Entanglements: 002 - Martina and Monique Dodd
Martina Dodd and her younger sister Monique “Muse” Dodd communicate via phone, FaceTime, text, email, and instagram DM’s multiple times a day, all day, everyday (they even have their own theme song). During a period of a little over a month the two sisters used their usual channels of communication to discuss their creative processes, familial memory, and leaving DC.
Martina Dodd is a co-founding editor of DIRT and the Museum Education Curator of the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning at the Atlanta University Center. Monique “Muse” Dodd is a NYC/DC based photographer and filmmaker. They both grew up in Maryland, moved to DC and recently relocated to two different cities.
MA: You started the New Year off with your first solo exhibition, talk about the process that lead up to the opening. When did you start working on (Re)mnants?
MO: Yes, I wanted to start 2018 in the most stressful and artistic way possible. (Re)mnants began as a film, which I started shooting in the bathroom of our two bedroom apartment in DC and grew into something much bigger. As I started contextualizing the film in a larger gallery space I started adding elements that would later become (Re)mnants, the exhibition.
MA: Right, I remember you had all that fake blood in our bathroom sink…
MO: Yes, I was in my senior year of undergrad and I had this idea for a film, and no money so I used what I had. Borrowing lights from school and using our good friends Bri and Kris to shoot. It was the definition of DIY.
How was the process for you, seeing basically from the beginning stages of the film through the completion? Were there times where you wanted to interfere but decided to let me figure it out?
MA: I remember when you first told me about the concept for the film, I was excited and eager to see the film in its entirety, especially since I saw you shoot the first part of the film. It seemed like I was even more anxious to see it completed than you were so I encouraged/pressured you to finish it, and I definitely had plenty of critiques for you during each draft you let me see.
Since we are sisters I talk a lot more candidly with you about what I think works or doesn't, and honestly I don't know if that is more helpful or harmful so I am trying harder to fight the urge to interfere as much as I can. Your vision is so unique and the way you see the world is vastly different from how I experience it so I never want to steer you in a direction that is not authentic to who you are as a person or artist.
MO: I respect your opinion so much though. I appreciate being able to trust someone with my work without worrying they’ll take it over or something you know?
MA: Do you consider the film a separate entity from the installations? If you screen the film again do you think it's important to include these other elements like the shrine and name quilt?
MO: This film can stand alone, but is boosted and grounded by the presence of these other elements. I feel like the name quilt and altar add a humanity and earthly quality to a piece that is quite literally pulled from my dreams. I want to connect the ethereal and the grounded.
Does legacy ever come into your mind as you create work or curate a show? Why/why not? Do you think it is important to this keep in mind at the conception of your work? I think for me, this is something I always have in the back of my mind, like this is how I will be remembered.
MA: I don't think familial legacy per se plays as much of a role in what I create as it does your practice. However, through my writing I want to leave a cultural residue that can’t be scrubbed out or “whitewashed.” I am an anthropologist and historian first so I am very mindful of how stories, especially those of African Americans, are recorded, preserved, interpreted and sometimes left out or erased.
I think it's great to see the rise of exhibits like “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” (both co-curated by phenomenal Black women, I should add) and “Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today” in recent years but it's disappointing to see it took decades for these Black artists to be shown in and collected by major institutions. These artists were making incredible work 40, 50 years ago and are just now getting recognized; I don’t want that to happen to the community of young artists I know.
I’m currently working on an exhibition for Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, so I have been spending a lot of time studying the artists in their collection and it pains me to see the lack of scholarly discourse on the Black artists in their collections from the 1940s-60s. Black writers writing about Black artists, creating work for Black people is something I want to see more of. I love this quote by Poet Haki R. Madhubuti (formerly known as Donald Luther Lee) where he states "We must destroy Faulkner, dick, jane, and other perpetrators of evil. It’s time for DuBois, Nat Turner, and Kwame Nkrumah [and I will add bell hooks, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lowery Stokes Sims]. As Frantz Fanon points out: destroy the culture and you destroy the people. This must not happen. Black artists are culture stabilizers.”
