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In Conversation with Teju Adisa Farrar by Rochelle Spencer

Some of the most compelling discussions about urban living and its potential for allowing people to form social bonds and live meaningfully are being generated by Black women. From the architectural designs of Deanna Van Buren and June Grant to the eco-art of Tracey Bell-Bordon and Malaika Parker, and the installations of Gia Hamilton and Mendi Lewis Obadike (created in collaboration with her husband/partner Keith Obadike), this work poses tantalizing questions about communities and their futures. The scholarship and criticism of Teju Adisa-Farrar, an urban geographer who has worked in places such as Israel/Palestine, Ireland, Panama, and throughout the United States, investigates how technology and urban living intersect and seems concerned with some of the problems posed by her sisters: how do people develop futures that are fair and equitable for everyone? How do we share space and learn to interact and grow with each other? Adisa-Farrar’s work investigates other tantalizing questions: if today’s algorithms dictate how and where we travel, then how does this influence the movements of poor people and/or people of color? And, in an age of online exploration, is mobility still linked to a physical space? How do we define freedom–and have our definitions of freedom changed?

I’m currently teaching Adisa-Farrar’s work in an introductory writing course at San Jose State University. Adisa-Farrar spoke to me about how art and design affect urban life.

Rochelle Spencer: How is urban geography different from architecture or architectural design?

Teju Adisa Farrar: Urban geography is a more comprehensive understanding of urbanism, social culture, and the political geography of urban spaces—addressing things that happen on multiple scales/levels. It’s a more comprehensive understanding of what goes into creating urban spaces.

RS: How does cosmopolitanism figure into your work?

Image and courtesy of Teju Adisa Farrar

TAF: I question the use of the word cosmopolitanism. Migration is part of Black life. Black people are moving—and Black movements happen globally. We may not always connect, but we’re migrants and part of the same system. Blackness is about movement. My experience is that I move back and forth across the equator and the Atlantic.

Growing up, I went back and forth to Jamaica. It would be a disservice not to mention my mother, a Jamaican writer and cultural activist Opal Palmer Adisa. When I was 14, my mother did a residency in Bahia, Brazil so we spent some time there. Growing up, I saw so many Black people from different countries—Brazil, Jamaica. And because I grew up around this diversity, I never felt like American Blackness was the only Blackness.  I didn’t have an understanding of African-Americans as the quintessential Blackness or as the only form of Blackness. That wasn’t my experience. My research is about re-mapping places where Black people have existed, to decenter the idea of Blackness from the U.S.

It’s important to recognize all forms of Blackness—movements are most effective when they are decentralized. If you believe you’re “only ones,” there’s no possibility for coalition building. How do we see alternative ways of being in the world, of being Black?

RS: In your open letter to the Brooklyn Museum, you discussed the Brooklyn Museum’s decision to hire a white curator, Kristen Windmuller-Luna, to curate their African Art collection.

TAF: I published the letter on Medium, and the letter resonated. Two days after Medium published the letter, The Guardian re-published it. What I didn’t know is that they selected the title, “Why are white curators still running African Art collections?” when the piece was actually an open letter to the Brooklyn Museum. There were 100 tweets, just about the title, mocking the title. People were very offended by the title, and the people emailing me were mad. People called me a racist. People say young people are color blind or post-racial but it’s not that simple.

A Nigerian scholar wrote to me and said, “there aren’t enough black curators in this field,” and “people can study and be an expert, even if they are white.” Most of the responses to the letter were along the lines of “Black curators aren’t present or available.” But I can think of five curators of Black descent, three from Africa, who are well-qualified. I also recognize that a Black American wouldn’t necessarily be qualified—although a Black American may be slightly better than a White American, a Black person from the continent would be better, without question.

RS: I think you raise an interesting point: do you feel it’s better for curators to be from the continent, country, or state where the art originates?

TAF: No, however, I do think in cases with marginalized and oft-misrepresented communities that lived experience should be considered a qualification. Subjectivity cannot be learned in school and this allows a certain connection to the work. Everyone is not willing to acknowledgeor cannot always understandhow subjectivity affects how art will be displayed and articulated.

RS: Do you believe art has the potential for social change?

TAF: Yes, because we don’t understand concrete ways art has been integral to social movements. Frederick Douglass was the most photographed Black man of his era and where would we be without seeing those pictures?  Think of the pictures of our musicians. Nina Simone was nearly blacklisted by the government but the photographs of her have been seen around the world and her music continues to teach us about resistance and add to our knowledge.  

RS: Can we return to your letter? You received alot of hate mail from people who didn’t question the Brooklyn Museum’s choice. How did you respond?

TAF: I tried to respond to people who were trying to have a genuine conversation.  There were people who said, “I wouldn’t be mad if Black people were curating European or Asian art,” but when I looked, I couldn’t really find this.

RS: Do you mean Black head curators as opposed to assistants?

TAF: Yes.

RS: Or curators of major collections?

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TAF: Yes. Head curators of major collections in well-funded museums. In general, it is hard to find Black curators who are head curators for collections of European or Asian Art, whereas it is quite easy to find White curators who are head of such collections.

RS: What would you like to see change for Black curators?

TAF: More roles with greater impact, period.

RS: Anything else?

TAF: I engage with other cultures, and think we should all do so. We should use language that is thoughtful and nuanced and consider ideas about ownership, and who is seen as an authority, and who has a valid opinion on something.

An upcoming art curator and I discussed privilege in the art world. His grandfather was a well-known photographer, in part because he was able to capture the atrocities of Apartheid. Our conversation was about how he benefits from his privilege in the art world not only because of his grandfather but also because he is White from Africa. His grandfather was a pioneer but had the ability to enter [certain] spaces because of white privilege and being seen as white.  I suggested that collaboration and working with qualified people of color are ways he can use his privilege in a progressive way, maybe even as a possibility for reconciliation.

I believe there must be critical responses where people are being angry when their voices aren’t being included in the conversation.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this interview misquoted Adisa-Farrar’s statement about her time in Brazil. The interview has been updated to reflect the correct statement.


Rochelle Spencer is the author of AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction (Routledge, 2019), co-editor, of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2018), and a co-curator of the Let’s Play exhibition and Oakland’s Digital Literature Garden. Rochelle’s work appears in Mosaic, Solstice, Poets and Writers, Callaloo, The African American Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Crab Creek Review (which nominated her for an Editor’s Choice award and a Pushcart Prize), Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, Cosmonauts Avenue, Eleven Eleven, Empty Mirror Cake Train, Art Practical, The Miami Rail, Easy Street, The East Bay Review, The Carbon Culture Review, The Fantasist, Calyx, Lunch Ticket, VIDA, The Gay and Lesbian Review, The Women’s Review of Books, The Institute for the Future, The Encyclopedia of Hip Hop, The Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, AICAD, ARTS.BLACK and is forthcoming in the Women=Books Blog.

Rochelle currently teaches at San Jose State University and has taught at Spelman College, Georgia Southern University, LaGuardia Community College, Laney College, New York University, and the College of New Rochelle.

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