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Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
Beginning next Monday, the National Museum of Women in the Arts will host a new exhibit focusing on contemporary artists of color. DMV Color opens on November 4th and runs through the beginning of March. All contributors have ties to the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
The collection highlights nationwide dilemmas, such as gentrification and immigration, through a region-specific lens. Mediums include photography, graphic novels, zines and more.
We’re joined by Lynora Williams, director of the Betty Boyd Library & Research Center, and featured artists Malaka Gharib and Carolyn Toye.
Produced by Laura Spitalniak
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSI'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. D.C. has always been home to an eclectic group of artists, specifically artists of color. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is celebrating that history with a new exhibit. DMV Color opens in November, and it features contemporary artists of color with ties to the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Women from all walks of life will share their experiences as DMV denizens, through photography, zines, comics and more. Joining us to discuss is Lynora Williams. She is the director of the Betty Boyd Library and Research Center at the National Museum for Women in the Arts. Hi, Lynora.
LYNORA WILLIAMSHi, there.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSCarolyn Toye is a D.C.-based urban photographer and the creator of "The D.C. I See -- Art of a Vanishing City." Hi, Carolyn.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSAnd Malaka Gharib is the author of "I Was Their American Dream" and founder of the food zine, The Runcible Spoon. Hi, Malaka.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSLynora, I'm going to start with you. Tell us what inspired the museum to host this collection.
WILLIAMSWell, Sasha, I've been the librarian director at National Museum of Women in the Arts for just a little over a year. And it was just a huge delight to find that the museum has an awesome collection of artist books, which are basically little works of art in the form of a book. And we started pouring through that collection and thinking a lot about representation of women of color in our region and thought, why not? Why not show off book arts of women of color from this area? So, we defined our region as going up to Baltimore and down to Richmond.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSI see. Now, DMV Color, Lynora, tell us about the collection itself and what people can expect when they visit.
WILLIAMSFirst of all, it's a very eclectic exhibition. So, it's eclectic in terms of the form, and it's eclectic in terms of the themes, and it's eclectic in terms of the background and heritage of the women who are part of the show. So, that means that we have artist books, as I mentioned, but we also have photo zines, such as Carolyn's here. We have graphic novels, such as Malaka. And we have just regular zines. So, it's a little bit of Everything.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSAnd the stories are inspired by various things, right, that have to do with living here in the DMV.
WILLIAMSAbsolutely. So, it can be people who were born and raised here, people who went to school here, people who were here as part of military families. They could've been here in the DMV for one year or for a lifetime, but we felt that there's just a real rich exchange going on here that ferments great creativity. And we wanted to show that off.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSMalaka, tell me how you got involved with DMV Color.
GHARIBWell, actually, Lynora and I teamed up together last year to do the D.C. Art Book Fair at the museum. So, that's how we got to know each other. And Carolyn was there, too. She was also selling her photo book. And it was a massive success, if I could call it that myself.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSYou sure can (laugh) .
GHARIB(laugh) Carolyn said she didn't even have time to get lunch because there were so many people and it was so busy. So, we're working together again to plan it for next year.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSCarolyn, same question goes to you. Tell me how you got involved with DMV Color.
TOYESure. The museum reached out to me, I think, as a result of having been in the D.C. Art Book Fair. It's a real honor to have been invited, recently release my photo book. And it's especially, you know, an honor for me, because I am a native Washingtonian, and all of my photography is of Washington, D.C. So, that's how I got involved.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSWell, that would make sense. Now, Malaka, your graphic novel discusses what is and what was expected of you as the child of immigrants. Why did you want to share that story? And then tell me why in this format.
GHARIBYeah, so in 2016 I heard a lot of really one-dimensional depictions of immigrants that we were, you know, trying to come here and take people's jobs, that we were terrorists, drug addicts. And I just feel like it didn't really match up with what it was like growing up with my family in Southern California.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSWhere are your parents from, originally?
