Raheleh Filsoofi: Uncovered Spaces builds on the initiative I established through my project, FOLD: Art, Metaphor and Practice. The international exhibition and conference took place in Spring 2018 at the International Museum of Art & Science (IMAS) and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). FOLD featured an exhibition of contemporary works by thirteen female artists. Each artist and scholar explored concepts of “the fold” and of “folding” in terms of form and conceptual metaphor in both stationary and time-based media arts. It was held at four different locations in McAllen and Edinburg: The IMAS, the Visual Arts Gallery, the Visitors Center, and Performing Arts Center at UTRGV. FOLD was exhibited over a period of eight weeks in connection with UTRGV’s FESTIBA festival that promotes literacy and the arts. The subject of the FOLD exhibition grew out of the international field of Critical Theory, which has its historical roots in the Enlightenment and the European Baroque periods and was influenced through the writings of the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. FOLD also featured eight UTRGV scholars from different disciplines, including Philosophy, Psychology, History, Art History, Literature, Women’s Studies, and Anthropology, who gave public talks and engaged in round-table discussions.
The exhibitions, lectures, and panel discussions opened a dialogue among artists, scholars, students, and the public “to unfold” the connections among them all. The dialogues that emerged from the FOLD exhibition were the most successful aspects of this project. One of these successes was to get to know and work with Dr. Katherine McAllen. She became a great source of support. We decided to collaborate in hosting other high-impact exhibitions and conferences on specific topics in the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Science. Uncovered Spaces became the continuation of the vision and passion we both share for students and the community.
Katherine McAllen: I have always found collaborations with Raheleh especially inspiring. I was honored to be invited to speak as a guest lecturer at the FOLD exhibition that Raheleh curated and directed in 2018. We both have a passion for helping our students to have new opportunities for finding a space for them to see, create, and learn about art. In addition to being a part of the success of the FOLD exhibition at the IMAS, Raheleh and I also worked together on community-based outreach projects, including art education workshops at Brewster School in Linn-San Manuel in northern Hidalgo County. I wanted to continue working with Raheleh after she accepted her new position at Vanderbilt University to help our students and artists within a larger network to break through boundaries of creative expression and find success. So, this Uncovered Spaces project fit perfectly with our shared visions on a new, national level to continue working together and creating collaborations between Vanderbilt University and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV).
As Director of the Center for Latin American Arts at UTRGV, the evolution of this project was also inspired by the grant opportunities and success I have found when seeking out support from foundations such as the Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation with its vision for supporting women artists, the Raul Tijerina Jr. Foundation with its focus on building culture and educational success in the upper and lower Rio Grande Valley, H-E-B and its generous support of the arts and education, and the Hollyfield Foundation with its focus on supporting LGBTQ art and culture. The Center for Latin American Arts has raised over $35,000 in grant funding for this project that Raheleh and I are organizing, and I have had 100% success in all grant applications thus far. This acknowledgment speaks to the excellence in exhibition planning that Raheleh and I can produce together with our expertise and the originality of our ideas. Seeing this overarching support from external sources makes me feel even more excited to collaborate with my colleague and see UTRGV and the IMAS work together on this new exhibition in McAllen.
What are some of the challenges and delights you’ve experienced working with many artists on this group exhibition? (i.e., issues of balancing the well-established artists with the emerging ones; organizing an exhibition of works that are in the process of being created; etc.)
Filsoofi: This is a multi-layered and multifaceted event, and with so many artists, scholars, communities, and institutions involved, challenges are inevitable. However, since this project is a collaborative project and tasks are specifically identified, it has run rather smoothly. The collaboration with Katherine has been a delight since she is a very organized person and is as enthusiastic as I am about this project. We have worked together for the past four years in different capacities and know each other well. The artists, scholars, and institutions who are part of this project have realized its importance and have been very supportive. I am mostly working with the artists while Katherine oversees the entire program and works directly with everyone. We communicate every week, which keeps the process vibrant and flowing.
McAllen: While it would seem very challenging to select and organize artworks from 13 artists and arrange for the shipping of their pieces from around the U.S. and Latin America to the IMAS, working with a curator as organized and detail-oriented as Raheleh and a driven team at the Center for Latin American Arts at UTRGV, it is a very fulfilling and satisfying experience. The Center for Latin American Arts staff Carlos Limas, Angela Scardigno, Daniel Ymbong, and Carol López have learned to apply the skills they acquired as UTRGV graduate students within a new professional setting, working alongside Raheleh and I as we work together to lead the planning of this exhibition and event series.
What are your expectations for Uncovered Spaces? Is there something you want this exhibition to accomplish? For you professionally, for the artists, for IMAS?
Filsoofi: Considering the geographical location of the IMAS and UTRGV, the enhancement of community engagement and cooperation with local, regional, national, and international artists and scholars outside of the Rio Grande Valley has high priority. In addition, the Rio Grande Valley has the potential to become a hub for intellectual, creative, and cultural exchange in the southern hemisphere, so many artists and scholars around the world could also benefit. As an artist and educator who lived and worked in this area for over four years, I have seen the impact of this place on my own practice. My story as an immigrant coalesced with the stories of many people here and gave me a pivotal perspective about the political landscape of this country. The main concern is to make sure that the exhibition and its many events open a space through art, which engages the community of artists and audiences and offers a critical re-thinking of current social and political issues. The broader implications touch upon the foundations of art practice from the perspective of practicing artists and scholars and the existential issues affecting the lives of all members of our society.
