The Phillips Collects: Nekisha Durrett

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Nekisha Durrett about the recent acquisition of her work from the juried invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down

Nekisha Durrett, Eleanor Bumper killed by police on October 29, 1984 | Age 66, 2020-21, Magnolia leaves, poplar, velvet, acrylic, LED lighting, 19 1/4 x 19 1/4 x 5 3/4 in.. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Luke Walter Photography

Nekisha Durrett always knew she wanted to be an artist, and her chance encounter with Jacob Lawrence at The Phillips Collection made it seem a little more attainable. He was one of the first examples of a Black person she saw operating in that space, making a life as an artist. “You know that you want to be an artist, but you don’t see anyone else like you or in your family doing it. You’re not seeing people who look like you who are doing it and are successful in the ways that you see white artists—white male artists are successful,” said Durrett. “There is no roadmap. Everyone’s pathway is very different. Add on top of that not seeing any representation of anyone who looks like you who’s making a life of it. So in that regard, meeting Jacob Lawrence, seeing his work hanging in the museum, I think it probably became more of a maybe. It did feel just a little a bit more in reach.”

Her work from Inside Outside, Upside Down now joins the permanent collection at the Phillips alongside Lawrence’s work. Eleanor Bumper killed by police on October 29, 1984 | Age 66 honors the life of a Black woman killed by the police. The magnolia leaf dawns her carved-out name. While the magnolia tree is popular for its beautiful flowers, its leaves stand the test of time, refusing to decay or wither. The work is part of a larger series, Magnolia, honoring many Black women.

“I always see the outpouring of emotion or attention when Black men were murdered, and I felt like it wasn’t the same for Black women,” Durrett said, recalling her thought process behind the work. The delicate pieces differ from the larger public pieces and projects she typically takes on, but she couldn’t work on those to the same extent amid the pandemic. During the spring and summer of 2020, Durrett collected the fallen leaves from a magnolia tree in Rock Creek Cemetery, where she would go to process her anxiety and grief over the covid-19 pandemic and the continued police brutality against Black bodies.

Noting the immense amount of videos and images of violence against Black people circulating, the leaf emerged as a useful metaphor. “I didn’t want to put that kind of labor on Black bodies so using this leaf as a metaphor for the Black body just seems to make sense,” Durrett said. This work is intimate, demanding the viewer’s attention if they are to truly see it, asking them to get closer.

Similar to how Lawrence helped open the door for Durrett, she now continues that legacy with her audience. Her therapist, who is located around the corner from the Phillips, visited the museum to see her work, sharing that she’d never been before and didn’t think it was a space where she would see herself, a feeling far too familiar for marginalized folks, and especially Black folks in museum settings. “That is a part of the work. It’s creating a space where you can see yourself,” said Durrett.

The Phillips Collects: Kim Llerena

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Inside Outside, Upside Down artist Kim Llerena, whose work Stonewall Jackson (dismantled), Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, has been acquired by the museum.

Kim Llerena, Stonewall Jackson (dismantled), Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, Archival pigment print, 20 x 16 in., Courtesy of the artist

“I didn’t think I had made anything meaningful this year,” chuckled Kim Llerena as she reflected on going through the process of deciding which piece to submit for Inside Outside, Upside Down.

She likes finished projects—photographs that are a part of a larger body of work or series. At the time, Stonewall Jackson (dismantled), Monument Avenue, Richmond Virginia did not fit into that category. She now views the black-and-white print of the dismantled graffiti-covered Stonewall Jackson statue in Richmond, Virginia, on Monument Avenue, as an extension of the most recent work she’s been exhibiting, American Scrapbook, which depicts fragments of the American experience across the U.S.

Like so many of the other artists I spoke with, Llerena found herself needing to change the way she typically works when it became clear last year that everything would remain on lockdown for a while with travel advisories in place. Her practice is primarily grounded in her travels on cross-country road trips. “I typically like to explore the American landscape, but as it is influenced and marked by the human hand and the human experience, that certainly was put on hold during the pandemic as I was not traveling,” said Llerena.

American Scrapbook on view at Arlington Arts Center

While setting up a show in Virginia, she decided to document the deconstructed monuments to the confederacy, where activists and protestors held demonstrations during 2020, largely in response to police brutality and the police murder of George Floyd. She hoped to capture the after effects of the protests and demonstrations on the monument. “My most recent project American Scrapbook was very interested in remnants, remnants within our visual landscape that were sort of evidence of human interaction upon the landscape whether it was rural or urban.”

Public oversight of confederate statues has been a long contested debate in Virginia, where Monument Avenue props up the legacies of the confederacy quite literally on pedestals in the former capital of the confederacy, Richmond. After the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the law protecting the monuments came under fire. In March 2020, Virginia lawmakers finalized a bill that removed state protection for the memorials, leaving the fate of the monuments up to towns, cities, and counties.

