Curator Anjuli Nanda has spent more than a decade working for the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation and their New York exhibition space, The 8th Floor, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that she had a time to sit down with the work she had done. A legacy project to make the foundation’s first book immersed her back in the archives and the collection she helped create. Here, Nanda tells us why An incomplete archive of activist art and the associated exposure was an act of catharsis.
Kat Herriman: How do you sum up six years of work in a book?
Anjuli Nanda: From a practical point of view, there were always two aspects to the books. This is why it gave rise to two volumes. There is the visual artistic expression side, the exhibitions and the constitution of the collection “Art and social justice” of the Rubins. Then there’s the other side of the Foundation’s activities, which are really community-based and about promoting non-profit, artist-led initiatives in New York City. It was a way of looking at these two strands of the foundation’s activity and celebrating them separately from each other, but also together.
Part of the impetus and motivation for this book is that it is a collective effort. It’s not the Foundation celebrating their interactions with all these seemingly disparate parts, but how they overlap and support each other.
KH: Was the editing process cathartic?
A: Absolutely. It was an almost reassuring process because with every show, there’s a bit of tunnel vision that happens when you watch it. Stepping back and looking at everything in concert with each other is not necessarily an exercise that conservatives engage in very often. It was kind of exciting to revisit the installation plans and see how the individual works interacted with each other. Then watch them sequentially, page after page in the volume, and see how they talk to each other over the years, and that’s what’s fun to watch holistically.
Works of art take on new meanings when presented side by side. How does Betty Tompkins, reflecting on the Me Too movement and textual intervention on art history textbooks, speak to someone like the Guerilla Girls who use mass media? This was an opportunity to foster these conversations.
KH: How did you come up with the cover images?
A: It was difficult because so many works that are socially engaged, so many of them are text-based. Firelei Báez was an immediate favorite just because of how striking this image is. It was shown in one of our first shows in the series, “Entre l’histoire et le corps” (2015). The way his piercing eyes look at the work itself. For me, it was about having a cover that made people watch it more.
For the second cover, I really wanted something to illustrate activism as a way to both relate to the title and to the themes we explore both in the book and in our exhibits. Although this image of Andrea Bowers of Joanna Wallace who is a trans-activist is not in the collection, it is so powerful because even if you don’t know it, it is a reference to Stonewall; there’s something about someone throwing a brick that suggests a breakup.
KH: What books did you draw inspiration from?
A: A book that definitely inspired me is Young, gifted and black which was edited by Antwaun Sargent about the Lumpkin Collection. There are points that we talk about from a collector’s point of view or we talk about from a more institutional point of view, and then there are points that we let people speak for themselves. I was trying to find books that combined all of that, especially in a way that wasn’t necessarily tied to an exhibition.
Another book that has been extremely helpful is the Noah Davis publication edited by David Zwirner. I am drawn to very sharp contours. I’d like to thank my local Whitney bookstore for letting me in and peruse the copyright pages.
KH: Were you afraid that if you put two books in a slipcase people would hesitate to read them?
A: Sometimes books in a slipcase seem totally archived, when this is a game about archives, but they’re meant to be pulled out and function both separately and together.
KH: How did you bring together this group of curators and writers and authors that you wanted to hire for the texts?
A: There was always a working list of exhibitions and grantmaking activities of the foundation. In my opinion, one of the most poignant parts is the Accessibility Roundtable which brought together a group of people to discuss ways in which this cultural sector could really improve and expand its accessibility practices in a way that is not symbolic. Many people avoid disability justice because no one wants to look wrong. I respect both the honesty and the clarity that all the participants of this round table have put forward in thinking about new ways and modes of functioning within cultural spaces in a way that is equal and not that of others . It’s not necessarily about the visual arts, but also about how cultural institutions can bring about change for the better.
KH: Now that you’ve created one, do you feel compelled to move on to the next one? Were there any lessons you would take next?
A: I think the second would come in the next five or six years and to see where we go from there. It was a celebration of the activities of the Foundation and this mission led me to delve deeper into the Shelley and Donald Rubin private collection, which I have worked with for a long time and helped to form over the past 10 years. . There are a lot of different branches in the collection, and it was really fun to pick up the threads of the contemporary Cuban collection or the contemporary Himalayan collection and see how all of these works can talk to each other and not necessarily have to be geographically compartmentalized or by period. It has helped me, as a curator, to look at works I have known for a very long time with new eyes, and to gain a new appreciation for the collection and how it really speaks to the history of art. ‘activism.
The primacy of so many artworks in the collection is the message. It wasn’t necessarily an explicit direction the collection took, but it’s really what attracted the Rubins. It’s amazing to come full circle and see how, over a 40-year collecting period, all of these works, down to the work we’ve acquired over the last year, speak to each other.
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