Last Friday, after being closed for the month since The Carrack Modern Art moved out, the loft gallery at 111 West Parrish Street suddenly burst back to life. A banner that read "Queer Development, Decolonize Durham" hung down the façade, and the names of black people killed by police officers were projected on buildings across the street. These urgent messages echo through the art show within, Durham Artists Movement's first since moving into the space, which is open to the public again this weekend.
DAM is a collective of people of color and LGBTQ people seeking safe space to create and share art outside of the white heteronormative framework of the gallery world. The INDY has reported on how the group came to take over the last six months of the Carrack's lease through internal and external fundraising—an idea that was planted when DAM had a pop-up show there in 2015 and then came to fruition with startling speed this month.
Saba Taj, who recently earned an MFA in art from UNC-Chapel Hill, is one of the key organizers of DAM's move. The day before the Third Friday opening, we met her in the gallery. Two of her portraits of Muslim women are in the show, a continuation of one of her main bodies of work—with one important modification.
"Before, the folks I included in the series were people I knew, who reflect my own background as a Pakistani women, and that's an easy cop-out," Taj explains. "So I sent out a call for images. I love that I didn't take the photos; it's these women through their own lens, and my connection is through this intimate process of painting them."
The concepts of marginalized people having a say in how they're represented and of broadening the chorus art includes are central to DAM's goals. In our conversation, we learned about the group's vision and why it's vital, even in progressive art circles, to break out of the white cube, creating a space that lifts up voices other galleries leave out.
INDY: Tell us about Durham Artists Movement's history.
SABA TAJ: It's a community of artists and activists in Durham who had a collective desire for art space and more collaboration. Sharing art-making space with people who are engaged in a certain manner of critical thought is really important. We started about two years ago, just meeting in this studio space that Catherine [Edgerton] built in her backyard. When this opportunity came, and also, with the pop-up show in March 2015, these were two moments when we saw this loose, amoebic group of people become more concretized around specific goals.
The pop-up galvanized the need for DAM to have a space?
It's something I've been thinking about, as have a number of artists that I have talked to. We kind of just needed someone to do the work of organizing. When I was in grad school and working two jobs as a single parent, I had no space for it. [But after graduation], I was conveniently unemployed, so I happened to have the time and space. A lot of folks stepped up in a lot of ways; it just needed someone to do the administration, especially in its formation. We hadn't even figured out how we're going to function and then we had to fund-raise. We just got shot out of a rocket. Over time, the role that I've played will be diminished, and then I'll be able to participate more.
How were you were able to move into this space?
I had applied for a group show at The Carrack with some friends who are almost all members of Durham Artists Movement. Laura [Ritchie] told us they were moving, and I made a joke: "What if we were the ones to take over this space?" Part of me felt like, "OK, this is a long-term goal, but isn't it great to dream about it?" And then Catherine contacted me with the same idea. Together, we were like, "Oh, fuck, maybe we can actually make this happen."
We sent an email to folks who have been involved with Durham Artists Movement, asking, "Do you believe in this? Would you actually be willing to pay monthly in order to make this happen?" We had enough of a response to think we could make it work. I love that it started from that place. They were willing to throw down in a way that wasn't necessarily financially comfortable to make this happen. That energy, excitement, and commitment translated into the fundraising effort—I mean, I can't even believe it worked.
Are you set for the month at least?
Yeah, we're set for the month—I think maybe about four months. We still need to raise funds to cover the entire six months of rent, but now we have the space to be continuously fundraising, and a lot of folks have reached out about ways to connect and help. The thing that makes it a little blurry is that we are hoping to have materials and offer support to our artists for their projects. For example, if we want to have a banner outside, we want to be able to pay for the materials, or even to support our artists to apply to other local shows that have entry fees. These projects are about active engagement with issues that folks in Durham are facing, like gentrification and police violence. And we're connecting with Black Lives Matter, as this creative component of the movement. That's really exciting.
Have you had any chance to gauge the public response yet?
This Friday's going to be that moment. There's not a lot of foot traffic, especially with the construction, so having the space staffed all the time doesn't seem worth it. But our artists have been in here working, and we're going have some open hours for folks to come see the show if they miss it Friday (see info box).
It sounds like things are in flux for the near future, let alone the rest of the lease.
Yeah, they're shifting. What this space provides is really hard to find—a place we can actually put work on the walls and light it, as simple as that is, and keep it up for more than a few hours. We're talking about monthly programming with our members in order to set a solid foundation that will, over time, be offered to the public. We're not doing that right away because we're thinking about accessibility concerns first. It's possible that public workshops won't happen in this space because it isn't accessible, because of the stairs. We need to be clear in our strategies for bringing folks in who typically wouldn't be coming to these kinds of workshops, which is incredibly important to us. There aren't INDY Week racks in some parts of Durham, for example, so if we list things there, not everyone's going to see it.
So you're creating more of a studio and support system for artists than a gallery.
Yeah, it's partially about building an art community. A gallery space is hard for some folks to feel like they can be in. I've felt this in my life, and I've been lucky to have a certain amount of exposure. In terms of skill sharing in an environment where we can talk about art, we want to be broadening the conversation. In graduate school, I got a lot of great formal feedback, but people sometimes saw these symbols I was using—the evil eye, for example, was "googly eyes"—through a certain lens. Having a community that looks through a similar lens as I do is really an antidote to the struggle I felt in academic environments where you don't feel people understand the context of your work. There's this pressure to almost exoticize and tokenize yourself as a person of color, which makes it really hard to know how to approach that subject matter.
If you look around, there's so much figurative work in here. That's really meaningful, how many of these artists are thinking about identity and their bodies. If you're trying to broach these topics in an environment where there's this lens on you, it can be difficult to be free with your expression. From a personal standpoint, I'm like, "If I use this imagery, will someone use it against Muslims in some way?" If that's what you're thinking about all the time it can really stifle you. So being in community with folks that understand the nuance there feels so essential. It's very hard to explain to folks who aren't feeling this on an everyday basis. That's why we see our members as being majority people of color, and almost everyone's queer as well. Fostering safe space among us is just what's necessary. Being in a place where you can feel seen and understood, where people have got your back, where you can bring your kid—it's these basic things, but also some more layered ones, I'm hoping we can offer our members.
Tell us about what else you see in this show.
There's a lot of representation of black and brown bodies, and text as well, which also brings it into this context of movement space. We're putting signs out on the streets, so communicating through phrases in visual work is a crossover between those realms. That's also interesting to think about in terms of accessibility—abstract work has been made to feel inaccessible to a number of people, like you need to know some dumb, big words to communicate about it. Text is far more straightforward. And you also see an illustrative quality to some of this work that brings it into the digital social-media realm.
So figurative art might be viewed as simplistic in a gallery context where people aren't constantly thinking about how their bodies are endangered or represented by others. But in DAM, figurative work can be understood in a more robust, nuanced way.
Yes, putting an image (a self-portrait, for example) into a white cube, with white people sipping wine and looking at a black or brown body, feels different than having this—I don't want to say "ownership" exactly, but our imprint is here, our energy is here. That community is making this happen. You know whose hands put this art up.
And then the work isn't exocitized: "Here's a show of LGBTQ artists or black artists," as if those things are passing through a context rather than being part of it.
It's tricky because, in some ways, the art world being progressive, you see Black Lives Matter and other radical issues being capitalized on. In a way, it's great that you're bringing it into a visible sphere. But it's being taken out of the hands of the people who are most affected by it and placed into that white cube. Something changes.
This article appeared in print with the headline "North Carolina Got DAM"