Rod Ferguson & Grace Hong: A Conversation on Strange Affinities and the Arts

Grace Hong: One thing that I wanted to talk to you about is, you and I have known each other for a really long time, and there was a distinct moment in our mutual acquaintance when you started becoming this total art collector. And almost at the same time, you also started writing about art. So, what happened there?


Rod Ferguson: A lot of that had to do with the culture of the Twin Cities. When I was at the University of Minnesota and living in Minneapolis from 2000 to 2014, and there’s a way in which collecting, but also seeing art, going to exhibitions, going to openings, is just part of a certain strata of life in the Twin Cities. Part of that has to do with how the Walker Art Center is there. There is this Black art gallery called Obsidian Arts that’s also there. I got to know the founder and director of that gallery, and started doing panels with them, and helping them think about exhibitions.

But also around the same time, I started teaching an art course in American Studies at Minnesota. And it was just one of those things where, when I came in, I was teaching a gender and sexuality course, and I happened to teach, that year, Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem, and Barbara Harlow’s introduction to it. And The Colonial Harem is, as you know, a book of photographs that French soldiers would send during The Occupation of Algeria and during the war, of mainly Algerian women jailed and behind bars.

And one of my colleagues said to me, since you taught that book, and you have an interest in visual culture, we have a course on the books in American Studies, “American Culture & The Arts,” and nobody’s taught it in a long time, why don’t you teach that? And at the time, I thought, wait, I can do that?

Because that kind of thing just wouldn’t have been allowed in Sociology, where I was recently coming from as a PhD student. So I started teaching the Art and American Culture course, and I taught it as the art of globalization. So, around that time I started befriending probably the main Black arts matron in the Twin Cities, Jean Ann Durades, who is an African-American woman and an art collector in her mid-80s.


GH: Oh my gosh. Elderly African-American ladies love you!


RF:  Yeah, they looove me! Jean Ann introduced me to her older Black woman friends, and I still get together with them. They adopted the nickname early on, “Rod’s Harem.” And Jean Ann, especially, is very much into the arts. If you go to her condo, it’s filled – every space on the wall is filled with art from the U.S., from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America. And, it was just this thing that people that I knew were doing. Collectors and artists who were very accessible because of the nature of the Twin Cities.

And then I began to think that maybe since I’m starting to teach this stuff, starting to collect art, I could also start to write about it. And in fact, the piece that I did for our anthology, Strange Affinities, I think was actually the first time I wrote about art. And that was Julie Mehretu’s painting “Primitivist Evasion,” and another story here is that I had recently met Julie Mehretu, who was doing a short residency at the Walker. And I met her through my friend, Kemi Ilesanmi, who was a buddy of mine in the Twin Cities when she was there, and has now moved to New York. But anyway, Kemi was an assistant curator at the Walker Art Center, so I was just in constant contact and friendship with folks who were deeply involved in art.


GH: What does art allow you to say or do that might be different from Aberrations in Black, where you’re talking mostly about literature?


RF: Well, it was around this time that I started to think about art and literature as both aesthetic modes. To sort of use Walter Benjamin’s words, they help to shape our modes of perception. But then also, they can help to reshape the modes of perception. If you think of someone like Jacques Rancière’s notion of the distribution of the sensible, the redistribution of the sensible – that sort of shaping and reshaping that’s particular to the aesthetic, is what he’s getting at.

In terms of the move from literature to art and visual culture – I think for me, it initially started off as a kind of experiment with the different kind of medium. I was so focused on literature, particularly novels and short stories, that the visual realm became of interest to me and its own kind of specificity. And much of that had to do with how I was introduced to visual culture and visual art through contexts and institutions that were outside of the academy in many ways.

My introduction to literature was through the academy, through the English department at Howard, or the literature department at UC San Diego. But my introduction to visual culture came about through Kemi with the Walker Arts Center. Or through Obsidian. Through art galleries, or Jean Ann and her mobility as an art collector and a kind of art-witness.

And so it was – I don’t know, I think there’s something about thinking beyond the academy and how looking at visual culture began. Not just an interest in visual aesthetics, but also thinking about other sites of intellection and critique besides the academy.


GH: Even though it was outside the academy, it was within particular kinds of institutions like museums. But it was also through a kind of alternative community that was created by Black folks in the arts. So, it wasn’t just outside of the academy, but it was within a very particular context that had been built.


RF: In fact, Kemi used to run this group at the Walker that was a side group for Black folks interested in contemporary art, and it was called the Contemporary Arts Forum. And that was one of the first places where, I think, I met Jean Ann.

