In conversation with Franklin Sirmans
Franklin Sirmans is an American curator, writer, editor and lecturer, who was appointed as the director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami in October 2015. Since his appointment, Sirmans has continued to secure large donations and include art programs that reflect the community in Miami. He is well known for his curatorial work which ranges from museums such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Queens Museum of Art. His conversation with Keith Duncan considers their shared nostalgia and affection for their hometowns and how it influences their work.
Franklin Sirmans: First off, the work looks amazing. It’s good to reconnect on this again, man. Gosh it's been a long time.
Keith Duncan: Yeah, when you went down that was for Prospect and you saw one of my paintings. I'm trying to remember which one it was…
FS: I can't remember, but I mean that was probably 2013, because it was when I was working on the show. It was either 13 or 14 and I left New York in 2006. So when did you leave New York?
KD: I left New York at the end of 2007, sometime in September.
FS: What was your reason? You know we had a lot of good people around us, between Derrick [Adams] and Rush Arts and the Studio Museum in Harlem. We had a really beautiful network of people around us, and sometimes you have to leave that beautiful network. What made you leave?
KD: Well, I thought after 911 things started to change in New York, you know? Gentrification was happening, and things started to get more expensive and I figured, hey, I'm from New Orleans, and especially after Katrina happened in 2005 I felt that it was time for me to come on back home. This is where I was born and raised, so it just felt like the right timing to come back.
FS: Yeah, yeah. Well, it's amazing 'cause the newer work that we are talking about, with the marching bands, obviously comes from New Orleans. It's very specific to the tradition and history there.
For the sake of conversation, tell me a little bit about what you were doing in those years in New York prior to going back to New Orleans.
KD: I was always painting about my environment, which I lived in Harlem. You know my last five years in New York I lived in the Bronx. I had shown works at Rush Arts in the mid-late 90s and you know Derrick [Adams], he was the curator at the time, before he was an artist. I was showing this series called the Ghetto Angels. I would have these young African American men chilling on the corner, but I would put wings on them. I saw good in everybody you know, even if they were considered thugs or up to no good. I saw them as someone that is vital in the community, even if they are hanging out on the corner. So, I would put these wings on them, and it was also a commentary on the idea that we have the good side in us as well as the bad side. So those paintings gained some traction and I remember showing them at Rush Arts and then I did a smaller version of them, and I showed them at Danny Simmons's place, at Corridor Gallery.
You know, and then three of the pieces made in it into the Studio Museum in Harlem. Do you remember the show, The Black Romantic?
FS: Of course!
KD: So, the subject matter was expanded, and people were interested. It was funny, I showed at Rush Arts, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the American Bible Society of all places! Yeah, because it had this biblical connotation to it. So, it was accepted widely, among people who were interested in work like that.
I moved back to New Orleans, and I started painting about the culture, the music, and the food.
FS: Yeah, when you went back that was like 2006, it was right after Katrina. I actually moved to Houston at that time, and we had so many people from New Orleans there. What was it like going into to that kind of scene that wasn't necessarily a scene at that time?
KD: Well in 2007, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, was getting itself grounded again. But I'm an art educator – I still teach to this day – so, I was mainly looking for work. You know, so I was like I’m gonna do my art now, but I was looking for some work.
So, that was my main thing at the beginning, and then it was like I had to discover my city again. You know, because when I went to Delgado Community College in New Orleans I would just go to college and go back home. I didn't go to the French quarters. I didn't hang out with the art scene, and coming back to New Orleans when I did, it was like discovering the city all over again. And do you remember Terrence Sanders?
KD: He started a magazine called Art Voices. So he had all these artists that were not being shown in New Orleans. One thing about New Orleans, is that we have so many different levels of artists. We have street artists. We have artists that only do festivals. We have artists that paint in the French quarters. We have artists on Julia Street where the commercial galleries are. We have all these different levels of artists and I was able to see that and tap into that, and become a part of the community. The good thing about it was that once we had Prospect happen the Joan Mitchell Foundation came down and set up shop and we have a residency now. It was a good time to be back in the city.
FS: Yeah. It's a beautiful kind of scene, that it's developed into and then you were in was Dan’s [Cameron] first show or was it the 1.5?
KD: It was actually the 2, Prospect 2. It was Willie Birch that put me into the CUE Arts Foundation.
FS: Right, and Willie was a big connection for us in New York too because he used to show at Luise Ross Gallery. I used to see him there all the time.
KD: Yes, yes, and Willie said, “I want to curate a show for you in New York.” This was 2010 and I went back to New York. It was like a good reunion.
Nothing really materialized out of that show, but it just really validated me. It kind of put me on the map in a bigger way and after that show Dan [Cameron] called me up and said, “Hey, have you shown any of these paintings in New Orleans?” And I said no, no one in New Orleans has seen these paintings.
