When was the last time you felt hopeful thinking about the future? Violence, conflict or climate change might be making it difficult. Naomi Klein says that in order to enact social change, we need a utopian imagination that can foresee total revolution. This is how Utopian Imagination was born, the exhibition on view at the Ford Foundation Gallery in New York City until December 7 that closes out its inaugural year.
Objects, bodies, paintings, vessels or fragments by thirteen different artists that represent a wide array of lived identities – indigenous, LGTBQ+ and females – will show us the magic of imagining fictional scenes, spaces and bodies to find our freedom. Using science fiction as a narrative and conceptual tool, the exhibition draws a future that includes all of us. With the statement “diversity is not an option. It is a minimal requirement to be relevant”, the artist, activist and curator of the exhibition, Jaishri Abichandani, hopes that the American museum and gallery system changes and stops failing to represent these artists (and citizens). Learn more about the exhibition, what is it like being an immigrant artist or why you should stay hopeful in times of turmoil.
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Installation view: Utopian Imagination, Ford Foundation Gallery, September 17 - December 7, 2019, photo: Sebastian Bach.
The Ford Foundation’s new gallery was born to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation and advance human achievement. It seems like racist and other hate speeches have gained weight within these past years. Do you think that the opening of this gallery was a social urge?
The vision for the gallery belongs to Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. He sees art as a vehicle to promote empathy, with the understanding that it will lead folks towards social justice. This was the impetus that led the Gallery Director, Lisa Kim to inaugurate the space with this trilogy of exhibitions.
Has it inspired a social change in New York?
It is hard to gauge whether one’s work has had such a quick impact, so I am going to rely on the numbers and feedback. Since our opening on March 5 this year, we have had nearly eighteen thousand visitors! There was no way to anticipate such a big response. We have had lines out the door for each opening, innumerable positive comments in our sign-in book at the gallery and great press reviews. The response from black and people of colour audience members in particular has been heart-warming as they feel very seen – the sheer diversity of voices of fifty-four artists who have been included within the trilogy is exhilarating to all of us.
The artists have expressed that the visibility has accelerated their careers. These early indicators of success lead me to hope that we will have made a lasting change in how exhibitions are constructed, what they communicate, and impress upon folks that diversity is not an option. It is a minimal requirement to be relevant.
How was this project born and why did you decide to start collaborating with them?
The Director of the Ford Foundation Gallery, Lisa Kim, invited a number of individuals including myself to submit exhibition proposals for the launch of the gallery. I spent three months developing a proposal that considered the mission of the Ford Foundation and my goals of promoting black and people of colour LGBTQ+ feminist artists. My proposal was framed around a quote by Naomi Klein who essentially said that in order to enact the social change we want to see on the level of public policy, we need a utopian imagination that can foresee total revolution – rather than trying to reform broken and unjust systems.
I proposed a three-part exhibition that examined violence, offered love as the solution to it, and finally a vision for a utopian future. Ms Kim accepted the proposal, asking me to elaborate it into three separate exhibitions and brought on Natasha Becker as she felt our visions complemented one another. She and I began collaborating with Lisa Kim on Perilous Bodies and Radical Love in October 2018.
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Lola Flash, Syzygy, 2019. Courtesy of the Artist.
The previous exhibitions were Perilous Bodies (March 5 – May 11, 2019) and Radical Love (June 11 – August 17). The first one examined injustice through the intersecting lens of race, gender, ethnicity and class, while the other one responded the first show by offering love as the answer to end violence. How does Utopian Imagination close this conversation? What is the message that you wanted to communicate through this show?
I was really struck by the conversation between Alexandria O’Casio Cortez and Greta Thunberg in which the Congresswoman says, “I learned that hope is not something that you have. Hope is something that you create with your actions. Hope is something you have to manifest into the world, and once one person has hope, it can be contagious. Other people start acting in a way that has more hope.”
Greta followed up this conversation with another quote that really hit home: “When we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then the hope will come.” Given these two quotes, I set about selecting artworks that didn’t just function within the realms of science fiction, but those that generated a sense of wonder and hope; works that momentarily transform the world as we know it into a place that we might want to be.
