Joining the BMA staff last year as our curatorial fellow, Kelli Morgan has become an integral member of our curatorial team. Since coming to Birmingham, Morgan has been juggling some important projects, including her dissertation, her monthly series Decoding Black Art, and her work in the summer exhibitions Black Like Who? and Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College. Learn more about Morgan in the interview below, and be sure to meet her at her final lecture in the Decoding Black Art series on Sunday, June 21 at 3PM.
Birmingham Museum of Art: You’ve been hard at work on your dissertation recently. Can you tell us more about your area of expertise?
Kelli Morgan: Absolutely! My specialization is African American women’s art, particularly how these women express the tenets of Black feminism and womanism in their artwork. So, my dissertation examines the ways in which six African American women (Edmonia Lewis, Meta Warrick Fuller, Elizabeth Catlett, Betye Saar, Kara Walker, and Mickalene Thomas) explore concepts of Black women’s self-making, autonomy, subjectivity, and personal empowerment through visual expression.
BMA: Rather than an art historian, you’ve been trained as a cultural historian in your doctorate program. Can you give us an example of how this perspective has influenced your work at the Museum?
KM: My training is grounded in political, social, and economic history, specifically how each of these phenomena influence and shape culture and cultural expression. Since the arrival of Africans to this country, racism and various other forms of discrimination have shaped the political, social, and economic circumstances for people of color. Thus, all art forms by African Americans are produced in response to this reality. Some people may not agree with that, but it is in response to a specific material reality at specific points in history that we get ragtime, the blues, jazz, signifying, hip-hop, call and response, and quilting, as well as the various African American literary and visual traditions. The art is how we cope, how we challenge, how we critique, and how we express our experiences.
At the BMA, I have sought to use our collections to illuminate not only how Black visual artists express these concepts, but also how they do so within a very specific African American tradition, such as visual art, literature, or music. These traditions express similar ideas at similar points in history that coincide with, and sometimes break drastically from, the broader social and political movements of traditional Western art.
BMA: During your time at the Museum, you’ve created a monthly series, Decoding Black Art, which began in October 2014 and will end this weekend. Can you tell us more about what you discuss in these lectures?
KM: The premise of the series grew out of my dissertation, “We Are Roses from Our Mothers’ Gardens: The Visuality of Self-making in African American Women’s Art.” The series uses the idea of my project (how black women use sculpture to shape alternative modes of seeing) to create a communicative space where we, as a collective community, can begin to explore and examine how vision — the literal act of seeing or sensing with the eyes — informs our understandings of race and identity and how that plays out in the visual arts. During the talks, I openly discuss how history, politics, economics, and culture shape what we see in systematic ways that greatly influence how we visually interpret certain images. I analyze how African American artists have for centuries utilized a type of visual coding that troubles, challenges, and disrupts the ways in which we come to understand race, identity and, most importantly, art. My responsibility is to utilize the BMA’s collection to create a visual and conversational tapestry with the Birmingham community — one that acknowledges a collective commitment, both institutionally and throughout our various locales, to a conscious and broader expansion of our understandings of race and identity.
BMA: You’ve helped organize two of our summer exhibitions, Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College and Black Like Who?. Can you elaborate on your role in these exhibitions?
KM: For Rising Up, I have primarily helped with the programming. I was deep into dissertation writing as the project began, so I didn’t get a chance to be fully involved in the entire exhibition process. For Black Like Who?, it’s different. I’ve been there from the very start, working with the curator of the show, Graham Boettcher, to enhance the checklist and with exhibition designer Terry Beckham. I’m really excited about the show because it’s such a diverse group of images and artists. I think people will be surprised.
Click here to learn more about the final Decoding Black Art event on Sunday, June 21.