Visiting Artist Profiles

Fo Wilson

By Liz Glass February 15, 2012

The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.


This article is part of the Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars that intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions. Fo Wilson will speak at California College of the Arts as part of the Design and Craft Lecture Series on Wednesday, February 22, 7–9 p.m.

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Negro Art Collective (Tony Cokes, Renee Cox, and Fo Wilson). Mama, I Thought Only Black People Were Bad, 1995; posters. Courtesy of Creative Time, New York.

Set in dialogue with an art world and a culture segmented into groups and types, Fo Wilson’s work balances at the intersections. Wearing many hats—and, on occasion, a lampshade—Wilson works as an artist, a designer, a curator, a critic, and an educator. Stemming from her background in furniture design and often using the visual vocabulary of domestic furniture as both armature and enclosure, her artistic practice centers on the exploration of African American cultural identity. As a curator and writer, Wilson tackles issues of cultural identity and the divides between art, craft, and design in an era when the fluidity of making challenges these art historically–manufactured categories.

Wilson began her career as a graphic designer, working as a consultant in New York and San Francisco. In 1995, she formed the collaborative Negro Artist Collective with the artists Renee Cox and Tony Cokes. That year, the first intervention by the Negro Artist Collective appeared on the streets of New York and Los Angeles, appropriating the words of the conservative political writer Charles Murray. Presented with the support of Creative Time, this project, Mama, I Thought Only Black People Were Bad (1995), disseminated posters with Murray’s quotation set in white letters against a black background: “In raw numbers, European-American whites are the ethnic group with the most illegitimate children, most people on welfare, most unemployed men, and most arrests for serious crimes.”1 Pasted throughout the streets of the two cities, these posters meant to challenge the stereotypes of black male criminality against the statistical reality reflected by Murray’s words.

Carrying her interest in the politics of racial identity through her graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, Wilson received her MFA in Furniture Design in 2005. Wilson has developed a body of work that fuses questions of cultural representation with the design and fabrication of furniture, using the craft of furniture making as a new entrance into the realm of identity politics. In her work, Wilson builds furniture, reclaims historical design objects, and inserts culturally loaded materials, oftentimes real or synthetic hair. Her Seeing Series (2006) began with the building of three solid-black pieces of furniture: a lamp, table, and chair. A set of photographic diptychs picture these objects on the left; on the right, Wilson displaced these objects with her own body—adopting the positions of the lamp, table, and chair—to raise questions about the way we perceive markers of racial and cultural identity that we embody and project onto others.

In other works, Wilson has addressed the history of the woman known as the Hottentot Venus—Sarah Baartman, a South African who was displayed as an anthropological curiosity throughout nineteenth-century Europe. Wilson used bell jars and tables to replicate the conditions of display that Baartman was subjected to, and she wrote a series of diary entries, channeling Baartman’s voice and placing her in dialogue with other figures from history and pop culture.

One table is evocative of Baartman’s physicality: the legs are curvaceous and stout, with horsehair standing in for Baartman’s cloaked genitalia, which had been seen as a mark of her otherness by the European naturalist who displayed her. Atop this table sits a bell jar housing pieces from the diary. The bell jar also recalls Baartman’s body, which was dissected and displayed after her death. Wilson’s exploration of the persona of the Hottentot Venus also spawned a collaboration with her son, the filmmaker Dayo Harewood. Shown in the exhibition Progeny II: On Art, Family, Race, and Culture at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sarah’s Lament (2008) paired Baartman’s diary entries with hip-hop music videos to voice questions surrounding the sexualization of black women from the nineteenth century through the present.

Alongside her art practice, Wilson works as a curator, critic, and educator. While much of her artwork borrows from a diverse range of media to raise questions of identity, her curatorial and critical work has focused on spanning the gaps between art, design, and craft. Using her concern with materials as a starting point (wood, glass, and hair being among her favorites), Wilson recently curated the exhibition The New Materiality: Digital Dialogues at the Boundaries of Contemporary Craft at the Fuller Craft Museum in Boston.

Featuring contemporary makers who integrate technologies to their craft practices in additive ways, the exhibition challenges the divisions between craft, design, and art and looks at the ways that artists fluidly move between categories. Speaking of the exhibition on a radio broadcast during the show’s run at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Wilson highlighted the work Sounding (2008), made by Donald Fortescue and Lawrence LaBianca, two San Franciscan artists who teach at California College of the Arts.2 Sounding consists of a table, built by the artists and then submerged in the San Francisco Bay for two months. Growing like a horn from the table’s surface, a sound amplifier plays a constant stream of noises recorded underwater—translating what Wilson calls “the memory of the table” through audio technology. Fortescue and LaBianca, Wilson argues, are two among many contemporary artists who work outside of the categories assigned by art historians that divide works into opposing camps of craft, design, art, and technology.

Through her diverse practices that shuttle between criticism and making, Wilson embodies the malleability that she sees increasingly at play in the contemporary art sphere. Regarding the act of making, Wilson has said: “I think, to most of the makers…when we’re in our studios, we’re not thinking, ‘Am I making art? Am I making craft? Am I making design?’ We’re just making, and it all kind of comes together.”3 Through embracing political issues and concerns about materiality, Wilson’s own practice moves toward expanded definitions of art and their impact on life.

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Fo Wilson. Hottentot Not!, 2008; installation view, Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, Milwaukee. Courtesy of the Artist.

 

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The Visiting Artist Profile series is supported by the San Francisco branch of the Kadist Art Foundation. Kadist participates in the development of society through contemporary art by collecting and producing the work of artists and conducting various programs to promote their role as cultural agents. The foundation also supports the work of curators, academics, and magazines internationally through its residency program and by hosting public events on Wednesdays and a Saturday Reading Room at its space at 3295 20th Street in the Mission.

 

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NOTES:

1. Creative Time, Programs and Events, Current and Archive, Negro Art Collective.

2. Fo Wilson, interview by Bonnie North, “The New Materiality,” Lake Effect, WUWM, April 14, 2011.

3. Ibid.

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