Utopian Imagination brings together the works of thirteen diverse artists that represent a wide array of lived experiences and identities including indigenous, LGBTQ+ and feminist voices. What criteria did you follow to select the artists and their artworks?
My primary agenda is always to bring visibility to black/PoC/indigenous LGBTQ+ feminist and disabled voices as a fundamental correction of institutional injustice. In addition, I was interested in exploring the idea of utopia through science fiction rather than opaque academic theories, mainly because science fiction is accessible and completely woven into popular culture. I am informed by Afrofuturism but lay no claim to it – my perspective is rooted in my own South Asian immigrant identity, which allows me to bring in the works of Morehshin Allahyari, Saks Afridi, Lee Bul and Mariko Mori in conversation with Yinka Shonibare MBE, Zak Ove, Mikael Owunna, Juliana Huxtable, Farxiyo Jaamac, Lola Flash, Firelei Baez, Beatriz Cortez and Cannupa Hanska Luger.
My own introduction to feminist utopias was through a story penned by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain in 1905. Sultana’s Dream imagines an environmentally friendly world run on scientific principles by women. This story is a rare example within ubiquitous post-apocalyptic dystopias that are presented to us in comic books, TV shows and films, as if we are unable to dream of a world without destruction and violence. While science fiction was the primary starting point, there were parameters already in place for selection – the work had to evoke a sense of joy.
There were anchor works by several artists from conception –  Yinka’s astronaut sculpture paired with Zak Ove’s Nubian Returned, Mariko Mori and Le Bul’s works, Afridi’s Space Mosque project are some of those that led to a metaphor of flight as freedom that emerged from their work. That made it easier to build upon and research led me to several of the rest, including Beatriz Cortez’s birds perched on boxes of wonder, which include messages for a utopian collective future. Juliana, Mikael and Farxiyo’s works just begged to be put together with each of them using galactic constellations as a dominant formal compositional element in the works.
We had been considering Cannupa’s works for each iteration of the trilogy, and when Lisa Kim proposed the Future Ancestral Technologies project, it really couldn't have been a better encapsulation of the ethos of the exhibition! The project imagines an earth where those who have been left behind live in harmony with the planet instead of destroying it.
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Mariko Mori, Miko No Inori, 1996. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Black Girls Live in Outer Space Too series by Farxiyo Jaamac imagines Muslim black women and girls in galactic surroundings. She wants to create a sense of possibility for her community.  According to the Human Rights Record of the United States in 2018, the living conditions of African-Americans in the USA are getting worse. For example, African-Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as whites and about twice as likely to be in unemployment as whites. It seems like it’s important as a society to give voice to artists like Farxiyo Jaamac. Are museums and galleries giving enough voice to them?
American museums and galleries are failing to represent us every day. A recent study showed that eighty per cent of exhibiting artists in this country are white and largely men. It is imperative that our public institutions lead the way in reflecting social change and justice rather than remaining bastions of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism because we have no other recourse. Galleries rely on capitalism to survive, and given that wealth is concentrated in the hands of white folks, I am not holding my breath. Given this power imbalance, it is not hard to see why the art shown in most institutions does not reflect the political lives or realities of most residents of this country.
Having said that, generations of black artists, curators and visionaries have poured their lifetimes into building institutions and resources for African-American artists and serve as a model for other minority communities. This does not compensate for the ongoing racism of mainstream American institutions, but it does provide a platform to launch their work.
Lee Bul in Sternbau wants to remind us of those aspirations we haven’t realized yet, and in it, she pays homage to the architect Bruno Taut. Our lives keep getting faster and we have less time for ourselves. Have people forgotten to dream?
Maybe people are having nightmares from our lived realities. Dreams seem frivolous because we are so traumatized by the betrayal of our social systems as our species heads towards our collective imminent death – sorry for the dark humour.
The exhibition also presents the vision of Latin artists like Firelei Báez. In Mirrored Walls, she creates a mirrored portal guarded by painting of protective Ciguapas – female figures from Dominican folklore. She reconfigures the dominant narratives from the past and presents new possibilities to explore. Art can be a way to reaffirm your culture and identity. What are your thoughts on this?