And so what would happen is, on a Saturday Kemi would convene Contemporary Arts Forum, and do a private tour – I think even after hours, at the Walker. So, you’re absolutely right, it was not just outside of the academy, but also a community that was generated by an interest in contemporary art, Black contemporary art, from Black people.


GH: Kemi is using, like, the actual existing arts intuitions – but creating really interesting, different kinds of spaces, within these actual, existing art and arts institutions.


RF: Right, right. And so, I think for me, it was like my engagement with literature, in a sense that it was a way to think about how people involved in aesthetic production and aesthetic works were trying to capture reality, but think beyond that reality. It was also in terms of the visual aesthetics, a kind of unfolding of the kind of communities that were produced that were extra-academic but also specifically, as you point out, Black communities.


GH: You called Jean Ann an “arts-witness.” Which, I just thought was so beautiful. You said she’s an art collector and she’s also an art-witness.


RF: It just kind of came to me, because I think that I was trying to find some way of capturing the depth of how she engages art. I mean, she’s not just a spectator, she’s not just somebody who’s looking at the art. She’s not even looking at the art for monetary value. Like, it’s actually about what the art does in terms of its representation of Black cultures, but then other contexts – cultures of the global south, and those non-Western cultures. And how it presents those communities, those peoples, those cultures in ways that run against the ways in which they’re typically depicted, for instance, in the Western art canon. I remember once after I started collecting just sort of the contemporary art, and when I moved into the loft that I had in the Twin Cities. And I had these big, high walls. And I thought “Okay. I would like to start collecting – just a few – African masks.”


GH: Oh, yeah! And I saw what happened to that loft!


RF:  Oh, I had masks everywhere.


GH: And all sorts of other things.


RF: And all sorts of other things. And I asked Jean Ann, I said “Do you know anybody who sells African masks?” And then she paused. And she said “Yeah, I do.” And then she introduced me to Rex Mhiripiri, who owns an art gallery in the Twin Cities, has been a gallerist for probably 40 years at this point.


GH: You mean your dealer.


RF: My dealer, right.


GH: In every sense of that word.

RF: Yeah, exactly right. And my “addiction.” So what started off as me buying, like, two or three expanded into like — I don’t know how many masks I have at this point, and things I have from Rex. I mean, I’m just looking around my place now, and it’s like Rex, Rex, Rex, Rex. I started off wanting particular masks that suggested or had meanings around transition. One, from one stage of life, to the next. From like, death, to birth, to adulthood. But also, ones that suggested collectivities, so not just individualized formations, but collective formations.


GH: I think that’s so connected to all of the things we’ve been talking about. One of the things I thought was just so lovely about thinking about Jean Ann as an art-witness, is that witnessing is a collective endeavor.


RF: Right, right.


GH: Witnessing implies a collectivity. You’re witnessing for others.


RF: Right, you got it. And it was what these folks did for me. Jean Ann, Kemi— I should also mention my good friend Colette Gaiter who’s an artist, who used to teach at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Then, when I started in 2000 she also started as an assistant professor there. Colette’s an African-American new media artist. She was the first person who, I think, introduced me to Kara Walker’s work. She just emailed me out of the blue because it was one of those things where there were so few people of color and Black people at the orientation that she emailed me, and she said “Do you want to do lunch?” And I said “Yeah, sure!” And the next thing, I got a packet on Walker. And, it was not clear why Colette sent me that packet on Kara Walker, but it was also her way of not just introducing herself, but also introducing a community and a context of Black people interested in art.


GH: And you know what’s so lovely is that both the way you entered art collecting and art as a part of your teaching and scholarship is through the collective. And then, for folks like Jean Ann and Colette, the idea of art-witnessing really kind of puts a different frame on the “museum as the white box.”

Walking into a museum as an individual, looking at a piece of art, with the relationship to the art is that that piece of art changes you in some way. Which is the kind of classic model of art appreciation. But, in all these different ways, what you’re describing is people who are in that world, but are creating different ways to inhabit those spaces. Whether it’s Kemi doing that forum, bringing Black folks in, and doing tours, or Jean Ann walking into a gallery or a museum and looking at a piece that is abstracted and putting the context back in through her active witnessing.


RF: Yeah, after Jean Ann introduced me to Rex, one of the things I was trying to do was just kind of put symbols in the loft, and around me, that would help ground me. And, for me, the masks, again, were symbolic of the collective, rather than the individualized, but also trying to keep and maintain ties between these sort of temporal points of the past, the present, and the future.

