrates the work of painter Noah Davis, filmmaker Kahlil Joseph and The Underground Museum, an independent museum in the Arlington Heights community of Los Angeles founded by Davis and his widow Karon Davis, to bring art to the residents of a community not served by the city’s already existing arts institutions.
The curator of “Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum”, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes (b. 1977, Seattle), is an African-American multimedia artist, designer, filmmaker, curator and writer living and working in Seattle. His work has been exhibited in various museums, most notably the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles and the Frye Art Museum. Alley-Barnes is a founding member of the multidisciplinary creative collective Black Constellation, which includes visual artists Nep Sidhu and Nicholas Galanin, as well as musicians Shabazz Palaces, THEESatisfaction, Erik Blood, OC Notes, Porter Ray and JusMoni.
Art Radar spoke with Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes to learn more about his practice as well as his reflections on this very personal and abjectly beautiful exhibition.
Maikoiyo, please tell us about yourself and your artistic practice.
I’m a 38-year-old channel for creative energy and in the course of those undertakings I have lived, and continue to live, as a sculptor, a filmmaker and a designer. I have worn a curator’s hat on several auspicious occasions and I also am born from a lineage of very prolific creators.
I have been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. I have two parents who are painters and sculptors, and in my mother’s case also a worker of textile. I’ve also had the gracious set of circumstances to be in some of the studios and in the presence of very brilliant makers of a previous generation – the likes of Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence. In regards to my own practice, professionally I started working as an artist at sixteen, as an editorial cartoonist. That subsequently turned into a ghost inking and penning gig for a syndicated editorial cartoonist. From there I continued to pursue my own practice, specifically as a painter, which I was pursuing in earnest primarily in oils until I had a set of traumas in 2005.
I also integrated teaching as a part of my practice, and was finding certain frustrations with trying to teach studio practice in regards to painting to my students. Out of my frustration arose a method of sculpture that I have come to refer to as refuse alchemy. It involves the hand compression of post-consumer materials and the mummification of those materials into forms with masking tape. At that point in time, that structure is affixed with a drying, viscous liquid, be it molding paste or previously plasters and wheat pastes. Out of that, my sculptural practice was born about thirteen or fourteen years ago.
I grew up apprenticed underneath subtractive sculptors and those who worked with more additive methods, be they clay or plaster. But happening upon refuse alchemy was kind of a breakthrough for me, because it allowed me to not only be able to share a method that was more authentic with another generation, but more importantly it allowed me to be able to create very impactful sculptural work in environments where my children were, that didn’t require the same amount of space for things like drop and dust and the kind of toxic and carcinogenic resultant particles that come from most sculptural practices.
It also allowed me to get back in tune with the more ancient drives associated with my artistic practice. Most of the history associated with sculpture of the type that I make is functional not aesthetic. So since refuse alchemy has kind of been the backbone of my practice, I was supplementing different kinds of undertakings with the finding of old garments and the redistribution of those and different kinds of antiques and furniture. The ability to take an old thing and morph it into something that has a greater value or is viewed in a different arena is kind of a tenant of my practice. The combination of the refuse alchemy with now the use of old clothing and textiles to create sculpture and wall-based installation was a boon for my practice as well.
In my work with textile and clothing I began to be involved in film as a costumier and a production designer. That along with a lifelong love of writing and film pushed me into film as a medium roughly seven or eight years ago. At this point in time I have created music videos, more classically art-based film pieces and narrative shorts whilst continuing my two-dimensional practice with drawing and, increasingly, painting.
At which point did you segue into curation? And, how and why?
I don’t know if the term segue would be appropriate because for me it seemed kind of seamless. I think that like many things for me it came out of a necessity due to an absence in my immediate circumference. I found myself in the early 2000s with opportunities to curate shows because of a gap. The people who had been intrinsically doing certain sets of shows decided that they were no longer interested in doing so and I was presented opportunities. Instead of staying with the artists that had kind of been par for the course, I started to incorporate the work of people who I thought were making interesting and different work with a focus on makers who would fall under the designation of being Pan-African. Also, with a focus on makers from the geographic area of the Pacific Northwest, particularly Seattle. Hopefully in an attempt to offset the narrative that this particular place didn’t do a good job of supporting its creatives, which is not an inaccurate assessment.
