For Austin artist Adrian Armstrong, receiving a three-month residency through the George Washington Carver Museum this year gave him a creative push, especially given the isolation wrought by the pandemic.
“It really let me develop my work in a way that I would not have been able to if I were just in my studio doing the work alone,” he said during a recent panel discussion at the museum. “Just having the time, the critiques, the conversations.”
Armstrong is one of three Black artists to participate the inaugural Small Black Museum Residency along with Temitope Olujobi and Hypatia Sorunke. Their artistic output is now featured in an exhibition, “Small Black Museum Residency, Vol. 1” at the Carver through January 15, 2022.
Since being appointed to the museum’s leadership role in 2019, Carre Adams has wanted to create a program that directly nurtures the artistic and professional practice of local Black artists.
“A vast majority of artists of color in Austin have a deficit of resources,” Adams says. “How do we create a space and an opportunity that offers them some strategic advantage?”
But as a city museum and cultural center, the Carver is chronically underfunded, short staffed, and hamstrung by bureaucracy. Per city policy, for example, Adams is barred from direct fundraising, which is carried out by an independent support group, the Ambassadors.
Remarkably, the pandemic and its ensuing restrictions provided Adams with an opportunity to kickstart the residency project. In September 2020, with the museum closed indefinitely, Adams redirected funds originally earmarked for a score of cancelled public programs, stretching the residency project’s $60,000 budget over two fiscal years.
“This project was completely realized during the pandemic,” Adams said. “Some 90% of our unrestricted funds go to paying artists, and this was how we could do our work while the museum was closed.”
Each artist received a stipend and a supply budget, and was tasked with producing new work for exhibition. And though health safety protocols — and the Carver’s limited physical facility — didn’t allow for the artists to set-up working studios on site, the trio nevertheless formed a pandemic pod of sorts, making studio visits among themselves.
Adams also arranged for a line-up of various professionals to provide advice and expertise, and not just from the arts.
“Conversations about an artist’s work and how it’s developing are important,” says Adams. “But there’s so much more that goes in to succeeding as an artist. It’s especially important to talk about the existential and social pressure for Black artists to be validated by a majority White art world. How do you navigate as an artist of color when the systemic problems with the art, and particularly art museums, have been laid very bare over the recent months?”
The artists received critiques of their work from a group that included University of Texas art history professor Eddie Chambers, a scholar of African Diaspora art history. A gallerist spoke to them about everything commercial gallery representation entails. Eto Otitigbe, a successful artist who divides his time between Austin and New York, discussed the pros and cons of graduate studio art programs. Freelance arts writers were hired to conduct interviews with each artist for a forthcoming catalog, which gave the artists practice being interviewed. Studio Dzo, a communications and design firm, offered coaching on how the artists can present themselves and their work online. And Armstrong, Olujobi, and Sorunke each had a session with a creativity and wellness coach.
“All three of us have talked about how this residency gave us a freedom in becoming,” said Sorunke, a photographer and filmmaker. “I felt like I had the freedom to mess up some, but to have a community behind me was really important.
It was also the first residency experience for Olujobi, an architect-turned-video-game artist who moved to Austin from New York in 2019. “I was really pushed to my limit in so many good ways with this residency. This was also my first foray into meeting my community in Austin.”
At the museum, the exhibition allots each artist essentially a gallery of their own. In the lobby, a four-screen video display features a continuous loop of interviews with the artists, with armchairs for visitors to settle in and watch. (The museum has resumed its public hours.)
Of the three Armstrong’s work has been most shown in Austin, including a solo showing at UT’s Art Galleries at Black Studies. His portraits of Black people often seem intentionally incomplete, an intriguing tension arising from his blending of contemporary pen and ink drafting styles with a classical approach to portraiture and the figure. In his new work in the current exhibition, Armstrong ups that tension impressively, adding thick painted textures.
Sorunke’s media installation, “El Estado del Mundo,” offers a series of photographic portraits and several short videos that encapsulate a personal deep dive in to the current time, and a call for more space for grief, healing, remembrance, celebration.
Olujobi’s “The Dream of Shapeless Bodies,” a large-scale interactive video game impressively installed across two gallery walls, ingeniously undermines the entire genre of video games and their outdated conventions of gender. Likewise, Olujobi’s series of small video art prints, tiny shimmering moments-in-motion that suggest a nonlinear future.
Adams is already conceiving the next iteration of the Small Black Museum Residency slated to launch in 2022. There’s some funding already available, thanks to a happy circumstance. Earlier this year, Austin artist Dawn Okoro, whose seen career catapult into the national spotlight, was one of three Black artists chosen by Pepsico’s brand Lifewtr to design a label for the line of bottled water. As part of the highly-promoted project, Pepisco donated $30,000 to an institution of each artist’s choosing. Okro selected the Carver where she had a successful solo show, “Punk Noir,” at the Carver in 2019, curated by Adams.
It was a full-circle moment for Adams who said a portion of he Pepisco donation has been earmarked for Vol. 2 of the residency project.
“This first iteration is a proof of concept,” says Adams. “And we’re already working on making it happen one more year. But we are definitely going to have to figure out how we can support it after that.”
“Austin has a long way to go when it comes to supporting, and sustaining, its artists of color.”
“Small Black Museum Residency, Vol. 1” is on view through Jan. 15. 2022 at the George Washington Carver Museum, 1165 Angelina St. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Friday, Thursdays open to 9 p.m. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Free. .austintexas.gov/page/george-washington-carver-museum