Antwaun: There is a real potential in art-making to really have someone reassess everything that they had thought about a history.
Helga: What does it mean to seize an opportunity, to be open to possibility? I'm Helga Davis. Curator, critic and writer Antwaun Sargent sat down to talk with me about the motivation behind his work and the circuitous path that led him to a life in and around art. This is my conversation with Antwaun Sargent. Where are you?
Antwaun: I'm currently in my office at Gagosian Gallery on 24th Street. [chuckles]
Antwaun: Folks are coming in to see the exhibition that just went up at the Gallery of Social Works.
Helga: How are you feeling both about being back in the gallery and in this new situation for you and having people come and see what you're doing?
Antwaun: I feel great to be back in the gallery, for folks to be able to come. It's been really great to see those different communities show up in the gallery and respond to the various artworks and experience them because unlike a completely traditional show at a gallery, you have people like Linda Goode Bryant who built a garden that's harvested once a week and folks get to come in and take food.
You have Theaster Gates who has turned the house Dj Frankie Knuckles personal archive into the sonic digital archiving experience, and so you can listen to the music, and you can watch the archive be digitized in real-time. You have all of these moments where the audience gets to complete the exhibition in some ways through their participation and to walk to the gallery and see that has been a really amazing feeling because very often there's this very formal relationship between viewer and artwork where the viewer is supposed to stand there and just look at the work and not interact with the work.
In this exhibition, we've been able to play with that idea a little bit more, and have the viewer and the folks who come to the exhibition experience the work by participating with the work which has just been a whole, I think has allowed for another level of exploration.
Helga: It's interesting to find you now in this space, and that it's a space that you've been occupying, obviously, for a very long time, that's one of exclusivity and so it's a very particular moment in history I think for a lot of us who are being asked now to join boards, whose careers are being elevated so that we also become part of these ways that established organizations are trying to look at themselves. They're looking at themselves and they're asking us to look at them with them, sometimes for them.
There's lots of opportunity there for sure, and that part of your directive I know is to make the landscape more inclusive but I want to know what this moment is for you. Why now and how does it feel that it's now?
Antwaun: I've been wrestling with this question, yes in the art world, but also in the broader culture where you've seen Black folks who have been doing this work now in this moment be asked to take on roles that maybe a few years ago they would have never been asked for despite the fact that they are brilliant, despite the fact that they have the career accolades, et cetera, et cetera but in this moment, what does it mean?
I've been thinking about what that might mean if we all stepped into this moment and what can we do in this moment together to leverage the institutions, the galleries, the museums, the record companies, the movie studios-
Helga: The schools.
Antwaun: The school boards.
Antwaun: Everywhere. The vice presidency, everywhere. I think for me that answer has been to try to do the work that I have always done but to do it in this space in a way that puts a premium on this idea of community because I think that one of the things that I personally always remind myself about being in a space like this given the histories in the art world and the broader culture of how Black artistic production is perceived, valued and honored, or dishonored is to try to not switch up and really bring the concerns that I've been deeply interested in to every room that I walk in.
If we're going to be in these worlds, then we need to make them work for us. I think it's balancing those sort of things. I also think that I am just personally-- just as someone who's for the last decade been a writer and organizing exhibitions and doing all that, I wanted a new challenge. I think that we always think about the way that Black artists, and curators, and writers need to be supported and need to be challenged, and need to be elevated in these ways.
When we open a space like this one, how do you make sure that you're engaging different folks at different parts of the community? Keeping that intention alive through the way that we are allowed to platform the work and the artist and the conversations around the work is just critically important to me and that's what I'm trying to do here, but also just more broadly and bringing in voices from the community that the artists are from but also maybe Rick Love, for example, made it a series of works that could have to do with Black Wall Street.
One of the ideas I was trying to make happen was have the writer of the HBO show Watchmen, Cord Jefferson be in conversation with Rick just because I feel like our arts are too siloed. Movie stars talk to movie stars, directors talk to directors, [unintelligible 00:07:02] talk to [unintelligible 00:07:03], and I think there's a real opportunity to open that up because as you said it's happening across all of our arts. It's not just happening in the "Artworld," but it's happening in theater, it's happening in music, it's happening-- I'm interested in those intersections.
Helga: Well, it's good that you bring into the conversation the word silo because it's not just artists clearly who do this, and I always, always, always Antwaun go back to removing the words in a way and remembering that all of these things are people. When people start talking to me about well, the government did this or doesn't do this or this group or that group of people, whatever it is, the label, the station that we're still talking about people.
