Interview with Kemi Ilesanmi; Art, Community & Social Changes
Featured image: Neighbors make art together outside of Fulton Street Laundry at The Laundromat Project’s Field Day 2013 in Bed-Stuy. Photo by Ed Marshall; courtesy The Laundromat Project.
It is within this mindset that this new interview series is shaping itself. We have a platform, and we want to participate in ongoing conversations and offer some positive, deeply inspiring portraits of humans that contribute meaningfully to the idea exchange. Drawn from the 2020 Arts Power 50 | Observer, a list of 50 individuals that are the changemakers impacting the arts, we launch this series with Kemi Ilesanmi, a Cultural Amplifier and the Executive Director of the Laundromat Project.
Kemi Ilesanmi describes herself on her website as “an arts administrator and cultural innovator.” Her mission is to help create a world in which artists and creativity are manifest as powerful agents for positive community change.” This is precisely the kind of person I wanted to discuss with for this series. People like me believe that art can soothe and be a platform to ease into difficult conversations and the need for positive things to look forward to. Someone that refused the status quo and didn’t wait for the change that she hopes to see happening. And if you are wondering what The Laundromat Project is? It is an NYC-based nonprofit dedicated to offering creative community spaces, primarily in moderate-income neighbourhoods and communities of colour, for people to make and experience art.
Let’s jump right into the heart of the subject, our (inspiring – at least for me) discussion;
EL: What kind of positive community change do you think art and creativity can make happen?
KI: There such a long history of creative endeavours, being the glue that brings and hold people together, it has a way to give perspective and understand nuance. Pushed further, it built community, makes changes. The Laundromat Project works with artists and the neighbourhood. We often engage with various social justice issues: housing justice, food justice, legacy, and community wellness. Pressure and cultural displacement are very real issues of today. Supporting artists who are engaging in gathering stories, discussing these issues and getting eyes on them is needed.
For example, Lizania Cruz, an artist originally from the Dominican Republic, was an artist-in-residence and fellow at the Laundromat Project Create Change (2017-2019). She is an artist who’s creating through research, oral history, and audience participation. For her project, she held story circles. She collected roughly 30 stories, not just their problems but the backstories of how they ended up in the situation they were in – showing that each of them mattered. She turned them into zines and created a pop-up library. This transformed itself into a public program but also a mean for fundraising for her community partner, Black Alliance for Just Immigration. People can visit their offices and read the stories. It makes those (anonymous) stories visible; they are now a community engagement tool. People find overlaps and differences, but they are most importantly connecting with others and making a link between themselves and larger narratives and possible change.
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EL: You are deeply engaged; you sit on boards, involved in the community – while a seat at the table can take years to achieve, are there any smaller actions | steps that people who want to start making a difference could take?
KI: Start by learning about the community you are in – physical or virtual. Learn about your neighbourhood, learn about how you can connect and support local communities. In short, give back locally, volunteer, raise money – do this with as many places as possible that you feel a strong connection with. Reflection is also essential, self-reflection and understanding. Attend events, be open to what is discussed even if it might not be what you expect. And if you are a maker, an artist yourself, make and create and share – no matter the format, be sure to share it.
Another example that comes to my mind is The Free Black Women’s Library. It was initiated by Ola Ronke Akinmowo, who is a Nigerian American, in Brooklyn around 2015. She is a reader, and she loves books. This is how she started thinking about the books she likes and the idea of exchanging books written by black women. She set it up as a “give me a book to get a book” format. Over time, the project grew to dozens of events and more than 62K followers on Instagram. She has inspired similar projects in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities. She is a bookworm, someone that wouldn’t be described as extroverted. Still, by sharing her passion and talking about the things she loved, she invited others into it. She opened up, and today “The library provides an inclusive and loving space for reading, writing, resting, learning, creating and connecting.” I should also mention that she is also an alumnus of The LP’s fellowship program.
Visit the project website to find out more about the library that is described on it as “It is a community hub, love letter and resource.”
EL: The past year or so has been deeply troubling. From the pandemic to the racial inequality issues, a lot was happening – what kept you going and grounded?
KI: I have a couple of ideas and will share a few things. I live in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and for months, we were scared to death. New York City was the Covid epicentre. Slowly, my husband and I started venturing out as the summer was here. We went to porch concerts in our community-oriented neighbourhood. It was the opportunity to see people, meet with neighbours safely, run into friends, engage with strangers – feeling connected; after all, humans are social animals.
That was the first thing that grounded me. Returning to the museum is something that my husband and I also started doing. We felt it was a safe way to re-enter the world, but most importantly, to see and experience art.
