Jamillah James, who was announced as the curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA) this August, comes to the new institution, formerly the Santa Monica Museum of Art, after serving as the assistant curator at The Hammer Museum. For the past two years she has worked at a breakneck pace organizing exhibitions for the Hammer with the nonprofit Art + Practice at their Leimert Park space. Prior to moving to LA, James held curatorial fellowships at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Queens Museum, and was co-organizer of the 2010 Queens International Biennial.
The ICA LA is slated to open in 2017 in the Downtown LA Arts District, but in the meantime you can still catch James’ latest curatorial work, a Hammer Projects presentation of Simone Leigh, and Michele O'Marah’s What’s Her Problem? at Artspeak in Vancouver. I recently caught up with James to discuss her work and mission as a curator, her opinions on the differences between the East and West Coast art scenes, and her top five picks for shows this fall in LA.
Jamillah James. Photo: Paul Mpagi Sepuya
Anni Irish: What is your relationship to art?
Jamillah James: I can’t say that I’ve always been motivated by visual experiences beyond film (I come from a musical background). I didn’t actively become interested in visual art until I was in my late teens, and I certainly didn’t think of working in the arts until my early-to-mid twenties. I’m a bit of a late bloomer; while some of my colleagues and peers now were on their second or third internship, I was still actively changing my major in school—though art history and visual culture were always the constant.
Today, I characterize myself as more of a visual studies person than a straight art historian, that is, the way in which I think about art, or talk about it, is always through the lens of cultural theory, or film theory, or whatever is happening in the world of pop culture. I prefer an interdisciplinary approach to art, because it leaves more than one window open for interpretation and for audiences.
AI: What was your time like at the Hammer?
JJ: Whirlwind! In two years, there was a tremendous amount of work done—my position was primarily working with the nonprofit Art + Practice, founded by artist Mark Bradford with Eileen Harris Norton and Allan Di Castro, though I did work on exhibitions at the Hammer as well, including two of my own [Hammer Projects presentations of Simone Leigh and Njideka Akunyili Crosby]. The Hammer partnered with them as an extension of their public engagement programming, and I was brought on to program their gallery, as well as assist on certain shows at the museum, in collaboration with senior curators, particularly Anne Ellegood (Hammer senior curator) and Connie Butler (Hammer chief curator).
“...an interdisciplinary approach to art...leaves more than one window open for interpretation and for audiences.”
In all, I worked on nine shows in two years, which is completely maniacal and unusual for an assistant curator, but it was an incredible opportunity to work with a museum and curators I have incredible respect for, a range of artists that I love, while working closely with an organization in the very beginnings of establishing itself in a neighborhood with its own rich reputation for contributing to the arts [Leimert Park, Los Angeles] and in Los Angeles’s quickly expanding arts community.
AI: What has been the most exciting thing that has happened so far for you in your post at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles?
JJ: Curiously, I’ve been mostly out of the office in this first month of my “active duty” at ICA, wrapping up outstanding projects! As nerdy as this may sound, getting myself organized has been the most exciting thing. I can finally make use of my years of clipping articles and artist images online into Evernote, a “save later” for some distant opportunity! I’m the only curator on staff, so I will have plenty of room to make some moves. I’m looking forward to working closely with our director Elsa Longhauser to schedule shows that make good on the promise of our former identity as the Santa Monica Museum—that is, bringing forward-thinking, experimental, and socially engaged work to Los Angeles.
Also, finally having someone to help administrate exhibitions. The unglamorous part of being a curator is paperwork—it’s painful, and there’s lots of it, but it’s absolutely necessary to getting to the end goal of opening a show.
Installation view of Michele O'Marah’s What's Her Problem?, September 9–October 28, 2016. Artspeak, Vancouver, BC. Photo: Blaine Campbell
AI: How you would characterize your work as curator?
JJ: I’ve been working as a curator for the past twelve years, so the type of work and my approach to curating has changed quite a bit. My commitment is still very much to giving voice to artists of color, women and queer-identified artists within institutions, and foregrounding their contributions in art historical discourse. I came to curating and studying art history from a film, music, and media studies background, so whenever possible, I do like to introduce these disciplines as ways of thinking differently about visual art.
AI: What excites you most about curating?
JJ: Curating provides the opportunity to present and work through an argument in an active way. I have only recently started working on single artist projects, but the group show format is, in a way, like a PowerPoint presentation, where you get to provide a multifaceted response to a question or problem.
“Using a curatorial platform for advocacy and activism is a responsibility and an honor...”
Also, exhibitions and museums do have a lot of influence in our society, and the general population will be more inclined to visit an exhibition at random than pick up an arts magazine. Curators take great pains to make complicated matters engaging and accessible to a broad audience (at least they should), and we are able to play the liaison between the public and artists by way of interpretation and presentation. Exhibition making does have the potential to respond to societal issues, with the assistance of artists. Using a curatorial platform for advocacy and activism is a responsibility and an honor I don’t take lightly.