Which is one reason why I work predominantly with and write on emerging Black artists, I want to call attention to the legacies of Black artists in all stages of their development and not just when a major (white) museum finally wants to give them their just due. If I can contribute to the legacy that we as Black artists in the 21st century are leaving then that is what I will do.
"I want to call attention to the legacies of Black artists in all stages of their development and not just when a major (white) museum finally wants to give them their just due."
MO: I strive for the same in my work, a majority if not all my collaborators are people of color, more specifically Queer Black folks. I think even when not talking about specifically “queer” subject matters, having a Queer crew adds layers and nuance to the work.
MA: You went to school for film, how did you transition to photography and installation art?
MO: I studied film production at Howard University. I came into fine art photography and installation differently. With photography it is something I always just did, I never had a formal class on it, I saw images and wanted to capture them, but there was something missing for me. There were images that I had in my head that I needed to create, and as I started being more active in staging, design and models I started seeing more results that I liked.
With installation it kind of sprang out of the sets I began creating with my photography. I got so many compliments on the worlds I was creating and I was so sad that I had to take them down, so creating the installation for (Re)mnants was a way to extend that euphoria, and also invite people into my head.
MA: Why was it important for you to involve our family in the film?
MO: As I was showing the film to a few different people they asked me what did my family feel about the project, and at that point I hadn’t really talked that much about the film with anyone, but mom and dad had seen the first part and were lowkey freaked out.
Including my family was another way for me to connect myself with my ancestry, they are leading the way, Grandma Shirley is featured and the sound behind her says remember who you are, Grandma reminds me who I am, where I come from and that as a granddaughter of Shirley Mae Ross Gibson, I am not one to mess with, ok?
MA: I would recommend not messing with any of the women in our family, because we will give you a piece of our mind, ok! Did you talk to Grandma after she watched the film? What was her response?
"Including my family was another way for me to connect myself with my ancestry, they are leading the way..."
MO: Grandma’s face lit up, all she could say was that she was just so fascinated with us both. She really enjoyed it, it’s funny because I lived with Grandma the first few months I was in NY and she never really knew what I was up to. So it was great having her see the finished product. At 84 she is constantly learning from us and also sharing so much knowledge with us, that’s how I aspire to be, always learning.
MA: And you know what, it's crazy to reflect on the ways our art practices have impacted Grandma. When she came down to DC last year for the artist talk of Public Displays of Privacy she was beaming the whole night. She told me how proud she was of me and how impressed she was with all of the artists. She said she teared up listening to young Black women articulately discussing the ways gender roles, colorism, and beauty standards were critiqued within the exhibit through their art.
Didn't you have a conversation with her after as well, where she admitted she “didn't see color” or never realized she had privilege as a light skin women?
MO: Yes, back at our parents house Grandma, mom and I were talking about the show. She mentioned something about how she didn't see color as far as shades. I asked her quite frankly, don't you look in the mirror Grandma?
Well about a month later when I moved to NY grandma pulled me aside and was like “You know what granddaughter? I was looking in the mirror and I was like damn, I sure am light!” She told me she had never thought about her color before but because of your show and our conversation she started questioning her privilege. It's amazing to me that at 84 she's still pushing herself to learn more.
Your next show will be in the fall and it's entitled Black Interiors, can you speak a little on this and also how our family homes growing up will/if at all impact the show?
MA: Recently I've taken a particular interest in interior spaces like the home and finding inspiration in the personal ways we adorn ourselves in memories through the display of family photographs, knit knats and patterns. From the collage works of Mickalene Thomas and installations of Genevieve Gaignard to the staged photographs of Nakeya Brown’s “Some Assembly Required” series I am currently fascinated by the visualization of intimate modes of expression within the home.
