Working from within the white cube, artists Solange Knowles and Toyin Ojih Odutola are changing the conversation about what it means to take up space. At The Noguchi Museum in New York, the friends and peers discuss sound, architecture and creating a visual language.
Toyin Ojih Odutola: I’ve always wanted to ask you about your methodology, and how that developed over time through each contextual shift in your work. Did it develop organically through each album and then become sort of its own animal that could exist outside of and separate from the album?
Solange Knowles: For “A Seat at the Table,” it was really important for me to develop some sort of a visual language. I think for me, there was a sense of meditation and repetition that I developed with a lot of the movement concepts I was creating for the last show and the music video pieces. I was constantly moving and evolving and re-shaping myself to be adaptable to these different locations and I realized that there was a sense of meditation that I was creating through this repetitive movement. It was one simple gesture, but I felt a sense of control by repeating it.
Once I got a grasp of what that repetition meant to me, and studied some of the movements, I realized that I was creating shapes and sculpture within these movements. It was really a natural progression for me to say, “Well, how do I apply these same practices to landscape and scenography? How do I apply the same sense of shape and meditation and repetition with building a scenography that reflects that?”
Ojih Odutola: It seems like there are three modes you’re operating with—the sculptural element, the movement aspect of dance and performance, and the music and text that’s associated with all of that. But in a way, these three modes are their own language—particularly the movement and how you use space to mold the movement. I’m thinking of the Guggenheim show, where the way you presented that performance was very much in line with the space itself.
Knowles: Oh, absolutely.
Ojih Odutola: I think that’s what is so interesting: how you’re able to take this very specific source material—the text and the music from your album—and you translate it into a form that can still be self-contained. It’s capsulated and it’s separate, all on its own. It can still evolve and change with each given context it’s presented in—be it the Guggenheim, the Judd Foundation, the Menil. What’s the process for you in engaging with these spaces? How do you bring in your own ideas and how do you collaborate with all of that?
Knowles: Well, I think being in the space to create a specific work provides the best environment for me because I’m approaching it architecturally, I’m approaching it mathematically, I’m getting the floor plans, I’m getting the layout and then I’m creating the experience. The Guggenheim was really phenomenal because there were all of these different ways that I could activate that space and one of my favorite moments was playing with the rotunda and working with its roundedness. Something very emotional happened while working with that roundedness, because it feels very whole. There were horn players and 200-plus bodies walking from top to bottom of that rotunda and attendees wore white, which helped them become a part of the sculpture and the landscape of the show itself. I am creating experiences that are an exchange between people—it is not easy work, but I’m grateful to be doing it.
I’m curious as to how you approach that with your work. You are one of the few artists, in terms of my contemporaries, that plays with color and the way your work is installed. The reason why I feel so connected to your work is because of how your work takes up the space in which it exists and how you are challenging these white walls more and more with each of your shows.
Ojih Odutola: I think that our generation grew up with the proliferation of conceptual art. There was a dominance of this aesthetic and thinking while I was in graduate school for instance, where the white cube was standard. It seemed incorporated into everything. That sought-after blank neutral space, I always found it’s stark whiteness very harsh and rather oppressive. It was an erasure. But in some cases—especially being a black woman creator—there’s a trepidation about presenting work that’s not on white walls, I think.
There are elegant ways to do it. I’m thinking, of course, about works like Kara Walker’s, with her cutouts, which is such an elegant gesture. To take the silhouette and impress that silhouette onto the white cube—onto that white, neutral space—and in doing so, activating that space with all these layers and meanings associated with blackness and the black mark, and the contention of that binary. The tension of the black and white as materials and constructs creates a world. I did align myself with that kind of work in my early drawings; investigating how black figures occupied decontextualized spaces—because I believed the audience was willing to go there with me, to understand the subjectivity inherent in the black figures and of the spaces they existed in, equally. I subscribed to the idea that there’s no context needed if the body is there, all the information is in and of the body, it’s in and of the face, and that can exist in contrast with—but not fighting against—the white space. The story was in the figure taking up space at all—that was the mark, the highlight. I misunderstood that when working in a monochromatic palette how the visual language can be misread, and blackness is still seen as uncharted territory and monolithic. I started from a place of universality, and that is still a kind of erasure. I had to venture more into color because of that; I had to get at the core and expand blackness as a definition visually. And part of what helped in that was engaging with the space the work is presented in—I had to incorporate more colors, I couldn't rely solely on the monochromatic palette anymore. When you visit a museum for instance, there's a specificity to how artifacts are shown, because the narrative extends to how they are presented. And we both know there’s a very specific way in which African artifacts are shown that sometimes can be problematic. So, I took a cue from that: to explore and have more control of the narrative in the work and in the presentation.
