by Marvin Milian, Cohort ’20, Shana Dumont Garr, Cohort ‘22
Due to the cohort nature of the IDSVA curriculum, it is uncommon for three Driskell Fellows to interact with one another. At the 2023 Commencement ceremony in the cultural treasure that is Mexico City, Marvin Milián (2020 Driskell Fellow), Terrence Phearse (2021 Driskell Fellow), and the IDSVA community gathered to introduce Erin Falker-Obichigha as the 2022 recipient of the Driskell Fellowship Award. To produce this interview, Marvin, Terrence, and Erin connected again to welcome and get to know Erin Falker-Obichigha, a curator whose interests in diversity, equality, and community bring her to IDSVA with a sense of promise and determination. Later, newsletter co-editor Shana Dumont Garr, who is in cohort ‘22 with Erin and a member of a study group with her, met so Erin could share additional information about herself for this publication.
We asked Erin, a St. Louis native, who has influenced her personal journey landing at IDSVA. She smiled warmly, her eyes seeming to flash toward the multiple generations of strong women that paved the way for her. She described the ethos of determination and strength deriving from her grandmother, a business owner, setting high expectations for a family whose history spans several states. Her mother and grandmother are from Memphis, TN and she is originally from Indiana. Erin talked about her father, who courted her mother; they met at St. Louis College and both went on to establish businesses of their own. She hesitated to speak of her accomplishments at Stanford and Washington University, giving much of the credit to the professors and artists who promoted her academic career.
Erin’s passions speak to a mission that gives voice to diversity and champions equality. We asked her to describe how she envisions the role of philosophy in this mission toward diverse equality. She described philosophy as the practice of human exploration and the experience of human inquiry. Erin comes to IDSVA with the strength of generations of women that have long searched for the promise of how to be human.
(Shana from here to end)
Erin, tell us more about your work as a curator and what has most inspired you.
What I am interested in as a curator and a human being is the concept of opening doors for people. In my case, for a lot of things I’ve been able to do in life, someone has said, “come on, come through this door.” I know this is not the case for a lot of people, especially brown people without the resources I have had. I use my resources to create more equity, particularly in the realm of exhibitions and museums—it is a thread going through all of my work, whether in a museum, gallery or in conversations with artists.
For the past year, I’ve been approaching artists I’ve found on Instagram – many of the artists I'm working with are based in Nigeria. Most of it begins with me saying “Hey, want to talk? I’m not a crazy person.” It involves me being aware and intentional about what I’m doing. What do you need is the question I ask. Africa, Caribbean Islands, what do you need to make what you do easier, that kind of help or act of service and make opening that door easier. That has sparked a new level of what access means, how do you equip the next generation of Black artists to be each other's keepers? How do you make sure that the next generation knows that their job is to take up as much space as possible so that other people can sit? When I’m finally out of the game, I hope that someone I’ve touched will feel the responsibility to do the same.
What I’m working on currently stems from this dedication to opening doors. Silas Onoja works in Abuja, Nigeria. He is a hyperrealist painter – it’s unreal the work he’s making. He’s just in his house, doing his thing and we are bringing him to Detroit this summer for his first trip to the States. He will stay for a month, teach classes, and do life painting. The gallery owner asked me straight up “What’s in it for you? Why are you doing this?” It took me a split second but I responded with what else is there, this is why I am here.
This brings me to philosophy, and why I am in this program. I never thought philosophy was for me. I used to think, it’s just some old dead white guys who wrote in Latin—not applicable to anything I do. Now I’m seeing philosophy as the most basic distillation of how to be a human, without the filters, the veneer of art history, or the political baggage of cultural studies. We just drill down to it, how do we become better? That’s what I take away from what we are reading.
I love that so much, Erin! You have worked in many museums in the past – could you share more about that aspect of your career with us?
I have been in and out of institutions, including the Charles Wright and Talladega College, and now I am working on how to bring currently separate institutions together. I am thinking of a way to talk about access for people who can't travel and who don't have access to multiple major museums with African American and Black art collections. How do we make those collections talk to each other? Most museums in America are built on one guy’s idea and/or money and no matter how long ago that was that foundational ideology is deeply rooted in everything from collection policy and display practices to perfunctory or real engagement with the shift to a DEI lens. They have an issue with transforming that singular origin to make it relevant to many populations. When the Met talks with the Whitney, who then talks with SFMoMA, who in turn talks with Nelson Atkins, or Fisk University, what does that do? If they’re then all pulled together in a platform that is accessible to someone in China, what does that mean? It could enable us to see all their African American collections together at one time. It would break longstanding linkages and associations between collections and form a kind of common or collective.
Whatever the vocation, age, and internationality, an online museum that is accessible in a way they have not been in the past. What’s next, what am I trying to do with my life?
Could you please share an artist you are particularly interested in researching or writing about during your studies at IDSVA?
I think Carrie Mae Weems’ whole ethos of throwing open the doors in numerous capacities is just amazing. She does it in her photography, her mentorship work, and on a daily basis. There are multiple levels of giving that happen with the ways she works and shows up in the world. I want to be like that when I grow up. She and I worked together at a fellowship program in Detroit for early career artists of color, and we did four different residencies and two exhibitions including the Havana Biennial in 2019, closing the program with an exhibition in Detroit in the fall of 2019. It was an incredible experience for many people, all of whom were people of color. She really and truly cared about what you were doing, and It wasn’t by any means perfunctory. When we installed an exhibition she said, “I haven’t done this in 20 years – give me that hammer!” Her level of investment in the program and the young artists was amazing, all while she is at the top of the game as an artist. She is humble and self-aware of how you can give to someone else – such a light.
She said something that has stuck with me, deep in my spirit: she said “Artists are bag people.” You’ve got this suitcase – it’s full of this stuff, your ideas, you may pack it differently, but it’s always the same stuff. Wherever you go, whatever age, it’s always the same stuff. As I’ve progressed in age and wisdom, it’s always been the same – how to create accessibility and equity.
Finally, I was impressed by your opening to the graduation in January in Mexico City. How did you write this invocation?
Thank you! David Driskell used to open the graduation every year. Next, that honor was passed to another Driskell Fellow, yaTande Whitney V. Hunter, who, like Driskell, is very spiritual. I was entrusted with words and given the opportunity to make them mine. When I said ashe and asked for permission to speak, these customs are part of my spending so much time with African-centered communities in Detroit. These communities pour libations when you open a ceremony. I made the words my own, and the invocation and libations were blended together so I could make it personal.