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The recent exhibition curated by Taylor Renee Aldridge at the California African American Museum (CAAM), Enunciated Life, was the first museum show I’d seen since lockdown. I was self-conscious about getting too close to people, but slowly, I eased into the space as the themes of baptism, embodiment, and spirituality began to wash over me. The 13 artists on view—working across video, audio, photography, and sculpture—felt clearly and purposefully woven together by Aldridge’s curatorial vision. Together, the works highlighted Black spirituality both in and outside of a church setting, touching on questions of embodiment, communion, and exaltation, and inviting the viewer to become fully enveloped.
Although the exhibition opened in March 2021, Aldridge traces its origins to a 2018 visit to Trinidad for the New Waves! Dance & Performance Institute; she attended at the invitation of her then-collaborator, Jennifer Harge, to learn more about dance histories and to write about Harge’s work by way of ancestral legacies and African American folklore history. During the trip, Aldridge visited an Orisha shrine, and recalls noticing her body “immediately guard[ing] itself” in the spiritually charged space.1 She wondered about this self-protective impulse, especially since her Detroit childhood was steeped in the practices of the Baptist church, where congregants regularly experience spiritual possession. Around the time of her trip to Trinidad, Aldridge was engaging in close, creative exchanges with dancers, exploring sound and movement exercises guided by the writings of Ashon T. Crawley, particularly his views on breath in the context of Black Pentecostalism and how the breath is used to declare the spaciousness of life—a clear through line in Enunciated Life. Amidst the pandemic, as we guarded the air around us, adjusting to life with face masks, Aldridge presented a poignant exhibition that focused largely on breath.
The writer, critic, curator, and co-founder of ARTS.BLACK—an online arts journal created in 2014 that centers on criticism from Black perspectives—recently connected with me over Zoom to talk about her work, her recent move to Los Angeles from Detroit, and how she thinks through themes of pleasure and embodiment.
Eva Recinos: I know your interactions with Cameron Shaw, the executive director at CAAM, led to your curatorial position. What else prompted you to move to a new city?
Taylor Renee Aldridge: Since my youth, I knew I had an interest in art-making, curatorial, and museum work. I discovered this more acutely when I was an undergrad at Howard University and I decided to switch my major to art history from business. But I never really had a concretized arc, five-year plan, 10-year plan. And I still don’t, quite frankly. I realize that I do what tends to feel good in my body and sort of lead with these intuitive impulses, whether it be from ancestors or otherwise.
I had moved back to Detroit in 2014 and worked there for five, six years throughout a myriad of roles—writer, critic, curator, gallery worker. And Detroit’s art scene is very particular, but also just very small… A couple of years ago, I started feeling an inkling that I would either have to move if I wanted to continue doing museum work and curatorial work and grow as a curator, or I was going to have to switch professions, and maybe lean into being a writer and publisher more exclusively. I’m a person who thinks pragmatically. I was tired of winters in Detroit, tired of cold weather, and realized that those cold, dark months in Detroit were just not generative for my health and my productivity.
I started manifesting an opportunity in a warmer place a couple of years ago… I was really interested in those initial conversations I had with Cameron about what their vision was at CAAM at the time, and what it continues to be currently—particularly this call to reimagine what institutions can do for us in this moment. Not just Black institutions, but institutions in this country, as we’re reckoning with pervasive and visible anti-Blackness [and] this unprecedented pandemic.
ER: You’ve been active in addressing those imbalances personally, too, in your work with ARTS.BLACK. Do you think that a lot has changed in terms of visibility and making art writing and dialogue more accessible?
TRA: I co-founded ARTS.BLACK with the critic and writer Jessica Lynne. She and I were good friends, colleagues—I call her my art wife. We birthed this baby together, and it’s felt very generative and organic since its inception. But she and I have never lived in the same city while leading this publishing endeavor. Because of that, we’ve been particularly interested in figuring out how to remark about the local through a global lens… we continue to insist on this. [The project] is a diasporic [one] that tends to rely on the local experience within art communities. ARTS.BLACK is constantly encouraging our readers to also think about how these locales exist within the broader diasporic of Black art writing and Black criticism. That mission is very much still relevant and still very much top of mind and urgent for us.
ER: I was rereading a Vanity Fair article by Kimberly Drew from September of last year. You talked about how non-Black museum workers need to find ways to educate themselves about race and anti-Blackness without relying on their Black colleagues. Have you seen changes in museums since then?
TRA: I can’t say, because I feel like this type of learning takes a lot of time and we probably won’t see the effects of certain changes for at least five to 10 years from now—at least like a genuine, earnest effort. I think there are obviously ways that museums are responding more immediately to prove that they are in study and prove that they are doing the work of learning how to be anti-racist. But [achieving] anti-Blackness—especially within art museums in this country, which have very deep colonial roots—it’s just going to take time.
