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Melaine Ferdinand-King.jpg

Photo credit: Kris Craig

Joel Rosario Tapia.jpg

Photo credit: Kris Craig

Curating Commemoration: Poiesis / Remedy was comprised of two vibrant, concurrent portions. Together, alongside each another, as a single exhibition they boldly inhabited the WaterFire Arts Center in Providence in the summer of 2023. The curators worked on the project in mentorship with the Providence Biennial for Contemporary Art to produce the tremendously attended, broadly recognized exhibition. Curator Melaine Ferdinand-King named her contribution Poiesis and Joel Rosario Tapia named his Remedy.

The following commentaries by the Curating Commemoration emerging curators Melaine Ferdinand-King and Joel Rosario Tapia serve as data for the Providence Biennial for Contemporary Art. They will help inform ongoing activities in the wake of the experiment that was our 2022-2023 mentorship.

Melaine Ferdinand-King: A Reflection

Producing an exhibition with the Providence Biennial for Contemporary Art renewed my understanding of collaboration, communication, and curatorial ethics in and out of workplace settings. As the inaugural mentorship experience hosted by the Biennial, Curating Commemoration was in its early developmental stage and still had many details to resolve before exhibition preparation. No one knew what this experimental initiative would offer; a mission statement could not anticipate what kind of product the endeavor would yield.

 

There is much more than meets the eye in bringing elaborate ideas to fruition. To the public, Poiesis: Street Culture & the Art of the City, as part of Curating Commemoration: Poiesis/Remedy, was presented to Providence’s art scene without issue or controversy. However, the road to Poiesis was complicated. I write this reflection with other curators, arts administrators in mind, and artists who may be unfamiliar with the nature of collective project management while striving for autonomous creative direction. I share with a spirit of transparency.


In many ways, the board and the curators (Joel Rosario Tapia and myself) learned from one another reciprocally. The proposed mentorship worked out more as a horizontal leadership structure with heavy financial and technical support from the Biennial. Instead of a curriculum or applied instruction, we spent much of our time together working out the social and professional strains that inevitably emerge in a collaboration process. The curators proposed ideas for the exhibition independently. In retrospect, the central point of our collaboration occurred while working on varying degrees of trust related to meeting attendance, role allocation, task completion, and artwork installation.


I orient my reflections on Curating Commemoration toward the process of curating with an institution or board. This experience affirmed that to truly work as a team (especially one composed of 8 -10 individuals), participants need to know who they are working with – their personalities, leadership styles, work ethic, and, to a certain extent, how their identities and previous life experiences inform their work. Knowing a co-worker’s priorities and definition of “success” for practical cooperation is also essential. This work is difficult for any newly formed group, and the Providence Biennial curatorial team was no exception.

We found ourselves entering intense debates about vision, practice, and curatorial interests. It was often necessary to field and unpack matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion on several occasions, finding that ethical considerations in press releases, grant proposals, and advertisements were frequent areas of sensitivity for one party or another. There also seemed to be variations in perspectives on chains of command, appropriate communication styles and channels, cultural competency, and agency of the invited curators.

 

It was in this space that I refined my set of curatorial ethics. Early in drafting a concept and layout, I knew the message I wanted to convey and the audience of interest. Providence is home to many different communities, and many could benefit from an additional platform. I was privileged enough to be selected to put forth an exhibition reflecting the area where I resided. In return, I wanted to deliver my love letter to the city for their embrace of me and my work. I aimed to create a sentimental exhibition familiar to people born and raised in Providence and intriguing to those who might have engaged with New England art from a distance.

Providence is home to many different communities, and many could benefit from an additional platform. I was privileged enough to be selected to put forth an exhibition reflecting the area where I resided. In return, I wanted to deliver my love letter to the city for their embrace of me and my work.

Poiesis could be nothing else but a topical address to Providence’s culture and its themes. As such, it was my job to let local artists express what they wanted to see, share, and experience. Releasing an Open Call was not a popular idea at the time, given the time restraints, but I could think of no other way to reach a broad range of people who could best respond to the overarching mission of the project I had in mind. I designed the Open Call and walked through Federal Hill, Olneyville, Fox Point, Elmwood, Washington Park, and other neighborhoods in and beyond Providence to hang posters promoting the search for artists aligned with the overarching themes of street culture and city art, using social media as an additional method of outreach.

 

The Open Call received nearly one hundred submissions in a few weeks, which I narrowed down to about half, many of whom I met in one-on-one meetings. Over about three months, I sat with 30+ artists at local cafes and restaurants to learn more about their artistry and their relationship to Providence and to welcome feedback on my budding ideas. Perhaps most importantly, it was a chance to share our understanding of what is happening in Providence. Some of the following questions framed my approach to engagement: How do folks narrate city culture? What does the commemoration of a space look like to different people? Where are these conversations already happening? What has been the history of the city’s art scene? Who remembers this history? Whose stories are excluded or over-represented in the few metropolitan area galleries of Providence – Pawtucket? – Cranston? What is and what could be the role of the curator from an artist’s view?

