By: Joe Kohlburn
Emerging Technologies Librarian at Jefferson College, arts organizer with Critical Mass for the Arts St. Louis
Addoley Dzegede’s show “Fare Well” was a Viking funeral for Fort Gondo, beloved local alt-space.
On the evening of January 7, Dzegede’s talk began with her residency in Iceland. She described fashioning nets from seaweed, and found objects, the détournement of driftwood and flotsam into yet more marvelous work. The place was packed, and the audience listened intently as she explained the yarn, dyed with Icelandic plants, and woven into Kente cloth. She acknowledged the recurrent duality of her work, with regard to identity, to race, to the didactic and the generative. Dzegede smiled at a young man, as she pointed out two objects on a central table: bread plates, with proverbs carved in mirror-writing into the surface. The first read, “When the crow travelled abroad he came back just as black.” The man asked after her ancestors. The artist nodded, and weaved the threads of his question effortlessly into her work, speaking to a room full of people and a single person all at once.
Artists are transgressors in that they are intimately acquainted with crossing borders. They acknowledge fellow travelers they meet, cultivating understanding that is both wondrous and admirable. Artists subvert authority, beauty, intention, materiality, and convention: each limit and every norm.
It is therefore disappointing that the St. Louis art world is so compartmentalized, so insular. Why, for example, is our vibrant community art scene only lately reflected in our larger institutions to any extent? Some border-crossings are more problematic than others, it seems.
As I drove home from Fort Gondo, I watched the snowy highway wind between neighborhoods. Unfurling like the spine of a great bitumen dragon, 64-40 divides two estates – the south from the north. The highway is interstitial, built to carry us between destinations without meeting, without crossing over completely, without transgressing. Artists may be set on particular paths by environment, race, class, gender, or simply luck.
Anyone who participates in local art happenings will understand what I mean when I say that you tend to see the same faces in the crowd, night after night. Where is this elusive larger ‘public’? Gallerists will tell you that we need to cultivate more collectors. People at funding organizations will tell you that artists need to hustle, need to organize, need to do x, y, and z, or need to build their ‘brands’. Seasoned artists frequently say that you need to get your art out of St. Louis to make any money.
I can offer no such certainty. Perhaps we need to think about art differently. Maybe we need to break down these rigid barriers surrounding our communities and let some air in.
What about actually addressing the alienation imposed by the very institutions we aspire to cultivate as allies? Let’s think about the insularity intrinsic to our own habits and views. Consider how the canon of art and the art market differ, if indeed they do.
Isn’t it strange that for every Kerry James Marshall, Cara Walker, or Ai Weiwei, there are ten Kelley Walkers? ‘Rediscovered’ artists like Artemisia Gentileschi or any number of prominent female surrealists are incorporated into the conversation, not intentionally, not through the zeitgeist, but almost accidentally, as eminently important as their work may be.
Consider the Prado, where it took a curator’s wife pointing out to him that his institution had never once had a solo show for a female artist in its nearly 200 year history before Clara Peeter’s got hers, a mere 395 years too late. The ‘luck’ part of the equation is hard to accept, particularly if some artists have more of it than others simply by virtue of their access to the “series of yeses,” to quote St. Louis artist Kahlil Irving.
Is the market, with its constant omissions, shortcomings, and biases, driving this? Is it academia, so thoroughly impoverished by neoliberal administration, that it can only yield to the droll mechanizations of art-acquisition, only provide rationalization for the latter’s fitful swings?
Back at Fort Gondo, Dzegede’s second plate, in the Icelandic tradition, is inscribed “When the snail travels abroad, it takes shelter with the tortoise.” Meaning perhaps that those who carry their complete world, wherever they go, tend to end up in the same places.