McAllen: I believe institutions, along with their students and audiences, want to promote education and find a place for creativity. We need inspiring places to view internationally celebrated contemporary art in the Rio Grande Valley. Uncovered Spaces is a testament to the fact that art is a serious profession, and emerging and established artists are changing our world with their creative ideas that challenge us all to have new dialogues with each other.
The study and advancement of creativity in the arts is a critical part of the fabric of our community and the success of our students. We need to promote these values in art and education at the IMAS and our universities to elevate the arts and inspire innovation to make the world in which we live on the U.S-Mexico border a more dynamic and beautiful place.
We want Uncovered Spaces to inspire our community, create a space for young artists to learn and have confidence in their expression through art, break through boundaries of space and identity, and support diversity and inclusion.
Will you please share what attracted you to the identity theme of this exhibition? How do the artists/artworks connect audiences with both the simple and complex concepts of identity? Or is identity only a complex concept? And if so, how do you think these artists make it accessible to general museum audiences of all ages?
Filsoofi: Identity is a complex subject in the contemporary world and especially in art. It is not a new subject for a curatorial exhibition, but as the world around constantly evolves, so does the theme of identity. The myriad events of the past two years: COVID 19, pervasive racial injustice, social inequity, and immigrant incarceration impact identity and identity politics which makes the concept a relevant and current subject. Artists have been selected based on how their work addresses these topics. Artists are from different cultural and practice backgrounds, who have faced many challenges in life and art and bring diverse perspectives to this theme. The event venue will serve as a space for women, queer artists, and scholars to discuss their work, research, interests, strengths, frustrations, and vulnerabilities regarding gender, race, and social norms, which of course, has a direct relationship with identity. The project also seeks to reveal the connections between feminine solidarity, shared knowledge, and the creative process.
McAllen: We created this exhibition to help artists, students, and our community think deeply about the social structures that impact female identity and LGBTQ identity.
We wanted to provide a space for artists to share their work, create new art, and encourage viewers to see how this creative production is in a dialogue with each other. The artworks are intended to connect with audiences metaphorically, conceptually, and sensorially and share the ideas of our artists to begin new dialogues and conversations. Our vision is to help artists and viewers feel more empowered through their creativity to open up new perceptions and create a safe place to engage with art and value it in our community.
What responses do you expect from the audiences who experience the exhibit?
Filsoofi: We trust they will ask questions and participate in various events to discuss their thoughts and insights. We believe the layers of this exhibition can uncover many spaces for exploration, engagement, and dialog. We hope this is an enriching, educational and enjoyable experience for artists and viewers.
McAllen: By providing a space to enjoy art, we hope to see a positive response about building an arts-based community. This exhibition is focused on creating something together, collaborating to support students and young audiences, and placing a value on the arts. Uncovered Spaces will introduce celebrated artists to the Rio Grande Valley, but they are not merely artists coming into our museum to display their art. We will encourage young audiences to be in a dialogue with the artists by creating their own works in a student art exhibition sponsored by H-E-B (and organized by UTRGV alumni Cristina Correa and Fatima Lai) opening in conjunction with Uncovered Spaces. We will also host art workshops, present performance pieces with the visiting artists, and host roundtables for our community and K-12 and university students to attend. We are not just speaking to the community. We want to hear from the community.
Our students and younger generation are the future, and there is a hopeful exuberance in the youthful identity of the Rio Grande Valley. Uncovered Spaces will be relevant today to make a positive impact in our community to engage with art by bridging boundaries, celebrating diversity and inclusion, and inspiring innovation.
With Uncovered Spaces, we are also witnessing the success of education evolve with the planning of this exhibition. We are working with our current students, our talented alumni, such as Correa and Lai, who are now teachers in K-12 schools in the upper and lower Rio Grande Valley, and our CLAA and IMAS staff who are now working in art professions after receiving their graduate degrees at UTRGV under our mentorship. It is an honor for us to support our current and future students and young members of our community by being a part of this exhibition at the IMAS.
Where do you think your collaboration on Uncovered Spaces will lead you next?
Filsoofi: Hopefully, this will lead to many more fruitful collaborations, but the goal of this project is focused solely on our community that has been so generous and open to us. It provided space for us to navigate and share. Therefore, we feel obligated to maintain such space for the next generation, who will be the artists, intellectuals, and educators of the Rio Grande Valley.
McAllen: I hope it leads Raheleh and I and our students to continue to have more success creating future exhibitions and new art together!
Grant Support for Uncovered Spaces is made possible by the generous financial support of grants from The Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation, The Raul Tijerina Jr. Foundation, the Hollyfield Foundation, H-E-B, the UTRGV College of Fine Arts, and the UTRGV Center for Latin American Arts.
Uncovered Spaces is organized by Dr. Katherine McAllen, assistant professor of Art History and director of the Center for Latin American Arts at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and Raheleh Filsoofi, assistant professor of Art at Vanderbilt University.