Ojih Odutola: I didn't want to present blackness in a cliched way that felt dull and uninspired. One of the artists who offered great examples of this application was Lynette [Yiadom-Boakye], because she presents her work in very specific tones in the way the walls are colored and how each work is placed in conversation with the space. I mean, she has shown her work with stark, white walls as well, but I’m thinking of the New Museum show she had last year and how she specifically chose red.
Knowles: Mhmm, that red really blew me away.
Ojih Odutola: Right! And also the way she chose to hang the work slightly lower from eye-view. Normally, you would probably put it at about 60 or 50 inches up from the ground, but she did it lower so it felt like you were a part of the work, like you were entering into the spaces of each painting. And I think that’s important, you know, as a black woman creator—or just as a creator in general—we should be involved in the presentation of the work, not leave it at the mercy of the standard white cube. If you have an intimate relationship with the making of the work, you should have a relationship with how it’s presented.
Ojih Odutola: Do you sometimes feel as if the pushback is harder because some people can't picture this engagement and how it might manifest? Was there a moment when people would say: "maybe we should try another venue," or "this is too hard, let’s try something else”? Have you encountered any issues when you’re working on these kinds of projects?
Knowles: You know, I think that I’ve been extremely lucky and that I’ve made myself abundantly clear about my practices. But the main issue I’ve encountered is the expectation of entertainment—the expectation to come and perform and sing and dance and activate the art space as it is and then go home. That is something that I have pushed back on and resisted from day one. I think it’s important to talk about this, because I was that young 14- or 15-year-old black girl with an interest in art who would have never ever felt like I had a space or I had a chance to call myself a performance artist in these institutions. And that’s the only reason I speak to it. I have to constantly remind myself to be honest about it because at the beginning of this project—were there invitations to activate art spaces? Were there invitations to activate them as a performance artist? Were there invitations to activate them with culture? Were there invitations to activate them with 200 bodies? - absolutely not.
Ojih Odutola: Right, to activate them with your ideas, concepts, with your own artistry and investigations.
Knowles: Exactly, I think the invitations were based off this idea that I am here, I have this album, I’m speaking about these things that are opening up conversations and you want me to share these conversations in your space, but you don’t want me to share my full body of work and the range of my work. I think a lot of people fear what they haven’t seen, and that part has been the most frustrating for me in this process. I’ve had to fight for my sculpture and I’ve had to fight for those 200 bodies and I’ve had to fight against not having a space. This idea that visibility will be an issue when for me it’s an issue to not be on the same level as the viewer. I need to be able to look you in the eye. I need to be able to interact with you. You have to become a part of the work, and I can’t do that on a stage. It’s not the access—it’s the type of access that I’ve been allowed to have that’s just not enough.
Ojih Odutola:It’s also this idea of adjusting your vision right? I think that’s the primary pushback—that you have to adjust it. Of course, with everything there are concessions, and there are certain spaces and presentations which demand collaboration and you shift your vision slightly; but how far do you adjust your vision for the sake of someone else’s idea of what they think your work is about?
Knowles:Of course, that is what it is; that’s what it feels like.