AI: Why do you think there is still such an East Coast and West Coast divide within the art world? And what makes LA and NYC unique in that sense?
JJ: I’m not entirely convinced that there is still, really, thanks to the internet and economy airlines. There is a lot more cross pollination, and a curiosity about the difference between art scenes that I think can be quite generative. The thing I’ve observed, as someone who has participated in the art communities in both cities is that Angelenos have the luxury of space and light, and there seems to be a bit more relaxed way of being and working here.
I remember quite well how I operated in New York, with a certain urgency to always be out, seeing things, and being seen, and I am thankful daily that I am relieved a bit of that pressure, just given the pace of Los Angeles. New York is known for its art market activity and a history that has really, really been privileged (for better or worse), which potentially influences production and action. There’s also just infinitely MORE in New York, the navigating of which can be really exhausting, but always positioned as necessary.
I feel that I can be more deliberate and intentional with what I see and do in LA, because I have more time to myself, and spend more time getting from point A to B. There is a real culture of collaboration and artistic pedagogy in Los Angeles, and any semblance of market here is still in development (especially with the arrival of more commercial galleries in the last few years). Something that I really love about LA is that you will see generations of artists at openings, sometimes in support of former students that are showing, and you can really get a sense of the history of LA’s art scene that way because it’s so embedded in the schools here and the ways that artists approach their work.
Installation view of Alex Da Corte’s A Season in He'll. July 9–September 17, 2016. Art + Practice, Los Angeles.
Photo: Brian Forrest/Hammer Museum
AI: You moved to Chicago first in 2001 and you’ve talked about your involvement in the DIY art and music scene. How did these early experiences inform your curatorial practice?
JJ: I moved to Chicago from Boston where I was attending school, and I was going to warehouse parties and shows in Providence, like at Fort Thunder, where a number of artists were living and working. I was really inspired by that scene, and the idea of making one’s living space a place where so much more could happen. When I was a student in Chicago, I lived at a few different warehouses with art school students in Chicago, with lots of space to do things, which is where it all began for me. I was studying art history and cultural studies in school and wanted space to think through some ideas. I also became involved with a student organization that determined the programming for the on-campus galleries, so I was able to channel some energy there.
“...having a chain of command and support is actually not as bad as I thought when I was a young punk who fancied herself a curator.”
Still, it’s no mistake that I worked independently for the first half of my career, out of necessity, but also because doing it yourself allows you to work a little less filtered. Since I began working within institutions, I realize that having a chain of command and support is actually not as bad as I thought when I was a young punk who fancied herself a curator. It can slow down your process, but it also allows you time to think more, and proceed with the best possible course, so that you’re working more effectively and efficiently in service of the artist and audience.
AI: What was your time like working as a fellow at the Studio Harlem in Museum?
JJ: Formative—who doesn’t love to work with their personal, professional heroes (Thelma Golden) and build relationships with important artists in a groundbreaking arts organization? The Studio Museum enjoys a very unique position in the art world, in that it is highly respected and has made a number of important contributions to the world as we know it. The history of the museum is so incredible and rich—from its programming, the residency program, the scholarship it’s contributed to or authored, to a number of artists and cultural producers who have been involved there in one way or another. Since my time at the Studio Museum, I’ve been able to maintain a great relationship with Thelma, who is really a mentor and friend to her staff, and also curators and artists with whom she hasn’t directly worked. I like to refer to her as a fairy godmother, in that she has supported a number of young curators’ careers, and is really invested in the next generation of museum professionals.
AI: Who are some artists you'd like to bring to the new ICA LA? And can you talk a little about some of your plans/curatorial vision you hope to achieve there?
JJ: I can’t exactly reveal what’s up my sleeve, but I can say that I plan to concentrate some energies on staging some retrospectives for Los Angeles artists who have not had such opportunities, and bringing more international artists to Los Angeles, particularly from the African continent.
AI: What are your top five picks for fall exhibits/shows happening now in LA/?
JJ: Hanne Darboven at Spruth Magers (one of my absolute favorite artists), Betye Saar at Roberts & Tilton, Doug Aitken at MOCA, Henry Taylor at Blum & Poe, Harry Dodge at Armory Art Center, and Wu Tsang at 356 Mission.
Anni Irish is a Brooklyn-based writer and cultural critic whose work has been featured in Timeout New York, Bomb Magazine, Flavorwire, and Vice among other publications. When she's not writing, Anni enjoys spending time with her pet mini lop rabbit Isabella.
(Image at top: Installation view of A Shape That Stands Up, March 9–June 18, 2016. Art + Practice, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest/Hammer Museum)