Efrem Zelony-Mindell (b. 1987, the USA) is the curator of collective publications such as ‘n e w f l e s h’ and ‘Primal Sight’, both dealing with trends in contemporary photography, be it in relation to gender theory or the genre of black-and-white photography. Their latest publication ‘Witness’ focuses on the intricacies of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists. It presents a collection of works by sixty-four artists alongside a foreword by the curator and an afterword by Kelsey Sucena.
On this occasion, we sat with Zelony-Mindell to ask about their publication and curatorial practice.
In the foreword of ‘Witness’ you mention that “when language and photography come together, they can expose the truths of systemic racism and bigotry.” Do you consider photography a suitable medium to bring about change in society?
Photography is certainly a means by which to bring about ideas and voice to narratives and people who are historically silenced, minimized, and erased. However, change is up to those who hold the cameras, how the pictures are used, and by what means are the photographs interrupted by systems, controls, and other sources that would try and subdue imagery. Change isn’t a one stop shop; it requires many people to work towards common goals. Change’s pursuit in society by way of photography is something to be suspicious of. The camera can be a reward to people’s curiosity, which is something we are regularly punished and discouraged from pursuing. Photographs ask questions and hopefully, with the right support, can encourage people to pursue those questions and find out more about how those images make them feel and what they see happening in the images.
When reading ‘Witness’, one of your sentences stuck in my mind: “at our core there is a place inside each of us where what lurks is melded to the lived experiences that make us who we were and what we might become.” I understand becoming as an ongoing process that many BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists undergo in their lives, and which later resonates via their works. Through exposure to such art, this “becoming “can then also have a spill over effect on the viewer. Would you then say that the notion of becoming is an element specific to such a group of artists and in their ways of approaching the medium?
Becoming isn’t reserved solely for artists and marginalized people. Becoming is something that each human—if we’re thoughtful enough to recognize that we’re worthy of giving it to ourselves—has the opportunity to embody and pursue. We do this ourselves, but we also need to do it with others. With people who don’t look like us. We need to do research and seek out thinking that is non-westernized. Silence and supremacy strangle this opportunity to come together with each other, to come together with different ideas, and have critical conversations that are as difficult as they are about learning how to love better and listen better, together. When we do that, we rearrange structures and western ideals of thinking about how to be a society, but it doesn’t stop there!
Becoming is something BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ folx are innately conscious of because we are, and have been, at the behest of civilization, society, and even language that wasn’t designed by us or for us. There are everyday systems in the world that we’ve struggled to conform to without even realizing it. Those systems don’t just authentically work for everyone. They work best for white people, specifically white men. So, anyone who’s not that, a white dude, has had to fit into those standards to learn how to speak about our perspective. We didn’t just get to slip into the world without consequence, there was a degree of conforming that occurred. We’ve [anyone who’s not a white man] had to use a language that isn’t ours to explain ourselves and justify ourselves. Couple all that with different histories and cultures that are not rooted in western thought and a whole galaxy of ritual and thinking blossoms from tools that BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ folx use to make art and have conversations. This work needs to be done together and extended outside the walls of galleries and between the covers of books. Art is a good catalyst, but people need to grow this opportunity for themselves, to become.
Is collaboration a crucial factor when being exposed to BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ art?
If contemporary makers, and viewers, don’t focus more on collaboration then we will continue to all be subject to the worship of the father, the soloist, the lone white cowboy in his studio. We live in a world dominated by the man, whiteness, and his individual success by way of his privilege and the construction of his acceptability and “normality”. Collaboration is a means by which to start rewriting how we all see the world, not just through one normalized view and focus. We need a commitment to a plurality of voices in forging forward in how groups of people can design the world through the stories and histories they bring with them. The ideals of these multitudes are woven into the fabric of BIPOC and LBGTQIA+ histories. If there is a crucial factor in being exposed to these narratives it’s the need to understand that the world, as it has been constructed, was done so by very few without varying perspectives in mind. It’s up to each and every person involved from makers to viewers to recognize that the potential of collaboration is not just between artists in a book or exhibition, but it is extended to how people come to engage with works of art, experiences, and ideas. How do we all take what we learn from this opportunity to bring all that back into our own circles of family and friends? how do we take all that back into our lives and act on it?
As an editor, what are you looking for in an artist when composing a volume like ‘Witness’?
