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Studio Check In With Jamal Batts

Studio Museum

Studio Check-In was born from a desire to tell the stories of the people who work behind the scenes at different arts and cultural institutions. Institutions are defined by the people who work within them, but they are equally defined by the community members, artists, and audiences that intersect and support the work and mission—different audiences and participants help make the story more full, more human, and more alive. 

In this edition of Studio Check In, Ilk Yasha speaks with Jamal Batts, a transdisciplinary scholar, curator, and writer who participated in the fall 2021 cohort of Museum Professionals Seminar.  

Jamal, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I always begin with a simple question to introduce our interviewee to our readers. Can you tell the readers a little about yourself?   

I’m Jamal Batts. I'm an independent curator and a curator-in-residence in the Department of Fine Arts at University of Pennsylvania where I'm running a reading group and doing programming. I'm a graduate of the Department of African-American and African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley where I completed my doctorate and I'm curently a University of California President's Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of African-American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. I'm juggling a number of titles right now. My work broadly looks at contemporary art and its relationship to blackness, gender, and sexuality. 

My main current project is a dissertation that I’m now transitioning into a book, and hopefully some sort of curatorial project. The title is “Immoral Panics: Black Queer Aesthetics and the Construction of Risk”, and it looks at Black queer artists who are thinking about notions of sexual risk and risk-taking from the early HIV/AIDS crisis to the present, ongoing pandemic.  

Do you want to include a shoutout to where you're from?  

I would love to! I’m originally from Virginia Beach, Virginia—Hampton Roads, or Tidewater, the home of the Neptunes, which includes Pharrell and Chad Hugo, as well as Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and the Clipse. 

Who did you look up to as you imagined becoming a scholar? Why did you gravitate toward scholarship?  

I can tell you the exact moment I decided I wanted to be a scholar. I was about to graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My parents had told me I needed to go to college and somehow I made it all the way to the end. I wasn't the best student, but I got there. During my senior year, I had been inspired by a number of scholars in the African-American Studies Department. I was led by a number of scholars at VCU including Norrece T. Jones Jr., Melanie Njeri Jackson, and Ann Creighton-Zollar, who taught me how to center Black feminist analysis and care in the work of Black studies. During my final year, I read an article by E. Patrick Johnson, a scholar of performance studies at Northwestern University, titled “Feeling the Spirit in the Dark: Expanding Notions of the Sacred in the African-American Gay Community.” It centered the experience of Black queer club-going and its relationship to the ecstatic experience of Black church and Black spirituality. 

I had these lingering questions about the reasons why I felt compelled to be in Black queer spaces every weekend and its relationship to my upbringing in a household where my mother was a Deaconess and my father was a Deacon. We went to church every weekend. Both spaces were life-fulfilling. E. Patrick Johnson's argument was that the Black queer club allowed for the connection of the body and the spirit in a way that the church wouldn't necessarily allow for Black queer folks and Black women as it might allow for cis-gender heterosexual Black men. 

That argument was so compelling to me—I remember crying when I read it because it showed me you could have a scholarship that delved deeply into difficult questions and that was creative writing that brought the personal into the structural or more broad community questions and dilemmas, the sets of concerns I had. Reading that article brought me into scholarship. I do what I do because I was taught that the centering of Black queer life in scholarship was something that could be done, and done in a way that was transparent, open, erotic, and beautiful. 

There are many artists I adore who are specifically addressing the church or alluding to its importance in their perspective, like Theaster Gates, Ja’Tovia Gary, and Arthur Jafa to name just a few. I’d love to hear more about the importance of the Black church in your own upbringing or perspective. 

I mean, the drama of Black life, all of it, is somehow encompassed in the church. I can tell stories about how my identity was affirmed in that space, how I was loved, cared for, and nurtured. You could actually draw a lineage between preaching in the pulpit and my scholarship. The poetics of my work are all bound up in going to church every Sunday and listening to preachers. That's where it originates from. I can also say I felt ‘buked and scorned from the pulpit as well. I've definitely had to deal with a few hellfire and brimstone sermons the day after I left the Black gay club. I had just woken up from a Saturday night at the club and now I have a preacher telling me, you know, um, that might not work out so well for me.   

