Right before the shutdown last year, Bronx Museum curator Jasmine Wahi reencountered Lizzie Borden’s experimental 1983 film “Born in Flames.” One of Wahi’s friends who works at the Smithsonian had organized a feminist film festival and included Borden’s sci-fi film set in a future defined by democratic socialism. Wahi, who was already interested in organizing an exhibition around futurism, was amazed by how closely Borden’s work resonated with the current moment in American society 30 years after its premiere.
“[The film] deals with the issues that we’re talking about now — police brutality, queer rights, rights for Black, Indigenous and people of color,” Wahi says. “And the fact that it is so true to what’s happening now struck me: how much has changed, how little has changed.”
That realization ended up being the thread around which “Born in Flames: Feminist Futures” was organized. Wahi began working on the exhibition soon after joining the Bronx Museum as its Holly Block social justice curator in early 2020. She took an artist-first curatorial approach for “Born in Flames”; Wahi wanted to hear what work artists were interested in showing. “The idea was to create a constellation or galaxy of different artist visions of what the future could be,” Wahi says.
The show includes work by 14 femme or non-binary identifying artists, including Wangechi Mutu, Shoshanna Weinberger, Chitra Ganesh, Huma Bhabha and Tourmaline. Around a third of the works on view were created specifically for the exhibition and are site-specific, including Saya Woolfalk’s piece “Daishikimono (daywear for lands not yet habitable by human kind).” The artist made use of a T-shaped wall initially built for Sanford Bigger’s show and installed a massive work that nods to her heritage by collaging imagery of dashiki, a West African garment, and a Japanese kimono.
“It was incredible to me the way that she adapted immediately to the space as part of creating a narrative that is around gender and racial identity and the future; what that looks like and what we all look like as mixed people,” Wahi says of Woolfalk’s piece, which serves as an anchor for the show.
Clarissa Tossin also went large scale for the exhibition, creating a 27-foot hanging textile work that pairs imagery of the Yangtze and Amazon rivers. The work comments on the implications of the environment and feminism. “The environment is probably one of — if not the central — issues that we should be thinking about moving toward the future,” Wahi says. “Including environmentalism in the context of feminism was really important, and [Tossin’s piece] changed my perspective in thinking about feminism in that way.”
Weinberger’s site-specific installation contains a similar duality, and serves to disrupt the idea of a binary identity. “Traversing the Invisible Lines” places mirrored figures within an environment of black-and-white striped boards.
Wahi was intentional about making the show inclusive. Established artists are shown alongside newer voices, and while the show explores feminist visions, Wahi also aimed to be gender-inclusive. “Often people think about feminism as purely female-identified people,” she says. “It was important to include the perspectives of nonbinary folks as well.”
The Bronx Museum is in the midst of its 50th anniversary year, and Wahi planned upcoming exhibitions around a central thesis: “visibility is a primary tenet for social justice.”
“Every exhibition goes back to the idea of being seen, of creating visibility or combating systemic erasure,” Wahi says. Next year, the museum has a major exhibition exploring the history of ballroom culture, which originated in Harlem and the Bronx 50 years ago.
There’s been little downtime for Wahi, although she notes that the pandemic has given her space to mull her priorities as the museum’s social justice curator, and what she hopes to amplify through her work. For the ballroom exhibition, Wahi’s creating a “curatorial cohort” so that hers won’t be the central voice.
“Because I’m not actually from the ball community, and I think it’s important that if we’re going to talk about visibility, that the narratives and history of what we create are through the lenses and voices of the people who actually experienced them,” she adds. “It’s important to be multicentered as a curator, and to make sure that we’re actually amplifying the voices that need to be amplified.”
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