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Noah Simblist talks about co-curating ‘Commonwealth’ at the ICA

exterior of the i c a

The exhibition Commonwealth recently opened at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. Co-curated by Noah Simblist, chair and associate professor of Painting + Printmaking, and Stephanie Smith, former chief curator at the ICA, along with colleagues from partner organizations at the Philadelphia Contemporary and Beta-Local in San Juan, the exhibition is the result of two years of research and community engagement. It features nine newly commissioned projects, including several collaborations with VCUarts faculty, students and alumni, such as the Conciliation Project, whose artistic director is Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates from the Department of Theatre; David Riley (MFA ’19) from Photography + Film; Luis Vasquez La Roche (MFA ’20) and Bryan Castro (MFA ’20) from Painting + Printmaking; and Bernita Randolf, a VCU history graduate student who worked as a research assistant on the project.

Commonwealth also marks a relationship between VCUarts and the ICA that many envisioned well before the ICA opened in 2018. In addition to artistic collaborators, Simblist and Smith co-taught a VCUarts class in spring 2019 that served as the beginning of their research process.

Here, Simblist talks about the genesis of Commonwealth, and how the exhibition embodies the concepts they were exploring.

How did the idea for Commonwealth come about?

Stephanie Smith, [former] chief curator at the ICA, first came to me and said, “I’m interested in this project revolving around the term commonwealth. Is this something you might want to work on?” The predicate of this was thinking about us being at Virginia Commonwealth University, being in Virginia—that we exist within a commonwealth, but it’s this term that we don’t take any time to consider what it really means.

She then reached out to Nato Thompson at the Philadelphia Contemporary, and then we approached our collaborators, and in Puerto Rico, Beta-Local. We’re all commonwealths and it seemed interesting to build up a collaborative project between institutions that could collectively come together around the framework of what this project would be—and partially because our contexts are so different.

What are some of the commonalities and differences between the three commonwealths?

The interesting thing is, historically, Virginia and Pennsylvania were both named commonwealths by American revolutionaries in the colonies. They called it commonwealth in opposition to the British Empire. This was the coming together of the people for the common good, as opposed to a resource for the king. They’re both historical places that are rooted in the utopian ideas of that. But at the same time, in both places, the Constitution only applied to land-owning white men. Richmond and Virginia also have to contend with the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, which puts us in a different relationship to that legacy of the common good. So that’s a tension between Virginia and Pennsylvania.

And then with Puerto Rico, it’s a whole other thing, because in relation to Puerto Rico, both Virginia and Pennsylvania have a lot of privilege in being a part of the mainland United States. We have elected officials that are representatives that we can vote for. There is taxation with representation. When we first asked our collaborators, “Do you want to be a part of a project called Commonwealth?” they said no. For them, the term commonwealth was established in 1952 when the United States established Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory, a colony of the United States. So “commonwealth,” for a lot of people who are in favor of independence or full statehood or any version other than what it is now, they really don’t like that term.

How is the model of this exhibition—a collaboration between three arts institution—also an experiment in this idea of coming together for the greater good?

The idea of institutional collaboration is not super common. We did think that that was an important value of actually working between institutions. We were always aware of what was the most equitable way to balance things. Collaboration always takes longer and it’s always harder, but I think we were interested in an experiment of what it meant for us to come together as a group for everything. I don’t think it’s necessarily the philosophy that we’re advocating, but we did think that it was an important experiment to try.

How was Commonwealth also a collaboration with local communities?

In Philadelphia, part of the idea was that they’re going to build a museum in this neighborhood, and they wanted to make sure that they could reach out to people who live in the neighborhood to see what kind of museum they want—the museum in general, but also certain exhibitions. Commonwealth just became a part of their conversations. And then Beta-Local has a postgraduate residency program, called La Práctica, where a group comes together around conversations about a given topic. Early on, they helped out a lot because they facilitated a cognitive mapping exercise with the word “commonwealth,” where they broke it down into common, commons, wealth, currencies—sort of like a free association map.

For us, in Richmond, Stephanie Smith and I started the research process by teaching this course together in spring of 2019. Then that summer, we had this project called Summer Sessions, which was a more public-facing set of conversations. We actually met a lot of people that ended up being connected to the project, like Alicia Díaz. It turned out that she’s a choreographer, a dancer, thinker, teacher and researcher, who is local and from Puerto Rico originally, and that turned into her commission. Also, Duron Chavis who did the resiliency garden. We had invited him to be a facilitator for two of the thematic conversations, and that turned into his project.

What are you hoping visitors will consider?

We slowly started to realize this was coming in an election year. It’s fraught time, but there are basic questions of “Who is the ‘we’ in we the people?” and “How do we come together for the common good?” When you see in the exhibition, the different people that are represented, or different positions that are represented, it starts to give a little bit more texture to those questions. In Sharon Hayes’ video, she’s talking to all-women tackle football teams in Texas about playing football and their sense of themselves as women and how the pain and pleasure of the activity affects them and affects their relationships with one another. It slowly becomes about much more than just football, right? It becomes about how you exist in the community and expectations that people have of you and how they relate to one another. It’s the metaphor of a team and a community.

Commonwealth is open now through Jan. 17, 2021, at the ICA. Timed tickets are required to enter the ICA, but the exhibition also includes outdoor and digital experiences.