What is a source of information you use in your life or work that wouldn’t necessarily be deemed “scholarly” by the academy (read: predominantly white heternormative elite institutions)?   

Black sex and Black sexuality coming from a Black perspective or Black gaze might be something the academy doesn't necessarily see as knowledge, or useful knowledge, that can then help communities or serve the goals of liberation. There’s always a difficulty in trying to make legible the importance of teaching Black sex and sexuality in academic spaces.  

I'm trying to think about how structural forces, racism, inequity, enter into our sex lives and into our bedrooms, and how we combat that. I’m also thinking about how certain erotic knowledges and ways of being together and relating to one another are ways of either taking a respite from or confronting head-on colonial logics or racism.  

What's an idea or theory you’re unpacking or thinking about right now?  

One of the things I’ll be grappling with forever is Black feminist Hortense Spillers’ notion of the flesh. Certain Black queer artists, the late writer Gary Fisher, in particular, are invested in thinking about skin during the AIDS crisis, because the changes in his skin were one of the only ways Fisher could gauge whether he was positive. In this poetic and smart way, he's thinking about how that is related to his skin color, his blackness, and the ways blackness is thought of as contagion or something unwanted. 

I'm trying to think through the relationship between the violence enacted upon queer communities, no matter one's race, especially in the early AIDS crisis, and forms of anti-Black violence that were also relegated to people who could be visibly pointed out as being racialized subjects. I'm thinking about forms of visuality and forms of surveillance that are looking to categorize people during the HIV/AIDS crisis in order to segregate and diminish them.  

Who is a visual artist whose work you’ve recently been exploring and analyzing?  

Mark Bradford's work and how he is abstracting the image of Kaposi sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer—he's abstracting the image of sarcoma cells under a microscope. He’s doing it in a way to think about his anxieties during the HIV/AIDS crisis, about when one knows they are positive or when one knows they are stigmatized. I'm considering that specific vulnerability along with the ways he's thinking about the vulnerability of Black communities during the LA rebellion. I'm reflecting on how he's using materials, paper, for instance, to think about vulnerability, to think about danger, to think about risk. 

As institutions, and society at large, begin to rapidly acknowledge and uplift Black queer perspectives, there are always going to be growing pains. I think popular attention is very much a gift and a curse, in some sense it's life-affirming but in another sense, it can be reductivist and creates a condition for quick appropriation. What’s an idea or an assumption you want to challenge in your work, something you want people to ruminate on for themselves?  

We need to give more thought to the logic of representation that makes it seem as if, because you can see Black queer art on the walls or you can see a proliferation of Black queer professors in certain institutions, that means the institution is doing something to structurally change the lives of Black queer folks in general. There needs to be a questioning of what institutions are actually willing to do to make Black queer life more livable in this moment. 

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, for instance, has said that as a Black trans woman, visibility is a dangerous game that opens up the doors for some, but in actuality, those on the ground have to take the vitriol of those who are angry there are more people who are gaining access. I think that leads us down a road to tokenization where we can see ourselves in a number of spaces in a number of different platforms, but we're not addressing the most pertinent concerns of the populations who actually need the resources these institutions could, but will not, give. 

What does it look like for these corporations and institutions to say that they are interested in having Black folks around but in reality that being an excuse for them to not have to deal with the forms of dispossession they're involved in? 

You write and think deeply about risk and erotic dangers, ever-present themes in the struggle against the AIDS & HIV epidemic. I want to unpack the word “risk” with you because it’s often commonly placed in relation to the word “reward.” So what's the upside of risk-taking?  