That in as much as we are able to get back to that, in addition to all the other thinking and all the other ways in which we commune and come into community with one another I think there's a chance that things become more equitable. One of the things that I was reading that you'd written was this little missive about the ways to engage with art, and the first thing you say is to walk up to it. To walk up to it and to take it in and to not assume that you know or don't know that there is a right or a wrong, there's a good or a bad, but just that you walk up to it.
That in this way of walking up to it, not only do you look at it, but you can also begin to see. I'm curious about where first you found yourself looking and what it is that you began to see that put you on this path.
Antwaun: I grew up in Chicago. I think in retrospect you have these moments of going to the Art Institute, on field trips, and there are moments like that shows that even as a child, it was really important to have this art life and the schools. My parents, they put a premium on that but I think the moment that was transformative for me where I was like, "Oh, this is what art can do." I was actually in a class, a theory class. I went to Georgetown for undergraduate school, and they had a professor who would do these case studies on artists.
At that point, I'm 18, 19. I go to museums, but I'm not really having this real engagement. One of the case studies was Kara Walker. I didn't know anything about the work. I didn't know anything about the artist. I see the work, and it's difficult work. The history's difficult and I just have this really adverse reaction to the work. Georgetown's a pretty white place. [laughs]
Seeing these images and development images that I've never seen before. The history books do not tell it that way. I'm just being confronted with this history through this awesome visual language. Then I'm expected to have the conversation about that with a room full of peers and I just lost it. I was yelling and left the room and all of this and-
Helga: Yelling what? Yelling about what?
Antwaun: -I was just in disbelief I think at two things. One, that I was like, "This is not true," because for so long we've been told one story about how slavery happened in this country and I believed it.
I think I was trying to confront that in that moment, but I was also trying to confront it in a room of white peers. It was a lot of different emotions being confronted with, and really upset and just trying to work through my many different set of emotions.
Helga: In a room that you didn't feel safe in.
Antwaun: Exactly. Yes, for sure. I just felt like there was an additional burden to try to explain how I feel, but also justify why she was making the work, and it was just like this whole moment. I just remember angrily leaving the class before it was over and going from the class to Lao, which is the library, and just checking out every single book that I could find about her.
That became the moment where I was like, “Oh, this is-- There was a real potential in art-making to really have someone reassess everything that they had thought about a history.” I'd moved to New York, and I fell in with a young art crowd in New York and one work that the Guggenheim doing digital stuff, and one was an artist. I was like, “Well, I could be a writer.”
One of the first assignments I got was to interview Kara Walker for the New Yorker. We spent two hours talking about the work. I'm 22 or 23 at this time, and I'm like, "This is such a full-circle moment."
I had this really crazy reaction to the work when I was 19, and now I'm sitting with the artist in front of this incredible, unbelievable artwork and we have the interview and I'm asking all the questions. I'm doing all my emails for my research and at the very end, I tell her this story. It's funny. [chuckles]
The reason why I think I became really interested in art is because I had this experience when I was 19. I just thanked her for not the experience, but for making work that allowed me to deal with this history that I didn't even-- What was so crazy was so unconscious the way that the history had settled in me.
To be able to explore that was an opportunity that the work allowed for. I think that whenever I'm writing or whenever I'm doing an exhibition I'm always trying to create that feeling because it was transformational for me.
Helga: Then before that when you were little, you talked about your parents a little bit and how they privileged art and culture in your home. Do you have brothers and sisters?
Antwaun: I do. I have two brothers and one sister and I'm the second child. We went to a Catholic school in Chicago. We were always involved in sports, but we were also involved in opera.
Helga: Why was this so important to them?
Antwaun: I say this and usually folks think that to have access to culture there's implicit wealth and it really wasn't. I was born in Cabrini Green Housing Project. This is totally just a school and a parent who knew that there was something about being involved culturally, whether that was in sports, or in a museum, or in the community in some way was important to the wellbeing of children.
I don't even know how my mother did it but got us into these summer camps, and we would go to summer camp and there would be arts at the summer camp as well. It was a really rich cultural life growing up. We were just involved in everything.
Helga: You start to learn this thing about yourself and it's encouraged in your home. Those are two big steps already. Was there any concern that you'd do something where you have to make some money son, you have to take care of yourself?
Antwaun: It was definitely like, "Go to college." That was very important. All things led to going to college. You're going to college, you're going to college, but it wasn't as if you needed to be any particular thing.
Helga: You just needed to go.
Antwaun: You just needed to go and find-
Helga: Get that information.