So in the exhibition I am currently curating, I use Elizabeth Alexander’s definition to describe the black interior as “black life and creativity behind the public face of stereotype and limited imagination,” to exhibit a space where blackness is not only made visible but shown in all its complexities. Using work by David Driskell, Jacob Lawrence, Wille Cole and others from Clark Atlanta University Art Museum permanent collection the exhibition explores the Black aesthetic and psyche through artistic renderings of the home and stylized representations of the human form. Through this exhibition, artist’s from the CAU’s collection offer a glimpse into the enclosed private rooms of the home and depict intimate moments of solace, contemplation and solitude. This is very different from shows I have previously curated since this is the first time curating from a permanent collection; and its kinda surreal to be working with such a rich collection of artists that I have studied in school and conversely others who I know very little about although they are masters in their own right.
But to answer your question regarding our families home, I have more vivid memories of our grandparents home than our childhood home but color sticks out for me when thinking about our house. Like how my bedroom walls changed colors as I got older. As a baby and young child my walls were pink, then when I was old enough to have an opinion and a say in what I wanted my room to look like we changed it to light blue, then to a burnt orange color I created by mixing a few colors together to finally the boring egg white shade mom wanted after I moved out and it became the second “guest room” instead of my bedroom.
Staying on the topic of moving or transition; we both recently had two big moves! You moved up North (NYC) and I'm in the Dirty South (ATL) how has that transition been for you? I remember when you first moved, you were coming back to DC almost every other week to install your work or for an opening. Did you feel like you had to leave the city to be appreciated by the city?
MO: I feel like I’m always in DC, which is nice because sometimes I get homesick. I don’t feel like I had to leave the city to get recognition because my community has always been supportive. I like that once you are a part of the DC arts scene you’re always a part of it. Being in NY is such a different experience from DC, there is literally so many quality shows going on constantly that it is easy to get overwhelmed, and getting your foot in the door here is hard but thankfully I’ve been able to build a network here in a short period of time.
How has your transition to the Dirty South been? How has being in a Black academic environment shifted your work?
"...Howard definitely shaped my artistic voice, it taught me to dig deep into myself, for every white master there are 10 Black ones."
MA: I keep telling people I moved from a former Chocolate City to a current one - I mean we have a Mayor name Keisha! But seriously, I never saw myself living in the south and someone actually asked me maybe a month before I applied for my current job down here if I would consider Atlanta and I said definitely not. I just didn't see it happening, but I am glad it did because I actually love it here. Working with an academic institution vs being an independent curator in DC has been a bigger adjustment for me than the change in locale. I am trying to find the balance between academic scholarship in the archives and still working with contemporary artists at local galleries.
It's funny whenever I meet one of your friends or vice versa people will tell us how similar we are, like we have the same laugh or mannerism but our academic careers were soo different. We both stayed local for college, I went to school in Baltimore and you went to school in DC but Johns Hopkins was a PWI and Howard was an HBCU so needless to say we had totally different experiences. How do you think Howard shaped you as an artist?
MO: Yeah, I totally don’t get the same laugh thing. Like I think we just laugh like our soul is breaking open and not enough people do that.
People always are surprised or excited when I tell them my sister is a curator. Like people ask if our parents are artists and I laugh and say no, they work in customer service. But Howard definitely shaped my artistic voice, it taught me to dig deep into myself, for every white master there are 10 Black ones. It taught me to trust myself, and also how to be resourceful which honestly is one of the greatest lessons I learned because people are not out here giving Black filmmakers the money that they deserve to make films.
MA: What about Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay?
MO: Ava and Ryan are some of the most hard working and talented people in the business. It’s crazy when you look at Ryan’s career because even with Creed he had a budget of like 40 million and went on to gross 173.6 million USD. And Black Panther? 700 million in the first 2 weekends? It goes to show you that if given the budget we can take the work even farther.
There is a part of me that is resistant to assimilating into Hollywood, but there is a lot of things you can do with a budget, I wanna be like Ava and hire all black female crews, that is power right there. So I believe that we’re just touching the iceberg when it comes to Black talent, this next generation is coming for the establishments necks and we won’t be asking for permission.
This interview has been edited for Entanglements.