Interview Exclusive: Curator Dejáy B. Duckett Talks About Memory, the Legacy of Terry Adkins, and Social Justice in ARG’s Current Exhibition

October 4, 2016

We sat down with Dejay B. Duckett, Associate Director and Associate Curator of the Arthur Ross Gallery, to talk about her current show Darkwater Revival: After Terry Adkins and its multifaceted significance to her personally, to the gallery, and to the campus environment. Dejáy curated the show in collaboration with Demetrius Oliver, an artist and Penn Alumnus.

Q: What was your experience curating the show on Penn’s campus? How did the campus environment influence the way you went about curating the show?

A: For this particular show, I think the campus environment had everything to do with this show especially since it is about Terry, how he approached his teaching, and how he approached his work. That all happened right here. This is where all the magic happened, right on Penn’s campus. His office was a floor above my office here in the Duhring Wing, so there is this inescapable connection with the show and the University. In my essay that I wrote for the catalog, I called Terry the unofficial University Shaman because he had that presence and his work was infused with so much. Aside from of course the Darkwater exhibition that he did in 2002 at the Arthur Ross Gallery, he did an exhibition at the Amistad Gallery which is in the Du Bois College House, his Philadelphia Negro Revisited is over in Africana Studies, the show right now over at the ICA called The Freedom Principle has a few pieces of Terry’s in it, so it’s kind of a Terry moment on campus right now, which is exciting!

Q: What was your method or goal when you began to envision the show? How did these ideas evolve as you began the curating process?

A: Since the show was about Terry, it all came about because I got a chance to watch his creative process, and even though it was an artistic process, it influenced my curatorial process. For him, when he was dealing with objects and materials, it was important that he was led by the materials and that was called “potential disclosure.” He felt like an object or a raw material had the potential to become part of one of his recitals; it would take on a new history. The disclosure part meant that the object had to have its time, its gestation period, and then it would be ready to be used in a whole different context. In 2002, I had just come to Penn the year before, I had curated maybe one or two exhibitions before I got here so Darkwater 2002 had a huge impact on me. I think I came to realize that impact as I was doing this exhibition. I realized that I was being led by the process rather than myself leading the process—that’s a huge difference. I think that every curator has to find their way in balancing research and intuition in kind of the same way that the artist does. We all do the homework and the research on the artist for the exhibition, the pieces in the exhibition, but ultimately you have to listen to that inner voice, look for those connections, and for those things that will start to emerge in a way that you may not have envisioned when you first started on the journey. It’s a real test of one’s powers of observation and curiosity, that’s where everything starts, I think for the artistic and the curatorial process. So I was looking at Darkwater 2002 as my inspiration and I got interested in why Terry did what he did and how that came together, and the journey of some of the pieces in that exhibition after it closed. How his process inspired other artists the same way that Du Bois inspired Terry. There are so many levels it’s like an onion, just layers upon layer and I hope that when people come to the exhibition they can take the time to let that unfold. Walk through the exhibition and feel and see these connections between the artists and between the artists and Terry.

Q: Terry Adkins had a powerful presence in the art world but also at Penn as a mentor and professor. Many people across Penn’s campus and beyond were very sad to hear of his passing. How can memory influence or manipulate the way we view art?

A: Take for an example Sean Riley’s work. I mean, I think artists working in whatever medium or material, have a reverence for it because they don’t want it to be overworked or overwrought, they don’t want the process to become tortured. And when one has that reverence for the material the way that Terry did in his process of “potential disclosure” you can be patient, and infuse that material with those memories with that new context, and it will emerge. In Sean’s pieces, he said that’s what really influenced him about Terry, is that Terry could put something in the studio for years and let it sit and then decide it’s ready, put it with another piece, and then boom, it comes together. So once the process starts it’s quick. Once Sean gathered this denim that he inherited from his dad, that immediately struck me because I am very drawn to fiber. Sometimes I don’t even realize it. When I finally put the show together and I walked into the gallery I realized, wow, there’s a lot of fiber. I’m just really drawn to it. But Sean took that inherited denim down to the weft. Each individual strand, each piece to me is like a neuron. Each string is a memory of his father. And I think memory affects the artist that way but also, what I bring to it having lost my father exactly 10 years ago, that piece had a really strong impact on me as the viewer, as the curator. I think we all bring that to a work of art. Upon entering a museum, or a gallery, half of the experience is what the artist has created and the other half is what we are bringing to that piece. That’s when you get that jolt experiencing a work of art, that’s what you’re bringing to the piece. I see that over and over with the artists in this exhibition. The pieces come from the artist’s own memory or a collective memory, like with Ernel [Martinez], and the memory of a trauma in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. So they’re dealing with the trauma of a community, of a communal memory, and putting their own bodies into that memory and then documenting it. So, yeah, memory is huge.

Q: What can we glean from the show with regard to the social injustice and turbulence that is prevalent in our society today?