Antwaun: Exactly. Then use that information. I definitely remember wanting to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a constitutional rights professor and that's why I ended up at Georgetown and studying politics. Then I moved to New York to do teach for America still very much on this.
I'm going in the law school path, but given the cultural background and me and my friends starting this magazine called The Philosopher. We were in high school and we would do all the drawings and write all the essays and then sell it to our parents and their friends and people on the street. I don't know who I was fooling really.
Helga: You were doing all of this in the Cabrini Projects?
Antwaun: No. The building shut down because the city did this-
Helga: Didn't they implode them or something?
Antwaun: Exactly. Basically, the city had this plan for transformation and moved out all of the residents essentially from all public housing across the city. It was really remarkable. I think at the height there was almost 20,000 people living in Cabrini Green Housing Project.
It was a real displacement. We ended up on the Northside of Chicago in Rogers Park, which was a really totally racially diverse community. The school I went to, I think it was 71 languages spoken. We were just doing it all over the city at that point.
I went to this Catholic school and then they would play downtown sometimes on the lake or they would play, it was just-- I think it was also one of the great things I think about growing up in Chicago at the time was that it was a big city with a lot of possibility. You could be young and seek out different things because the city just offered that.
A lot of it was just our own motivations really. I remember us raising the money by selling the magazine and them doing concerts. Then John and Leah's parents agreed if we could provide the money for [unintelligible 00:18:06] and all of that through our selling of the magazine and stuff that they would drive us across the country to DC for us to see DC because we've never been to DC.
It's like what parents now-- [chuckles] People are so busy. For them to take the time and say, “If you have a goal and you meet that goal, we'll help you experience that goal.” It's just one of those things that sticks with you when you're thinking about the possibility, just creating your own world.
Helga: This phrase, "Knowing the possibility." I was walking across 125th Street maybe two weeks ago. I got off a bus. I was walking west, and I don't know if you've been up to Harlem lately. We have a very, very, very huge problem with addiction and folks who are homeless and just out on the street.
I walk by this group of men and one of them shouted out, “Yes, see like her, she always had possibilities.” I turned around and I was so angry and I said, “What do you know about me?” He looked at me and he said, “I don't have to know anything about you. I could look at you and know that you've always had possibilities.”
Then I had to keep walking because I couldn't argue with him anymore and that whatever the things are that are challenges in my life, that there's still someplace in me, in my experience, that is open to possibility, and that even he could see that no matter what face I have on or what walk I have or wherever it is I'm trying to be at ease, there's a thing that feels baseline and true. Part of my question and part of my work is to understand then how we meet, and talk to, and engage with those of us who don't necessarily feel that way.
Antwaun: Thank you for sharing that. It took me back to having a parent who made a lot possible, then changed extraordinarily what I could make possible. I think about that in relationship to the folks, neighbors and friends who I grew up with who just didn't have that same possibility and what they were able to make possible as a result was not the same thing. That is really, almost not a, "Why me?" but I do always come back to that labor of my parents, and friends, and mentors who made things possible for me.
I always live in that and I think that because of that, figure out how I could make other possibilities happen for other people, and not in a savior sort of way, but just as a member of a community. I think that's why it was important for me to do Teach for America, where, by the way, I taught for four years, and I taught kindergarten, five-year-olds how to read. I loved that job because you could see someone's life open up at that young age, based on the information they can take in themselves, and how they can process that information.
I think that was super important for me, and to do it well, because in some ways, I got lucky with the parents and with the mentors, and all of that, was to try to also extend that to others.
One of the things that I've been thinking a lot about is how do you bring in folks who are, not necessarily with some sort of status, into the conversation? Because I really do think if we say that art is for everybody, then how do we make sure that everyone's actively engaged at every sort of level?
If you're saying, "Well, only the curator and the artist or only the academic and the artists, or only the celebrity and the artist can have a conversation in the museum space or in the gallery space." Then what you're doing is actually reinscribing that certain people matters, and other people don't matter. I'm trying to figure that out. If we're saying everyone matters, then how do everyone gets to share in, in all the platforms? That is something that I'm also actively trying to figure out. How do we also engage another group of folks who we're saying that the work is for, but were not involved in the making?
That is another thing that I'm always just even trying to hold myself accountable to because it's very easy to get at a gallery like this and to go out and get the best person to have the "best conversation" but I also think about how do you continue to make sure that all experience is being valued and being platformed in different ways. That's one of the things that I'm also motivated to keep trying to do.
Helga: I think part of it, too, has something to do with bringing the stuff to the people where they are.
