Studio Check In With Ilk Yasha
So Ilk, please, tell us that you are the Studio Museum Institute Coordinator without telling us you are the Studio Museum Institute Coordinator.
First, thank you for flipping the script and interviewing me! I have to admit that I'm a little bit uneasy talking about myself. It is my job to create spaces for others to incubate, ideate, and network in service of our mission—to support those that are intellectually or professionally invested in art and artists of African descent.
I acknowledge that much of museum work is public-facing, presenting exhibitions and working with audiences and communities, but my specific work is more behind-the-scenes. It is internal and deals with thinking about the mission but also the future of our field. I work with different departments to think deeply about the emerging voices trying to navigate careers in the arts and culture sector. I also use the Museum as a framework and lens to support the professional development of arts workers and cultural producers, helping the next generation of leaders, educators, and curators get the tools and access they need to thrive. It’s a really focused type of community building for BIPOC individuals that have been historically underrepresented in the arts field.
You are a one-man band! In my experience, you’re filled with so much energy. I'm curious to know what keeps you going day in and day out?
There are a couple of really ridiculous themes that I identify with as a person. First, I'm an existentialist. I want to take in everything about a particular moment, which leads to my second point—that I'm a bit of a hedonist. And thirdly, I am a Libra and a people-person. I am obsessed with the ‘here and now’ and I put a lot of energy out into the world because that is all I know how to do—you aren’t promised tomorrow.
Speaking of what you are thinking about as you do this work and who you are energetically, astrologically, I know you as a person who is dedicated to the pursuit of putting your energy boldly and unapologetically out into the world. The vibes are high. What is your experience of the work you do here at Studio Museum and what is it that you hope to achieve?
Thank you so much for seeing me. There's a reading that I assign in the program I teach, Museum Education Practicum, that has a central question: What would it look like if museums put relationships at the center of their operations and principles? I think about this question all the time. I put my humanity first and am transparent about who I am in this place we call a museum. In that way, I'm opening up, boldly and, sometimes, loudly, being vulnerable but above all, honest. I'm drawn to sharing and thinking together with people about ideas, presence, and relationships. It is my goal to build trust with all the people that I work and engage with.
I'm also thrilled to have this unique position within our Museum. I'm interacting with almost every department and cultivating relationships between our staff, our interns, our fellows, our program alumni, and our extended community of cultural producers that I am deeply investing in at the Studio Museum Institute. My work is about being responsible and responsive, juggling the internal and external layers of the work seamlessly.
Running with that idea of interdepartmental collaboration, let’s talk about this idea of togetherness. It’s been great to witness all the ways in which you bring people together and create spaces of connection. What drives and informs your educational practice?
There are some big principles that guide my work. I am extremely non-hierarchical and believe in communal practice. I’m inspired by adrienne maree brown’s ‘emergent strategies’ though I actually believe in something that feels more like a divergent strategy. I’m interested in questions and directions that are intense, over-the-top, and hugely imaginative. I am inspired by criticism, am a bit of a contrarian, and value intellectual imagination as a means to transform our collective thinking: What if we go in a different direction and find something that we haven’t even considered or experienced before? All of this is of course done with an acknowledgment of the sociopolitical context of our work at the Studio Museum, allowing space for various entry points for people to engage with this exchange and dialogue.
I love intellectual imagination. I think about ideas, movements, moments, and treat that as a part of my imagination and creative focus. This is where I am motivated by books like Freedom Dreams, which suggests that we need to commit to an intellectual imagination that can push groups of people towards a larger liberatory societal and cultural impact.
I want to learn and explore alongside people, which I believe is ultimately about being vulnerable and purposeful.
Thinking about your energy and your practice, what is the soundtrack people will hear when you walk into a room?
This is a really difficult question! The mood is definitely Outkast, but when it comes to the sound I am every bit Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop” and Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much” as I am Prince's “When Doves Cry.”
All of it! There must be a way to sample and layer that all and mix it into a soundtrack. Now Ilk, in the moments that we’ve spoken, you’ve talked about holding equal space between participants and facilitators within institutional programming. Can you share more with all of us about the importance of this?
I think that a one-size-fits-all program model can be flawed. From the beginning, you know the parameters and mechanics at play in a traditional program—you show up and you know who will speak, for how long, and the audience plays a very limited role. This isn’t interesting to me as much as it once was because I rarely feel sated at the end of a program, and I think it tacitly produces a docile and subservient audience.
What I try to do in my work is bridge the distance between the presenters or facilitators and the audience. I try to reduce the subtle and not-so-subtle power imbalances at play. I want to get rid of the stiffness and rigidity in the language and offer alternatives to the formal presentation of ideas. I am sending reading lists, preparing guiding questions before and after programs, trying not to rush, and centering the human experience in all that I am putting my energy into.
I would add that I think this creates and offers more opportunities for shared investment in a space. As someone who often makes the creation of spaces of education and ideation look effortless, I’d like to hear more about the role of vulnerability in all of this and, specifically, how you create spaces of vulnerability with others?
I think humor is fundamental to my way of life. Humor is about quickness and catching someone off guard with a comment, observation, or gesture. I can pick up on the little things, and I really lean on humor because it's a universal commonality—we all laugh and it makes us feel good. Another thing that is really important to me is openness and honesty. Sometimes, I lose my train of thought or I might show my emotions and I allow for a bit of unfiltered-ness (that is human). The art world, and the museum world in general, can be serious and tight-lipped, I want to shake that up and respectfully lighten the tone a bit. It’s easy to get lost in the rigid language, the polish, and multi-syllable words so I want to break what can be an intimidating wall with humor and wit. I think we have to be more humane.
I would also add that I am committed to being a learner myself, in every space I am in. I’ve never gone into things as an expert in anything. An artist and friend of mine, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, inspires me in that she refers to herself as a learner first, engaging in curiosity and tangents as a tenet of her work and practice. She was inspired to this point by the writing and philosophies of Octavia Butler that guide you to meander, stop, and wander intentionally. I love this idea and find it so refreshing and beautiful. I want to learn and explore alongside people, which I believe is ultimately about being vulnerable and purposeful.