I would say at this point in time, being nearly forty, it would have started in my early twenties. But I do believe also that when I think about being someone who collected old things and was into the redistribution of old textiles and mid-century furniture and steamer trunks from the Victorian age, I had already been a curator. And for that matter being someone who was selling vintage Nikes previous to the internet being a mechanism for that. Or someone who was into certain things that were niche genres of film, having what it took to seek that kind of information out at certain points in time during the more analogue eras of consumption. I feel like my curatorial practice really started in childhood, but as far as being on display for the viewing of others en masse, I guess that has been roughly over the past ten years with the most concentrated portion of that being between 2009 and 2013.
The exhibition “Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum” has just opened on 16 April at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. When did the idea for this exhibition first take root?
I think that for me curation starts in a place where I have to feel the work first and foremost. Because of the nature of when I was exposed to Kahlil and Noah as individuals, and subsequently years later as artists and their work, I’d been thinking about them and how I would best represent their work in an exhibition setting for quite some time – probably I would say five or six years.
Kahlil and I started working together as adults in roughly 2008 and I was aware of Noah’s work as a painter as of 2005/2006. The notion that the work of two brothers who were functioning at such a level, and also were so effectively relaying such a clear narrative ethos and artistic élan, was a no-brainer to me. At the point in time when the idea first appeared, I didn’t feel as though I had the level of access or the appropriate space to be able to do justice to the work. We’ve gotten to a place where we are used to seeing film on really small scale – be it on our phones or on computers – but with a filmmaker like Kahlil Joseph who is so cinematic, my desire was always to be able to show the work at a scale that was respectful of that.
The reality of Noah being this extremely narrative, and I dare say cinematic, painter, paired with the work of his brother who I’ve always found to be such a painterly filmmaker, just made sense. But in this last course of years, with greater levels of agency and greater levels of institutional access, I found myself in a position where I was being asked by directors and curators what ideas I had. This was one of the ideas I proposed to the director of the Frye Art Museum almost two years ago, and then started having discussions more in earnest about a year ago. The fact that we were able to realise it and honour not only the discussion I had been having with Kahlil and Noah, but also with the institution, is not only an honour but I dare say something that is almost magical, considering the obstacles of space and time, and for that matter, the physical presence of Noah who passed away last year. But being able to honour a set of discussions that he and I had been having for quite some time about creating spaces for worthwhile work and altering the way in which institutions interact with artists and those of us who have real connections to the work shouldn’t go without saying either.
Kahlil and Noah’s work has been in the world quite broadly, more broadly than a lot of people realise, but you chose for this show to be based in Seattle, which has a rich art scene but compared to some of the grander centres of art in this country – Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, even Detroit – is a smaller playing field. Why was Seattle significant and the necessary locale for this exhibition?
I have been asked numerous times, “Why not New York?” or “Why not Los Angeles?” and the answer quite simply is home. I already mentioned my interest in offsetting the narrative about Seattle not recognising the brilliance that comes from here. More importantly it’s literally the place that generated the brilliance. And I think that there’s multiple factors that go into that. There’s obviously a genetic predisposition so we must acknowledge a mother and a father who put whatever the unspoken realities are into it. We have to acknowledge the very intentional choices that they made about their sons’ upbringing. But they also made a very specific choice to raise their sons in this place.
I was raised here, Ishmael Butler was raised here, Zenobia Bailey was raised here, Jimi Hendrix was raised here, my father Curtis Barnes was raised here and for me this is a story about a through line and acknowledging two other brilliant people who are a part of a school that, though as yet under recognised, is undeniably and decidedly influential within art culture, music, consciousness en masse, and with a specific focus on blackness, popular culture and prevalent trend. I think that making a very clear statement about where we are all from and making that statement in the place that we are all from was a missing part of how Kahlil and Noah’s story has been told, and frankly how Ishmael Butler’s story has been told and how Jimi Hendrix’s story has been told as well.
As I’ve said numerous times in the past, there is a huge penchant for allowing other people to anthropologically control our narratives. Grander than my own desires, or any of our respective egos, is a necessity for honesty and authenticity. Having Kahlil and Noah’s work a half block from the high school we all attended at certain points is not just poetic but – it has been referred to as a homecoming – to me I would call it a reconciliation of our roots. I think that if we don’t acknowledge our roots, we do ourselves a grave disservice. I thought that it was really important that we make a definitive statement about the intersection and this kind of dynamic, artistic equilibrium that not only exists between Kahlil and Noah, but exists for many of the creatives that have come out of here. We all have fed on how fecund and beautiful this place is: this fresh air, these cherry blossoms, all this water, the huge quartz deposits, but also the arts institutions that helped raise us.
