Features

Continuing in the Spirit

Holding Court at The Studio Museum in Harlem

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  • Theaster Gates
    See, Sit, Sup, Sing: Holding Court (installation view), 2012
    The Studio Museum in Harlem
    Photo: Adam Reich

  • Theaster Gates
    See, Sit, Sup, Sing: Holding Court (installation view from 125th Street), 2012
    The Studio Museum in Harlem
    Photo: Adam Reich

  • Theaster Gates
    See, Sit, Sup, Sing: Holding Court (installation view), 2012
    The Studio Museum in Harlem
    Photo: Adam Reich

On a regular Thursday evening passers-by walking down 125th Street will occasionally stop to look through the glass windows of the Studio Museum's atrium. It is not unusual to see people of all backgrounds stop and meander, trying to get a quick peek to glimpse at what is going on inside the museum. Theaster Gates's See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court (2012), currently housed in the Atrium, has garnered considerable attention since its installation in plain view of 125th Street on the occasion of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. An installation comprising classroom materials sourced from the recently closed Crispus Attucks Elementary School on the South Side of Chicago, See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court is designed as a learning tool, encouraging interactivity, community engagement and friendly exchange.

During the day, Gates's installation has become a site for Studio Museum personnel to convene and hold meetings; it has also been activated by the Education department for youth programs, such as Lil' Studio and Hands On activities. Recently, a conversation involving high school and college students, including many Expanding the Walls alumni, came to "The Table," (as See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court is known informally at the Museum) to sit and discuss the Museum's current exhibition, The Shadows Took Shape.

Navigating through initial shyness and apprehension, many small conversations about the exhibition gave way to a larger group discussion. We talked about the work on view related to the larger history of art and how it has been skewed when looking through the lens of the African diasporic experience.  For these students, history is an important consideration when thinking about the future and defining futurism. When presented with the question of "what is futurism," I expected the students to focus on technology or scientific advancement as defining factors. Surprisingly, a few cited Karl Marx as a means of thinking about social change and its global impact in the coming decades.  The lively discussion then unfolded to cover a wide range of topics, including the definition of “blackness” and the black identity, the role of race in music, the politics of respectability, gentrification and cultural appropriation, among other issues. The discussants' insight into the problems within their communities, coupled with their forward thinking in approaching solutions for those problems, prompted me on more than one occasion to put down my pen and stop taking notes, so I could listen with full attention to their words.

The themes they discussed in this 90-minute conversation, loosely inspired by a series of questions formulated by Gerald Leavell II, the Studio Museum's Expanding the Walls and Youth Programs Coordinator reverberate not just with the Museum's current exhibitions, but also as the surrounding community. Museums are important educational tools; events such as this affirm the Museum's position as a "site for [the] dynamic exchange of ideas about art and society." The art on view sparked a socially-engaged, intellectual dialogue amongst this young audience, activating this particular space in the Museum in a truly awe-inspiring way.

Tara Burns was a Fall 2013 Education Intern at The Studio Museum in Harlem.