GHARIBMy dad is from Egypt and my mom is from the Philippines, and they moved here in the 1980s.
GHARIBSo, what I did was I started to draw these cartoons to course correct that narrative. I talked about how my dad loves gardening and Tom Hanks, and he's not the Muslim who America fears. And my mom, she didn't even want to come to the United States. She was perfectly happy in Manila, where she grew up. And all those comics and cartoons together became "I Was Their American Dream." I'm sorry, what was the second part of the question?
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSI'm curious, why cartoons?
GHARIBOh, cartoons, it's like...
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSIt's such a cool format.
GHARIB...like, just like a poet loves poetry to express themselves or an essay, yes, loves essays to express themselves, I feel like I can maximally share how I'm feeling inside through a comic of myself.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSYeah. Carolyn, in your photography book, "The D.C. I See," you look at the city's changing landscape, specifically its old and abandoned buildings. Now, was documenting this transition your initial intention?
TOYENo, absolutely, it was not. I started photography around 2004, and it was just for the first several years, seven or eight years, it was just a personal hobby that I was doing. It was a passion project. I was not sharing my work publically a lot. I exhibited my work in several shows, but I didn't have an online presence or any social media.
TOYEAnd, you know, I was actually fairly unintentional. I was doing a lot of driving around the city in the course of a day. I didn't really have a lot of time to devote to photography so I just thought, well, I'll keep a camera with me. And if I see something that, you know, I think is beautiful, you know, I'll take a picture of it. And I did that for several years, but then started to notice that a lot of the images I had photographed were actually disappearing from the landscape. So, I would pass a building that I had photographed, and I would notice that it either had been gutted and renovated, or was just gone completely.
TOYEI currently live in Southwest D.C., so, as you probably know, there's a lot of development going on there. So. a lot of that landscape has disappeared. And I just made the decision to -- I just felt compelled to share those images and to preserve those images. And I felt that by publishing them, that would be the best way to give them a permanency that they would not otherwise have.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSAnything specific that led you to use photography as your primary medium?
TOYEWell, how it started, several coworkers and I realized that we shared an interest in photography. And it was actually something I had been interested in years ago, decades ago when I was in college, but had not really, you know, done it at all. And we decided to form a little photo club, and we did that for a few months. And then once that dissipated, I just continued on myself. I was very busy and doing a lot of driving around the city. So it was more of a personal thing that I was doing, just because it was something I was passionate about.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSAnd how long have you been working on your book?
TOYEFrom the initial concept, probably since about 2015. So, it's self-published. So. it's taken...
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSTakes some time.
TOYE...takes a lot of time.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSYeah, it takes some hustle.
TOYERight, absolutely. But I wanted the ability control the process. I wanted to be able to select the images that I wanted to, you know, tell my story. I was always aware that I was telling two stories in parallel. I'm telling my own personal journey of becoming a photographer, but I'm also telling the story of the changing landscape. So, I wanted to do that and select the images that I wanted to put into the book that I thought would best tell that story.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSMalaka, how does your American Dream differ from your parents? We know that narrative, right, of the pressures of being -- and I'm speaking from firsthand experience, as an immigrant myself and the child of, of course, immigrant parents and what they want you to be and then what you tell them I'm going to do. And they're like, oh...
GHARIBAbsolutely. I'm, like, nodding with you as you're saying all of that. I think -- I actually was surprised that I had an American Dream. I always thought that American Dreams were for, not my generation, but my parents' generation, especially the immigrant generation. But when I realized that what they wanted for me, which is to be -- they had this very conventional idea of the American Dream. Have a big house, a white picket fence, have enough money to go to Disneyworld every year, wear designer clothes, maybe have a Mercedes Benz. And I was, like, I don't really know if that's -- that's definitely not want I want. Oh, and they also wanted me to be a doctor and go to a fancy school and (laugh) just be all these -- have kids by now, whatever.