The Frye, quite frankly, is an arts institution that was formative for myself as a painter and Noah as a painter. A huge point of Noah’s practice was about – and I think truthfully the most brilliant portion of his life’s work – insuring access for those who otherwise would not have comfort within spaces related to certain types of cultural experience, particularly the visual art experience. So to do that, to make a statement in an institution whose ethos is about free access is also very important to me. That only leaves but so many institutions in the entire world. We just so happen to have one here in Seattle, Washington. I happened to be working on a series of exhibitions and had been honing a relationship with that institution the last five years.
There are three entities within this exhibition: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph and The Underground Museum. The Underground Museum strikes me very much as an extension of Noah’s practice and perhaps even the grandest manifestation of it. Could you speak to that?
Noah had a level of ascendancy very early but he also had a very quarrelsome relationship with the art world. None of this is new information for anyone who knew Noah. He was not comfortable with his darling status because he felt it was limiting on a lot of levels. To be put into, what he considered to be, the box of a figurative, black painter did not allow for many of the other ways in which he was comfortable or interested in expressing himself. What often happens when someone becomes a darling, there develops a formulaic notion of what they will produce and Noah was constantly, adamantly against being put into a box.
When Noah fired his gallery, there was a necessity for him to still be able to have a point of facilitation. So on several levels, The Underground Museum started because of that necessity. Perhaps even more importantly, when Noah and Kahlil’s father passed, he gave a greater level of importance to leaving more to the world than just beautiful paintings, which he had already created en masse. The Underground became a space in which not only his works could be shown on an independent basis, but more importantly where people in a neighbourhood that was decidedly under considered by the various arts institutions located in perhaps the most dense concentration of arts institutions in the nation – located in one of the most densely populated areas of Los Angeles with a large population of Black and Latino residents many of whom are artists and makers – could go and experience art. Institutions are constantly feeding off that energy, but institutions do not do a good job making the spoils of that feeding accessible to the environments that often generate them.
I’m comfortable saying that Noah found a disparity in the way in which the commercial art world interacted with the people who create the work. He found a disparity in museums and arts institutions’ willingness to make their collections accessible to the public at large, and what he started to do after finding himself in the position to acquire some store fronts in Arlington Heights, was ask different arts institutions throughout Los Angeles to borrow for the purposes of showing museum quality art to the folks who lived in the Arlington Heights neighbourhood. In each case he was told no and that resulted in a greater level of fervor on Noah’s part to make sure that people could access art, and that has manifested in several different ways. But when we look at what The Underground Museum is now, the relationship they have with MoCA, which has understood the necessity that Noah sought and has thus opened up its collection to his particular curatorial brilliance, I am sure we’ll come to find that other museums will follow suit. While Noah was still alive he curated shows into the next three years using work out of the permanent collections at MoCA.
What you’re really looking at is an evolution of the institutional model, one that actually reconciles that if these works are just sitting in a vault some place then they aren’t actually doing what they are supposed to do. And if they can only be accessed by people who have a certain kind of financial privilege or a certain preexisting cultural notion about their importance, then they are not doing what they are supposed to do and what they were intended to do, which is be seen. I think the thing that is oft forgotten, even by artists, is that consumption of art is not the purchase thereof. It is seeing the work. You consume art with your eyes, or your other senses debatably, but that is where the true consumption base lies. Though the people who buy it are the people who perpetuate the ability for the artist to have certain kinds of sustenance, the intention for most artists is for as many people to see the work as possible.
When thinking about this show it was necessary to also use it as an opportunity to amplify that sentiment. So to take this opportunity to make sure that the bandwidth of Noah’s intention was increased was extremely important for myself and Kahlil, and Noah’s widow Karon. I think we seized on this opportunity and framed The Underground Museum as an artist or participant because, frankly, The Underground Museum is a living, breathing entity that, as far as I’m concerned, almost functions as Noah’s unseen hand posthumously. There was a lot of conversation within the museum, and a lot of pushback, about framing The Underground Museum as basically a participating artist.
