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          ‘Art is not a thing; it is a way’ - Design Miami LA 2024 panel discussion
          Zanele Muholi participates in Design Miami.LA Talk, 'Art is not a thing; it is a way'

          15 May 2024 (3 min) read

          South African visual activist Zanele Muholi will be in conversation with curator Essence Harden, the Museum of the African Diaspora's Chief of Curatorial Affairs and Public Programs Key Jo Lee, and Savannah College of Art and Design curator Ben Tollefson this Thursday, May 16, at 2 pm (PST).

          The widely shared quote “Art is not a thing; it is a way” is attributed to American writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard. It posits art as not merely objects or a product, but rather a process, a way of living, and a mode of expression. It emphasizes the idea that art encompasses not only the tangible creations but also the creative mindset, the act of creation, and the way one engages with the world. Here, art is a holistic approach to life, influencing how individuals perceive, interpret, and interact with their surroundings.

          But the approach itself, the fashioning of one’s processes as art, is a negotiation. A process of intimate communion with self. Like Miles Davis’ insight that “it takes a long time to sound like yourself”, the artistic journey is one of discovery and re-discovery. Artistic identity is not something easily demarcated; it is about deconstructing the familiar, obscuring the obvious and defining oneness. Forging an artistic language requires active looking, experiencing, and being in the world; to pull from the real and push beyond it. To disrupt the status quo.

          The panelists will discuss the ways in which despite racial, gendered, sexual, and class prejudices, artistic creation persists – as the fair’s location in a mansion designed by African-American architect Paul R. Williams illustrates. Here, art becomes a way or a vehicle towards confronting, processing, and healing from injustices, while expressing a full range of authentic life experiences among artists from marginalized groups.


          Zanele Muholi is a visual activist, humanitarian and artist whose practice focuses on the documentation and celebration of the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex communities. Born in Umlazi, Durban in 1972 and now residing in Cape Town, Muholi currently works between Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town. They studied Advanced Photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, and in 2009 completed an MFA in Documentary Media at Ryerson University, Toronto. In 2013, they became an Honorary Professor at the University of the Arts/Hochschule für Künste Bremen. Beginning in 2006, Muholi responded to the continuing discrimination and violence faced by the LGBTI community by photographing Black lesbian and transgender individuals, resulting in the ongoing portrait project, Faces and Phases. The series has been shown widely internationally, including at the South African Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013), dOCUMENTA 13 (2012), and the 29th São Paulo Biennial (2010). Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness) shifts the lens with Muholi becoming both participant and image-maker. Experimenting with different characters and archetypes in this ongoing series of self-portraits, Muholi reclaims their Blackness and offsets the culturally dominant images of Black women in the media today. Muholi is invested in educational activism, community outreach and youth development. In 2009 they founded Inkanyiso, a forum for queer and visual (activist) media and in 2002 co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW). They have presented more than 80 solo exhibitions, including at major museums such as the Tate Modern, National Gallery of Iceland, Stedelijk Museum, Brooklyn Museum, North Carolina Museum of Art, Institut Valencià d'Art Modern, Seattle Art Museum, the Finnish Museum of Photography and Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires. They have also exhibited extensively in group shows across the globe.


          Essence Harden is the co-curator of Made in LA, 2025, curator of Frieze LA, Focus 2024, and a visual arts curator at the California African American Museum. Harden has curated exhibitions at The Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), Art + Practice, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), Human Resources (Los Angeles), and Oakland Museum of California, amongst others. Harden is a contributor to New York Times Magazine (2024), The Los Angeles Times Magazine: Image, SSENSE, Art21, Contemporary Art Review LA (CARLA), Artsy, LALA, Cultured Magazine, Performa Magazine, and SFAQ: International Arts and Culture and has written catalog entries for California Biennial: Pacific Gold; Made in LA: Acts of Living; Prospect 5: Yesterday we said tomorrow; Brave New Worlds: Exploration of Space: Palm Springs Art Museum; and What Needs to Be Said: Hallie Ford Fellows Exhibition. Harden has also served as an art consultant for film and television. In 2018, Harden was the recipient of The Creative Capital, Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, and in 2020 was the Annenberg Innovation Lab Civic Media Fellow.

          ABOUT KEY JO LEE

          Key Jo Lee is the inaugural chief of curatorial affairs and public programs at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco. Lee’s career trajectory mirrors the interdisciplinary training that she has received as an academic, curator, museum educator and administrator. In her role at MoAD, Lee is responsible for the overall management and execution of the Museum’s curatorial vision, including its exhibitions, publications, and public and educational programs, as well as playing an important role in outreach, communications, and digital strategy. Lee holds a dual master’s degree in history of art and African American Studies from Yale University where she is pursuing a dual PhD in the same. Her expertise is in American Art from the revolutionary period to the present, modern and contemporary African American art, histories and theories of photography, performance historiography and contemporary African diasporic art. Her first book, Perceptual Drift: Black Art and an Ethics of Looking, was published by the CMA and Yale University Press in January 2023, offers a new interpretive model deploying Black feminist and new materialist approaches to challenge the limits of canonic art history, rooted as it is in social and racial inequities. Lee’s first MoAD exhibitions, “Spectrum: On Color and Contemporary Art” (Spring/Summer 2023), and “Unruly Navigations” have been very well-received.


          Ben Tollefson (b. 1985, United States) is an artist and curator in Savannah, Georgia. He pursued painting and sculpture in his undergraduate studies, and subsequently worked at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. While working towards his M.F.A. in painting at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, GA, he was a director at Non-Fiction Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in the city’s Thomas Square neighborhood. Tollefson currently serves as Curator at the SCAD Museum of Art. In this role, he has organized exhibitions by Nina Chanel Abney, Norbert Bisky, Lee Bul, Marcel Dzama, The Haas Brothers, Hayv Kahraman, Izumi Kato, Roxy Paine, Wong Ping, Shoplifter, Emily Mae Smith, Lily van der Stokker, Wendy White, Erwin Wurm and others. He has contributed to a publication on artist Wong Ping, and coordinated the publication of “Ring Redux: The Susan Grant Lewin Collection.” Tollefson has exhibited his work in solo and group shows throughout the United States.


          The Design Miami.LA Talks Program will be presented by Architectural Digest and will take place in parallel with the inaugural design fair at the Holmby Hills estate. Curated by Ashlee Harrison, the program will spotlight both local and international thought leaders, while celebrating the best of design and reflecting on Los Angeles’s rich creative legacy as a touchpoint to consider how the city inspires global design conversations.

          The fair is by invitation only. Register your interest in attending here.