In the first of a series of Roski Talks featuring artists, curators, historians and calligraphers sharing their stories, Erin Christovale, a Los Angeles-based curator at the Hammer Museum, spoke about creating spaces for black experiences, and her current exhibition “Made In L.A. 2018.”
Students sat patiently on the ground in front of the presentation room, while others stood crowded in the back. As a prelude to her talk, Christovale projected playwright Bill Gunn’s letter to the editor, titled “To Be a Black Artist,” a work that has motivated her and influenced her curatorial style. Gunn wrote the letter in 1973, after a white critic from The New York Times wrote a scathing review of his movie “Ganja and Hess,” a black vampiric love story.
As Christovale read the letter, the room erupted with laughter at Gunn’s fiery responses, and his satiric suggestion that “the producers wait anxiously for the black reviewers’ opinions of ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘A Clockwork Orange.’” The crowd nodded, too, as Gunn’s words resonated: “If I were white, I would probably be called fresh and different. If I were European, ‘Ganja and Hess’ might be ‘that little film you must see.’”
Christovale graduated from the School of Cinematic Arts in 2010, with a desire to create an artistic space for her lived experiences. Recently, she curated the Hammer’s “Made in L.A. 2018” show, a biennial exhibition that explores the contemporary tone of Los Angeles by showcasing local artists. This year’s show featured a wide variety of installations — from E.J. Hill’s endurance performance to Lauren Halsey’s “The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project,” which will become a part of the architecture of South Central L.A.
Titled, “Collectives, collaborations, and the thoughts that surround me,” Christovale’s Roski Talk began with a cheery picture of her and her friends, all but one alumni from different departments at USC. In 2010, the black creative group formed the collective “Native Thinghood,” a nod to Aldous Huxley’s book “Doors of Perception,” in which plants are described as having “been robbed of their thinghood or essence.” Like the plants, Christovale leveled, “[black people] have been commodified and named different things.”
In 2013, she was introduced to Amir George, a Chicago-based filmmaker, and the pair formed “Black Radical Imagination,” a now-international program that provided a space for black filmmakers and visual artists to display their work. The name is an ode to the idea that there had to be some sort of black imagination in order to ever exist outside of racism and oppression and imagine a liberated future. While Christovale no longer curates the program, she praises it as a “rich point of dialogue that continues to grow.”
In 2014, she explored environmental racism with her show “a/wake in the water”; in 2016, the topic at hand was queer black womanhood with “Memoirs of a Watermelon Woman”; and in 2017, she explored black masculinity with “baby boy.” When asked why she settled down at the Hammer after so long, she joked “the first thing I thought was I need healthcare,” but became more serious when talking about her feelings toward working at a predominantly white museum.
“I’m not here to be a superhero, or be a person who changes an institution,” Christovale said. However, the audience’s unanimous smile made it clear that Christovale’s work continues to be eye-opening and perhaps even revolutionary.