Lise Ragbir is a writer, curator and Director of the Art Galleries at Black Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2017, she was Jack Jones Literary Art’s Tiphanie Yanique Fellow. In 2015, she was an invited participant in Callaloo’s Creative Writing Workshop, in Barbados. Her essays about arts and culture, race, and immigration have appeared in The Guardian, Hyperallergic, Time Magazine, and USA Today, among other outlets. She was born and raised in Montreal, and now makes her home in Austin, Texas.
Thao Votang caught up with Lise recently over email.
Thao Votang: The first time we met was at the French Legation Museum in … was that 2008? I was a volunteer updating object descriptions in a database, and you were the new director. What brought you to Texas?
Lise Ragbir: Wow, was it 2008? It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Austin for so long. In many ways, I still feel like a newcomer, even if my time at the Legation is so far removed from how I now experience this city. Truthfully, I wasn’t one of those who had an eye on Austin, from afar. I understand that people are moving here in droves — for the booming-economy, outdoor-lifestyle, craft beer, etc, but, truth be told I followed a boy from New Jersey, to Austin. (It all worked out. We now have a child together, and we’re married.) My parents are from Trinidad, and I grew up in Montreal, Canada. So while I knew that Austin was in Texas, and Texas was near Mexico, I still remember studying a map to see where, exactly, we were headed. The booming economy part of Austin was a natural lure for my partner, who is an architect. But as a cultural practitioner, I wasn’t convinced that leaving the Northeast for Texas was the best idea. Admittedly, it took some time (longer than I’d hoped) for me to find my footing in Austin.
TV: I started with Texas (and the Legation too) because I often think about your experience in Big Bend in 2015. Did you write that op-ed for the Guardian right after that happened? What compelled you to publish your experience and put yourself in the public eye?
LR: Big Bend, sigh. Please, bear with me while I provide a few behind-the-scenes details before directly answering your questions. Days before taking up my new post in Black Studies at the University of Texas, the sudden and violent death of a family member re-shaped the world I knew. My new colleagues were incredibly patient and understanding while I simultaneously went through the motions of stepping into a new job, and processing a tragic loss — a weird balance to strike. Three weeks in, my supervisor encouraged me to make a studio visit in Marfa, “to get away.” By then, my husband’s 40th birthday had been buried in family drama. And my father had come to Austin, from Montreal, so that we could travel together to the funeral in the Caribbean. That’s how we all ended up in a car, after a birthday hike, just outside of Big Bend National Park.
A week after I was detained in West Texas, I wrote the first draft of my experience on the plane on the way back from the funeral. But the version that made its way to publication was the result of work I did with the Op-Ed Project —a program supported by the University of Texas whereby journalist-facilitators work with faculty and staff to bring a range of voices to the opinion pages. While there was a public-good factor — the piece did stand to shed light on growing xenophobia — as cheesy at it may seem, I wrote the essay to bring a degree of closure to what had been a month of misery. I wrote as a way to heal, I guess. But I’d underestimated the public-eye factor. I was surprised that the essay garnered as much notice as it did. And equally surprised at the amount of people with enough time on their hands to give me any attention — kind, or otherwise. I don’t like to admit this, but angry reactions stopped me from writing. It took months before I found the courage to put myself back out there.
TV: Our paths (thankfully!) crossed more frequently after you began your role at the Black Studies at the University of Texas. What appealed to you about the position and what’s coming up that we should keep an eye out for?
LR: Yes! I’m glad that you and I found each other again at UT, where my role with the Art Galleries at Black Studies (AGBS) has become such a significant part of my life in Austin. Prior to officially taking up the position, I curated two shows for the Warfield Center — the first, a selection of Haitian paintings from Rudy Green and Joyce Christian’s private collection; the second, an exhibition of work by Austin-based artist, Christina Coleman.
In 2015, I jumped at the opportunity to formalize my relationship with Black Studies — a community which, in many ways, feels like family. I was hired, in part, to help Black Studies transition into a brand new state-of-the-art gallery — a project led by the Chair of Black Studies and Associate Professor of Art History, Dr. Cherise Smith. The new gallery would eventually be named after the Christian-Greens — a family who holds a special place in my life, professionally and personally. Every day, I am proud to do work in their name. Not to mention all the cool stuff that I actually get to do! It’s a dream job.
Currently, in the Christian-Green Gallery, visitors can explore the work of iconic photographer, Dawoud Bey, while in AGBS’s more intimate Idea Lab space, Mimi Cherono Ng’ok’s large-format photographs prompt viewers to reconsider notions of the colonial gaze. On January 31, in the Christian-Green gallery, AGBS will celebrate work of Los Angeles-based artist, Genevieve Gaignard, who explores themes of race, gender, and class through installations and photographic self-portraiture. Meanwhile, in the Idea Lab, UT’s Black Diaspora Archivist, Rachel Winston, will showcase a selection of artwork from UT’s Brandywine Collection of prints, featuring prominent artists such as Howardena Pindell and Betye Saar.
TV: In the past, you’ve worked for the Smithsonian and, in contrast, a corporate Swiss collection. What advice would you give to emerging art historians or curators unsure of what would be the best fit for them between public/private or foundation/nonprofit?
LR: I’m a Virgo, so please forgive the list.
- Leave room to change your mind. Don’t get stuck in the idea that there is one path to success, or that success even looks like one thing. I’d planned to be an art-conservator, suffered through chemistry, and earned a spot in conservation-school before declining my acceptance to pursue museum studies.
- Ask questions. Find people you admire, and ask them for advice. People don’t succeed in a bubble. Very early in my career, I cold-called a large private foundation and naively asked, “Can I please speak to someone who could tell me what it takes to be a grant-maker?” Within a month, I’d accepted a position with one of the largest arts-funders in the country — a position which gave me the tools to assess the programmatic and fiscal health of arts organizations. Tools that set me up for success as an arts-administrator
- Be driven by what you like, instead of by the career you think you might like. As a kid, I couldn’t select my future career from those lists—you know the ones with occupations listed in alpha order: architect, doctor, florist, lumberjack…zookeeper. With a love of art, those lists told me I should be an artist. However, in art-school, I learned that there are those far more suited to making art, than me. Yet I (finally) also saw the range of roles, within the arts, that never made it onto those lists. Millennials are great at carving-out niche roles— a trend fueled by people doing what they love. Let’s hope the trend doesn’t slow.
- Trust that you can be more than one thing. BONUS: The art-world is small.
TV: At some point you mentioned — rather it felt like you were telling me a secret you weren’t sure about saying, and now I’m spilling the beans — that you also wrote fiction. Would you describe your writing “journey” so to speak? Have you always written fiction and what does it mean to you?
LR: Ohh, boy. That’s a big question. (Gulp.) This feels a bit like a guilty admission, but: I am a relatively new writer. Not because I never cared about writing. But because I cared about it SO much — I feared failing at something that I truly gave a sh*t about. So I ignored what made me happy.
However, fear is challenged in new ways when you have a child to protect. I understand that I run the risk of cliché when I declare that motherhood changed the course of my life, but I can’t claim my role as a writer without honoring how I got to this place. Truth be told, I’d remained ambivalent about motherhood most of my life — almost until the very instant I met my daughter. (There’s a funny story about the moments before she was born, but I’ll save that for another time.) When she was born, everything changed — not in a good way. In the dark hours of new-motherhood, immeasurable time was devoted to worrying about the future (mine, hers) and I became determined to raise a person who could be whatever they wanted to be.
But how could I hold those expectations for someone else, if I didn’t believe that I, too, could make what I wanted of my life? So, as a sleep-deprived mum whose logical-thinking had been whittled at while I developed my maternal instincts, I began to share my stories. My daughter was less than a year old when Glimmer Train Magazine awarded me a third-place prize in a competition of over a thousand submissions. It was the first time I believed that my written-word could matter.
TV: I’m reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft and she starts with a chapter on how writing sounds and cultivating your inner ear. I’m in absolute awe in how eloquent you are. Who do you look to when you’re thinking about your voice (written or spoken)?
LR: Awww, shucks. (Big smile.) Thank you! And such tough question. I wish I could reference some obscure writers to make me appear smart than I am, but I really am inspired by the greats. I love the rhythm, or pacing, if you will, of both Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith — two authors whose writing deal so beautifully, and lyrically, with the complexities of identity. As a person who has been asked, “No really, what are you?” for the majority of my life, I’m naturally drawn to explorations of identity. And I believe that the most authentic voices, the ones that break-away from tropes, produce the sorts of writing-sounds referred to by Le Guin.
In art school, and maybe throughout my career in the arts, I used visual arts — the manipulation of material objects — to unpack dense questions about what I am. But as the question (and answer) became more complicated, I have found comfort in the ability words have to conjure a range of visuals, and even sounds — personal, private reactions that present themselves differently for each reader, depending on what the reader brings to the equation. When we realize that one set of words can conjure infinite images, we move closer to accepting the notion that there is no one truth. And I can say, “I am more than one thing.”
TV: What are you reading, watching, listening to these days?
LR: I love this question. (I ask it of everyone.) I just finished Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ hilarious and astute Heads of the Colored People, and Shani Mootoo’s (fellow Trini-Canadian!) lush Cereus Blooms at Night. Two must-reads. I stopped watching the Handmaid’s Tale because it didn’t feel like fiction, and I think I should return to Riverdale.
Since I have a day job, am working on a new novel, have a kid, and a dog, I don’t have time to hunt for new music. So I listen to a playlist my friend Jenna sent me nearly a year ago, daily. It has everything from Alice Coltrane and Kamasi Washington, to SZA, Fatima Al Qadiri, Minnie Ripperton, Jorja Smith and Erykah Badu. When I’m writing, I switch between 90s dancehall reggae, and Mozart.
TV: If I may, I’d like to end with an excerpt from another one of your articles (“No really, where are you from?”), one with a sentiment that I wish I would do a better job embodying:
Who you are is more important than what you are: with a strong sense of self, the labels attached by others, will carry less weight. When my daughter understands she is the beautiful and proud of culmination of the hopes and defeats of enslaved Africans, indentured laborers from India, French and Portuguese colonialists, native peoples the Caribbean and Italian immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, she can stand firm in whom she is as she develops the other parts that make her uniquely her.
LR: Did I say that? Wow — I guess I do have some things to say.