I would have to agree as an artist who celebrates all my identities in my work. There is much emotional and formal richness to be found in this position.
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Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees the Unknown: Huma. Photo: Caitlin Motley. Courtesy of the artist and Upfor Gallery.
Originally, you were born in Bombay, but at the age of 15, you immigrated to New York. You have said that, like many other immigrant artists, your work is not only informed by Western contemporary art but also the historic aesthetic traditions of your culture. Do you think making art has helped you to reconnect with your culture?
I would reframe that to say that making art has allowed me to stay connected to my culture because I never lost the connection. Culture itself is a constantly evolving entity. I am not just an artist/curator; I am an agitator, a maker and producer of culture.
Was it difficult for you, as a young woman from India, to start a career as an artist in the United States? Did you face any judgments?
Lol. Yes. It was hard. It continues to be hard because South Asians are only one per cent of the US population even if we are one sixth of the world’s population. American culture continues to be uninformed about South Asia. The only depictions of South Asians in popular culture are very negative. We are either faced with total ignorance or suspicions that we may be uneducated, or  terrorists, or cab drivers or doctors. South Asian artists have no support structures.
I set up a feminist organization in NYC in 1997 and in London in 2004 named the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective with the express mission of creating a community of like-minded artists and thinkers with whom we could develop our artistic practices and make them visible to the world on our own terms. It worked to launch the careers of an entire generation of South Asian women artists but was not sustainable in the long run.
Indigenous people, females, LGBTQ+ members have been excluded for a long time from the mainstream and official narrative. Is that why in addition to being an artist and creating your own works, you decided to be a curator?
Yes. At first it didn't seem like a choice. One had to create the context for one’s work along with making the work itself. Then I came to realize that I really enjoyed it and it comes naturally to me.
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Zak OvéN, ubian Return, 2011. Courtesy of Zak Ové Studio and Vigo Gallery, London.
You say that deeply inspired by queer, feminist and international craft art forms, you make your work from the understanding that the personal is political. Why do you say so? What is political art to you and what is not?
Wow, these are some big questions that would take up too much space! Let’s just say that I am interested in socially engaged art that looks beyond exclusively formal investigations of material or colour. I am drawn to works that function as much on a visceral and experiential level as conceptual ones, that have an aesthetic quality of excess, works that are generous in their address, that are sincere and seeped in love, even when that love is cloaked as criticality.
Do you have any advice for other young aspiring artists that with their work want to make a change?
I would say to go for it and you will learn all the skills you need along the way. There are many strategies one can use, and in fact, most artists I work with use a combination of them. The first is to make socially engaged artworks. Another is to create the context for work that challenges hegemony by writing about it, curating it or presenting it to the public. Yet another tactic is to build equitable organizations and structures that are centred around the visions of black/PoC/indigenous LGBTQ+ feminist communities. Lastly, one can invest time transforming problematic institutions from the top down by building ethical diverse boards for institutions so that people of colour are not only your security guards, but in charge of the vision of the organization itself. This is necessary work.
And because the exhibition talks about the future, what do you think it will be like?
We really have no idea what the future holds – look at how quickly the Internet changed the world. We can work towards making sure that there is one for the generations to come because that is the largest question facing all of us at the moment. Will we will choose to transform our world in time?
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Cannupa Hanska Luger, The One Who Checks & The One Who Balances. Navajo Nation. Photo: Chip Thomas for Return of the Warrior Twins mural, 2018 - Ginger Dunni.
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farxiyo jaamac, Android Girl, 2017. Private Collection.
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farxiyo jaamac, IFTIN, 2017. Private Collection.
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Mikael Owunna, Infinite Essence: Emem, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
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Saks Afridi, Sighting #6, 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist.
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Saks Afridi, Sighting #3, 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist.
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Installation view: Utopian Imagination, Ford Foundation Gallery, September 17 - December 7, 2019, photo: Sebastian Bach.
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Installation view: Utopian Imagination, Ford Foundation Gallery, September 17 - December 7, 2019, photo: Sebastian Bach.