GHARIBAnd I realized that that wasn't really my dream. My dream was to just, in the end, to be accepted for who I was as a person. I just wanted to feel like I belonged. And I never felt like I belonged growing up, because I was a mixed kid, for one. And, for number two, like, yeah, when you're mixed, it's like you don't really quite feel at home with your Filipino family or feel at home with your Egyptian family. And then there's a whole question of, am I American enough, and what does American even mean? And there were a lot of complicated feelings. So, I just wanted to belong.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSIs this, in a sense, the book that you wish you had growing up?
GHARIBOh, my gosh. Yeah, I grew up reading American Girl magazines and American Girl books, you know, meet Samantha, meet Molly and all that. And I just...
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSHow did you connect with those?
GHARIBI didn't. That's what I'm saying. Like, I just pretended that I was, like, meet Malaka, like, then I could have some version of myself. I wish I had this book when I was growing up.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSFor sure. You have a background in communications for nonprofits, Malaka, and now you work as a writer and illustrator. So, most children of immigrant parents will tell you that there was always the expectation for them to follow the more traditional paths, as we mentioned. So, all in all, how are your parents feeling about all of the choices that you made?
GHARIBI think that they're finally proud, but what I'm sad to say is that I had to reach an extraordinary height for them to accept my job.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSTell me more about that.
GHARIBLike, for example, you know, you're a radio broadcaster, and you're at a radio station, at the highest levels of media.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSOh, but my parents were still, like, you want to do what? (laugh)
GHARIBExactly, but you had to reach this great height, and I had to publish a book, basically, for them to finally accept that I was an artist, you know. And I think that's a little unfair.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSYeah. No, it wasn't until I got on the radio or on TV. You know, if you worked behind the scenes and -- you know, such respect our producers, especially here at The Kojo Show, it's like when you're behind the scenes and they can't see you -- especially immigrant parents, when they can't see you or hear you on the air, they're like, what? What do you do exactly? (laugh) You know.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSNow, Lynora, I remember talking to you a couple of months ago, in the spring. We were talking about the Wikipedia edit-a-thon that you held at the museum. You talked, at the time, about -- one of the quotes you said to me, you said: “I think women have been victims of some thinking in the culture about what makes great art. And that's defined in such a way that it can be very exclusionary to women artists. We've seen a lot change over the last five to 10 years, but given the scale of change that's needed, we have a long way to go.” Still feeling that way?
WILLIAMSOh, my goodness, yes. And I think there's this idea that, oh, women are the hot thing now. So, many museums are pulling women out of their closets and putting them up on the walls. But we know that this is not a permanent phenomenon, and that we have to make many, many, many shifts in the art world to make sure that women are lifted up. We need to be looking at, you know, how women's art is supported in the marketplace, how it's supported in the educational sphere. There's a whole constellation of things that need to happen for women to be getting their just due.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSWhat do you feel about that, Carolyn? Support for women of color in the arts, how has that been along your journey?
TOYEWell, it's been difficult. I think for me, probably, as a new artist, and living in a city that really celebrates art on a very national level with the museums that we have, I'm particularly impressed by not only what the museum is doing for women artists, but also for artists who are local. So, I think that's just as important a mandate for the museum, and really appreciated by local artists, as well.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSAny thoughts, Malaka?
GHARIBI feel like what's nice about D.C. in general is that people underestimate the city as it being a creative city. And there's just so -- I think that's part of its strength, as well. Like, if you want to start something like the D.C. Art Book Fair, you can just make it happen. And there's very little competition. You can just go ahead and do whatever you want. There's a certain freedom in that, and it's -- yeah, I feel like we can create the spaces that we want to see ourselves in.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSLynora, there's been a lot of creative energy dedicated to telling the story of this region over the years. Why was it important to you to tell it both from a female perspective and from the perspective of communities of color?
