Episode 29: Imani Jacqueline Brown

(un)making

Episode 29: Imani Jacqueline Brown

By Weston Teruya April 25, 2018

Weston Teruya welcomes artists, arts administrators, and cultural workers of color to get real about their lives, practices, and careers. Each episode is an in-depth look into how art gets made, but more importantly how these folks are seeing to the system of art’s (UN)making.


In this episode, I talk with New Orleans-based artist, writer, and cultural organizer Imani Jacqueline Brown. Imani manifests her work in many forms: as a core member of Occupy Museums, co-founder of Blights Out in New Orleans, Director of Programs with Antenna, co-producer of Fossil Free Fest, and as a board member of the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a community land trust that built New Orleans's first permanently affordable housing. Throughout her work she consistently interrogates the underlying mechanisms of exploitation and inequity in capitalism while organizing intentional communities of resistance and mutual aid.

In putting together her programs, she very carefully examines the underlying financial systems that destabilize and shape our lives, whether it be fossil fuel money, predatory development, student debt, or wealthy investment portfolios. She helped to form Occupy Museums, a collective that rose out of the Occupy Wall Street protests to challenge the commodification of culture as luxury good. One of their signature projects includes DebtFair, which was featured in the latest Whitney Biennial and “bundled” artworks by artists impacted by debt—from educational loans to the Puerto Rican financial crisis—and displayed the works in cut-out sections of the museum’s walls. These clusters of work, described as bundles to invoke the language of the investment industry, made visible the ways the artistic institution has been built off peoples’ art, labor, and precarity.

Blights Out, a collective of artists and cultural organizers in New Orleans that highlights and intervenes in the crass gentrification, privatization, and public disinvestment of the city during its post-Katrina recovery, started with the hope of acquiring property as a way of anchoring and reclaiming spaces being lost to speculators. In that process, they’ve uncovered the often byzantine systems of taxes, fees, and citations that trap lower income residents in a vicious cycle that makes properties near impossible to keep within local communities of color. In one of their signature projects, the Living Glossary, the group researched the linguistic histories behind real estate related terminologies to begin unpacking the connections between their current use and their exploitative roots. For instance. their first glossary broadside examines the “auction,” revealing the linkages between the trading of captive African bodies on the slave block, bidding on blighted properties, and the circulation of high end, luxury goods like artworks.

In our conversation, Imani explains the themes that link her many projects. She also challenges our communities to revoke the fossil fuel industry’s social license to operate and resist extractive industries, whether real estate speculation or oil. We also discuss her ambivalence toward identifying as an artist and whether that identification is useful in the work that she does.

*Full disclosure: As with our last episode, I originally invited Imani out to Oakland to present as part of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s Exploring Public Art Practices Symposium I co-organized in March, which enabled us to have this conversation after the symposium. Her symposium presentation focused on the work of Blights Out, but as we discuss here, her work also encompasses the projects she organizes with Occupy Museums, Antenna, and Fossil Free Fest.

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Imani Jacqueline Brown is a New Orleans native, artist, activist, researcher, writer and designer. She has received a Salzburg Global Forum's Young Cultural Innovators fellowship, the British Council's Future Leaders Connect fellowship, and grants for Blights Out from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Joan Mitchell Foundation, and Art Matters. She was awarded residencies at the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, Poland, The Luminary Arts, and Headlands Center for the Arts.

Subscribe to Art Practical on iTunes to catch (un)making as soon as it publishes, or look for it here every other Friday! #APaudio

This episode is funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency.

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