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

Phillips@THEARC Summer Camp: Meet our junior artists

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley interviews some of our youngest artists about the work they made at Art Investigators: Phillips@THEARC Summer Camp.

Our investigators hard at work at District Clay Center during their field trip

In August, The Phillips Collection hosted Art Investigators Summer Camp, offering the 8-12-year-old participants the opportunity to ask questions, make art, and take fun field trips to The Phillips Collection and District Clay Center free of cost with two sessions available, one each week.

The investigators participated in art activities, exposing them to a variety of mediums while at the Phillips@THEARC. The activities ranged from making paint to organizing their work for a show at the end of the week. Many of the pieces the kids made built on each other as they drew inspiration from still lifes for sculptures and then created photographs and paintings from those sculptures. On field trip days, our young artists toured The Phillips Collection and learned different ways of working with clay in partnership with Community Clay! by the District Clay Center, which brings clay and ceramics to the youth of DC, with a focus on Wards 7 and 8.

We caught up with some of the artists to ask them about their favorite investigations.

Meet Chioma!

Chioma exhibiting her work at Phillips@THEARC

Q: Of all the pieces you made, can you show me which one is your favorite? Can you describe it to me?

A: I like the sculptures, and the one I’m making right now is a collage about my sculptures.

Chioma works on a painting alongside her sculptures

Q: This camp is called Art Investigators. Can you think of anything you have investigated? What is something new that you have discovered?

A: The clay that you bake in the oven and how they mold the clay on the spinning wheel. When I was working with the baked clay, I saw that it had to dry for longer and you had to paint it a different way than regular clay.



Meet Neveah!

Neveah holds up a photograph she took

Q: Of all the pieces you made, can you show me which one is your favorite? Can you describe it to me?

Neveah rolls out her clay at District Clay Center

A: My favorite is the coil. You have to roll out the coil. I like the teapot thing, so you roll it up in a circle and then you put your thumb into it and you gotta put both of your thumbs in to flatten it out and push your thumb down to the bottom. Then, you gotta put the teacup holder thing, and then it’s a teacup.

Q: Why is it your favorite?

A: Because it looks like it’s real, and it looks like I really want to drink out of it!



Meet Our Art Investigator!

Our Art Investigator displays her painting connected to her sculptures

Q: Of all the pieces you made, can you show me which one is your favorite? Can you describe it to me?

A: We went to the clay center. We got to make our own sculptures like a still life so I decided to make a pitcher, that was on one of my images and that was my favorite. First, it was pretty hard to do it, but there are these things called coils that you roll and that’s what I used to make the pitcher. I made a bunch of texture on it to give it a pretty old look because in the image I was looking at, the picture was not like a modern picture, it was very old. So I tried to make it like that… I think it’s my favorite because I really like working with clay.

Photograph of our art investigator’s pitcher and mugs

Q: How are your works of art connected? Do they have anything in common?

A: Yes, so I ended up making two more items which were a coil pot and a pinch pot that were just like practice. But when I made the pitcher, I kind of understood that could be connected because it was a little mug (the pinch pot), and I could use it for the pitcher to pour a drink in the mug so I made this little strip of water out of clay to make it look like it was pouring out water and the coil pot actually did the same thing. I painted the inside of the mug and coil pot like a blue and dark blue to be able to look like it was pouring water into it.