Nat Turner Project

November 08, 2016

In a men’s restroom on a secure floor of PNCA’s studio and 3D lab building, some of the most urgent student exhibitions in the city are happening. Nat Turner Project (NTP) is a rogue, student-run, defiantly un-official space that exclusively shows work by artists of color. Named after the man who led a rebellion of enslaved and free African Americans in Virginia in 1831, Nat Turner Project is run by MFA in Visual Studies candidates Melanie Stevens and maximiliano. Recent exhibitions at NTP have included Bre Gipson’s Liquid Jungle, a crystallized netherworld, and Aruni Dharmakirthi’s Aesthetics of Dislocation, a video work which explored migration and heritage through the unreliability of memory. And Melanie and maximiliano collaborated on the exhibition ASYLUM which included this video which features portraits of black victims of police violence.

Here NTP’s statement on the project:

Nat Turner Project is an uncompromising radical space - filling a void in Portland. NTP allows artists of color to go beyond the usual initial expositions inherent in presenting art borne of marginalized perspectives to a dominant culture; allowing them the freedom to create or express their own language within and without the parameters of racial commodification or designation. NTP creates an environment of inclusivity, a communal harbor for artists previously silenced by institutional constraints, and actively provides priority spaces to artists of color; allowing others the privilege of viewership from an outsider role. Nat Turner Project, not just a name.

I recently caught up with Melanie and maximiliano to ask them more about NTP.

LR: I think it’s super inspiring that you are taking on running a project space in the midst of graduate work. And especially that you are making a space that addresses, in what I am guessing is a 10x10’ space, one of the most important issues that art and its institutions are facing across the board. Your idea about the “communal harbor,” making a space for the work of marginalized artists, putting it at the center of the project, is beautiful. You’ve put up a handful of shows now, does it feel like the project is doing what you wanted it to do? Has anything surprised you?

maximiliano: it has surprised me and been an amazing ride thus far, and can’t wait to see where NTP will go.  NTP has def been getting more attention, traction, and support than i imagined, which has been really great. working with melanie and our artists has been fantastic and rewarding. NTP is having a conservation.

Melanie Stevens: I must admit that I came to the project without any concrete expectations. However, as a relatively late newcomer to the institutional art space, I did note that there seemed to be a certain level of homogeneity that I found unnerving and, at times frustrating.  So when maximiliano came to me with the proposal to start a space that celebrates POC artists, I jumped at the opportunity.  Now, with three shows and counting, I find that this is so much more than I ever could have imagined.  It has become this sort of amazing liminal gallery space that operates both within and outside of the confines of the institution. We essentially provide this chance for artists of color to do or create whatever they want, while allowing them the use of our institutional resources: space, time, press, etc. In exchange, their very presence enriches our artistic lens by virtue of adding a wider array of voices and experiences to the landscape.  

LR: I know that you collaborated, if anonymously, on NTP’s most recent exhibition, ASYLUM.

“Asylum is a reflection of the continual loss of individual members of our neighborhoods, communities, and society at large to a violent and racist police state. We take this month to consider and understand their absence, not as abstract symbols, but as a permanent deficit that will never be restored, one which grows with each passing day. Asylum is both a rupture in the national silence and a public and private contemplation of the value of human life.”

You’re really showing up for bringing what’s urgent right now into an art context. Can you talk about how that work manifested? It makes me think about the question I wonder about a lot: What Can Art Do? Or what are the ways art can be an effective realm for making change. How do you think about activism in or activism and art?

maximiliano: art can be a generator, art can start a conservation, art can bring new ideas, art is a tool of subversion and social reflection. there is a duty that comes with being an artist. for me, art and activism are inherently linked. they both can power and further each other. i believe art and activism come from the same place, love.

Melanie Stevens:  Well, I think for me, ASYLUM came from a place of unregistered anger and a deep sadness.  It is very, very difficult to watch injustice and mourn the deaths of people who look like you, and then go out into a world that doesn’t seem carry that same weight. I believe we, as a nation, are going through some very difficult growing pains, much of which are not publicly acknowledged in a tangible or articulate way. As an artist, as a Black woman, I think that one of the most subversive things I can do is to just stay present and honest about my experiences; to let my voice be heard. And for me, a large part of that is providing a platform and a microphone for other voices that are often silenced by erasure.  I don’t know if this fits into the standard or academic definitions of activism (and I’m sure that even as I write this, that very definition is in flux), but it is what feels authentic to my artistic practice.

LR: I’m generally curious about that zone in which a curatorial project is also an artists’ project. With ASYLUM, you are folding both into one another. Is that just a permeable membrane for you between running an exhibition program and making work as part of that program?

maximiliano: NTP is about giving space to artists of color, it is an atypical space which brings challenges and new ways of thinking for the artist, which i think is great fun, how can one use a bathroom? maybe all spaces are mutable and i believe that leads to the idea that what is today, doesn’t have to be tomorrow. if tomorrow is anything then there are no limits to the possibilities.  with ASYLUM we wanted to use the space to deliver a message but also echo a respite or break from the insanity. ASYLUM happened at time when it seemed like black men were being murdered by the police daily, it was ( and still is) too much. ASYLUM was a very direct and immediate response to that. NTP has always been about the artists we exhibit and melanie and i try to take a back seat, hang in the shadows, maybe shadows made the work. shadows making shadow work in a shadow space.

Melanie Stevens: Generally speaking, we do view Nat Turner Project as a curatorial project which places the work of other artists at the forefront. However, as two artists ourselves, the line between curation and creation can get a bit blurry. For us, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as we are not necessarily invested in adhering to the conventional rules of gallery space etiquette. In the case of ASYLUM, we had an unexpected opening in our scheduling, and decided that it was very important for us to make a visual and performative statement regarding current events. We wanted to provide a window of opportunity for important conversations, as well as a reflective moment for humanity. Thus, we used our platform to do so.    

LR: It feels trivial to ask after talking about what ASYLUM is addressing, but I have to ask, can you tell me about the space in which you make the project and why you chose that space? 

maximiliano: it's a men’s bathroom (or used to be “men’s”) on the third floor of mfa studios of an art school in portland, or. the whitest city in america. NTP is the secret inside the machine. a nod to Jason Berlin, PNCA MFA VS ‘16. he started gallery in the bathroom called stall. he left, and we, the new guard, came and radicalized that space up. NTP is an oasis in many ways and maybe at times a mirage.

Melanie Stevens: Well, the concept of the gallery in the bathroom was started by PNCA MFA VS alumnus Jason Berlin last year. When he graduated, we took over that idea but decided to make it into this new space. We like the idea of the bathroom because it has all kinds of historical contexts in terms of positioning for people of color:  that of access, acceptance, and status. Despite these heavy connotations, there is also a certain level of humor as well. There’s a bit of a self-aware wink that this space is generally used for something that is regarded as less than artistic, which in itself is a nod to the “rules” of art and its gatekeepers. Ultimately, Nat Turner Project is a migratory idea, dependent on where we can find spaces that will allow us artistic license.  We currently have a few alternative spaces in mind for our roster of shows next year.