Ultimately, Poiesis came together through the contributions, grace, and enthusiasm of 37 artists, generous sponsors and donors, Emily Gray, our diligent project manager, and the partnership between the Providence Biennial and the WaterFire Arts Center. Through this experience, I became competent in many new curatorial skills obtained through either intuition or trial and error. I’ve cultivated relationships with Providence “OGs” and emerging artists, including public muralists, graffiti artists, photographers, street performers, poets, DJs, curators, and other cultural workers who felt an exhibition highlighting the ephemeral, painted-over, displaced, chipped, gentrified, punk, retrospective, futuristic, quirky, weird, intimate, underlying, and authentic aspects of Providence art was not only needed but long overdue. This exhibition and its neighbor, Remedy, inspired community members to dream seriously about their ability to create and influence the New England art scene.


Curating Commemoration: Poiesis/Remedy attracted more than 1,200 visitors on Opening night and drew large crowds throughout the duration. It was a beautiful gift for the exhibitions to be dubbed the “summer blockbuster” and “the Providence Arts Family Reunion,” recognized by local Providence press outlets as well as the Boston Art Review as a “must-see event.” I hope Poiesis has, in some fashion, impacted local discourse and challenged what kind of artists and artworks deserved visibility.


I believe in Providence’s potential and the artists making a name for themselves and their communities. I am grateful to contribute to the city’s history and look forward to seeing all the commemorative moments that will undoubtedly follow.

Joel Rosario Tapia: A Reflection

I've been absorbing, processing, reconciling and reflecting upon this summer’s presentation of Curating Commemoration: Poesis/Remedy, generated by the Providence Biennial for Contemporary Art and mounted in the Waterfire Arts Center, Providence, from July 13 - August 20, 2023. These were some of the most invigorating and exciting days of my life.

 

The concentrated installation process began on July 10 and ended on July 13. During this installation I felt so thankful to have the opportunity to tell the stories of some of my most esteemed colleagues that travel to practice in Rhode Island, or live and practice in Rhode Island. The process of meeting artists in their studios and homes and visiting, viewing, communicating and then interviewing them and creating the ten short films that were featured in "Remedy" galvanized my relation to these artists and the Providence community. I sought to help the artists tell their stories which represent their communities and families and identities, to help elaborate on and create a platform for these practitioners whom I have so come to respect and admire.

 

I operated and created and strategized creating "Remedy" from a sense of responsibility to the artists, the broader cultural and creative community, the Providence Biennial for Contemporary Art’s board members and volunteers, and the WaterFire Arts Center volunteers, community and staff. Together, all supported and helped to solidify and present the result of my curatorial practice, and place the incredible artists on a visible platform unlike any other.

 

I wanted to present, authentically, and in their own words, the varied identities, viewpoints and practices of the artists. I sought to omit my words and prodding questions from the films so as to create emphasis on these artists and their words completely, to let their personalities and work and trajectories be seen and perceived without my presence on the screen and influence on the audience. I wanted to create a choreographed experience with multimedia and a soundscape that could aid the audience in focusing on perceiving the work of each artist in an energetically supportive and stimulating way.

I wanted to create a choreographed experience with multimedia and a soundscape that could aid the audience in focusing on perceiving the work of each artist in an energetically supportive and stimulating way.

After much reflection and conversation at the exhibition and about the exhibition I am thankful to be able to say that I believe it was supremely successful. I believe the artists felt seen and felt inspired to grow their presence and practices in the Providence community. I believe the stakeholders in the exhibition's success felt that the events were well attended and entertaining, with noteworthy and particularly remarkable performances and interventions and readings that supported the eclectic, invigorating and intellectually stimulating experiences thousands of visitors had.

 

I have perceived that the community has been invigorated by this summer's Providence Biennial concurrent exhibitions and I think that these exhibitions will continue to influence future presentations and curating in the city, for years to come. It is truly humbling to have been part of creating Curating Commemoration, and contributing to the Providence artistic community as part of the collaborative effort to do meaningful work means everything to me.

 

To have helped till the ground and plant the seeds that will flourish and change the cultural environment, to help aspiring creatives stand up and do the meaningful work that moves our societal paradigms and creative community forward—this is the kind of legacy based work that can undo and heal wrongs. It can do so from seven generations back, and influence positively seven generations moving forward. To me this is generational work necessary to deal with the trans-generational trauma experienced by so many of us as members of our community. I am thankful to have helped us to see ourselves and our reflections. Without the Providence Biennial's presentation of Curating Commemoration: Poiesis/ Remedy we may never have done so. Hahom. In gratitude. Perpetually.
 

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