Starting from the phenomenon of self-segregation during lunchtime in schools and workplaces, Black Lunch Table creates a critical platform for exchange through staging and recording community roundtable discussions at institutions. C& spoke to Jina Valentine and Heather Hart about reifying visible connections that exist between contemporary artists of color, dismantling institutional racism, and taking BLT from the US to South Africa.
Contemporary And (C&): Why Black Lunch Table and this intimate format?
Jina Valentine and Heather Hart: BLT mobilizes a democratic rewriting of contemporary cultural history by animating discourse around and among the people living it. Organized around literal and metaphorical lunch tables, BLT takes the lunchroom phenomenon as its starting point. The significance of Black lunch tables in school and industry cafeterias is specific to those who choose to participate in their formation, and to those whom it necessarily excludes. Their existence within otherwise public spaces marks a self-segregation, residual of our country’s history of sanctioned segregation as well as persistent and lingering forms of voluntary segregation. As the past few years have seen the most public dialogue around issues of race in recent history, this project has provided a critical platform for exchange, staging and recording community roundtable discussions at institutions nationwide.
The BLT addresses historical omissions: BLT empowers the people to write the record. Recording, transcribing, and archiving validate voices. Integrating archive materials into syllabi, research journals, Wikipedia entries, and popular discourse further authenticates them: they become part of our contemporary cultural history.
C&: With whom do you have lunch, and what do you talk about?
JV and HH: Our roundtable sessions provide both physical space and allotted time for interdisciplinary and intergenerational discussions, bringing together a diversity of community members and fostering candid conversations. At the Artists’ Table, our founding initiative, we curate cultural producers of the African Diaspora into roundtable discussions. This series provides a forum to discuss critical issues directly affecting our community, reifying the visibility of connections that exist between contemporary artists of color. By generating dialogue among Black artists, in partnership with institutions of record, we are highlighting contingencies in the art world already in play. By involving institutions, artists, art historians, curators, and collectors in this dialogue, we are creating a piece in which all these actors have both a say and something at stake.
For the People’s Table, we invite all local community members to participate in intergenerational, interdisciplinary dialogue. Politicians, activists, artists, community elders, high-school students, and media personalities have attended past events. This session seeks to cross-pollinate various discourses around sociopolitical issues affecting historically disenfranchised populations. It intends to catalyze community dialogue and make visible the connections that exist within local communities, while laying out new productive relationships to continue the movement for dismantling institutional racism.
C&: In July 2018 you bring BLT to the African continent for the first time. What did you prepare for the conversations in Johannesburg?
JV and HH: There are a number of roundtable questions that we feel are relevant in each community that we visit. These include conversation prompts about gentrification, public education, cultural appropriation, mentorship, and the importance of recording oral histories in documenting local communities. Those we have scripted newly for our trip to South Africa also include land repatriation, the cultural appropriation of African culture by Americans, and the subsequent re-selling of this back to those in Africa. We are excited to come, listen, and learn about the vision and values of cultural producers there.
In the past few months, we’ve been collaborating (on venue selection and institutional engagement, prompt questions, and invite lists) with artists in Johannesburg – Ghairunisa Galeta, Thuli Mlambo-James, and Ashley Whitfield, as well as colleagues at the Market Photo Workshop including Mika Conradie, associates at Funda Community College, and Jillian Ross at David Krut. They have been invaluable to connecting with the community in Joburg and in planning our engagements.
C&: Can you summarize your experiences in the US? What are the effects of the conversations there?
JV and HH: The Black Lunch Table audience includes: the artists and citizens offering testimony and creating oral histories; institutions who host our events; (art) historians interested in a particular movement, person, or issue; students and researchers; curators seeking a deeper understanding of a particular artist, issue, or location; all parties collaborating in the writing of contemporary (art) history; neighbors; and web users.
There is no specific outcome intended for the conversations (aside from convening community members from diverse backgrounds around food). We hope that people will stay in touch after their conversations together, but this isn’t something that we hope to achieve, nor is it something we feel we should track. We’re almost always visitors in the communities in which we produce roundtables. We just act as catalysts of interaction and documentarians of dialogue.
C&: Your plan is to create a dynamic archive. What does it look like?
JV and HH: At our roundtables, the 60-90 minute conversations are audio-recorded and the convening is photo-documented. Thereafter, we audio-master, transcribe, and metadata-tag the conversations from the individual tables for inclusion on our online archive. Ultimately the archive structure will enable web visitors to search this dynamic database using a variety of metadata tags, including participant name and profession, institution, location, date, and discussion questions. It will also be possible to search within the transcription for specific words to link to that audio segment. Additionally, our site will host all BLT-related content (including information about edit-a-thons and links to news and historical media related to discussion prompts). The BLT archive will provide an indispensable resource in the field of African American history, or more broadly, in cultural history.
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Heather Hart was an artist in residence at Joan Mitchell Center, McColl Center of Art + Innovation, Bemis Center for Art, LMCC Workspace, Skowhegan, Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, Santa Fe Art Institute, Fine Arts Work Center and at the Whitney ISP. She is interested in creating site-specific liminal spaces for personal reclamation, in questioning dominant narratives and proposing alternatives to them. Hart received grants from Joan Mitchell Foundation, Harpo Foundation, Jerome Foundation and a fellowship from NYFA. Her work has been included in a variety of publications and exhibited worldwide including at Socrates Sculpture Park, Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, Studio Museum in Harlem, ICA Philadelphia, Art in General, The Drawing Center, PS1 MoMA, Museum of Arts and Craft in Itami, Portland Art Center and the Brooklyn Museum. She studied at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Princeton University in New Jersey and received her MFA from Rutgers University.
Jina Valentine was born in Pennsylvania and is currently based in North Carolina. Her interdisciplinary practice is informed by the intuitive strategies of American folk artists and traditional craft techniques, and interweaves histories latent within found texts, objects, narratives, and spaces. She has exhibited at venues including The Drawing Center, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the CUE Foundation, the Elizabeth Foundation, the DiRosa Preserve, Southern Exposure, Marlborough Gallery. She has participated in residencies at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Women’s Studio Workshop, Sculpture Space, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the Santa Fe Art Institute, and the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. She was in residence last year at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, Banff Centre in Alberta, and Frans Masereel Centrum in Belgium. She is a 2016 recipient of the North Carolina Arts Council Grant, a Creative Capital Emerging Genres Grant, and a UNC Institute for Arts and Humanities fellowship. Jina received her BFA from Carnegie Mellon University and her MFA from Stanford University.
The Black Lunch Table in Johannesburg takes place from July 24 – 29. For more information visit: www.theblacklunchtable.com
Interview by Theresa Sigmund.