Art in the Family: An excerpt from Kellie Jones's "EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art"

Studio Museum

The following is a selection of excerpts from the Introduction to Kellie Jones’s EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, titled “Art in the Family.” Make sure to join us on January 26 for our public program Books & Authors: Dr. Kellie Jones in conversation with Hettie Jones.

What I want to think about here is how art objects, and the activities around their making and display—in exhibition, homes, studios—as well as their materiality and life, are integral to forming relationships, connections, and kinship among sometimes diverse constituencies. How is art a connective force, a glue between people, creating the sense of community whole but also of family and affiliation? Indeed how does the circulation of art forms in public and private arenas create dialogues and sites of collectivity, personal and communal meaning, and how are these formations part of how we craft individual and larger social and political involvements? How do objects coalesce a public, create a life for artists and audiences and a circle of friendships from the particular to the collective? In what ways does art become a catalyst for the invention of forms of and places for modes of familial and civic recognition and representation?

Trying to think through concepts of family and community and how these might intersect with and inflect notions of art, I picked up Barack Obama’s book Dreams of My Father (1995). Inspired by his missives from the campaign trail, I turned to the president’s writing because of our generational link and similar biographies. We were both born and raised in the United States in the urban, multiracial settings of Honolulu and New York City respectively. We had mixed ethnic backgrounds with one Black and white parent, though his was certainly the more complex transnational context with Kenya, Kansa, and Indonesia as part of the picture, as opposed to my Newark, New Jersey, and Brooklyn, New York roots. Our histories (and perhaps those of our generation) led us to ideas of politics and community in different valences. (Plus we both married cool people from Chicago!)

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What theory many times did not acknowledge was the politics and struggles on the ground that forced actual inclusion rather than just its understanding as an intellectual construct. Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s were battles for equity and visibility in social and cultural spheres. Protests by artists against the museum status quo led to the unlocking of these cultural citadels. This same energy also led to the development of alternative nonprofit galleries and ethnically specific museums.

Such social action opened up places for a wide array of artists to exist, show, and develop. At the same time there was the insistence on equivalent curatorial and critical voices, and understanding of the need to expand what constituted expertise to frame an emerging discourse, which is where I felt my contribution lay. I was drawn to museums and curatorial and critical practices as a way to support artists and culture generally. There was a role for cultural workers. Yet in retrospect it was also transgenerational inheritance: seeing art and culture as activist, as modes in which to move society forward.

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Organizing my own essays spurred me to think about how art makes community and how this was manifest in my own life of writing. How the art object’s movements from studio to museum or gallery in the twists and turns form public to private accumulates and draws community over time. I wondered how my practice might have performed the same actions: both reflecting family traditions (if intellectual ones) and coalescing and building a new world, understanding writing and culture generally as a vocation, intellectual voyage, and political charge. These thoughts brought me to the notion of community archives: theorizing how artistic communities—be they families of origin, groups, movements, neighborhoods, and so on—create and theorize their pasts, illuminating the dialogic among individuals and the collectives to which they belong, and in which artistic meaning is derived. And seeing this idea of community archives posited in opposition to the official text or document, positioning the notion of the fragmentary versus holistic monuments, as well as the conceptions of muticulture against that of a single calcified monoculture. Pieces written into and from the world, carrying knowledge of that time and moment embedded in them and in this way narrating the story of their migration, their history, and time in the world in form as was as content.

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Art, like family photography, “is not just about how the family looks in the pictures: it’s also about how the pictures look in the family.” That is the manner in which sculpture, painting and other forms mediate the intersection of human gazes and needs. It is how we recognize the power, desire, and possibilities as well as the uncertainties and vulnerabilities that settle on objects and the methods and actions we find to maintain the emotional connection that flows between us there. It is thinking about the contexts in which art can “reactivate and rembody more distant social/national and archival/ cultural memorial structures by reinvesting them with resonant individuals and familial forms of meditation and aesthetic expression,” its role in communal life, tradition, and patterns of remembrance. (Marianne Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory,” Poetics Today 29 (1) (2008): 111)  These are among art’s gifts, its ability to provide a manner for people to see, know, and understand themselves in the world.

Copyright Duke University Press