Helga: Because there's a little bit, I think, of a presumption that if we put them in, they will come. Some will. Some will, for sure. I think that's true in the theater, in opera, any kind of situation where now institutions are looking to diversify their audiences, their level of participation, of the people who participate in whatever it is that they do. I remember when I was a kid, there would be Jazzmobile. They would drive that thing all around Harlem. You could just come outside and it would open up and musicians playing real instruments would be somewhere close to where you were.
Then you could be curious, not just about music, but what's a drum? What's a bass? What is that? Who are these people and how do they get to do that? They would come to the neighborhood, they would do stuff right where they were for the community that they were a part of, and we would be invited in. That's also a piece of the puzzle.
Antwaun: Yes, I know. I think what does it mean for us to go into the community in ways that it's not take the community and plant it over here, but actually be in the community? It's very early stages, but talking to one artist in particular about what that might mean to instead of doing a show in the gallery, how about we do a show in your community? When folks said, "Oh, if we make museums free, then more different communities will come."
Helga: No, more of the same people will come.
Antwaun: Exactly, exactly. That's what the research has shown too, that more of the same people will come and they'll come for free. I think that is one of the things when we're thinking about institutions, we need to think about the community as an institution. It's just one of the questions or one of the things that I was thinking about in this first show is, all of these artists have really deep active community practices. I think that after all that has happened in the last year, it was really important to start this journey, thinking about the various Black communities that raised me.
Helga: That's a beautiful place to end.
Antwaun: Thank you, and thank you for the conversation.
Helga: It's lovely to meet you. That was my conversation with Antwaun Sargent. I'm Helga Davis. If you want more of these conversations, subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts. Give us a rating and share with a friend, and don't forget to follow me @hel.gadavis on Instagram. Helga: The Armory Conversations is a co-production of WNYC Studios and the Park Avenue Armory. The show is produced by Krystal Hawes-Dressler with help from Darian Suggs and myself. Our technical producer is Sapir Rosenblatt, original music by Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran.
Special thanks to Alex Ambrose. Avery Willis Hoffman is our executive producer, Citi and Bloomberg Philanthropies are the Armory's 2021 season sponsors. Now, the coda.
Antwaun: Notes on social works. One, a growing number of Black artists to using their dynamic practices in a myriad of instrumental ways to consider how personal, public, institutional, and psychic space can be generated through artworks rooted equally in history and futurity as a way to explore the liberatory possibilities of spatial empowerment. Three, social sculpture. Five, Black sound has functioned as an important conceptualization of Black space. Catch the beat. Six, what is Black social sculpture? Perhaps it has to address slave labor, redlining, white flight, subprime mortgages, gentrification, a history of degradation and undoing, perhaps it doesn't.
Maybe the visions begin in the future, and the builders of that sculpture will lay foundations that are out of this world, undreamed. Fabricated fabulations for bricks. "A narrative," as the scholar Saidiya Hartman argues, "from the nowhere of the ghetto and the nowhere of the utopia." Perhaps we use overlooked spaces of freedom. The Black living room, the spice rack, the cookout, the juke joint, the rent party as the blueprints for liberation sculpture.
- Kelly Jones, the piece that was at art on the beach, does it have a name? David Hammonds. I called it Delta spirit because it was about the kind of spirit that's in the South. I just love the houses in the South, the way the they've built them, the negritude architecture. I really love to watch the way Black people make things, houses or magazine stands in Harlem for instance, just the way we use carpentry, nothing fits, but everything works. The door closes, it keeps things from coming in but it doesn't have that neatness about it the way white people put things together. Everything is a 32nd of an inch off.
12, Black wall street.
13, Blackness is made in remade in location.
14, A communal space, common space, community space.
20, 500 West Oak.
21, Every year these four photographs taught us how English was really a type of trick math. Like the naked emperor, you could be a king capable of imagining just one single dream or there could be a body bloody at your feet. Then you could point at the sky or you could be a hunched over cotton pick in shame, or you could swing from a tree by your neck into the frame. Robin Coste Lewis.
25, The shade provides shelter.
26, Black people are constantly in the space of reimagining searching landing moving, returning.
27, The Black body as utopic space.
28, The Black reconstruction collective asked three questions. What is the architecture of Black futures? What does it mean to imagine Black reconstruction today? What is the architecture of reparations?
29, Imagine a Black space, what does it feel like?
30, Walter Hood. There were Apollos in every neighborhood put another way. All space has the potential to be Black space.
39, What else can art do? Thank you.