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.

How Nekisha Durrett’s Airshaft turns the everyday sacred

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Nekisha Durrett about her centennial commission, Airshaft. 

Nekisha Durrett stands in front of her centennial commission installation Airshaft

“Whenever I come to The Phillips Collection, I think about the first time I came here,” said Nekisha Durrett as she walked me through her initial proposal for her centennial commission Airshaft.

The immersive installation converts the two bridges joining the Goh Annex and the original Phillips House into a sacred place as light floods through the large windows, changing to different colors as they pass through the colored film giving the effect of stained glass in patterned geometric shapes lining the nearly floor to ceiling windows.

In high school, one of Durrett’s dear friends invited her to tag along after school to an event at the Phillips. Without knowing the details, Durrett agreed. As she walks through the front door, an older gentleman greeted the then teenagers. She shook his hand. The event was a book signing for Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration catalogue. She had learned about Jacob Lawrence in school, and shook his hand.

“When I came to visit all of the proposed sites for the centennial commissions, that memory was always running through my mind,” Durrett said. “Every time I come to the Phillips, I think about this. So I was like, why not make this central to the piece? You know, why not create a piece that springs from that memory?”

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel 31: The migrants found improved housing when they arrived north., 1940-41, Casein tempura on hardboard, 12 x 16 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942

Jacob Lawrence’s Panel 31 in The Migration Series inspired the designs on the windows. His work depicts the outside of a Harlem tenement where so many Black newcomers from the South settled into their new lives. The airshafts in these buildings captured all the most intimate and mundanely routine moments of life. Smells and sounds permeated through the vents and the building, transporting intimate moments in the households as whispers for others to catch. The tenements were full of life and the airshafts captured that life.

“I think all your life people tell you what’s supposed to be sacred,” Durrett shared as she considered the sacrality of the bridges. The stained glass effect her work has is reminiscent of what some of us are accustomed to seeing on the windows of churches and cathedrals. But it’s not the sacredness of religion that Durrett is concerned with. She is concerned with the sacredness of those tenements and the lives we live. “To make something sacred in this regard is sort of this revolutionary act where you’re saying, no, I’m sacred. I create my sacred space. My people, my family, the space that we build together is also sacred. Everyday life is sacred,” said Durrett. Just like the everyday lives celebrated in Lawrence’s work.

Nekisha Durrett, Airshaft, 2021