One of the things I consider are the ways artists take up notions of risk and risk-taking, and how they are thinking about the historical construction of blackness as sexually lascivious, dangerous, and risky; and the new visions they give us of a world outside of that framework. 

Risk is this expansive and complicated term, especially as it relates to Black life. I don’t want to label it as a net good because it can be linked to so much death and destruction, but I think of it as a necessity. Black people in an oppressive state have to put themselves at risk in order to survive in any given setting. The impulse toward liberation in a nation founded upon Black objection, objectification, and subservience is risky and dangerous. 

I like to think of risk as this inescapable nexus, where Black people are posed as risks historically, and today especially, in the realm of sexuality, while also being put at-risk by these constructions. Risk is a necessity toward any sort of freedom dream, but it's also unfortunate Black people have to be put at risk in order to reach a more livable station in life.  

I was recently reading the poem “american wedding” by Essex Hemphill and I was left feeling a radical sense of resilience in his words. He says: “They don’t know we are becoming powerful. Every time we kiss we confirm the new world coming.” How do you stay resilient given the complicated histories you’re exploring?  

There’s this talk by Essex Hemphill at the Black Nations/Queer Nations Conference a few months before he passes. A lot of people quote from it because he mentions he's worried racism will follow him into cyberspace. Especially at the moment of his passing, that is a profound brilliance. One of the things he mentions in that piece that I think is reflected in “american wedding,” is that in this moment where he is reluctantly referring to himself as a person with AIDS, he is also revealing to the audience he's found love. In “american wedding,” Hemphill is talking about the power of autonomous erotics outside of state power, where he calls the state those “horsemen bearing terror.” He's trying to get at the importance of certain bonds of erotic autonomy in that moment, how they are a protection, how they are what can't be surveilled or completely known. 

That is the kind of resiliency that is important for me—vulnerability among and between Black folks even in moments of terror and in moments of being under attack.  

We recently launched Last Address Tribute Walk: Harlem in partnership with Visual Aids, documenting and paying tribute to Black queer histories. Do you have any queer celebratory location-based memories you’d like to share with our audiences?  

There are so many Black queer spaces in Virginia and Washington, D.C. that will never receive the recognition they deserve for saving so many lives under conditions of brutality. Their worth cannot be quantified. So it's important to name them. Club Colours in Richmond, Virginia was the first Black gay club I ever attended. I will say, it’s Colours with a “u”, so, very fancy. It's funny talking about risk—I was always warned to never go there because there was a shooting every weekend. After the first time I went, I was there almost every Saturday for around three to four years. There was never once a shooting. Colours was important because it was the only Black-centered gay club in the area. Everyone was there. It was Black gay men, lesbians, trans folk, non-gender conforming folks. It was the spot.  

There was a line on the dance floor between male-identified and female-identified folks, but it was always crossed. It had the best music, the best DJ in town. It was extremely hot. There were smoke machines. I have memories of sitting on a window sill on the second floor, with the windows open so we could get some air. I remember leaving the club often drenched in sweat. It was amazing.  

Club Colours, which unfortunately closed in 2018, was also a straight club through the week called The Boss. This little neon sign would light up to let everyone know it was time to be there. It was the club everyone who had the nerve to go to would stand in line outside because you could be spotted by anyone in the neighborhood so it was also a risk to be there because you were putting yourself out there by standing in line. 

I’ll mention two clubs in Norfolk, Virginia named after candy—Hershee and Nutty Buddy’s. I was always worried someone from church might see me going into Hershee because it was located in the neighborhood or the area where my church was. I don't even know if it's still around, but the Delta Elite in Washington, D.C., was my introduction to house music. There was a long tradition of wonderful house DJs in that space, in this large expansive dance floor with these huge mirrors. The young folks like me at the time were downstairs in this basement. I'm six foot two, my head would touch the ceiling. It was so low. It was a testament to what Black people can do in tight spaces. The way folks extended and expanded their bodies and touched one another was wondrous. 

Jamal, thank you so much for your care and time.  

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