Radical Love at NYC’s Ford Gallery

We speak with curators Jaishri Abichandani and Natasha Becker about their second exhibition in the series

The Ford Foundation‘s Radical Love exhibition, housed in their new NYC gallery space, brings together a cohesive message that represents several facets of what both love and being together mean. This group show of 23 artists aims to meld together and create a cohesively inclusive message that showcases the multiplicities that love embodies. In this honest representation, narratives of violence, trauma, and loss communicate the strong emotions that run in tandem. In the current zeitgeist, remembering the 50 years after the Stonewall Riots, many Pride festivities have drastically devolved from their origins. The reversion from banding together to fight against oppression has rendered these celebrations to be exclusive, moving away from the urgent need for intersectionality that allowed the riots to arise. This show aims to do just that—making room for love, visibility and acceptance. The work of the artists in this show often references their own unique experience, intrinsically tied in with their identity and body politic.

This exhibition is second in a series of three by curators Jaishri Abichandani and Natasha Becker, rooted in the tender words of bell hooks, “Were we all seeing more images of loving human interaction, it would undoubtedly have a positive impact on our lives.” We spoke with Abichandani and Becker about hooks, and how love can be radical and transform politics, culture and societies.

Maria Berrio “Nativity” (2014)

Where did you first encounter bell hooks’ text, and what meaning have you derived from it since?

Jaishri Abichandani: I first encountered bell hooks’ work in 1996 with the book Art On My Mind. It was critical in informing my practice. In 2017, I curated an exhibition based on bell’s essay “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance” from Black Looks: Resisting Race and Representation for the Asian Arts Initiative in a Philadelphia. So it seemed natural to turn to bell’s work on love for this exhibition. I bought the book once we had decided on the title of Radical Love. Her ideas once again provided the structure for what I felt and couldn’t name, including the abandonment of true love of one another from the current practices of all organized religions. The definition of love in the exhibition is drawn from her own, with the addition of stewardship of the planet.”

Natasha Becker: I encountered bell hooks at university. I was already well schooled in intersectional analyses because I had Marxist and feminist teachers. When I read hooks for the first time, every word reverberated. Today, in the context of post-apartheid and global socio-political realities, the intersectionality of race, gender, and class remains vital and important. What is most meaningful to me is her articulation of the possibilities of art and an aesthetics centered on black, feminist, and diasporic ways of thinking, feeling, making. It has allowed me to conceive of curating as a de-colonial practice that refuses colonial and Eurocentric paradigms.

How does this show speak to love in a sense that borders on the political? What urgency is this show communicating in its call for intersectionality?

JA: The idea that our very survival as a species requires us to transcend our differences of race, religion, sexuality, nationality, gender, class, caste and come together to manage the damage we have caused the planet for future generations.

What is urgent about the politics of love, however, is that we are claiming space within culture, with no sense of fear or apology, for society’s others: women, artists, black and queer folks, disabled and underprivileged people

NB: It is political; its politics lie in articulating a practice of care, in public. The title of the show came about during a conversation I was having with Jaishri about bell hooks. The original title she had proposed was Revolutionary Love. But even though the emphasis on love, as a practice to transform culture and politics through the ethics of love, was in tune with the fight for social justice, I wanted to shift the emphasis from transformation to politics. There’s this quote by bell hooks, “Love is profoundly political. Our deepest revolution will come when we understand this truth.” I was making a case for love as a radical political tool and when I said the word “radical,” Jaishri gave me that knowing look before exclaiming, “That’s it, that’s the title of the show!” What is urgent about the politics of love, however, is that we are claiming space within culture, with no sense of fear or apology, for society’s others: women, artists, black and queer folks, disabled and underprivileged people. Of course, I also recognize that it’s easier to do this at the Ford Foundation because the organization is already dedicated to this cause.

This show illuminates many aspects of love and identity. Aspects of romanticism, tenderness, and softness are often highlighted by some aspect of oppression while narratives of violence, trauma, and loss. How did you aim to communicate these intense emotions that run in tandem with love?

JA: All of the works in the show embody the complexities of these emotions, but particularly embodied in the sculptural works. Vanessa German, Rose B Simpson, La Vaughn Belle, and Jeannette Ehlers, Raul De Nieves and Faith Ringgold give us black and brown bodies that contain the pathos of classical storytelling and sculpture. It is evident in Jah Grey’s tender video and Sue Austin’s fantastical video of her deep sea diving in her wheelchair.

NB: For my collaboration with Lisa Kim, I was interested in the interplay between romanticism and landscape, narratives of violence, and healing aesthetic practices. This interest weaves its way through our collaboration on Perilous Bodies and Radical Love. Both shows bring diverse artists together, examine heavy topics, and have tenderness and a beauty to it. In Perilous Bodies, the white walls of the gallery provided a sober and stark setting for the social and political problems we addressed through often incredibly beautiful yet visceral artwork. In Radical Love, we have these bright, juicy, delicious red gallery walls that seem like an extension of Rosa Park’s fundamental act of resistance, to claim space, as represented in Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry’s installation “Evidence of Things Not Seen.” The enveloping red walls allowed us to literally and metaphorically recalibrate the space of the gallery and create a positively exhilarating center for otherness and action. Ultimately, however, it is the stories, and the maximalist aesthetics of the artworks themselves that communicate just how inextricable and messy beauty, violence, and love are.”

This series of exhibitions seems to have clear narrative threads that connect them with current events. How are you planning on continuing this in the next show?

JA: The next exhibition will bring together how artists over the last few decades have imagined our trajectory with strong elements of fantasy and science fiction. We don’t have the answers, but we are going to gather works that speak to different visions of what may be. The politics will come as much from who the artists are as the ideas that their works communicate.

NB: From my experience of Perilous Bodies and Radical Love, I want to explore the subject of black women and practices of care through creation and self-representation. In the first show, I proposed a performance by Vanessa German because she is an artist who believes in the healing power of art. Her work is positioned between disparaging perspectives, ideologies, and cultures; but she also offers gestures of understanding, acknowledgment and healing to those who encounter it. She has inspired me to curate a show about the power of women, art, love, truth, knowledge, and listening. The world is a mess, but we still have to clean it up. This is where I want to go next as I continue the challenging but rewarding work of decolonizing our minds!”

Radical Love is on now through 17 August at NYC’s Ford Foundation Gallery.

Images courtesy of Ford Foundation Gallery