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The Eye of the Beholder: Art and Identity

For her latest group exhibit Black Eye, curator Nicola Vassell uses her artistic influence to incite change

After enjoying a successful career on the commercial side of the art world, curator Nicola Vassell knew that she had a different story to tell. She broke away from her position as director at Pace gallery to found art ideation lab Concept NV in 2012, intending to use her art-world connections to exemplify real-world social concerns. “It was obvious to me that there was something in the air,” she told DuJour. “Something that needed to be tapped.”

One of the first issues that Vassell takes on is the concept of race and “blackness” as identity in this month’s group show Black Eye, featuring works by Derrick Adams, Kehinde Wiley and Steve McQueen, among others. The entire exhibit is a journey through the past 20 years of racial identification, covering both what it means for artists to identify as black and what emerges once the outer layers are peeled back and the aspects inside revealed.

“The different points of view help to show that there is no one road when exploring this theme of identity and that, in fact, while race can be obvious—the surface, the skin, the immediately signified–beneath that,—there are so many interesting stories about the self that can be told,” says Vassell. “I like that conflict. We bring this all together to overtly make a point that this is not as important or interesting as what lays beneath.”

Nicola Vassell beside a painting by Kehinde Wiley

Vassell first started to notice a change in the concept of how the masses see their own identity—shifting from identifying solely on race and increasingly embracing differentiating factors like gender, sexuality and transculturalism to describe oneself—when President Obama took office. “It’s a very definitive tipping point,” she explains. “The black intellectual has more voice than ever before, and it’s very interesting to see the points of view that are emerging from this collective.”

Also impacted by this shift is the millennial generation, who Vassell sees as imperative to the success of this new social terrain. “They’re so much smarter, so much more sophisticated about the notions of identity and race. I admire and respect that, and I think that looking to their cues and subconscious attitudes is a way forward.”

So what does Vassell imagine the future might look like if we do embrace these attitudes?

“A utopia, of course,” she says. “And when I say ‘utopia,’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘perfection’ but instead keep going back to the word ‘equilibrium.’ I think that as time mutes all prejudices, equilibrium will naturally fall into place.”

Using Concept NV, Vassell will continue to curate exhibits that spread important messages about contemporary issues. “I find that the art world is an incredibly powerful center,” she says. “And I think that part of the duty of this power is to give back–to tell stories that empower and heighten our overall consciousness.”

Black Eye is on display through May 24th at 57 Walker Street. 



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