Those who came before us, we who’re here now, and those who will come after us. It was a way for me to try and exercise that and remind myself of that. But I could also deliver it to other points in my life. With like, the friendships, but also my teaching, and also my research. So, how to impute the values I was deriving from the artwork into the work itself.

Rex was also very instrumental in that. I learned a lot, and have learned a lot from Rex. So, one of the first things he started to do when he recognized that I was seriously interested in African Art, he started teaching me things. He’s like, “Okay, see: this is a contemporary piece. This mask, it’s designed to look as if it’s old, but let me show you the artifice. If you look behind this part, you can see these markings. That will let you know that it’s not old. Or, if the features are exact or they’re realistic, that’s a contemporary piece, that’s not an old piece.” And then he’d point me to another one, another mask. And he’d say “This one, this one you don’t see the features, you don’t see the nose. You see little slits for the eyes. You don’t see the mouth. That’s a Mercedes.”  And he has a practice that every piece you buy, he gives you a book on the art.


GH: Oh my gosh, does he really?


RF: Yeah, yeah, totally. So, I have these huge books on African Art, many of them out of print.


GH: That’s amazing.


RF: He’s just collected, and he gives them to – all of his customers, but he gives them to me for every piece that I buy, or several pieces that I buy, he gives me a book on Burkina Faso and art, an old book on African Art, the image of “The Black” in Western Art, another on [shona] sculptures, another on the art of Benin. So, I have all of these books that accompany the artworks themselves. So he was also deliberately trying to build my own literacy around what I was acquiring and collecting.


GH: That’s exactly going back to what you were saying about these folks not approaching the art in terms of value, or at least monetary value. Like, “how much is this going to appreciate? Is this going to send my kid to college?”


RF: Yeah, totally, right.


GH: You know, this conversation’s been really, really helpful to me, because given the horrible current political climate, I’ve really been thinking about what our role as scholars and critics and people who produce analytics about culture and art is in this particular context. There’s clearly this attack on intellectualism. And this kind of attack has been present for a long time, but it’s had these really – in recent times – exacerbated consequences.

And what’s really funny, is that – I mean funny in a horribly grim way – is that a lot of these attacks are against the sciences. For folks like us, who are in cultural studies and the humanities and social sciences, we once thought the sciences were impregnable. But there’s this total attack on the sciences around, say, climate change, or environmentalism of all kinds, or what have you. And then, there’s also this authoritarian move to invent “truth.”

I just recently went to this conference on academic freedom at UCLA, where they were talking about the ways in which the foundations of the social sciences were being challenged by this kind of authoritarian move to invent “truth” to their liking.

So what do we do in this context when facticity is being dismissed, when we’ve actually been challenging the idea of facticity and the empirical for a while – and your Aberrations in Black is entirely about that, through the social sciences, and sociology in particular. So, how do we make these different interventions be collective? How do we build a coalitional practice, in a way?


RF: It’s a really, really great question. I’m not sure what the answers might be, but I’m confident that the question will lead to answers. I mean, when you were talking, I was thinking about how the Culture Wars of the 80s and the 90s were so much around the aesthetic and the arts. About what could be represented on TV, or what could be represented in novels.


GH: Or what the NEA could fund or not.


RF: Exactly right, right. But then you see in this moment a sort of second Culture War organized around the sciences. Contesting the sciences. But they’re also linked, because the original Culture Wars were also contesting the claim to truth around things like patriarchy, things like racism, things like homophobia, and now the contestation is over things like whether or not there’s such a thing as climate change.

But I do think that it provides an opportunity for us to reorganize collectively around the status of truth and the factual without actually producing a kind of hagiography of the factual and the truthful. And whether or not that sort of collective effort takes place in classrooms or at symposia or conferences or in associations. It would be interesting to think about what associations like the interdisciplinary ethnic studies ones, or the interdisciplinary ones, period. American Studies, Asian-American Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, The National Women’s Studies Association, NAISA— what that sort of collective deliberation would look like for those sites in terms of the status of truth and facticity.

But I think that part of the effort has to be also at the level of the classroom or at the level of the more progressive scholarly associations, or the study groups. To sort of build that collective interest.


GH: I was thinking about what you were saying earlier about art being the means through which different kinds of sensibilities are produced. So, there’s sort of this way in which a part of what the current political climate has produced that makes people feel so much like the ground is shifting under their feet— is this major shift in sensibility.


RF: Exactly.


GH: So, basically the U.S. went from kind of a neoliberal multicultural sensibility to a neoliberal authoritarian one.


RF: In days. In a matter of days.