Slowing down was also for me the occasion to find amazing TV content that I would usually miss out on when I was going out with one or even two events to attend each night. I very much enjoyed Steve McQueen Small Axe Series, and Raoul Peck and, yes, Bridgeton. I had the time to look at content by folks of colour who were putting incredible things out there, new things by younger people. There was also a very compelling series about the gentrification of LA, Gente-fied.
EL: Owning your narrative, changing the story and be more inclusive so social changes can happen, a lot have been written about the topic from active listening to becoming an ally and not putting the burden on the community to educate “yourself” – is there one thing you would like to add to this?
KI: Show up personally. Value people. This was the most challenging one for a lot of people. Artists and staff have been treated in a disposable way by too many organisations since the beginning of this pandemic and before too. The LP decided to do things in another manner. We took care of our team, of our artists. We held onto the commitments that we had already made; we didn’t want to add to the people suffering. We also started a fund for creative actions, putting back money into projects with mini-grants. We also gave our staff more time off and utilities stipend for the additional AC cost. We also entrust our team with distributing money. We gave them agency, and they are our eyes on the ground. We tried to stay centred on our people and show up for them.
EL: What piece of advice would you want to give to the other artists | curators | cultural amplifiers, or people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
KI: I will gift you a piece of advice that someone gave me and crystalised things for me. This is also part of how I ended up approaching The Laundromat Project to become their Executive Director. Of course, I knew them before and didn’t come out of the blue. I wasn’t a stranger; I sat on their board in prior years, but this advice was the tipping point.
“Make your own job.”
So, my advice, “make your own job” – identify your own purpose, what you want to get and how you want to live. What do you like doing?
For me, it was all about community art and work. I was asking myself, what do I like doing? I wanted to walk the street where I live, get on the subway, not a plane to see the fruit of my labour. I wanted to work predominantly with artists and communities of colour. I searched for the best way to do this. I have worked as a curator and at an arts foundation, working with artists already before moving on to become the ED of The LP. It is my background that makes me an effective ED at The LP. This is what led me to make my own job which I love.
EL: It was International Museums Day mid May. Is there, in your opinion, one action that museums can take to make themselves more accessible and really inclusive?
KI: One thing that most larger institutions can do, I think, is listen to what you hear and act on it. There might be a fair amount of discomfort coming from (hard) talks. But it will also provide incredible content from how to “let us” in, what could be different, what “we” want and expect. It isn’t because something has been done for a long time in the same manner that it is the best manner, that there are no alternative ways to do it, or that it needs to be done that way forever. It might yield greater results when many views are coming together, offering a variety of entry point. It will be challenging to listen. Do not start with your objections about why it isn’t possible or how do you usually do it – trust that there is wisdom and truth elsewhere. Invite new voices to help shape what is in your curatorial line, what is on your screen, in your posts and content, on your walls. Feedback and agitation are often coming from a place of deep love and wisdom – if people didn’t care, they wouldn’t invest time and energy in you.
EL: I finished this interview high on hope. It was a refreshing encounter, a genuine exchange and something that left me believing a little bit more in humanity. Furthermore, it reminded me that while the world didn’t get where it is overnight, but that we could reverse the trend, one discussion and caring gesture at the time.
THE [quick] BLITZ
- The most significant influence in your life (person, theory, model…)
Bell Hooks, Toni Morrisson, James Baldwin – three formative writers that have shaped my life through their words.
- Favourite book
Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs – it saved me through this last part of the pandemic!
- A myth you would like to debunk?
This might not be related to art, but it is a myth that needs to be debunked: “Not every Africain likes hot pepper”!
- What should the arts be more of and less of?
More of love, much more radical love. It needs to be propelled by love —less of exclusion, of keeping people out, in short, less gatekeeping and less hoarding.
More about Kemi
Kemi Ilesanmi is Executive Director of The Laundromat Project, which advances artists and neighbours as change agents in their own communities. With 20 years of experience in the cultural arena, she is inspired by the immense possibilities for joyful justice at the intersection of arts and community. Prior to joining The Laundromat Project, she was Director of Grants and Services at Creative Capital Foundation, where she supported the work of American artists making adventurous new work. From 1998-2004, she was visual arts curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. While there, she organised several exhibitions, including The Squared Circle: Boxing in Contemporary Art, and ran the visual arts residency program. In 2015, she was appointed by the Mayor of New York City to the Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission and has served as Chair since 2020. Observer included her on the Arts Power 50 list in 2020. She has been honoured by the Metropolitan Museum and Project for Empty Space and serves on the boards of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Smith College Museum of Art, and The Broad Room, as well as advisory boards for Brooklyn Public Library, Black Arts Future Fund, Indigo Arts Alliance, and WNET All Arts. A graduate of Smith College, NYU, and Coro Leadership NY, she is also a Sterling Network Fellow.