This show contains a small survey of the works that started The Underground Museum. It’s also really important to know that Noah was one of the most adamant people about pushing Kahlil to think of himself as a visual artist. The Underground Museum is significant, not only because of what Noah’s intentions were, but also because of what it has put into the world. If Noah doesn’t push Kahlil to participate in the show “Oracle”, which is one of the original shows at The Underground Museum, Helen Molesworth never becomes aware of Kahlil’s work. There is no “Double Conscience”, Kahlil’s solo exhibition at MoCA. We can debate that perhaps someone else would have seen that work – but creating a space in which his brother could start to be comfortable thinking of himself as a visual artist, which he undoubtedly is. I’ve said that to Kahlil for years, but there is something to be said for the right people, people you trust, saying that too.
Simultaneously, also making room for Karon Davis to spread her wings, not only as an artist, but as a taste maker and a maven of culture; a space for generative conversations. I think something like 85 different artists have shown at The Underground Museum at this point in time, which basically puts it in the same realm with any of the larger institutions for sheer frequency of output in the same amount of time, all of which were done, in the initial stages, without institutional support, without external funding and without cosignatory from the art world at large.
Having properly contextualised The Underground museum, please talk about its first exhibition “Imitation of Wealth”.
“Imitation of Wealth” is significant for a lot of reasons, the most significant of which is that, as far I’m concerned, it was an act of protest. It was someone acknowledging the absurdity of a situation and making a statement on it and in making a statement on it whether deliberately or inadvertently coming up with a solution for the very problem at hand. I think a lot of it people, I daresay some people in the institution most immediately showing the work, have misunderstood the work as an attempt to mimic greatness. In my estimation, and not that Noah didn’t consider Duchamp great or wasn’t a fan of what Koons has been able to accomplish, it is secondary to his statement about the absurdity of value and access and the unwillingness of institutions to lend work to the burgeoning institution he was in the midst of founding.
After being told no, Noah reconciled that there are innumerable examples from the canon of contemporary and modern, western art that are either readymade in nature or appropriative in nature, and he set out to make a statement about value and wealth and access and maybe most importantly, institutional absurdity and hypocrisy. In the “Imitation of Wealth” exhibition you have Noah faithfully being able to mimic a Duchamp, faithfully being able to mimic a Dan Flavin, faithfully being able to mimic a Jeff Koons, all of which are considered priceless. These are things that it would take a person a life’s worth of work, unless they were extremely wealthy, to be able to acquire, and going out and seeking these things out on eBay, or some of these things finding him in the case of the Bottle Rack. It should be said, that the Bottle Rack was found in the backyard of a local gallery, rusting. So his statement about not only the absurdity of that but, frankly, his own place in the western canon, I found it intriguing and very telling of Noah’s particular sense of humour.
I think what gets lost on people quite often is that Noah’s sense of humour is a lot of the energy that made these things so. Some of it is dark and cynical but it’s, if anything, scathing and critical and I do think that is lost on some people because they are unable to see the absurdity they are participating in. But that absurdity was never lost on Noah. That is something that when we did have occasion to sit down and talk was a point of mutual acknowledgement.
You spoke of Kahlil Joseph as a visual artist more than as a filmmaker. As someone who has collaborated with him, but also now curated his work, can you speak about his practice?
I don’t use the term genius lightly. I think it’s a term that gets used rather lightly, but I’m comfortable, even if Kahlil is not, labelling him accordingly. And the reason I say that is because I’ve seen him work first hand. I’ve seen the style of filmmaking that he uses become normative over the last eight years. I also have watched the growth from some very very early stages. I have worked as a costumier and a production designer with Kahlil and I’ve also just been someone who has been able to bounce ideas off Kahlil, and vice versa.
The term ‘auteur’ is also thrown around very loosely in the now but it’s a term I think is apropos to Kahlil. He is a brilliant filmmaker. There was a period of time in which you would be a painter but to have the term artist or artiste put upon you meant you were at another level. You could be a sculptor but to have the word artiste or artist applied to you meant you were brilliant in that genre. Now we use the word artist loosely for anyone who can pick up a camera, touch a paint brush but the reality is that in the relatively recent past it was not a label that was used so loosely.
