EVERY SEPTEMBER, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation selects a new class of MacArthur Fellows, among the most creative and innovative people in the arts, science, and beyond. This year’s winners include art historian and curator Kellie Jones, and bead artist Joyce J. Scott. For both women, the intersection of art, politics and social justice is at the fore of their work. Jones has presented groundbreaking exhibitions about art during the Civil Rights Movement and artists prominent in the Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles. Scott’s sculptural beadwork examines violence, racial stereotypes, spirituality and inequality.
The foundation announced its 2016 “genius” grant recipients this morning. Identified through a special nomination process, each of the 23 fellows has “shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Claudia Rankine, the Yale University professor of poetry and bestselling author of “Citizen: An American Lyric,” and 31-year-old playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, are also among those recognized.
A PROFESSOR OF ART HISTORY and archeology at Columbia University, Jones has presented seminal exhibitions focusing on important African American artists and movements largely ignored in the art historical canon. Over the past decade, she organized “Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980” (2006) and “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980 (2011), and co-curated “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” (2014).
“I think under-appreciated artists are always there. We just have to find them,” Jones says in the MacArthur video below. “The goal of my work is to expand what we understand modern and contemporary art to be. I grew up around artists and I realized there was a role for people who are not artists to work with artists, to work with art and help bring the arts, and especially the diversity of arts, into view.”
“I think under-appreciated artists are always there. We just have to find them. The goal of my work is to expand what we understand modern and contemporary art to be.” — Kellie Jones, MacArthur Foundation
Art historian and curator Kellie Jones, a 2016 MacArthur Fellow, talks about under-appreciated African American artists. | Video by MacArthur Foundation
BALTIMORE-BASED SCOTT describes herself as a visual and performing artist. She says she is always looking for the unexpected and, for more than 40 years, she has reimagined the possibilities and techniques of beadwork, creating large sculptures, jewelry, and figurative works. More recently, she has been making wall hangings, experimenting with Murano glass, and working on an outdoor installation that pays tribute to Harriet Tubman.
Armed with beautiful, delicate materials—colorful beads and hand-blown glass—Scott tackles weighty subjects, including domestic violence, lynching, sexual objectification of women in Darfur, the election of President Obama, and passing for white. Sometimes she introduces a bit of satire for good measure.
“The things that give me a hard time, the things that I am interested in, the things that pressure me, and give me great release, are the things that I really want to talk about. They are the reasons why I make the art a lot of times,” says Scott in the video below. “That’s why I talk about racism and politics, the great bane, I think, of the human race. That’s why I talk about it, because it’s chewing on me all the time and my best voice is as an artist. It’s not as a preacher. I am not a politician. I am none of those things. But I am a good artist, and that allows me to speak through my art.”
“…My best voice is as an artist. It’s not as a preacher. I am not a politician. I am none of those things. But I am a good artist, and that allows me to speak through my art.” — Joyce J. Scott, MacArthur Foundation
Visual Artist Joyce J. Scott, a 2016 MacArthur Fellow, discusses her beadwork and sculptures. | Video by MacArthur Foundation
EACH FELLOW including Jones and Scott, will receive an unrestricted $625,000 grant, paid in installments over five years, to advance existing work, spearhead new projects or give recipients the support necessary to pursue wholly new directions. It’s an unexpected boon, that takes winners by surprise and opens up possibilities both practical and far reaching.
Jones told the Los Angeles Times she intends to get a new desk with the grant money. Her current one is a stalwart from college. According to the newspaper, she said an award of this scale is “an invitation to continue doing what she has been doing—only now she can take more risks and ‘think bigger.’ She said she also will look for more ways to work collaboratively.” CT
Kellie Jones is the author of “EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art,” “Lorna Simpson (from Phaidon’s contemporary artists series), and the recent exhibition catalogs “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980” and “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.”