When the Nasher Museum of Art announced that it would remain closed to visitors throughout the fall semester, students and Durham residents alike braced themselves for a year without the museum’s beautifully-curated exhibits. The Nasher, however, had no such plans.
“When it was clear that the museum would not be open to the public, we were charged with thinking about how we could best activate the outdoor space of the museum and this project sort of fell into our laps,” said Nasher curator Marshall Price in a virtual interview with the Nasher’s Director of Engagement and Marketing Wendy Hower and Recess. “It was great because we recognized that not only could it activate the outdoor space, it could address some of the most pressing issues facing our country at this moment and… give us the ability to collaborate with our neighbors across the street. It was a project we needed to do.”
The project in question — “RESIST COVID | TAKE 6” — is the work of artist Carrie Mae Weems, whose transformative use of photography, textile and installations have made her a fixture of contemporary American art. What sets this exhibit apart from previous Nasher installations is its scope: Weems’ fusion of photographs and PSA’s concerning the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and racism will exist not only throughout Duke’s campus, but the entire Durham community and beyond.
“These images take the form of wall banners, billboards, posters, window clings, electronic billboards, street banners, even yard signs, magnets, buttons, church fans… Carrie’s team has created a whole array of material that carry these messages,” Hower described, her list accompanied by the prototypes and mock-ups of Weems’ snappy mottos emblazoned on buttons and magnets.
In spite of the vast array of materials concerned, the message of Weems’ art is piercingly clear: “Her project is fighting two viruses — COVID-19 and racism. It’s putting at the forefront the sad reality that this pandemic is disproportionately hitting people of color.”
This exhibit will not be confined to the Nasher in accordance with regulations preventing attendees from crowding the museum’s tight interior. Instead, the Nasher has collaborated with Duke Arts, Duke Health and the city of Durham to spread this installation across a greater acreage, allowing a larger and more diverse audience to enjoy Weems’ art.
Hower spoke enthusiastically about both the project’s potential scale and the many institutions that the Nasher have partnered with to undertake this massive endeavor.
“For the first time ever, the Nasher is collaborating with Duke Arts," Hower said. "The project will also be installed in the Ruby and down Campus Drive… Instead of being proprietary and trying to grip it really hard, this project grows with the partners that have taken it on. We’re having meetings with the city and county of Durham, and we’re hopeful that we can get a presence on buses and the bus stations, have a presence at Covid testing sites. By the time the first installment appears at the Nasher, we’re hoping we can announce some other partnerships.”
In spite of the passion and innovation behind this exhibit, it was very much a spontaneous effort. Hower admitted to this:
“Usually, the Nasher is very proprietary about exhibitions, they’re our exhibitions," she said. "We would be talking about this exhibition for months and planning it for a year or two or even three years. But you will not see a webpage on this. We are throwing this thing together.”
Marshall agreed with this sentiment, adding that they are “building the plane while flying it.”
However quickly-designed, this project has ample support from its partners and has already attracted attention from faculty and staff who hope to harness the exhibit’s accessibility and message for fall courses.
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“Mark Anthony Neal is teaching a rhythm and blues class and said he can have his students as a class project do an annotated playlist responding to the exhibition,” Hower said.
Another vocal supporter is John Brown, Duke’s vice provost for the arts and one of the Nasher’s many collaborators. In a statement to Recess, Brown expressed:
“This is the first time the Nasher Museum and Duke Arts are collaborating on a project of this scale and the first time Duke Health is co-presenting an exhibition with us. This groundbreaking partnership will let us bring ‘RESIST COVID I TAKE 6’ from the Duke Arts District into downtown Durham and Durham County. Carrie Mae Weems is showing us how art can address a public health crisis: by raising awareness, starting conversations, and expanding the museum well beyond gallery walls.”
Duke Health has also expressed excitement about this project, as conveyed in a statement from A. Eugene Washington, M.D., Chancellor for Health Affairs, Duke University, President and CEO, DUHS.
“At Duke Health, we’ve been privileged to care for our community through unprecedented times, and we have seen firsthand the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 has had on frontline workers throughout our state," he said. "We are proud to partner with the Nasher and Duke Arts to present this powerful work by Carrie Mae Weems, which shines a light on these essential and valued members of our community.”
In spite of the exhibit’s vastness and the nascent partnerships behind it, Hower and Price firmly believe that it is Weems’ art that makes this project so important.
“Carrie intended this project to be a project that could be done in various locales,” Price said. “A really important aspect of it is that it functions both as a work of art and a PSA, and the line between the two is intentionally blurred so that it can be as effective as possible. This is very unique, the first time we’ve done a project like this.”
The installation will go up in phases as the collaborators find suitable locations and forge further partnerships, but its spirit is already spreading across the county.
“This fits well within Carrie’s body of work, but it reaches far beyond institutional walls. All of this is part of the project’s immense potential for change,” Hower said. “We’re envisioning it for the Duke community and the greater Durham community and beyond that. It’s something that affects us all.”
Editor's Note: The Nasher Museum posted the exhibition on its website after press time: https://nasher.duke.edu/exhibitions/resist-covid-take-six/