WILLIAMSBecause I think people haven't heard these stories enough, by far. And I think there's a whole constellation of issues that come into play. First of all, this is a very hardworking city and region, and probably nobody works harder than women of color. And that affects their ability to promote their art, because -- and we were talking about this earlier. We have 9 to 5 jobs. We're working like dogs, and the last thing we can do is go out and promote our creative product.
WILLIAMSSo, for us to have the honor of sharing these women's art, most of which has been produced in the last 10, 20 years, it's a very exciting moment for us. And the work is just fabulous, you know. So, I want people to know and to see what this vast array of creativity that comes to the floor, in this case, in the books arts. And it's kind of funny that we're talking about art at the massive scale in the muralist you spoke to earlier, and then now we're talking about the small works.
WILLIAMSThere's a little zine in our show that's about two inches by three inches.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSOh, that's tiny.
WILLIAMSSo, it's really small, but it's very cool. So, you know, it's just a wonderful prospect to be able to share this work with the public.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSMalaka, how were you promoting your work before this, and tell us what else we can look out for from you.
GHARIBYeah, how I was promoting my book, or what I was doing before the book?
GHARIBOh, my gosh, I spent like -- the moment I got into D.C., which was 12 years ago, I was like, okay, where can I find the creative scene? How can I make it happen? So, I started my own zine, The Runcible Spoon, which is a food zine. And I got, like, all these artist and writer friends like, hey, submit something, and we'll collage it together and we'll print it for you. And we'll distribute it around town and sell it at Qualia, the coffee shop. So, that was my hobby for, like, the first five or six years being in D.C.
GHARIBAnd then, yeah, so I graduated from that and did the book. And now what you have to look forward to, I don't have any projects, (laugh) but I'm doing the D.C. Art Book Fair next year.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSAnd you're part of DMV Color. (laugh)
GHARIBAnd I'm part of DMV Color, yeah, the most obvious thing, yeah.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSRight, which is what we're here to talk about. Yes, absolutely.
GHARIBAnd I'm really looking forward to that.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSAwesome. And Kyrsten, on Twitter, sent a note. It looks like it's to you, Malaka. She says,: I love Malaka's story of inserting herself into American Girl stories. I remember reading those stories and coloring the Kyrsten character brown to make her a Kyrsten. So, I should note, she spells -- or our Tweeter spells Kyrsten with a “Y,” and so the Kyrsten character in the stories has an E. So, she said she made them brown, so that they could reflect her.
GHARIBThat's so cute. (laugh) I love that.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSCarolyn, what about you, what else can we look out for from you?
TOYEWell, in addition to the DMV Color exhibition, this weekend, I'll also be at the Baltimore Book Festival. Looking forward to that. And, on a more personal level, I think as a result of a lot of the events that I've been attending over the course of this summer and the year, I'm really interested in telling the stories behind some of the images that I've taken. So, I'm going to start blogging about those and describing, you know, what inspired me to take them. And, you know, the lessons that I learned as a new artist that helped me on my journey. So, you can sign up for my mailing list on my website and receive those, and a few other events coming up around the times of the holidays.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSExcellent. Lynora, a quick question for you before we go. D.C. is a city full of museums and cultural centers, of course, and many of them are free to the public. But when a museum does charge admission, it can often be a barrier to access for the broader community. What's the National Museum of the Arts doing to address that?
WILLIAMSWell, for one thing, we have community days every month, the first Sunday of the month. And those community days are completely free to the public. And all are welcome. So, that's just one of the many steps that National Museum of Women in the Arts takes to make sure everybody has an opportunity to come in.
SASHA-ANN-SIMONSDMV Color opens at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on November 4th, and it's going to run through March 4th. You can find more details on our website, at kojoshow.org. This conversation about the DMV Color exhibit was produced by Laura Spitalniak. And our segment with the No Kings Collective was produced by Victoria Chamberlin. Coming up tomorrow, we'll hear from the local Kurdish community on the crisis that is unfolding on the Syrian border. And with just days to go before Virginians head to the polls, Tom Sherwood will join me for the final installment of our Virginia Votes series. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons.
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