The Phillips Collects: Marta Pérez García

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Inside Outside, Upside Down artist Marta Pérez García, whose work Your Hand has been acquired by the museum.

Marta Pérez García, Your Hand, 2020, Molded cotton handmade paper and stitching with yarn, 19 × 11 × 2 in., Courtesy of the artist

Tu mano
Tu mano,/ La misma que una vez me acaricio / Ahora me arrebato la vida.
Your Hand
Your Hand,/ The very one that once caressed me / Has now taken my life.

This is the poem that is stitched across the top of Marta Pérez García’s Your Hand. The work begins to break the boundary between 2D and 3D as the vibrantly colored stitched hand emerges off of the molded cotton handmade paper.

“This is who we are. This is our temple. This is where we suffer, where we laugh,” said Pérez García in reference to the significance of a woman’s body. “This is who we are, and when I created the piece now in The Phillips Collection, I thought about the hand, and how the hand becomes a weapon. At the same time, it is something that caresses, that helps people.”

Domestic violence has been referred to as the “shadow pandemic” by UN Women. While many found comfort in their homes when directed to shelter in place due to the outbreak of covid-19, the reality for many was that the closing of schools and services (where mandated reporters are often found), paired with family isolation and additional stresses from the pandemic, created the perfect storm for domestic violence.

Pérez García has worked with survivors on projects tackling gender violence as a central part of her practice. During the pandemic, she realized sheltering in place did not offer the safety it implied for survivors who would be left stranded with their abusers. The CDC even warned that more time spent in the home would likely increase the risk for child abuse, domestic abuse, and intimate partner violence with less opportunities for victims and survivors to seek outside services or shelters. “For me it was very important to put this piece out there so people reflect and understand what it means for these women to be home right now,” Pérez Garcia says. Fellow Inside Outside, Upside Down artist Aaron Maier-Carretero also addressed this in his work recently acquired by the Phillips, not in front of the kids.

When contemplating which medium was best-suited for working with survivors, she shifted from her usual printmaking process to needle and yarn, remembering the lessons her grandmothers tried to teach her as a child in Puerto Rico. “I always thought, ‘I’m too hyper to do this!’,” shared Pérez García. “I remember one time Mama Loísa sat me down and gave me the stuff, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this. This is too meditative.’”

As she began to teach herself how to sew again, she found that the action of sewing didn’t relax her, but made her think: “I was reflecting about the lives of these women, then I was reflecting about my own life.” The sewing connected her own story to the stories of the women she worked with. “You realize that when you sew, you create a story. You talk and you’re sitting down with other people. It’s a space for you to really give a life to your stories.”

Sewing is a tradition that crosses many cultures. In the context of Latin America and the Caribbean, sewing is a craft and task often assigned to women as it has historically been viewed as “women’s work.” However, Pérez García’s work subverts that traditional view—what if sewing is an opportunity for liberation and the connection of our stories? a way for marginalized women across all communities to make their own freedom? “People have to reflect and think about these women,” said Pérez García.

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