A: Social justice was really prominent in Terry’s work from the very beginning. Especially being active in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Some of his work was more overtly political than others of his pieces, but I think they all dealt with moments or people in history that have been overlooked. He created these abstract portraits so that people wouldn’t just go in and say “Oh, this is a picture of Jimi Hendrix, okay now we learn about Jimi Hendrix” but since the piece was abstract the audience really had to come in and investigate the work and really spend time with it, and really invest themselves in the pieces. They aren’t casual pieces that you can just casually look at. In the School of Aaron Douglas and a lot of the Harlem Renaissance painters, it was really important to do artwork that would uplift the black race, because of the social injustice of the time. That was key to put this truth, our truth, out there for the world to see, and that had its positive and negative effects. Later down the road, black artists were expected to stay in this certain kind of representative mode that had been passed down for thirty or so years.

But Terry had Martin Puryear as one of his instructors at Fisk—just a beautiful, amazing sculptor—and he talked to him about being able to do work that addressed social issues in a way that was not exactly representative that made people investigate a little deeper, and I really appreciated that about Terry. One of the first interactions I had with Terry, he walked into the gallery and he said “Oh this place is really cool, it’s not your usual white box,” and he looked up and he said, “Wow, the ceiling in here. It reminds me of a slave ship.” Ultimately, in Darkwater he took a boat from the Florida Everglades and we hung it from the ceiling to visually express that. It was subtle. Terry’s work was very subtle, but sometimes it was right there. He could work on both ends of the spectrum. I see that in some of the work in the exhibition. With Tameka Norris, her work is one of the three video pieces in the exhibition, and her work can really make the viewer uncomfortable. She’s reverting back to a time when she was not self-aware, as a child. You know as a four-year-old you don’t care what people think about what you’re doing. So, she’s kind of recast herself as a younger self; she’s in a costume or in a disguise. And how do we feel about that? Why are we uncomfortable with that? And she is relishing in our discomfort, and I think that’s an interesting social experiment right there. So you’ll see it within the exhibition.

Nsenga [Knight]’s pieces definitely make this social justice space. In her Malcolm X speeches, [Malcolm X Speaks] that very much go back to Terry, his Blanche Bruce, his alter ego doppelganger. He did a lot of work dealing with social issues and he attributed the work to Blanche Bruce, and that was one of Nsenga’s heroes. Her other piece in the show [Make Safe, Make Space] was done right after Ferguson. The piece that you see downstairs is the end result. She gathered a group of people together and talked about feeling safe or not feeling safe, the black body, and not knowing where that safe space is. She gleaned these phrases as people were talking through the trauma. So that was the most recent, ripped from the headlines, social justice issue in the exhibition.

Q: How can a show like this, with artists working with a diverse array of media, convey artistic or community unity?

A: Well, the 2002 exhibition was called Darkwater Recital and Four Dominions: Terry Adkins after W.E.B Du Bois. The four dominions were music and text, performance, sculpture, and documents. I wanted to make sure that all four of those were represented in this exhibition, but it was so hard, because over the last 15 years he had a lot of students. So, I had to bring together a group that would work cohesively, but you don’t really know until the work is all together in the same physical space, how they will dialogue together, especially since the artists were working with such an array of media. It’s a leap of faith in a way, because I really thought that Terry’s disc prints would really speak to Demetrius’s harmonic spheres, you know they both have that celestial vibe. I thought Wilmer [Wilson IV] and Ivanco [Talevski], both dealing with skin, metaphorical and physical, would be really interesting on the far ends of the gallery so they could vibe together. I also wanted Wilmer [Wilson IV] in the back so people would have to travel back there, they would see the sparkle, and how those would undulate, but they would have to move back there before they could really understand what was happening with the piece. Jessica Slaven’s work is all on paper, and she is the only colorist, her pieces are intensely saturated with color, but they have a fabric feel to them. Again, back to textiles. But all of these pieces really speak to each other and that’s really what I had in mind. A little tidbit from Terry’s biography, he was a practicing Catholic but his dad was the pastor at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA and I actually have friends that go there. It’s a hugely influential church and it’s a place where Terry’s background touched mine a little bit so I wanted the exhibition to feel like a revival. I didn’t want it to be morbid, even though it is remembering him, I wanted there to be joy there, an almost camp meeting feel to it. Hence we have Sermonesque in the middle of the room addressing the room from that pulpit and there’s a call and response happening. So I think that the pieces really did come together, it knit those artists together and it knit us with the School of Design because they are a part of this, too, in their connection to Terry. This was to help fill that void [after the loss of Terry] and that is how it brought the Penn community together, and that is really exciting.

Q: What do you hope that Penn students specifically will take away from the show?

A: When I talked to all of these artists and went on their studio visits, one thing most of them said was “I came in thinking I was a painter or a sculptor but I left doing something completely different that I didn’t think I would be able to do” and Terry and the School of Design really encouraged that. You don’t focus on one specific area; you have to go in a lot of different directions and learn a lot of new things. I think the work really represents that. So, as a Penn student, no matter what discipline you are in, you can come in and even if you stay in one discipline, you become open to so many different perspectives. You can just combine disciplines in a way that you didn’t think was possible, and it makes your major or area of study even richer.

Ms. Duckett has nearly twenty years of experience in museums, non-profit art centers, city-run spaces, and commercial galleries. Before accepting her current position, she served as the Gallery Coordinator for Nexus Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta (now The Contemporary). She has also served as Associate Curator for The City of Atlanta’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, City Gallery East. In 2000, she curated Women on the Verge at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Ms. Duckett earned her B.A. in 1994 in Art History from Spelman College, Atlanta GA. In 2001, she earned her M.A. in Museum Studies from Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ.