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Augmenting Our Cultural Garden: A Conversation with Faheem Majeed

If you were to dig into the corners of your closets, mine the contents of sealed boxes and locate the residual objects of your existence then pull them all together, what story would it tell about you? This was the process of artist Faheem Majeed as he began to create his most recent installation Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden for the Hairy Blob exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center. Instead of simply using his own history as source material for his work, Faheem combined his experience as the former Executive Director of the South Side Community Art Center and artifacts created, used and set aside throughout its rich seventy year history to re-imagine its past, more clearly understand its present and visualize its future.  Before we witness the activation of  his piece through invitational performances in the coming weeks, I asked Faheem to tell us more about his relationship with the South Side Community Art Center, where the title of the installation stems from and the path that took him from being a traditional sculptor to an artist who could more effectively articulate his thoughts by not settling for a single medium.  

TH: Your practice has taken many turns over the course of your career.  I was first introduced to your work through your beautifully surreal and disorienting steel sculptures.  Can you revisit the trajectory that took you from that point in your practice to the work you are doing now with the installation for Hairy Blob?

FM: I studied sculpture while an undergrad at Howard University. It was very traditional and the focus was basically making something well…something that was beautiful. When you first encountered my work, I was trying to stretch within the confines of what I knew. I wanted to do more…say more. Around the same time, I was trying to find a place to squat and work on my art while I looked around for a studio and I landed at the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC). It was fascinating to me because this was a place I studied while at Howard. Over time, I moved on to a studio space but remained involved at the Center. That relationship morphed and changed over time as I developed this infatuation with the space, the history and the people. I transitioned from volunteer to curator to Executive Director over the course of 8 years. At about 5 years into that relationship, I was taking on more and more responsibility…trying to push the Center in a different direction than it had been previously. And to be honest…that was exhausting.

At the same time, I was still trying to maintain my own art practice but that was falling to the side. It was my passion and what drives me and yet I wasn’t doing it. I was also at a cross roads with my work where I knew I wanted to try something new but I didn’t feel like I had the exposure or skills set to do that yet. So what do you do when you don’t know what to do? You get another degree. But honestly, that was the right next step for me. I needed a safe place to explore, I needed exposure to other artists, and I needed some candid critique of my work. Pursuing my masters at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) open the doors for me to try and sometimes fail. But I still had this challenge that I was spending so much time and investing so much energy at the Center. That’s when I decided to do an experiment and try to merge my role as an administrator and my role as an artist…sprinkled with this additional perspective as a curator. I started to explore other mediums including performances, video, audio, and photography. That attempted merger gave me a great outlet for the frustration I was feeling and also gave me the space to explore and redefine myself as an artist.

Faheem Majeed, "Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden" Installation (Detail), April 20, 2012. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel.)

As I was preparing to graduate from UIC, I started a number of conversations, in the context of my Acting Director role, about the SSCAC and its survival. That led to a shift in focus from merging administration and my art practice to institutional critique and appropriation. I was trying to make a statement about this organization…to both wake new people up to its existence but also shake up all of us who had been close, perhaps too close, to the Center for so many years. In that journey I talked to a number of institution leaders and realized that the challenges faced by the SSCAC were not unique which piqued my interest to this whole idea of culturally specific institutions–their purpose, their survival and the redefinition of what they are in context of an evolving society.

That was an obsession that I think I am finally ready to phase out of. The Hairy Blob exhibition and a few other shows I have planned are my way of transitioning to a new conversation that may be related to my previous work but definitely takes me in a different direction.

TH: Taken from an article written by Anna Tyler for the International Review of African American Art, you’ve titled the piece Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden.  The article goes through the history of the center and the programs, people and energy that went into getting it off the ground, as well as the ups and downs that are the threads of its historical fabric.  What is it about that article that resonated with you enough to make you title the installation after it?

FM: I have always found the article written by Anna Tyler to be one of the better summaries of the SSCAC’s history and its significance. I utilize it often in my teaching. I always found the tittle to be intriguing and peculiar. She never addresses the metaphor in the actual text. Over my tenure at the SSCAC, I have always been very vocal, and admittedly, sometimes overly transparent about the complex issues that faced my organization both externally and internally. Similarly, Anna Tyler was an artist and writer who was also passionate about the spaces and people she cared about. Even more than me, she never held her tongue or edited her opinion. In many ways titling this piece after her writing is in homage to her voice.

I looked up perennial gardening on the Colorado State University website and found the description to be a great metaphor the organizational history.

“A well-designed perennial garden can provide many years of beauty and enjoyment. Careful selection of plant materials and thoughtful planning can result in a full season of color.”

As my role in the institution became more complex I realized that in a lot ways I, my predecessors, and the many other stakeholders were the gardeners of the cultural landscape of the SSCAC.

In 2011, I decided it was time for me to step down as executive director. I still remain active in the organization. The board and new Executive Director Heather Ireland Robinson have been very supportive. For example, allowing me to harvest some of the wonderful items from the building for the Hairy Blob exhibition.

Faheem Majeed, "Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden" Installation (Detail), April 20, 2012. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel.)

TH: Through this installation you are breathing new life and adding value to objects that have been lost, forgotten and nearly discarded, yet when revisited and accumulated they become priceless pieces to the story of the South Side Community Art Center. When did you realize there was something to be discovered in these objects?

FM: This piece and process was so heartwarming and nostalgic for me. The Center’s board and Executive Director were very gracious in allowing me to borrow these various objects. The curator of Hairy Blob, Adelheid Myers, gave me a platform to share what I see and how I feel about the SSCAC.

Over my time at the Center I was always intrigued by what was deemed valuable and interesting. The Center has an amazing collection of painting, prints, sculptures, and historical archive dating back to the 1930’s. But I am always intrigued by what doesn’t make it into “the vault”. Things that aren’t necessarily deemed worthy of keeping versus the things that are semi-valuable and end up on a shelf in one of the classrooms. Also, there is an accumulation of things that have been forgotten and abandoned by artists and community members. The Center in many ways has been entrusted with these objects’ safety pending the slight chance that their owners return. I often joked that a big part of my job was moving things from one side of the classroom to the other. Regardless of how it came to rest or where it was stored at the Center, these objects are markers of events and the passing of time within the space.

TH: You state that they are “almost collectible.” In your opinion, what keeps them from crossing over to actually being collectible?

FM: Value is subjective and differs from person to person. In the Center, there are spatial limitations to what can be stored in “the vault”. So tough decisions sometime have to be made about what makes it into “the vault”. But this is also a question of positioning and exposure. Together, these items tell a story about the Center. They are all related by their shared history. If you separate them, some of the items may be valuable to certain audiences for their individual appeal, but for most of the objects, their appeal is lost in the unbundling…thus limiting their value as a collection.

TH: You mentioned that you have also stumbled upon a new definition of ephemera through this installation. Can you talk a bit about that redefinition?

FM: On a basic level, I knew what I wanted to do included ephemera but after my wife challenged me on my use in the context of this piece, I knew I needed to do more exploration. In trying to better understand the word, and the history behind the word, I realized that the word “ephemeral” was overall a better descriptor of the collection of objects I was using within the piece. Really these were objects that were transitory in nature. They had moved past their original purpose and had been discarded—not necessarily as garbage, but just by nature of the way they were being held. It was evident that there was no perceived value there…or at least no value had been placed on them yet.

What makes these objects fascinating is that in being discarded one by one, they did not necessarily speak to a history or story. But in their accumulation, together, they speak volumes. Some of it is subtle, some not so subtle. It is in their positioning together within the piece that some of them become so interesting, obscure and peculiar…odd. But if viewed on their own, they might be passed over.

In digging deeper into the more technical origins of the word “ephemera,” I came across the term “ephemeron.” The word “ephemeron” itself refers to an object of a transitory or impermanent nature, from the same word root as “Ephemeral”. It is used on the context of computer science and refers to a process known as finalization. Finalization occurs when a garbage collector informs an application that an object is “almost collectable.” To make finalization more useful, “almost collectable” is defined in terms of a new class of objects, called ephemerons. Now really the part of this that fascinated me was the idea of “almost collectible”. To me, that phrase really resonated with what I was doing and how these objects ended up where they were.

Faheem Majeed, "Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden" Installation (Detail), April 20, 2012. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel.)

TH: This installation does not appear to be an attempt to tell a comprehensive story of The Center, but it is definitely telling a different story than what those who are familiar with it are accustomed to. The placement of objects appears highly intentional and while you aren’t forcing connections you definitely appear to be helping the viewer along to occasionally land on a particular narrative.  As the former Executive Director of The Center, how does this re-shape your own understanding of the institution?

FM: In creating a piece for the Hairy Blob exhibition, I knew I wanted to do something connected to the history of The Center. After spending so many years gaining intimate knowledge about all of the various people, events and objects that had passed through the building, I knew there was a statement to be made about that history in a non-traditional way.

Just in their positioning in the piece, these objects are almost overwhelming. The word “hoarder” springs forward for some people when they first see the installation protruding into their line of site from the back of the Hyde Park Art Center. I feel like through this piece, those objects gain a voice and a tangible feel. When I first stepped back from the piece, even I was overwhelmed… frustrated. It’s such a departure from my normal aesthetic that I didn’t know what to make of it at first. But then you settle in for the journey and your eye starts to jump around to some of my intentional curating and you see the story start to emerge. What’s fascinating is that that story changes depending on the viewer and their history, or lack thereof, with the SSCAC.

I intentionally selected objects that might point to smaller un-highlighted moments in the Center’s 70-year history–a  flyer from a show in the sixties, a fundraiser hosted by Bill Cosby, oil cans and car parts, print making inks, and left over painting supplies from an art classes. These objects represent seemingly irrelevant moments in the history of the organization, but my argument is that each moment no matter how insignificant adds to the canvas of the space’s existence. I feel that there is an abundance of information about the Center available and if this installation piques the interest of a viewer, there are places to find that information. My goal was to show the magnitude of the smaller happenings.

TH: In your artist’s statement you mention that this is part of an “ongoing series of work that utilizes cedar wood panels to host a variety of interventions.” My mind automatically goes to an intervention as a something that situates itself between a point on an understood path and a predicted destination.  How does the installation, the performances and other ways you plan to utilize the materials act as interventions? Perhaps you have a different definition of intervention?

FM: That is a great statement that captures my intent! The interventions I’m speaking of will be an undetermined series of happenings that will take place on and with the panels. In the context of this piece, the intervention is making people pause to take notice of the Center or changing the way people have viewed the Center or even changing the way stakeholders view and interact with the Center. I find myself drawn to work that can drive dialogue and sometimes actual change. Although I am transitioning out of the Center and refocusing my work on other areas, this approach and passion are what I leave with. I want to continue to carry that perspective with me…of creating situations and curating opportunities that bring people together and perhaps act as a catalyst for change. Similar to the Center, my intention is that these panels and their use will live beyond me and other users.

Faheem Majeed, "Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden" Installation (Detail), April 20, 2012. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel.)

TH: SSCAC is steeped in history and holds a special place in the hearts of those who have connected with it whether that connection was made half a century ago or half a year ago.  This may be a difficult question to answer, but have you seen different responses to the work that you’re doing depending on where people locate themselves within that history?

FM: The great thing about this work is that it engages a variety of people in different ways. Older stakeholders from the Center can navigate the piece and can intimately explain the origins of the objects or content surrounding the objects. For someone who has never known of the Center, a familiarity of the types of things collected is of value. At one point someone told me the piece reminded them of old school Maxwell Street. “Something familiar” is important to the success of the work…a place of entry. Similar to many experiences around the Center, you may not know everything about the space or history but you do get a sense of value, warmth, and history.

Faheem’s installation will be on view through July 29, 2012 for Hairy Blob, the current exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Avenue, Chicago, IL 60615. Join him and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) on Sunday, June 3 at 2pm for a free concert as part of his installation, where his piece will serve as the backdrop for a musical performance by Douglas Ewart & Quasar, members of the AACM.

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