#16 Bars is a recurring column at MusiQology. When we want to get a sense of the discourse around a particular pop culture moment or event, we search the web, highlighting diverse voices across social media and aggregating them in a kind of thematic digital verse, with our own Genius-style annotations where necessary. A sign of a rapper’s ability is his or her ability to freestyle 16 bars—MusiQology’s piece is an improvisational sampling of speakers in concert.
We here at MusiQology are still so elated after the revelation weeks ago that Dr. Kellie Jones had been named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow and awarded a so-called “Genius Grant.” The foundation lists three criteria for selection: “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.” We’re proud to say that Kellie checks all three boxes (and many more) and we wanted to curate a selection of the coverage of Dr. Jones’s great honor, along with relevant quotes that flesh out the picture of her accomplishment.
What does “genius” look like from a bird’s eye view? She sets the alarm for 4AM to finish the essay, to prepare the lecture, to capture the sprite muse. It stations itself at the same simple wooden desk she’s been writing on since she left home for college because it functions well, and there’s far too many other pressing matters to attend to. Like reading both volumes of the 700-page oral histories of artists long forgotten. Like consuming the most difficult theoretical texts because her graduate students need to know about them. Like combing Chelsea’s galleries on a Saturday to view the latest. Like archival research. Like explaining to the world the science of the materials that comprise an art object and the contexts that make it say something to viewers. Like remembering who owned the thing in 1967. – Dr. Guy
Kellie Jones is an art historian and curator deepening our understanding of contemporary art of the African Diaspora and securing its place in the canons of modern and contemporary art. Her research and curatorial practice, which span large-scale museum exhibitions with extensive catalogues as well as scholarly books and articles, have been instrumental in introducing the work of now seminal black artists (such as Martin Puryear, David Hammons, and Lorna Simpson) to wide audiences and bringing to light long-forgotten or overlooked black artists.
Here’s a thought experiment: What if you realized in high school that an entire community of people were underrepresented in the arts, so you created your own area of study in college to push their work to the forefront? What if you spent the next 30 years trying to change the ratio? But as a reward, at age 57, you were given a half a million dollars — no strings attached — for your continued commitment to those voices. Would you have the perseverance to get there? Would you realize how important your work was and never give it up?
I never found anything so difficult that I would give up on this work. I enjoy it too much. You’ll find resistance to change everywhere and you just have to keep moving at it. People have been asking me a lot about resistance lately. I enjoyed the work so much that I kept working at it. I think a lot about the people who had come before me: If they could do something then I could, too. It’s about the work. You do the work.
“Art was supposed to change things … after studying art history, you realize that’s not always the case, but I love that spirit about what art is supposed to be. Art is part of our larger world so it’s not just by itself trying to do that … yeah, so art does change things.”
Motivation comes from the intersection of pleasure and interest, says Jones. “Research is about a certain obsession with a topic and wanting to know the answers,” she says. “I wanted to make art history reflect the world we live in, and that’s been one of my goals. “I also believe in the evidence that objects give us,” Jones continues. “Sometimes they offer us the most reliable evidence of history. Interesting, beautiful, and full of information, the objects keep pushing me forward.”
Even as she’s made a career fracturing the monolithic, white, male art-historical narrative on display in many major museums and other institutions, “I can’t say there’s really been resistance. Really, there’s just been a lot of work,” Jones said. There’s a plethora of books and scholarship on artists like Picasso and Damien Hirst. Information on more marginalized artists exists but is harder to find. For Jones, there’s a joy to the process of unearthing these stories, something she also tries to instill in her students. “You just have to dig for it, you then just have to write history yourself. And that’s an exciting prospect,” Jones said.
“[A]s for the field, there was no such thing. When I was in college, I created my own major, interdisciplinary between African-American studies, art and Latin-American studies. I invented that for myself. Then I went back and got a PhD and started teaching that in a classroom. We have been making this field a discipline, all of us now teaching these things in the academy. Certainly that wasn’t the case in the ‘70s.”
Jones is excited about the timing of her grant and said it represents real growth in her field. She noted that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is opening this weekend in Washington, D.C. “That’s the type of work I’m doing,” she said with excitement. “And now to have something that people from all over the world will visit and say, ‘This is part of U.S. history — this is part of American culture.’ ” That represents a seismic shift from 1970, she said. “Museums now understand better the role of a variety of objects in narrating what art history is,” Jones said.
“I didn’t think I wanted to be an artist. But one of the things I started seeing in high school is that when you study art history, even though you’re going to a very incredibly diverse New York City high school, where you have a lot of people of color who are artists, and you don’t even think about it, look at the books, certainly back in that time period — this is in the ’70s — and you don’t see anybody of color except for people who are very ancient, like Egyptians. Or Mayans. And you know, somehow, it doesn’t seem right that the people you are working with are never going to be famous and never going to be in a book. Never going to be important.”
“Jones, who is 57 years old, said she intended to work as a diplomat after college but found herself drawn back into the rich, cultural stew of her upbringing. “My family’s contributions became a road map for me,” she said. She began to wonder why her art history textbooks in high school devoted so little space to African-American cultural figures. After studying art of the African diaspora at Yale and earning her doctorate in 1999, she continued digging, gathering archives and discovering little-seen masterpieces by black artists like Melvin Edwards and Senga Nengudi. These artists are best known for exploring racial and societal tensions by making sculptures using metal fragments or pantyhose, respectively.”
“One of Jones’ most lauded achievements was curating a 2011 show at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles titled “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980.” The exhibit featured 130 paintings, drawings, sculptures and videos by 33 artists. Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote a glowing review, noting that “Now Dig This!” tells “an important story that is not so much unknown as underknown.””
Jones graduated from Amherst with an interdisciplinary major, which she described as a combination of black studies, art history and Spanish, and wrote a thesis comparing African American and Latin American artists. During her undergraduate studies, she designed an independent study course to interview artists she knew in New York, she said, “as a way to find out information about these artists that [she] wasn’t readily finding.” Jones started her career as a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning. Community arts and ethnically specific organizations were important, she said, because they made different forms of art accessible and “because these highlight the histories that are so important for our country.” “It’s not just African Americans, and it’s not just black people,” Jones said. “Everyone wants to know about this history … They’re not just for the sake of African Americans — although that’s important — it’s about changing how we view the world, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
“There are a lot of ways that artists participate in social movements … it’s not always visible in the image, and I think that’s the important part,” Jones said. “You have abstract art in the ’50s and ‘60s. What happens in the ’60s—the civil rights movement, the black power movement. So you have these abstract objects, but it doesn’t mean the artists weren’t participating in change.”
“In South of Pico Kellie Jones explores how the artists in Los Angeles’s black communities during the 1960s and 70s created a vibrant, productive, and engaged activist arts scene in the face of structural racism. Emphasizing the importance of African American migration, as well as L.A.’s housing and employment politics, Jones shows how the work of black Angeleno artists such as Betye Saar, Charles White, Noah Purifoy, and Senga Nengudi spoke to the dislocation of migration, L.A.’s urban renewal, and restrictions on black mobility.”