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Last March, a 22,000-pound, 320 sq. ft. shipping container sat outside Union Market. The portable art space is CulturalDC’s Mobile Art Gallery, used since 2017, which typically hosts three to five exhibitions per year at locations throughout the city.
Then COVID-19 happened. CulturalDC had to pause the Mobile Art Gallery’s installation Rendition, which was supposed to be on view from Feb. 8 to March 29, 2020. Rendition was a commentary on the type of consumerism prevalent in Union Market and how cultural identities—in particular, African and African American identities—are used to sell things. One side of the installation featured life-size replicas of a Cameroonian statue painted in shades of black and blue. The other displayed brightly colored masks of different shapes and sizes, painted with fluorescent acrylic paint to abstract them from their original form.
“It is about the way that Blackness and Africanness is used commercially and it’s turned into a commodity,” artist Zoë Charlton, an associate professor of art at American University, told City Paper in March 2020. “It’s transactional.”
Rendition’s commentary on how the Black community has been mistreated would become especially relevant in the wake of the racial justice movement that gained momentum after George Floyd’s killing. Just before the pandemic hit D.C., Charlton emphasized that she didn’t think conversations about how Black identities are used to sell products should be limited to a certain time and place.
CulturalDC provided a platform for these conversations. Rendition spoke to issues that would become essential elements of a vital national conversation. Even the method of making art accessible through nontraditional means, like the Mobile Art Gallery, illustrates that CulturalDC was thinking of these issues well before the pandemic made them urgent.
In 2020, CulturalDC scrapped plans and scrambled to reinvent itself in the rapidly changing arts landscape. It paused and rescheduled indoor exhibitions, then set up a virtual happy hour series with artists, “Shaken Not Stirred.” The group sold work by local artists in the online CulturalDC Art Shop (including a benefit sale of a $2,000 screenprint to support local artist Yar Koporulin, who died from lung cancer in late October). To bring art to the people, CulturalDC blasted projections from a two-part video installation, Subversions, on 14th Street NW. And the growth seems to just be getting started: The organization will soon announce its new Capital Artists Residency, an Amazon-sponsored residency program for artists of color.
“Our job always is to try to find artists and platforms, and provide artists with platforms,” explains executive director Kristi Maiselman. That ethos proved to be especially valuable when artists lost many of their traditional opportunities.
For more than 20 years, CulturalDC has made its name with provocative art installations around the city that speak to the times, like Ivanka Vacuuming by American conceptual artist Jennifer Rubell in February 2019, which featured an Ivanka Trump look-alike vacuuming a pink carpet in the former Flashpoint Gallery space—and invited the public to throw crumbs on the carpet and watch the vacuuming. (CulturalDC owned Flashpoint from 2003 to 2017 and ran the Mead Theatre Lab Program in the space from 2005 to 2017.)
CulturalDC then pivoted to its Mobile Art Gallery in 2019 so the organization could engage with more communities by bringing art directly to them. The Barbershop Project, for example, explored Black masculinity and vulnerability through the art of hair. It was housed in the portable art space from May to August 2019 at THEARC on Mississippi Avenue SE, then from September to October 2019 at T and 14th Streets NW.
Local musician Kokayi, a Grammy-nominated D.C. native, sees the Mobile Art Gallery as an outlet for artists and viewers among “a plethora of galleries that necessarily don’t serve a particular public.” When he spoke with City Paper in March 2020, Kokayi pointed out the space benefits the community—by exposing them to artists they might not otherwise come across—and gives artists a chance to make the money they need to continue their artistic practice.
The group’s mission is to “provide unconventional space for relevant and challenging work that is essential to nurturing vibrant urban communities.” When a pandemic and a historic movement against anti-Black racism upended daily life in America in 2020, relevant and challenging work was especially called for, and CulturalDC responded with a creative approach. Digital exhibitions weren’t part of its pandemic programming; instead, gripping public art was the focus.
“We shifted in the fall to how we could utilize Source Theatre as a way to show work,” Maiselman says. “As we realized that this was going to go on longer that we anticipated, we wanted to find a way.”
Teri Henderson, a Black, Baltimore-based curator and staff writer for BmoreArt, had produced video installations in Baltimore. After Maiselman saw them, she reached out to bring something similar to Source. The result was Subversions, a powerful example of art responding to current events. The two-part video installation was projected onto Source’s exterior so people could see it when they were walking by or riding on a bus, Henderson says, without having to step inside a museum or gallery—a strategic decision during the pandemic. Bringing art to the community made it more accessible, Henderson notes, since viewers didn’t need a computer or internet access.