GH: Though, people keep saying the foundations of this were there, obviously. But in terms of a sensibility, yes! And that shift in sensibility is really profound. So, while we can’t discount the ways in which all the recent executive orders, and people being detained at airports, and deported, and while we can’t dismiss those really concrete things as these important consequences of Trump being elected president, a part of I think what people are saying is “Look, Obama laid the ground for some of this.”


RF: That’s the thing. It’s also an observation in how even as you transition from one political economic mode to another political economic mode, like you were mentioning neoliberal multiculturalism to neoliberal authoritarianism, the seeds for that kind of transition, the shape and the contours of where you land are already within the seeds planted by the nation state before.


GH: Right, right. People are saying that the seven countries on Trump’s list of people who will not be able to enter, are lists that the Obama administration actually first came up with. And so, while we can’t dismiss the fact that acting on that list as a way of banning migrants to the US is horrible, and we can’t do a kind of false equivalence— one thing that this emphasizes is the major difference or the major shift is in our ways of perceiving reality.


RF: And that’s the thing. Rancière talks about this too, that that kind of shift that takes place in the realm of politics is an indication of aesthetic operations in the political, within political practice. That political practice is also about affecting those shifts and producing those shifts in perception.


GH: Given this context, the shifts of perception and sensibility that artists produce are absolutely connected to the shifts of sensibility and perceptions that, say, social movements produce.


RF: And also, it identifies that those shifts in perception are also part of hegemonic struggle. They’re also the tools of struggle.


GH: Because they’re the tools of hegemony.


RF: Right. And so we go back to your question, about how do we produce a kind of collective interest and mobilization around perceptions, especially perceptions of what is true and what is not true. Then it means that, whatever collectives we produce, that has to be part of the project of those collectives. For instance, what would a kind of contemporary arts forum that Kemi was leading look like if we were using contemporary Black art as a way to address the issue of the perceptions around the persistence or non-persistence of slavery in the contemporary moment.


GH: Do you have an example you want to think about? Like a piece that you like for exactly the ways it makes those interventions.


RF: But it all depends upon the reading. The piece that I’m looking at right now, the piece that I just purchased, the Gordon Parks photo.


“Willie Causey Jr with Gun during Violence in Shady Grove, Alabama,” 1956
Gordon Parks

GH: Oh, god, that’s beautiful!


RF: Where it’s called “Willie Causey Jr. on the Night of Violence in Shady Grove, Alabama.” It’s a great title. It depicts a young man in one of those straight wooden chairs that I grew up sitting in. And he’s got on jeans, he’s barefoot, he’s leaning, no shirt on and he has a rifle in his lap. And his head is hung, and he’s looking down at the rifle as he leans against what looks like a frieze, and across from him are his younger siblings on the bed reading.

And the story there is that the Causey family was one of the families that Gordon Parks photographed, interviewed for the Life Magazine spread about segregated life in the South. And the families that were photographed and agreed to be interviewed were later threatened with death for participating in this exposure. And so, Willie Causey Jr. was tasked with defending the family in case vigilantes or the Klan came. So, read in this moment, the kind of resignation that he demonstrates in the photo, that he’s kind of resigned to this task, he’s not enthusiastic about holding a gun or using it. But, you know, in the absence of a social structure that would actually protect the family. To do violence to them, and allow violence to be done – you know that’s where he is. And the sense of a kind of DIY self-protectionism and a kind of melancholy in a society, a nation that has no regard for your life and won’t protect it…


GH: And it’s also such an intervention into a masculinist, Black nationalist understanding of these fierce, militant warriors. So in some ways, it’s  a commentary on or a representation of a different kind of masculinity. A meditation on, or a way of expressing a different gender formation.


RF: Yeah! Right! Like he doesn’t want to do it. That’s clear. That he’s pressed into a kind of a masculine duty, or masculinity, and he doesn’t want to do it. But he has no other choice. It is about, as you’re suggesting, the sort of foreclosing of gendered options.


GH: Well, that’s really interesting because the piece that this brings to mind is the piece that hangs in my office that a former student of mine gave me. It’s a small piece that’s all in shades of gray. And while it’s not really representational, if you look at it in a certain way, it can be reminiscent of bare branches against a gray sky. Or looked at another way, it could look like veins of ore in rock. So there’s something about it that feels kind of like nature. But when you look at it closely, the image kind of breaks down, like there are certain things about the ways in which it’s drawn, where you’re like “Oh that couldn’t be leaves, or that couldn’t be branches, or that couldn’t be ore,” because you realize the patterns aren’t exactly as they would be in nature. I think it’s a lithograph, and the thing that I love is that this piece is called “Evidence.” It was created by a student of mine who’s transgender Asian American, an Asian immigrant actually. And I think it’s a commentary on things that like reference nature. It’s about saying “what is this evidence of?” if it looks like it’s nature or natural at first glance.