Llerena’s work investigates our “constructed relationship to place.” Given that the monuments occupy public land, it spoke volumes to see how the public engaged in the deconstruction of the monuments. What is signified when the legacy of the confederacy is glorified so much so that the monuments become a tourist attraction? What does that say about the narratives we value in America?

The Stonewall Jackson monument was the first of four confederate statues to be removed from Monument Avenue in early July of 2020. Some have connected the removal of confederate statues across the U.S. to the student-centered Fallism movement tied to Black liberation and decolonization, which garnered attention in South Africa in 2015 as students protested the glorification of British Imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, whose statue was removed from the University of Cape Town. While the removal of a statute does not make an institution or country equitable or actively engaged in decolonization, it provides evidence that there is hope in the possibility of what collective action from the public can achieve as we consider the removal of confederate statues in the U.S. Statues and monuments signify what we value, and what stories and narratives we uplift as truth.

As Llerena drove through Monument Avenue, she took in the demonstrations going on around the monuments. The space was filled with music, protest signs, and graffiti. “Like almost repurposing that monument,” Llerena said. “So I thought that was a very beautiful moment, indicative of hopefully where we go in the future—not to glorify these confederate soldiers and these monuments, but to glorify the dismantling of them and dismantling what that signifies for how we read and teach American history.”

Kim Llerena with her work in Inside Outside, Upside Down. Photo: Travis Houze

The Phillips Collects: Desmond Beach

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Inside Outside, Upside Down artist Desmond Beach, whose work #SayTheirNames2 has recently been acquired by the museum. 

Desmond Beach, #SayTheirNames 2, Fabric and paper, Courtesy of the artist

Desmond Beach puts the past and present in conversation with each other, giving context to the times we live in through his collage series #SayTheirNames. “I often call myself an intercessor. I move between time and space, whether it’s the past or present or into the future,” said Beach.

He uses old newspapers, photos of enslaved people, and his own photographs to layer his collages, creating depth on top of the patterned fabric in the background. From afar, one might only see the silhouette of a man in #SayTheirNames 2, which was recently acquired by The Phillips Collection. But as you get closer, it becomes nearly impossible to determine how many black-and-white photos are layered into the central silhouette surrounded by a seemingly repeating image in a halo-like circle around the figure’s head.

Desmond Beach, Courtesy of the artist

Beach smiles as he says, “No pun intended, but it’s really layered, and I think that’s what it’s really about when I am trying to speak about history and present time. Collage, for me, allows for the physical layering and conceptual layering as well.”

As he dives into the past, he often finds himself combing through archives at places like the Library of Congress in unassuming rooms where it’s just him and stacks of images and materials to source from. “You go in and just start pulling through images, and for some reason that act feels like me connecting to the past. Like it gives me some threshold or entrance into the past that I wouldn’t have if I just started searching on the internet for images,” Beach says.

As he sifts through the archives he begins to imagine the setting and context behind a photo, asking himself—What might it have been like that day? What did it smell like? What were people saying? What was going on just outside of the shot of the photo? It’s these questions that connect his taking photos at Black Lives Matter protests to his mining images in the archives. The events aren’t only bridged, but the livelihoods of the subject are. What Black folks struggle for today is not something they struggle for alone, but something a seemingly never-ending lineage of people from the African continent have struggled for.

When asked about the emotional labor required to go through so many archives while also living in a media age where we’re bombarded by images of police brutality and Black suffering, Beach mentioned that sometimes he needs to turn off the news and unplug. But what really carries him through is knowing he’s not alone and being in a position to turn the pain into something beautiful.

From inside the artist’s new studio space in New York, Courtesy of the artist

“When I’m in my space working it feels like I’m not alone. I feel like they (the ancestors) are with me, like they’re right there behind me,” says Beach. “I feel like I was called to do it—to look at that pain, to tell it, and then to try to find a way to bring healing with it.”

This is a lesson Beach gleaned not only from the older ancestors, but the newer ones, too, as he reflects on the crucial role his maternal grandmother played in his upbringing in Baltimore, in a household where civil rights were constantly a topic of discussion. “My mother’s mother really instilled the idea of faith in us, and having this sense of—there’s something higher than you. I think about her everyday when I’m in the studio. I think that’s where my whole connection to the ancestors and my faith comes from, and all of that is why I try to be so intentional.”

While the traumas of the past run through the veins of our society, sometimes even in our own bodies, this trauma also offers an opportunity for collective healing. But in order to begin to heal, we’ve got “to bring voice to the pain,” as Beach says.