It’s a sunny-but-cold Wednesday, and Shawana Brooks and I are sipping tea and talking about art–specifically about what it means to support and advocate for art and artists, and specifically how Brooks balances the desire to encourage younger artists while creating the space for dialogue with more established artists. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
In her work as the Arts & Culture Developer at Jacksonville’s Main Library and its in-house atelier and gallery, Jax Makerspace, Brooks tries to put her values into action. She aims to engage Jacksonville residents by organizing art shows that touch on many of the facets of contemporary art, from works that might be considered craft to works that exist in the space between fine and street to conceptual and installation art (and this is by no means an exhaustive list). Brooks is curious about the ways that artists work and hopes that by showing them in unexpected configurations, side-by-side, that she also gives them an opportunity to deepen their understanding of their own work.
“I’m still learning and [often] they’re learning … so it’s a good way to build something together,” she said.
Ties and Knots: Weaving Narratives of Northeast Florida takes textiles as its point of departure. Ubiquitous yet capable of singularity, textiles are among those archaeological items that–when found–are capable of illuminating entire cultures. An overview of Ties and Knots might suggest that, as a city, Jacksonville values humor, style, conservation and experimentation. There are pieces that more closely adhere to a “traditional” view of ornamental textile work, but the exhibit is really intended to showcase artists who are interested in the ways that fabric can be used to express ideas of identity, narrative and psychology.
Sharla Valeski’s Mesh Window recalls Yayoi Kusama and Claus Oldenburg. Ahyanna Nakia’s Mahogany Green uses gathered and swagged material to gesture toward fashion and bunting, and it is easy to imagine that future works could make much more use of this sculptural technique. The all-over patterning of Sarah Crooks’ Decent; Dissent; Descend: Into the Springs of RED Pearl River invites the viewer to look more closely. And Fabricio Farias’ The Gospel of Willis comprises Florida creatures, each individually screened onto a piece of felt, then sewn together into a kind of modern tapestry that tacitly nods to process through the repetition/interruption of the forms.
Perhaps most surprising, though, are Stephanie Cafcules’ wire forms, which feel as if they defy gravity. They look like tulle that has been made architectural and then set free. The works climb one pillar in the gallery space and also rest on the ceiling. In the scattered, almost organic presentation, they bring to mind the movement of butterflies, or gowns by Iris Van Herpen. Inherently theatrical, semi-translucent with small passages of tone and form created by the overlapping screens, these works activate the space and, yes, beg to be bigger.
Some of the pieces in Ties and Knots are clearly in early development phases. They almost cry out to be expanded, rendered absurd and complex or perhaps jewel-like and deliberate. Several of the works teeter on the edge of transformation, especially Claire DeVoe’s handbags. In addition to the handbags, she has several works that reference classical pitcher and vase shapes; these beg to be taken out of their two-dimensional presentation and rendered as soft sculptures (perhaps Greyson Perry by way of bulbous amphorae). So, too, do Laura Mongiovi’s works seem to want expansion. Especially a work like
Empire, which evokes the ornate but stern dresses and aesthetic of the Spanish court during the Inquisition (and their plunder of the Americas). It’s tempting to imagine 17 iterations of this form.
Over the course of our tea, Brooks reflects on how she came to occupy her curatorial role, because at its core it’s a mandate to create space and opportunities.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” she said. “It’s hard to explain what my art and process are because I want to think about these things, and what art is.” It’s an important conversation for her, because she too identifies as an artist. “Really, my art is the art of communication, in all of its forms. It’s about pulling these things together.”
As a poet in Savannah, Brooks was lauded and recognized for her wordsmithing. Here in Jacksonville, too, she has been keen to order her thoughts via her online Facebook “musings.” But her work keeps her busy. In addition to her position at the library, she is the co-founder (with Lee Hamby) of “Art Attack,” the live WJCT talk show that airs about once a month, and she hosts “Shawana’s Salon” on the Essential Culture Podcast Network. There, she is able to give a platform to other female artists of color and their challenges and goals. Additionally, in May 2018, she was the first black woman to be awarded the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville’s Robert Arleigh White Award for Advocacy.
Thus in addition to working for artists in our community, Brooks also wants to take part in the conversation around the possibilities of art. Because where others see obstacle, she sees opportunity: “I’m privileged in my blackness to advocate for myself.”
She is also quick to explain how eager she is to learn, not just about Jacksonville, but also about the history and context of art. “We keep trying to push the boundaries of what the Makerspace is,” she said, “and how it functions for Jacksonville.”