Bo Luengsuraswat, Evidence, 2006, lithograph, “11 x 13″

RF: It breaks down.


GH: It breaks down. So it’s critiquing nature as fact or evidence about, say, for example, gender. That’s my reading of it. It’s this very beautiful, haunting piece for that reason. But I think that’s exactly an example of how art might help us interrogate things like nature, evidence, fact.


RF: Totally right. Exactly right. Yeah, and I think that this is also a moment for a kind of insurgent creativity. What’s so wonderful about the photos of the sort of Anti-Trump Rallies and even the Women’s Marches – what people created, the signs and the costumes and things. Whether we’re talking about the myriad kinds of signs, body art, papier mache sculptures, or costumes, people responded to the unfolding political crisis with an explosion of aesthetic production.


GH: Absolutely and that was art, right?


RF: That was art!

GH: The whole thing was like performance art.


RF: Completely performance art, and oftentimes by people who don’t consider themselves artists!


GH: It was so creative, some of those signs were so creative and really funny and so literate and relevant to the context.


RF: One that I love of this Asian American toddler who has this sign like “I like naps, but I stay woke.”


GH: I saw that one! I also love the signs that went viral that said “53% of white women voted for Trump.” And so this collectivity is made up of people who are being critical and dissenting at the same time. That’s a sensibility that people have a hard time understanding or being a part of.


RF: Right, like “How can you have a moment when people don’t agree on everything?”


GH: It’s not even “how do you have a moment even when people don’t agree on anything?” This is what women of color feminism was about right? “Let’s have a moment that is based on people not agreeing.”


RF: Like the conflicts aren’t pushed to the side, they’re actually there, front and center.


GH: Yeah, in the center. That is a major question of sensibility and perception. And it is one that is so hard for people to get. For women of color feminists and queer of color activists and theorists have been saying this for decades, right? And it’s still the same conversation. You know I realized I should acknowledge my student who made that beautiful piece. His name is Bo Luengsuraswat.


RF: It sounds like a great piece.


GH: It is great and it was really so lovely that’s what he chose to give me.


GH: Thanks for this conversation, Rod. I feel like it was such a shot in the arm. A lot of the news has been so dispiriting, a lot of the news has been so dispiriting. And talking about this just made me feel like “Yes! This is what we do and why we do it!”


RF: I’ve mentioned that New Left Club idea and now I’m trying to find a venue.


GH: So say more about it. Describe it.


RF: Well, I’ve been wanting to start a Chicago version of the New Left Club, the British New Left Club. And I think that particularly now that, I think people just want to have collectivities, be in groups and stuff. I’ve just been struck by how friends of mine have been sending texts and things like “can you come over, we’re doing this, we’re having a dinner, it’s a good time for all of us to be together.”

Again, last night when Naomi Paik and I went out to dinner, it happened that one of our servers was actually one of my former students who just finished her MFA. Her name is Rachel, and I said to her during the course of the dinner that hey, I’ve been thinking about doing this New Left Club thing. And it could be like a forum for artists who want to talk, want to brainstorm about how they want to intervene in this moment in ways that are both significant but also preserve the integrity of their own artistic vision. And she was like “YES I NEED A GROUP!” So we’re going to have our first meeting in February, probably at Naomi’s place. But it’s also a way for people in whatever their vocations are to redistribute sensibility.


GH: Yeah, that’s fantastic.

Roderick A. Ferguson is the co-director of the Racialized Body research cluster at UIC. Prior to his appointment there, he was professor of race and critical theory in the Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, serving as chair of the department from 2009 to 2012.  He is the co-editor with Grace Hong of the University of Minnesota Press book series Difference Incorporated. Also with Hong, he is the co-editor of the anthology Strange Affinities: The Gender and Sexual Politics of Comparative Racialization (2011). In addition, he is the author of The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (2012), Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2004), and numerous articles.

Grace Hong is the author of Death Beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference. She is also author of The Ruptures of American Capital: Women of Color Feminism and the Culture of Immigrant Labor and the co-editor of Strange Affinities: The Gender and Sexual Politics of Comparative Racialization. She is also the co-editor of the Difference Incorporated book series at the University of Minnesota Press. Professor Hong received her Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, San Diego as well as her B.A. and M.A. from UCLA.