Ojih Odutola: Maybe, because it’s in the realm of contemporary art and—again it’s very conceptual still—some may think they can enter a space you are creating and without any slow consideration get it quickly and completely, or even without interacting with the work properly at all, they think they understand you as a creator. The presumption can be caustic for the work, not only with how it is framed, but in the potential it has to develop within that space. I have my way for how I would like people to see the work, but I understand there can be ambiguities and everyone's experience is different—that not everyone is going to do it the same way. You still want to frame the presentation of the work just enough that when people walk through it they can access that vision, and then they can dive deep into it and really explore as they desire. For me, coming from a series where I’m dealing with invented narratives, I’m interested in how people move through the space, as if they’re reading the stories as they go along. Meandering through the exhibition, it's like you’re reading with the pages on the wall—you’re walking through the book. In a way, you become a part of the narrative, there's a potential to get immersed in the story.
Knowles: I’m curious with your last few shows, which were so narrative based, was there any resistance to that?
Ojih Odutola: Girl, let me tell you.
Knowles: I already know, but let’s talk about it!
Ojih Odutola: Well, the biggest thing was the wall color. Before this last show, conference calls were happening from one coast to another with: “she wants to do what with the walls? Hold up.”
Knowles: I’m sure.
Ojih Odutola: Of course, the irony is when we finally put the color up, that was part of what people loved! It was a part of the story: how that color choice activated the conversation between the works even more, and how walking into that back gallery, where it’s covered in that color, it becomes this great room of some grand estate that gets realized for the viewer. The drawings in the show aren't arbitrarily placed in the space for you to consume them visually as an accident, they serve a purpose. I work episodically with each drawing, so they are self-contained, but they are also a part of a larger narrative. The problems I encounter are when the work is put up without consideration of that narrative work and its potential to create an experience for viewership. That hasn't happened explicitly with the last couple of shows, but there are moments when someone says something to you in a patronizing way that connotes a lack of understanding of the creator's consideration, and that always frustrates me. I understand the need to compromise when necessary, however to treat artists like we lack the depth of understanding on how an audience interacts with a work is a gross underestimate of what goes down in our minds when we are in the studio, when we are creating the work. It's all a part of it, it's integral to the formulating. I make my concessions, but I assert my stance in regards to the narrative.
The one thing I really fought for in the Whitney show, for example, was the piece, By Her Design (2017), of a woman surrounded by water with a boat next to her. At the end they conceded, because of my argument about the conversation happening in the space at the time: most of the figures which were depicted outside or in some exterior scene were men, only one was a woman. She's sitting down on a ledge, not really interacting with her environment, her relationship with the landscape had its own function in the narrative. I fought to add this other depiction because it was important to show an adventuress within the framework and potentiality of black womanhood. And I considered other narratives, of black people and swimming, of just blackness and water as elements—that juxtaposition. This additional character, she wants to go out in the world and discover it. And why not do it in short-shorts, with her natural hair out, and her lipstick on because she felt like doing so? I think, part of what I struggled with... I mean, in the end, we are both trying to introduce an audience to our perspective, and the more you come into the fore with your vision, by the very definition of what we are, we are actively engaging with and expanding what a black woman creative is.
Have you ever felt as if you have to mentally—almost as a daily think—emancipate yourself from that indoctrinated, limiting view of what that is, of what a black women creative is? And not just what we have to fight against with other people, but within ourselves?
Knowles: Oh, absolutely!
Ojih Odutola: This idea that there are only so many types of black women artists out there, and you can only fit into one paradigm. So, you have to invent one for yourself and how difficult that is?
Knowles: On shoots that I’ve been on in the past, there was this idea that the strongest way to convey black women who make political work was to put them in the 70’s and to create a sort of caricature of the movement and the work that’s been done. Something that really stands out for me as a pivotal moment in my life and my career, was on a magazine shoot where the art director had really strong ideas about the direction. I walked up and I saw all of these mood boards with women who I have the utmost admiration for—women who have taught me everything I know about liberation and women who I have held up in the highest regard—who were reduced to an aesthetic. This creative director was making their hard work and their legacy a prop and I said, “sir, I don’t feel comfortable with this, I do not relate to this set design, that’s not what we discussed.” And I distinctly remember him, in front of a room full of people huddling around, looking at me and saying, “minimalism does not look good on you.”
Ojih Odutola: Wow.