Kahlil’s strokes with a camera pass, or with an editing session are masterful and not unlike his brother who has been identified as a brilliant painter by many because of his comfort and confidence in his stroke, I would say that Kahlil is the same way. He has an uncanny ability to combine documentary footage with things that are more staged, or contrived, in such a seamless fashion that the delineation between the two is nearly impossibly. Most importantly, even though without question his medium is film and video, he is one of the great story tellers of our time. I think that his ability to call upon the ancient, sometimes very overtly, but often very subtly, and to speak about the spirit and the realms of the mystical have removed him a discussion where he is mentioned with very many of who would have been chronologically his peers, and that bares noting to me.
He also has an exhaustive knowledge of film in the same way that Noah had an exhaustive knowledge of visual art. And it’s funny because recently during a gallery guide tour at the Frye, Kahlil referred to Noah as having a nearly ‘savantesque penchant’ for understanding art and art history, and I would argue the same about Kahlil in regards to film. What is really important is the fact that they shared references quite often, and were quick to share something that excited them with each other. So that it almost becomes in places, Wild Cat being an example, because that same generative energy that really started with Karon Davis produces a work from her, maybe two works, and a work that’s in gestation. It produces a work from Noah, which is travelling the world in “30 Americans”, then produces this work from Kahlil [Wild Cat], which originally gets released on the web site Nowness, and which reveals something some people considered subcultural but those of us who know better know it’s just the thing in regards to rodeo. We’ll call it black rodeo for the sake of the conversation.
Kahlil was never able to realise his version that he saw in his brain until he had the option of it showing as an art piece. The way he filmed it was intended to be a three-channel dynamic. I think that sometimes what we’re talking about is seeds that get planted. There’s been a lot of conversation around this exhibition, around fecundity and planting and DNA and ancestral energy, and I think that’s what’s most fascinating about looking at their work is that often you’re talking about things that were derived out of the same generative seed or things that were planted very close to each other that informed and were tangled in the root structure, or in the resultant plants that popped out of the ground.
So in discussing Kahlil’s practice it’s really interesting because the perspective I’ve had on it has always been through the eyes of someone who saw him as thinking about film differently than our peers were. He’s been one of my teachers in regards to film history even though he is younger than me. His willingness to acknowledge the root – be that including scarification in the stage make up for a high fashion piece, or dropping reference to the I-ching in a VANS commercial, or Kurasowa references in a work that is of a commercial nature – is why I think the conversation needs to be more about Kahlil as artist, in amplification to his designation as a filmmaker. I also think that the fact that Kahlil has learned from masters, be that directly or second hand, is important. His understanding of Kubrick, his understanding of still form from Sidibé and innumerable other photographers is important.
In conclusion and going forward, what can we anticipate from you? What can we anticipate from The Underground and from Karon Davis, from Kahlil Joseph even?
Well, I hesitate to ever speak for artists who can speak for themselves but speaking for myself, I’m going to be taking my curator’s hat off for a while and it won’t be going back on until there is something else that I feel deeply about. The next year and a half will be spent sculpting in earnest and working on some long form short films. I will be continuing an apprenticeship in leather working and furthering my work with textiles as well. Most importantly I’m going to continue to tell stories.
I think that the various mechanisms I have to do so will be expanding and in the spirit of not only my own practice, but the adamance of my friend, I’m going to work to not be put inside of a box. I think we do ourselves a real disservice when we allow people to dictate who and what we are. So I am going to continue to keep making work that has something to say. That has long been a tenet of my practice and that would be the best way to continue to honour those who’ve come before me and some who’ve left before me.
In regards to The Underground Museum, I do feel comfortable saying that most immediately there is a show called “Non-Fiction” that is opening in May comprised of work from MoCA’s collection. I think this is the beginning of a very bright stage, illuminating what arts institutions can be and how classic institutions can exchange value with independent art institutions. I think all the parties who are directly involved in that are going to continue their art practices because much of that energy is fuelled by making.
The Underground Museum was important for a lot of reasons not only because it was a place where art could be seen but because it was a place where art was being made, being edited. People are sitting and talking and viewing these things in their community and that communal exposure to these things and the ability to be able to speak on the experience in real time, in environments where people are comfortable, is sorely missing from the art world at large. I think what you are going to see, not unlike Noah, not unlike Kahlil, not unlike Karon, is the model that has been set forth by The Underground Museum having a great level of affect on its peers, and being a germinative seed that effects creative culture and popular culture en masse.
Negarra A. Kudumu
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