As the world watched the rioters take over the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, the title of Studio Montclair’s latest exhibit became even more timely. Entitled, “Privilege, Power, and Everyday Life,” the exhibit runs from January 15 through February 19. Curated by Theda Sandiford, the exhibit features artwork that encourages dialogue about implicit bias and stereotypes.
When asked if the Capitol takeover was a good example of what she was aiming to portray in the exhibit, Sandiford said, “I think so, because if those protestors would have looked differently, there would have been a lot of dead people in the Capitol.”
“I think a lot of people don’t understand what the conversation around privilege actually looks like,” continued Sandiford. “We’re seeing it play out on social media and the news - they’re not calling them rioters. There’s different language applied depending on what the person’s ethnicity is. Seeing all that play out I was like, ‘See, this is what I’ve been talking about.’”
The exhibit focuses largely on the concept of microaggressions, defined as subtle, intentional or unintentional, everyday interactions or behaviors that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial messages or assumptions toward historically marginalized groups.
“You are so articulate” presumes that a person of a particular race or group is not usually capable of intellectual conversation. Asking a person, “Who are you? Do you live here?” when they are in their own garage, home, or car sends a message that they are not welcome or should have to prove that they “belong.”
The weight of these daily interactions underpins very real consequences in marginalized groups: stress, anger, frustration, self-doubt, and ultimately feelings of powerlessness and invisibility.
Sandiford believes that we all have some biases that may have originated based on religious or socioeconomic upbringings or through family members. The exhibit hopes to create a dialogue about implicit bias and being honest with yourself about where your biases are found.
Through a successful call for submissions, she received many works to go through. Some pieces instantly caught her eye, some clearly did not fit the theme, and some pieces demanded second and third looks. But the curator had a design in mind.
“I didn’t want to have artwork that was all about being angry,” explained Sandiford. “So many times when we talk about race or bias it’s usually one person’s point of view expressing their frustration with it.
“What I was noticing through the artwork being submitted was a request to be seen for who they really are. The message was ‘see me,’ and I found that to be really compelling and, for me, it brought about an emotional response to the art. Because it wasn’t about anger, it was about people saying, ‘Despite all of this, I am here… see me.’
“So a lot of the works in the show have a quiet dignity to them related to actually seeing the subject matter and the representation of the people in the way they would like you to see them. I felt that was a great way to have this dialogue.”
Artists in the exhibition include Donna Bassin, Richard Brachman, Judith Carlin, Elizabeth Demarco, Martha Diaz Adam, Susan Evans Grove, Denise Fitzgerald, Alyson N Fraser Diaz, Barry Fredericks, Debra Friedkin, Colleen Sweeney Gahrmann, Faith Hagenhofer, June He, Kate Hollitscher, Linda Johns, Alex Katsenelinboigen, Granvilette Kestenbaum, Joan Knauer, Becca Lynes, Jennifer Malone, Evan Stuart Marshall, Leslie Nobler, Courtney Novak, Christy O’Connor, J Steven Patton, Jean-Paul Picard, Adam Pitt, Chris Revelle, Francisco Silva, Linda Steinhardt Majzner, and Miriam Stern.
Due to the pandemic, most people will view the artwork online, as the gallery is available only by appointment. This will be Studio Montclair’s third exhibition since September and they have held a small COVID-19 compliant opening for each exhibit. The opening for “Privilege, Power, and Everyday Life” will be held on Sunday, January 17 from 2:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
According to Susanna Baker, Executive Director of Studio Montclair, the online exhibits have been received well. “We have added more information and audio of the artists talking about their work. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. The audio component is really exciting - people love hearing about the work in the artist’s actual voice. We plan to continue this even after the crisis is over.”
You can count Sandiford as a fan of the audio. She points out that shows are often crowded, which makes it difficult to hear or talk directly with the artist. But watching from home allows people to take the time to listen and consider what the artist is saying. The artist’s contact information is provided, so viewers may submit questions to them via email or social media to learn more.
“In a way, if you make the effort, you can actually build a deeper connection with the artist and have a dialogue around the work,” explained Sandiford. “So what may have been only a brief discussion because the artist was busy with several people trying to talk all at once, can become a true one on one conversation.
“I feel like the online opening can lead to more meaningful connections with other artists, curators, and patrons because you’re able to do it in an asynchronous way at our leisure. I call it a pandemic perk. I’ve seen more art in the past year than I did previously. I’ve seen more shows, engaged in more artist talks, and been in more workshops primarily because I can watch the replay if I missed it live.”
In the end, Sandiford hopes that viewers of the exhibit start a dialogue - even if it’s a dialogue with themselves, she views it as a starting point. Mostly, she hopes that it inspires people to find their voice to make a difference.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m not racist’ - you have to be actively anti-racist,” said Sandiford. “That’s a little harder, but it is work that has to be done. Own up to your part of it. Nobody is absolved of this, everybody has to own their piece. Sometimes owning the piece is asking yourself, ‘Why am I remaining silent?’ You can make a difference by simply speaking up and saying, ‘No, that’s not true.’”
As an award-winning, self-taught artist based in Jersey City, Theda Sandiford transforms found and meticulously collected recycled materials into complex mixed media works and installations. Community art making is a key component of her process, creating multilayer and multi-sensory experiences to explore themes such as equity & inclusion, sustainability, anti-racism, skills sharing, and personal wellbeing.
Studio Montclair reached out to her to create this exhibit because the gallery is looking to diversify its membership and wants to create a dialogue around social justice issues. As with all arts organizations, 2020 was a very challenging year for the gallery - especially financially. They were unable to hold their annual gala and they rely on artist membership, which has been difficult to maintain since artists were deeply affected financially as well.
“This was upsetting because right now, community is important, so we decided to waive our membership fees for anyone who was having a hard time,” explained Baker. “We also started our Art Academy in January of 2020 - this wonderful program currently focuses on providing access to the visual arts to adults with disabilities. It was just starting to take off when the pandemic hit and we had to go 100% virtual. It was challenging, but we worked hard and the program is growing and is incredibly rewarding to all involved.”
“We are still here and strong and Studio Montclair will continue to provide all kinds of opportunities to exhibit as many artists as possible, and to bring diverse and thought-provoking voices to the public,” continued Baker. “We truly believe in the power of art to inspire, create positive change, and to bring people together.”
Studio Montclair is located at 127 Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair, New Jersey. The exhibit runs from January 15 through February 19th and may be seen online at https://www.studiomontclair.org
Images in header: Adam Pitt’s “Speech,” woodcut on Reves BFK paper; J Steven Patton’s “American Fasciste,” oil on canvas; and Jennifer Malone’s “Un Entitled; All the Presidents White Men,” oil on gallery wrapped canvas