What It Means to Be a Social Justice Curator

Jun 8, 2020 2:35 pm

Earlier this year, Jasmine Wahi was appointed the Bronx Museum’s first Holly Block Social Justice Curator. Since she started the position in late February, the Bronx has been hard hit by COVID-19 and is now seeing protests against police violence. Below, Wahi discusses how art institutions can respond to crisis and identifies some of the artworks she is engaging with now.

This is a moment of reckoning in our industry. Museums and art institutions have to put in the work to divest themselves of oppressive legacies. That means rethinking how they engage with their employees, what their staffs look like—from visitor services to curatorial to senior leadership—and who their audiences are. It means showing more artists of color, more Black artists, more brown artists, more Indigenous artists—and making sure that people from those communities are seeing that artwork. It also means that museums need to call their boards to task to support that mission.





Museums and institutions should be for the people; the question museums need to think about is how we can approach new viewers and welcome them into our spaces as active and equal audience members. Diversity is not inclusion, and there’s more to decolonizing museum space than just educational programs. When I started my current position at the Bronx Museum, I came in thinking of Black Lives Matter as a mandate to center the Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in this space, because those are also the communities I serve, and want to speak to as a curator.

Next year is the Bronx Museum’s fiftieth anniversary, and I’m currently working on exhibitions that explore the intersection of visibility and activism. One exhibition asks womanist artists to share their ideas about futurity. Another looks at the endemic nature of white supremacy in this country. When we started planning these shows, we obviously weren’t expecting COVID-19, or quarantine, or the uprisings against police brutality, but in some ways they have created a new lens for looking at everything. That’s partly because the pandemic has exacerbated and amplified the cracks in the system that already existed, making them more visible. The Bronx is one of the places hit hardest by the coronavirus, with the highest rate of COVID cases and deaths in the city. This disparity is related to systemic oppression: finances, race, and equity are deeply linked. The one silver lining I see from COVID is that it’s forcing museum professionals to think about how to recalibrate our approach to sharing exhibitions. How can we make them more accessible and visible across geographies? How can we create a dynamic experience for an audience beyond our physical reach, that’s more than just an online viewing room?



I have been thinking about how an art institution can address systemic violence without being exploitative and voyeuristic. How do you portray abuses without exacerbating a type of pain, and get the message across that these issues are very real, without exploiting Black, brown, and Indigenous people in the process? Police brutality and police reform have been on my mind for a long time. One of the exhibitions I’m working on developed out of thinking about government violence and the violence in our justice system. What’s happening right now is neither shocking nor surprising, but the visibility is being rightfully amplified. As people witness acts of violence with their own eyes, I think it will affect the types of discussions we have, and the entry points to those conversations. The shows I’m planning won’t necessarily change, but the type of information I provide to contextualize the work will definitely be different.

I told myself a long time ago that I didn’t want to work for an institution, because in my mind—right or wrong—museums felt hegemonic, rooted in a tradition that I didn’t think would change. My practice as a curator has always been oriented around social justice and social equity.

I broke my own rule and accepted a position at the Bronx Museum, in part because they have already been doing this type of work. Everyone I’ve encountered at the museum is dedicated to orienting what we do around the communities that we serve. There are so many incredible artists and curators out there who believe that art really is a conduit for social change. Societies both create art and learn from art. My hope is that one day, the position of a “social justice curator” won’t need to exist: it will just be a given that socially oriented exhibitions belong in institutional spaces.

There are some exciting shows coming up at Project for Empty Space, an organization I cofounded ten years ago in Newark. Along with Rebecca Pauline Jampol, Marilyn Minter, Gina Nanni, Laurie Simmons, and Sandy Tait, I’m working on a new iteration of the show “Abortion Is Normal” [originally staged in two parts at Galerie Eva Presenhuber and Arsenal Contemporary in New York, January–February 2020]. We’re planning to expand the premise to include more global perspectives on reproductive justice and bodily autonomy. I want to take a deeper and more nuanced look into the various aspects of “choice,” and dig into the histories and legacies of the fight for equitable reproductive healthcare.

Recently, most of the reading I’ve done for pleasure has been dystopian science fiction, like Octavia Butler’s two-book “Parable” series [1993–98] and Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem [2008]. Part of the appeal is that so much of what happens in these fictional works feels real now. It’s counterintuitive, but I’m finding something comforting about them, partly because of the perseverance of the characters. In Parable of the Sower [1993], the first book in Butler’s series, the protagonist is a young Black woman. For me, a future in which a fellow woman of color is the heroine is an important future, even under dystopian circumstances. The truly dystopian aspects of the story also influence how I currently think about the future: impending environmental devastation, for example, looms large in my mind. These ideas are worming their way into my upcoming exhibitions, particularly the show about futurity.

As a counterbalance, I’ve been listening to Sufi music by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen. My understanding of music is completely pedestrian, so it’s hard to articulate what I love about them formally, but the energy and fervor of Nusrat’s guttural praises reverberates through my whole body. I can only understand bits and pieces of the lyrics, but the devotional sentiment of Qawwali music is transcendent.

I recently did a virtual studio visit with Khari Turner, an artist who is currently pursuing an MFA at Columbia. I love drawings and paintings that feel visceral in their gesture, and Khari’s drawings possess this kind of movement. They have a pulse that’s both convulsive and very controlled, and they seem to envelop the viewer. That frenetic energy is anchored by photorealist facial features and, sometimes, limbs. The paintings Khari showed me were saturated with color, and evoked a sense of jubilation. Moments of joy are so important right now: social justice in art is not just about illustrating injustice. It’s also about fighting for our right to be joyful.

Maria Berrio is one of my favorite artists, and I was floored, as usual, when I had the opportunity to see over Zoom what she’s been working on during this time. Her new works evoke a fantastical future, a world that has wisps of apocalypse trailing through it, but still manages to be beautiful. The works are lush, with thick, sprawling landscapes, and some include haunting figures with blank piercing faces. There is something isolating—both peaceful and lonely—in Maria’s work. Right now, it feels particularly poignant, while I’m sequestered as someone in a high-risk group for COVID.

—As told to Rachel Wetzler