Witness originally started as an open call. I try my best to remove my own expectations when starting a project and let things evolve based on what presents itself. A free open call is a great way to exercise a certain level of freedom from my own desire. The artists in Witness display levels of vulnerability, intimacy, and unconditional curiosity that is exciting when I saw them start forming together. It’s also my job to not solely rely on just what’s submitted. After all, what can anyone tell from just ten pictures, it’s a good start, but there’s a lot of passivity in just relying solely on the limitations of a submitted portfolio. A huge part of my job is research. It’s important for me to understand these artists, these people, their stories, and what’s inside their work. I spend a lot of time on websites and social media, getting my eyes on as much as I can so I can better understand what potential might be exposed by the thing I’m trying to make by bringing my ideas, their ideas, and our work together.
I wish to sew together those potentials in such a way that what conspires visually begins to feel narrative and cinematic. In Witness, we each start finishing each other’s sentences in different ways.
What do you think the exposure of BIPOC & LGBTQIA+ artists can bring to the visual culture?
I really don’t like speaking in generalities. It makes me feel like an Authoritarian. Grand gestures that might suggest what the future should be like are never as informed as they can be because there are too many variables to inject into one sentence or one thought like this and I want to respect and acknowledge the power I have at this moment. Exposure is something that every person who uses the camera does. Its potential is plentiful and doesn’t need to be limited to the desires of institutions or perpetuated truths. Exposure is something we do when we welcome someone into our home or invite someone into our studio. An exposure in relation to visual culture is commodified and commanded, it needs time to be seeded and respected. It is vulnerable and quiet and loud and confident. It is a mass of vertiginous contradictions. That’s why it’s so important that it be in the hands of those who have historically been left out because what exposure can bring to visual culture can be anything. That’s powerful and it deserves the respect of each of us and not just one of us in one moment. Exposure will never be just a moment.
One of my favourite queer writers José Esteban Muñoz wrote in his book ‘Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity’: “The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalising rendering of reality, to think and feel then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.” Do you see hope as a connecting factor of the diverse works featured in the book?
Cruising Utopia is in a pile of books on my shelf to be read. I’m curious about it. I wonder how José Esteban Muñoz writes to who and how that “new world” needs to be designed, and further, how that message is received by readers. It makes me think about Arturo Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse. Escobar’s book, as the summary on the back suggests, “presents a new vision of design theory and practice aimed at channelling design’s world-making capacity towards ways of being and doing that are deeply attuned to justice and the Earth.” Throughout the book he presents the necessity for varying perspectives and cultures to be a part of this conversation in how designing the world, any world, can and should be more functional for many as opposed to an elite few.
I have no desire to entrap Witness, its artists, and the ideas that are inside of it with my hope specifically. I gathered it, its potential for hope is in the hands of those who engage it. That reality needs to be recognized in each person’s own life and how they will welcome that opportunity to bring conversations and people into their lives and enact change that rejects inaction. If we don’t sort out what our own hope is for a thing or experience, and just rely on the words of one person’s promise, then hope is just some Shepard Fairey poster.
The publication now coincides with an exhibition at Texas Tech University’s School of Art Landmark Arts Gallery which is on display from November 18, 2021 – February 27, 2022. What were the differences and similarities in which you approached the book and exhibition? And what is your goal with this project?
The approach was very much the same, in that the sequence of images in the exhibition is totally the same as the sequence of the book. Due to space unfortunately everyone in the book couldn’t be included in the exhibition, but the sequence is still in the same order save the shortened roster of artists. I always take a lot of time to play with images and move them around, see if there’s not a more engaging narrative that can surface, but at the end of the day, it felt most exciting to see the exhibition echo the book. Landmark Arts is quite a curious space. It’s not as straight and narrow as four white walls and I really wanted to play on that as much as possible. There’s a movable wall that we placed in the exhibition in such a way that strange little spaces start getting carved out as you move through the room that feel like caves, tunnels, and alcoves. The space is dark, and we left two colourfully campy post-modern designed couches in the centre of the main room so people could come and relax, or reflect, maybe talk to a stranger sitting nearby on the opposite couch. I wanted the space to be fluid, flexible, and welcoming as much as a little uncertain.
The goal of bringing any exhibition like Witness to a non-coastal space is to provide an opportunity. There will be many stops, opportunities, and conversations along the way for Witness. Texas is one place that was excited to have that opportunity. The students and the faculty at TTU are incredibly grateful and excited to share their space and that gratitude is reflected back by me and the artists to them. “You are the breath I breathe . . . I would die without you here” as the curatorial statement says. We are in each other, and we need to recognize how we forget that. We need to make more room for those we forget and why there’s so much complacency. That work is boundless, it will stretch as far as each person lets it.
The publication for ‘Witness’ is currently sold out (though you can contact Efrem directly if you’d like to find out how you might be able to purchase the book and support the next volume of this collection) but is available as a free resource PDF to all online.