In 2014, De Andrea Nichols was part of the team that created Mirror Casket, an artwork that was ceremonially carried from the site of Michael Brown’s killing to the Ferguson police department, its mirrors challenging those who saw it “to look within and see their reflections as both whole and shattered, as both solution and problem, as both victim and aggressor.” This year—as the Mirror Casket was brought into the collection of the Smithsonian’s new museum of African American culture—Nichols again was involved in mirroring. As she outlines below, she and two other black staffers wrote a letter, speaking back to management at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis about a controversial exhibition by Kelley Walker that many in St. Louis believed caused pain in the African American community. Among the show’s works were photos of black women smeared with toothpaste and images from the Civil Rights movement silkscreened using chocolate. Given St. Louis’s role as a “central location for the contemporary civil rights movement in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson,” the trio wrote to their bosses, “the work triggers a retraumatization of racial and regional pain.”
A multidisciplinary designer and civic leader, Nichols is a cofounder and director of Civic Creatives, a social design organization that curates interactive experiences that help community members and civic organizations connect and resolve critical social challenges. Here, we welcome her reflections on a pivotal year, for her and the world, as part of series 2016: The Year According to.
The Smithsonian opened the National Museum of African American History & Culture this year. As the nineteenth Smithsonian Institution and the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture, NMAAHC is one of the most dynamic cultural entities that came into existence this year. My team and I were honored to have work, the Mirror Casket, added to its collection this year. Read Smithsonian Magazine’s feature on this and other featured works.
Impact Through Art
A significant moment in my personal life includes earning the St. Louis Visionary Award for community impact through art. The Visionaries is an unique component of St. Louis culture as it is dedicated to celebrating the contributions of women who help shape culture.
Creative Power and Policy
2016 was flooded with new and bold manifestations of artists leveraging creative power to influence policy. This has ranged from the creation of the For Freedoms artist-run super PAC to a rise in artists securing political office, and even an expansion of the US Department of Art and Culture (USDAC) with the launch of Culture/Shift and the “Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform.”
Call for Change
The controversy surrounding the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and its Direct Drive exhibition by Kelley Walker marks one of the hardest, yet awakening moments in my life and for the contemporary art world this year. During this time, I served as the Museum’s community engagement manager as well as a leader within the activist, racial justice, and artist communities. Two days prior to the exhibition’s opening, I was appointed to the board of directors of Forward through Ferguson—the racial equity organization that emerged from the Ferguson Commission following the 2014 social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Such conflict led me (and fellow black administrative staff) to write an open letter to museum directors and act in solidarity with community outcry and calls for accountability and change. The racial tensions and insensitivities have since catalyzed CAM and other art institutions nationwide to confront internal choices, curatorial and programmatic decisions, and structural dynamics that yield implicit racial bias and harm upon communities of color and other historically marginalized groups. In 2017, I expect to see and contribute to sustained, deepened, and increased engagement with museums regarding these critical issues.
Artists Respond to Trump
— Yoko Ono (@yokoono) November 11, 2016
Though many of us share Yoko Ono’s sentiments about Donald Trump, artists have continued to rise up in counteraction to the divisiveness of the presidential election. The post-election development of efforts like the #ArtActionCall series and index will serve as resources to help artists align their creative works and efforts nationally.
Black Arts Renaissance
2016 has been a year overwhelmed with “Black Girl Magic,” and a black arts renaissance came alive across visual arts, film, television, music, and digital media. My top highlights include:
d. Literature: Citizen (though published in 2014)
e. Music: Chance the Rapper and Donald Glover proved that there is place in hip hop for “black boy joy,” while the groundbreaking returns of Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest, and Solange enlightened the masses to untapped possibilities and perceptions of our spaces in society.
f. Digital Media: Black creators master the viral nature of digital media platforms like Youtube, Instagram, and Snapchat.
Women ruled Summer Olympics
For the first time in history we witnessed women conquer the Olympic games in Rio. Of the 121 medals won by the US, women earned 61 (and 27 of the 46 gold medals). From The Final Five US women’s gymnastics team to Ibtihaj Muhammad as the first US athlete to compete in her hijab, women of the Olympics gave Americans a spark of hope, resolve, unity, and fire in the midst of a year of great political frustration and division.
A significant movement that arose this year has been the on-going fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline led by Native Americans in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Since April, this effort has aligned and united cultural activists, climate advocates, and tribes nationwide to uphold the protection of water, land, and religious/spiritual sites sacred to indigenous people of the US. With the December 4 presidential announcement to reroute Dakota Access pipelines away from native land, significant progress has been made as activists have endured state-sanctioned violence and intimidation throughout #NoDAPL efforts. However, 2017 threatens to have these successes be short-lived once the new presidential administration takes office. This is an intersectional justice battle that is sure to grow in coming months.
2016 killed everything that was great, even the word, “great.”