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A selfie of someone in black braids bare shoulders in a room with bookcase in the background and...
From Teen Curators, Michelle Attoh and Tamia Major
Portrait of a black man in navy blue suit and tie against a white wall.
Akili Tommasino
As part of their in-depth engagement with A body, revealed, our Teen Curators had the opportunity to interview artists, curators, and gallerists about Kevin Beasley’s practice. Akili Tommasino is an associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This interview excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. Transcription by Lauren Bradford. 

Michelle: So the first question that we have for you is how would you describe Kevin Beasley’s artwork to someone who has never heard of him or seen his artworks before?

Akili: For somebody who’s never heard of Kevin Beasley, I would say that he’s primarily a sculptor who works with soft materials that he soaks in resin to make hard materials. So typically clothing or cotton, raw cotton, that he forms into slabs. He’s also an artist that is interested in sound. Often his sculptures incorporate references to sound, or he performs with various forms of electronic and analog media to create sounds in environments that feature sculpture. I would say that the work is potentially massive, but also quite ethereal, in that it refers to bodies that are absent. Even though the work might be quite large scale and dominating, there’s a sort of fleeting sense to some of the compositions, and that ethereal element is also enhanced by sound.

Tamia: As you know, Kevin Beasley uses sound within some of his works, like in “A view of a landscape” located at the Whitney Museum, I can see you’re familiar, there’s a cotton gin motor. What do you think about the sounds he chooses to put together?

Akili: I would say one thing that is a common thread and often appears in the types of sounds that Kevin Beasley incorporates into his artworks are ambient noises. So, sounds that are made from objects and the movement of people that aren’t necessarily sounds that one would intentionally isolate in everyday life. But he incorporates or finds a way to isolate them and enhance our perception of typical gestures and sounds. And in the case of “A view of a landscape”, there’s a play between silence and sound. There’s a large object that makes a lot of noise,but when you’re close to that object, you don’t hear the sound. You have to be in another space where that sound is transmitted, and the object is absent. That goes along with the ethereal nature of Beasley’s work and that often he’s evoking absence, which is really a former presence. The sounds that he collects and re-presents to us defamiliarize familiar sounds, or  make familiar sounds that we overlook. What I’m referring to is defamiliarization. They are familiar sounds to us, but they’re sounds that we don’t necessarily pay attention to. So by being maybe slowed down or sped up or played at a really loud volume, sounds that are trivial or fleeting become elements of sculpture.

Michelle:  What do you think is Kevin Beasley’s intention in his use of clothing in some of his sculptures?

Akili: I haven’t asked him this question specifically, but my guess is that certain garments mean certain things to him, or have certain associations. I believe that the house dresses that he used in his sculpture from say, 2012 to 2014 and still incorporates sometimes, this type of garment evokes a certain type of older woman from Harlem, perhaps. I believe he started using those garments when he found them in a thrift store in Harlem, and they reminded him of, you know, the elder women of his family. I think certain types of garments can certainly evoke a certain mood or a certain persona that you might associate with the type of garment. Beasley uses a lot of garments that would be associated also with black males, specifically durags and fitted baseball caps, and his own clothing and other garments have even more personal or specific meaning. I recall that in one of the slabs that’s in A view of a landscape, there’s a hood from Beasley’s graduation gown from Yale. So that’s clearly a personal garment that has a very specific association with his experience at an educational institution. I think there’s a variety of meanings, and they’re certainly not random. And the choice of cotton as a material is also invested with the memory of the major cash crop of slavery in the United States.

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