ER: It does seem like some responses were more reactionary. There’s way more to be done.
TRA: And that work, too, is really private and should be private, more times than not. Anti-racist work involves individual self-assessment that’s required before even showing up to these spaces and trying to figure out how to enact anti-racism through the institution. It requires going home and doing a lot of self-reflection, and I just can’t say if I’ve witnessed that or if that’s even something any of us will be able to witness and track so quickly.
ER: [In a 2018 conversation with Jessica Lynne in Canadian Art], you talked about pleasure and about how prioritizing pleasure is in many ways revolutionary for you as a queer Black woman. How has that idea evolved in your practice?
TRA: My curatorial practice is unique in that I lean into subjectivity and personal experience as opposed to the traditional way that curatorial work is done, where we’re encouraged to be objective. That’s important to name, because it’s taken me some time to get here and be confident in that. But I do think there’s some nuance there, in implicating myself and my own personal narrative in some of the exhibitions that I produce.
That interview with Canadian Art was done during my Saturn return. And in my Saturn return, I learned that I didn’t quite know how to be in my body and I didn’t know how to fully receive or attend to pleasure or freedom in my person.
Around that time, I was surrounded by dancers and embodied practitioners, such as Jennifer Harge and Billy Mark (who is in [Enunciated Life]), and they led with embodiment first and foremost. As a person who is super cerebral and constantly thinking [about] theory, it was so refreshing to read Ashon T. Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath (2016) with them as movement practitioners… [thinking] less about theory—which can be generative, absolutely—but [more] about how the words, and how the experiences that Crawley was remarking about in his book, might prompt us to move and might prompt us to receive an encounter with pleasure, freedom, and submission.
I was really interested in figuring out how to bring those experiences into a museum context, in troubling how people engage with museum exhibitions and how it might remind them of their body and encourage them to be present in their body. Enunciated Life uses these organized religions as points of departure.
ER: Another big theme in the show is Black breath, and the ways it has endured despite anti-Blackness. The exhibition coincided with the pandemic. How did that change the lens through which you were seeing it and thinking about breath—something that was on everyone’s minds?
TRA: The etymology of [the word] spirit is breath, is breathing, is enunciating a breath. Initially, I was very upset that [the] pandemic was happening while I was preparing to present these shows. It was first supposed to have a smaller introduction at Red Bull [Arts] Detroit last summer. And then it was supposed to open in September at CAAM. I was upset because this show has been the first show where I’ve had full creative autonomy and the space in the room to think capaciously about certain themes in an exhibition context and actually have them come to fruition.
But then, somewhere around late summer, I realized [that the show’s timing] was a blessing. This really interesting confluence was happening where we were constantly having to police our bodies and restrict them from touch. Our breath was blocked by this mask and I thought, oh, this show could function in a really productive and generative way, because we’re being cut off from these sensations, and these abilities for touch. Specifically, [it’s an opportunity for] thinking about the virus and how it undermines the breath. Systemically, when there is a crisis in this country, Black and Brown people are compromised the most, and also called to work the most to care for [others] and to get us through these moments. What does the breath mean in this context? What does spirit mean, specifically, in that context? The exhibition became even more urgent.
ER: Looking forward, where do you see CAAM’s exhibition programming going? Do you think this idea of embodiment and spirituality is something that you’d like to continue?
TRA: CAAM has been an institution that I obviously watched from afar, and especially so after Naima Keith came on board in the leadership. I appreciated how the institution was able to maintain a nuance in remarking about Blackness and allowing it to not be defined as static or as a monolith… I really admired that because I think in Black institutions, people can think of it as limiting just because it is ethnic-focused. CAAM has articulated the ways in which we can get very particular and very expansive and elastic in how we’re thinking through Blackness and its many forms—because it is something that is elusive and probably will forever be elusive. I’m looking forward to extending that legacy.
Eva Recinos is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her arts and culture journalism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Hyperallergic, Artsy, Art21, and more. Her creative non-fiction writing can be found in Electric Literature, PANK, Blood Orange Review and more. She is currently working on a memoir in essays.
Curator and writer Taylor Renee Aldridge joined the California African American Museum (CAAM) in 2020. Aldridge has organized acclaimed exhibitions with the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Artists Market, Cranbrook Art Museum, and The Luminary (St. Louis). In 2015, she co-founded ARTS.BLACK, an influential journal of art criticism for Black perspectives. She is a recipient of the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant (2016) and Rabkin Foundation Award for Art Journalism (2019). She holds an MLA from Harvard University and a BA from Howard University.
This interview was originally published in Carla issue 25.