So he called me up two weeks later and he put me in Prospect 2 and it was at the Healing Center, and that was great. It got me a lot of press, you know, and the ball started rolling soon after that. Then I was in the residency program at the Joan Mitchell Foundation.
FS: So the figure and life, particularly Black life, has always been a part of the work. There's obviously, New Orleans, and it is hard to think of a city that is more of a symbol of that. So I wonder, how did the work change, you know, being there over a period of time? And how did you arrive at the marching band paintings in particular?
KD: Well, I went back to my environment and I started painting about tourism in the city, and I would always have these three components, which New Orleans is known for: the music, the food and our landmarks. Like the cathedral or the balconies that you see in the French Quarters. You know these are things that people come to New Orleans for. So I would have that as my backdrop, but then I would add like this element of negativity, like a stabbing going on or a robbery. This is what you see in every major city.
I mean there is the good and the bad. There was a quote right after Katrina that people said, “Oh we didn't know they had crime in New Orleans. We didn't know there was poor people in New Orleans.” And I'm like what are you talking about? You know? So, I included that into these paintings, and it was just called my New Orleans series. And so those paintings went into more of dealing with our culture. You know, maybe I would refer to the food or the music, but that's where I'm at now. The Battle of the Bands series was something I always wanted to do.
I went to LSU for my undergrad and we would go over to Southern University at times and go to the Greek shows and see the step teams and check out the game. But the main event wasn’t the game, it was the Battle of the Bands. Everybody wanted to see the bands go at each other, so that was something that was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to talk about.
FS: You know, one thing that’s interesting aesthetically, is how did you arrive at this kind of horizontality of the work and this kind of narrative that is drawn in these horizontal paintings in particular?
KD: Right, well going back to my earlier works, I was always doing these door size paintings, where they were vertical, you know. And so the figure to me is still one of the top subject matters in art, period, especially the Black figure. Black representation in art from Kehinde Wiley, to Robert Colescott, to Kerry James Marshall, or even Mickalene Thomas, is important.
My style is surreal and graphic in nature and I feel that I am a part of that lineage of African American artists that deal with the Black figure, you know?
FS: Yes. I think about this often. When you talk about New Orleans and its relationship to let's just say painters, right? You mentioned you have the painters who are in front of the cathedral. You know they do the tourists. They can do a face super easy. You got the ones that are maybe down by the water who go into some sort of landscape tradition.
In all of these cases, it's about communication. It's about using images to communicate with people, and I think that's one of the things that I loved so much about The Black Romantic. You also reminded me about the painting tradition in this country, that is more direct and it's not just about figuration, it's something more and I don't know how to describe it all the time. I think about all these New Yorker magazine covers and our friends who do these kind of things. It's about a level of communication and you have come to a place where you're able to communicate with the work in the sphere of the white cube just as easily in these other environments, at least for those who know. Which is pretty amazing and special 'cause not everybody knows what you're talking about when you when you do the marching bands either, and you talk about the Battle of the Bands.
KD: Yeah, if you don't understand or know something about Mardi Gras culture, then you cannot leave out the marching band culture, because they are interconnected. When you go to the parades, what is accompanied with the floats is the marching bands. In South America as well as Central America these young kids grow up with instruments. They're learning how to play something you know, and then that happens in our school systems. Here, the kids start playing in these marching bands at an early age and then it develops into them becoming musicians. Like the ReBirth Brass Band, which is a very popular brass band in the city, most of their members started playing instruments when they were kids.
FS: Yeah, it's just in the water there.
KD: Could I read something real fast? It has a lot of context for what we're talking about.
"The Bayou Classic event and tradition is the annual college football game between Grambling State University Tigers and Southern University Jaguars. First held under that name in 1974, at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.
Although the series itself actually began in 1932, a trophy is awarded to the winning school. Since 1990, the game has been held on the final Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, and it is held in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which is what it's called now. It is the best-known game and rivalry in HBCU history.
It has been nationally televised since ‘91 in America. Both schools typically forgo FCS playoff eligibility to participate in the Bayou Classic. The game is one of two Black College football classics to associate with the Thanksgiving weekend. The other is the old Turkey Day Classic. Of many activities held in conjunction with the game, the most well-known and well attended, is the two-part Battle of the Bands where both universities’ marching bands: Grambling’s World-Fame Tiger marching band and Southern’s Human Juke Box perform. Following the Greek show, the two renowned bands stage elaborate, choreographed performances on Friday night before the game and the final part is held during the football game’s halftime show. There is no official judge for the band battle.
Now, most spectators will admittedly say that the highlight of the entire weekend event is not the game itself, but the battle that takes place on the field between the two marching bands." That says it right in a nutshell! I saw these drum majors as like these symbols of African Warriors dancing in front of the king or the queen, and a pageantry, a royalty of ceremonious splendor.
I saw them in that light and it’s part of our heritage beyond New Orleans, and I saw that in these figures. Going back to the representation of the figure in art, I wanted to encapsulate that.