Knowles: I will never forget the range of emotions that I felt. This idea that black women could not be minimalist, we could not be subtle—we have to be big, we have to be loud, we have to be an explosive presence. The idea that minimalism or avant-garde belongs to white people is pervasive.
Ojih Odutola: Or only belongs to a white space... it’s also indicative of how black womanhood is seen as inherently political. It’s not just limiting black womanhood to an aesthetic, it’s how projections usurp the truth of black womanhood overall. It’s not seen as multifarious, that it can include so many things. I was reminded of this growing up: how I would listen to a certain record or song from something that was deemed “not black enough,” and I remember feeling really uncomfortable about that judgment because my mother liked that same music. I remember telling her one day, “Mom, everyone says so-and-so is white, and I can’t listen to it,” and she would respond with something like, “It’s really strange how people would limit blackness to not include this. Why can’t your liking this be a part of our culture? Why don’t we have access to that?” And that just hit me like a ton of bricks. There’s a one-drop rule when it comes to genetics, but that one-drop rule doesn’t extend to culture. You can’t access minimalism—WHY? That’s such a part of humanity, why should it only be relegated to one specific demographic? It makes no sense.
I’d like to go back to something you said earlier, about the need to be entertained or the expectation about entertaining, which isn’t the point of a creator. I’m thinking about to what you were saying about trying to activate spaces and the expectations involved with that. At what point, do we say: “my purpose as a creator is not to entertain you?” For instance, what you did with the Tate project, the performance piece and the video that captured it. I loved how the music and the text was so seamlessly translated into the movement of the dancers and you—in that space, in conversation with the sculptures. I wanted to talk about how you use language in a sculptural way to fight against the expectations. Is the text—the lyrics—a catalyst for expansion from the tropes tacked to entertaining in the videos you direct?
Knowles: I think it varies from project to project. With Tate I started off with this line, “we sleep in our clothes, warriors of the night” which is so subjective to so many different meanings and interpretations. With Solána’s [SZA’s] video [for “the Weekend”], it was a moment in wanting to use all facets of communication and that felt like an actual mantra of what was being communicated through the video.
Ojih Odutola: Right, and did it also communicate the gaze, like the “black woman’s gaze?” I feel like that text was the embodiment of that.
Knowles: Yes, I felt it was really integral to the piece.
Ojih Odutola: It definitely made the video for me… I’m so glad it was just us two doing this interview without a mediator, because often when people try to put two black women artists together, they think: “Let them talk about the struggle, let them talk about the pain and the agony!” And I just wanted to talk with you about methodology—how things can change and sometimes fail and how to grapple with that in artmaking. And about your vision and how it has evolved. When so much of what we have to contend with already is the fact that we have to push against that struggle in our minds and every day, we have to push against all those expectations. If we have an opportunity to speak truthfully amongst ourselves, we don't have to perform, we don’t have to talk about the logistics of being a black woman today. That’s a fact. Can we move on?
On Knowles: Molly Goddard dress, Bevza arm sleeves, Helmut Lang boots, Bing Bang earrings, Third Crown and Lady Grey rings. On Odutola: Wolford bodysuit, Jon Millner jacket, Alchimia Di Ballin boots and Lady Grey earrings. all works by Isamu Noguchi / ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS.
On Knowles: Raun Larose top and trouser, Big Bang NYC earrings and Helmut Lang boots. On Odutola: Jon Milner top, Raun Larouse trouser and Alchimia Di Ballin boots. all works by Isamu Noguchi / ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS.
Ojih Odutola: Helmut Lang dress, Alchimia Di Ballin boots and Lady Grey earrings. On Knowles: Chris Gelinas strapless top, Bevza arm sleeves, Celine trousers, Helmut Lang boots, Third Crown bracelets, Mounser earrings and Third Crown and Lady Grey rings. all works by Isamu Noguchi / ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS.
On Knowles: Celine jacket, Helmut Lang boots, Bing Bang NYC and Swati Dhanak pins, Mounser earrings, Third Crown and Lady Grey rings. all works by Isamu Noguchi / ©The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS.