No sooner did a trio of University of Texas art history graduate students decide to make official their idea for a curatorial collective then a buzz started percolating.
In March of last year, Jessi DiTillio, Kaila Schedeen and Phillip Townsend launched themselves as, Neon Queen Collective, an enterprise to pool their interests and together produce socially engaged art projects that examine race, ethnicity, representation, class, sexuality, and gender by female identified artists of color.
They built a website. The set up a Facebook page and invited their friends to like it. And though their first exhibit as a collective was months away, they found themselves talked about.
“We sort of instantly had momentum, and that took us totally by surprise,” says DiTillo speaking on behalf of the trio. “We’d tell people that we just formed Neon Queen and they’d tell us they had heard of it already.”
Next month Neon Queen will present its first exhibition, “Notes on Sugar: The Work of Maria Magdalena Compos-Pons,” an ambitious show featuring the Afro-Cuban artist, one of the most celebrated to emerge from post-Revolutionary Cuba.
“Notes on Sugar” opens Feb. 2 at the Christian-Green Gallery, part of UT’s Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.
But if seemingly moments after Neon Queen had declared itself a collective, the progressive, plugged-in sector of Austin’s visual art scene eagerly embraced it, then the trio took that as a sign they were on the right track.
“There’s a very vital art scene here and a bigger public that has a real hunger now for contemporary art in this city,” says DiTillo. “How can we channel it and direct that curiosity?”
And moreover, how could DiTillo, Schedeen and Townsend channel their own ambitions in a city that can’t boast a deep well of opportunity for emerging curators and arts historians.
“We decided to make our own opportunities,” DeTillo says. “And doing projects on our own gives us the freedom to create on a larger scale.”
“Notes on Sugar” is indeed an ambitious venture for a new collective and the trio raised an impressive $21,935 during its first fundraising foray in order to stake the exhibit and a planned catalog.
The installation at the center of the show at the Warfield, “Sugar/Bittersweet,” is comprised of hundreds of pieces of blown glass as well as discs of sugar and belongs to Harvard University. The piece alludes to the history of the sugar industry and its role in the United States’ complex relationship with Cuba. Like much of Campos-Pons’ work “Sugar/Bittersweet” also plumbs her own linage as a descendant of African slaves forced to work in Cuba’s sugar industry.
The collective plans to launch a second exhibit of Campos-Pons’ video work at UT’s Visual Art Center next fall.Detail of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’ “Sugar/Bittersweet,” on display at the Tufts University Art Gallery in 2013. (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)