Henderson says producing Subversions during the public health crisis meant “everything is just about being in flux and making adjustments.” She had to figure out technology hiccups, traveled from Baltimore by MARC or Uber to get to the District and, once the projections were up, recalled how happy passersby said they were to see art on the street. According to CulturalDC, there were limited opportunities to photograph the installation, but they had to make do.
Henderson says the original idea to tackle race and representation in the second part of Subversions felt especially pertinent after the insurrection at the Capitol; the video installation, “As An Enemy,” was on view from Jan. 29 to Feb. 28. “I knew that I wanted it to be about race, absolutely,” she explains, “but I didn’t just want it to be so simple, like, ‘Here’s a show about race.’”
In November, she started planning to build on a project she created in the summer of 2020: The People United, a window exhibition at Current Space in Baltimore Henderson developed with Brandon Soderberg, the former editor in chief of Baltimore City Paper. It featured the work of seven Black photographers who documented the protests after George Floyd’s killing and a video installation Soderberg created that included a collection of footage relevant to his book, I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of American’s Most Corrupt Police Squad, co-written with Baynard Woods. The video includes bodycam and surveillance footage of the Gun Trace Task Force, a group of police officers indicted on federal racketeering charges in 2017. The squad broke into homes, stole drugs, and horrifically mistreated Black people in Baltimore, targeting vulnerable individuals with records who they thought wouldn’t file a complaint.
Henderson and Soderberg remixed this footage for “As An Enemy,” the second part of Subversions. (The first part, “United in Democracy,” ran from Oct. 30 to Nov. 30, 2020.) The Current Space installation utilized tube televisions, so they burned the footage onto DVDs to project onto Source. Henderson says though these are images of Baltimore, the art installation is a commentary on the racist legacy of policing all over the country.
The racial justice movement and the pandemic have not only influenced CulturalDC’s current programming and plans for the future; they’ve also given new perspective to earlier CulturalDC shows. And as vaccination rates rise, CulturalDC is beginning to plan to show art in a world that’s something more like normal.
Up next, CulturalDC is reviving a Mobile Art Gallery art installation by Washington area artist Andy Yoder. Yoder’s installation piece, Overboard, connects to consumer culture, showcasing more than 100 shoes Yoder made from mostly recycled materials. The show was originally scheduled to open in the Mobile Art Gallery in April 2020; it’s now rescheduled for spring 2021.
After learning about the Mobile Art Gallery, Yoder was inspired to create an installation that directly connected to the gallery’s shipping container space. Research led him to a story about a shipping container that fell off its freighter during a tropical storm in 1990 and spilled tens of thousands of Nike sneakers into the Pacific Ocean. The shoes are based off the Air Jordan 5, and some are made with reclaimed materials found in recycling bins like Wheaties, 7 Up, Kool-Aid, and Coca-Cola packages.
Overboard is partly a commentary on consumerism and how sneakers have been gentrified, Yoder says. Another part is environmental.
“I would like to give people pause, make them ponder what happens when you go online and you order something from China,” Yoder said when he spoke with City Paper about his exhibition in 2020. “An idea of our footprint, I guess, if you want to make a bad pun, on the planet’s environment.”
This motivation predates the COVID era, when ordering essentials online became commonplace to mitigate the virus’s spread. Reflecting on the countless shipping containers that have made our lives safer throughout 2020 puts a new lens on Yoder’s installation, too.
The topsy-turvy year resulted in another huge development for CulturalDC, which will soon announce its Capital Artists Residency. The inaugural resident will be Los Angeles-based artist Umar Rashid, also known as Frohawk Two Feathers, who produces colorful paintings informed by cultural references like Egyptian hieroglyphs, Native American hide paintings, Persian miniature paintings, and illustrated Spanish colonial manuscripts. His work will be shown in a September Mobile Art Gallery installation.
Maiselman says the Capital Artists Residency grew out of 2020’s emphasis on equity and racial justice. “We’ve had a pretty broad view of artists’ perspectives that we want to include,” Maiselman notes. “And I think the events of 2020 have reinforced that.” She hopes this residency will keep the momentum going. The resident artists can stay for one to three months and receive housing, studio space and a stipend. Maiselman says partnering with big-time funders like Amazon won’t change CulturalDC’s local focus, and the intention is to bring artists and curators from outside of the District into contact with the community.
Henderson hopes conversations about race and class continue long after 2020. “It can’t just be because we have so much time at home and the world is different. It has to be an actual shift that stays,” she says. “I shouldn’t be the last Black curator to do something on 14th Street.”
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct year that the Mobile Art Gallery was first used.