Seeing Our Way Free

By Wesley Hogan

New ways of looking at the world never fail to create within me feelings of both excitement and awkwardness, like learning a new dance step. When I became director of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) in 2013, my training was an oral historian, so I asked my colleagues for advice on how to look at photography and film. Many generous and brilliant people expanded my understanding but none more than Courtney Reid-Eaton, CDS’s exhibitions director.

Recently, the richness of her knowledge enveloped me again as I listened to her curator’s talk and panel for the extraordinary exhibit, En | Gender, now on view at Cassilhaus. The show is part of the Triangle’s annual CLICK photography festival, which continues to develop as one of the most exciting gatherings around photographic work in the country.

“I had the good fortune to be invited to Curator Camp at Cassilhaus last summer,” Reid-Eaton began. “A lovely gathering of museum and gallery professionals from around the South. We began with conversations about upcoming projects, interests, and concerns, and when my turn came I asked, ‘Why am I the only person of color here?’ That’s a problem.”

Indeed, who is at the storytelling table is at the heart of documentary, journalism, and the arts nationwide. Most of the people who have trained as photographers, filmmakers, oral historians, and other nonfiction storytellers over the last five or six generations have been overwhelmingly white. For Reid-Eaton, this was true as she began her career: “I think of my photographic influences, especially in documentary, and they’re mostly white; my mentors and teachers were white. That had an impact on my aesthetic and the ways I learned to see. I realize on reflection, that there are things that I make that white people respond to and there are other things that I’ve felt really strongly about that they seem unable to read or connect with or that they exoticize.”

What impact does this have on developing artists who are people of color, or women, or LGBTQI?, she asked. She described how exploring that question became ever more important to her as she recognized that “most gatekeepers in the arts, people with jobs like mine, who select which artists and work to promote and support, are white.”

Reid-Eaton’s remarks got me curious: How do we learn to see, to read, the work by some artists, even as we find others incomprehensible, illegible? She explained that during her first decade at CDS, she “focused on the institution; showed the kind of work our mostly white audience responded positively and comfortably to.” Then her curatorial practice took a distinctly new turn.

“I decided I wanted to spend my second decade centering the work of people of color and women—my communities—by holding and supporting access to places/spaces like CDS and Cassilhaus; encouraging folks from my communities to take on gatekeeper jobs/roles, to create access for others.” She invited in new audiences, gathered local artists from the African diaspora at CDS, and expanded the range of her curatorial practice through innovative shows like “The Self Care Exhibit: A Word and Image Act of Self Preservation and Political Warfare” and “The Jemima Code.”

En | Gender emerges as another example of the nourishing fruit of Reid-Eaton’s intellectual labor. Here she brings together the work of three gender-nonconforming artists of color: Gabriel García Román, Saba Taj, and Lola Flash. “To bring the work of these artists together to be in conversation, to call in our communities, is a joy and a privilege,” Reid-Eaton notes in the gallery guide.

Invoking Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois’s focus on representation, she recognizes that “people of color, Muslims, women—people who have been identified by dominant American culture as minority, marginalized, other—don’t wear those labels in the wider world. We are, in fact, the majority of the world’s population. Our intellectual and cultural contributions, Spiritual practices, and the unpaid, invisible labor of home and family making/sustaining—the stuff that keeps the human race alive and growing—are undervalued, except when drawn on to entertain, enrich, and inspire the ‘powerful.’ But we know who we are. Artists and scholars like the three whose work is included in this exhibition, are working in a tradition that has existed much longer than the camera. Portrait, image, art; vehicles for collaboration and self-determination; opportunities for immortality.”

Cassilhaus has an enviable reputation for bringing thought-provoking artists forward, and Reid-Eaton’s virtuosity opened a space for those present at Cassilhaus to broaden understandings and legitimize the ways people choose to see and present themselves and their communities in documentary. She asked García Román and Taj to share some of their early influences. Who impacted how they saw the world?

Taj noted that her mother could make anything: drapes, delicious cuisine, clothing. She even “sculpted the hell out of the hedges.” Taj grew up in a majority white school where both family and school culture advocated assimilation. She identifies as a queer Muslim femme, and part of her early motivation was to express the beauty and diversity of Muslim and South Asian culture in a North Carolina where people held static stereotypes of both, particularly in the wake of 9/11.

García Román’s early influences included Jan van Eyck, and as he developed his work, he grew fascinated by texture; he wanted his subjects to be able to talk back to their portraits by allowing them to add their own words. “From the queer Latina fighting for immigration rights to the non-binary disabled Trans Filipino,” García Román writes, his sitters are “heroes in their own right.” Both Taj and García Roman explored how their early influences shaped their art, and how they began to create new expressions to better represent their own experiences and communities. Taj’s work presents a broad range of Muslim women’s experiences and emotions; García Román has focused on self-determination. Lola Flash makes disarming, complex portraits of gender non-conforming trailblazers such as Cheryl Dunye and DJ Formika. Reid-Eaton moves with these “outsiders” from margin to center, as figures that García Román notes are “inherently worthy of attention, emulation, and storytelling.”

One hundred and fifty-six years have passed since Frederick Douglass’s first “Lecture on Pictures” in 1861. Yet artist Coco Fusco recently observed that today, elite art schools avoid revising curricula and modes of critique that incorporate critical race theory or the history of anti-racist cultural production. Without that formative training, curators and artists lack a common ground for informed discussion about power and representation. I’m grateful, enormously so, that I work alongside a curator who fosters that informed discussion day in and day out and helps me to learn to see and engage in more authentic dialogues with people who’ve lived lives that may be different than mine.

“We know none of us are not free until we are all Free,” writes Reid-Eaton. Go see En | Gender—it’s on view until December 3—and imagine what your freedom will look like.

Wesley Hogan is the director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where she teaches the history of youth social movements, African American history, women’s history, and oral history. She is a research professor at the university’s Franklin Humanities Institute and Department of History. Hogan’s  book on SNCC, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (2007), won the Lillian Smith Book Award, among other honors, and she is currently working on a post-1960s history of young people organizing in the spirit of Ella Baker.