Meet Orin Zahra curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Orin Zahra – Photo credit James C. Jackson

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), located in Washington DC, supports awareness about women artists through exhibitions and educational programs and I am happy to support its mission through my collaboration with Art Girl Rising.

I was lucky to chat with Orin Zahra, assistant curator at the NMWA who recently co-curated the international group exhibition Paper Routes—Women to Watch 2020. She shared with me about the Museum mission and her work in the institution.

National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC

Some voices wonder if it’s relevant to organize exhibitions of women artists. Why do you believe it is important to do so and to have a museum dedicated to them?

At heart, feminist scholarship is about shifting away from the status quo, and bringing awareness to marginalized voices. That concept has quite rightly evolved and expanded over the years to be inclusive of different voices, and the same goes for NMWA’s mission. But current statistics show that white men are still the most exhibited artists in US museums, have more gallery representation, and overwhelmingly dominate the art market. Women, and especially women of color, are also underrepresented in leadership positions among professional museum staff.

Until we collectively reach more equity in the art world, NMWA serves the vital purpose of advocating for and celebrating those who have been and continue to be relegated to the fringes of the art establishment.

From the Exhibition Paper Routes- Left: Annie Lopez, Favorite Things, 2016; Cyanotype on tamale wrapper paper, thread, zipper, and metal snap, 46 x 33 x 30 in.; Courtesy of the artist
Right: Oasa DuVerney, Black Power Wave: Drawing For Protest, 2017; Graphite and neon ink on paper,
dimensions variable; Courtesy of the artist; Photo by Welancora Gallery

You co curated the current exhibition Paper Routes. Can you share about the exhibition and what you learned while curating it?

Paper Routes is the newest and largest installment of NMWA’s Women to Watch exhibition series. The exhibition looks at how 22 contemporary artists transform paper from a common, ubiquitous medium to complex works of art. I was surprised to see the sheer variety and range of paper art – miniscule to monumental, fragile and delicate to sturdy and dense. And yet, underlying the spectrum of formal qualities were artists from all over the world tackling common global issues of gender, race, cultural difference, and environmental sustainability.

In a previous interview, you mentioned the links between contemporary art and art history. These links are not always known or obvious for the public. How do you take this into account when working on an exhibition?

While curating our collection layouts, we organize the works thematically, rather than chronologically or by medium, and bring together paintings, sculpture, photography, and mixed media works into conversation with one another. We often try to draw out common threads throughout history through formal connections. For example, a painting of a noblewoman in her silks and jewels by the sixteenth-century artist Lavinia Fontana is hung next to Mickalene Thomas’s portrait made of rhinestones. I love how Thomas looks at standards of female identity and beauty as seen in conventional Western art history and recasts the genre to prominently feature African American women. Or in another gallery, we display a traditional view of a European family by Angelica Kauffman side-by-side with Zanele Muholi’s photograph of a contemporary female couple in South Africa to demonstrate the varied definitions of what familial relationships can mean across time and place.

Left: Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Noblewoman, ca. 1580; Oil on canvas, 45 1/4 x 35 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Funding for the frame generously provided by the Texas State Committee; Photo by Lee Stalsworth – Right: Mickalene Thomas, A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y, 2009; Plastic rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 24 x 20 x 1 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Deborah Carstens; © Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin: Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Let’s get behind the scenes: what are the major steps when you work on an exhibition?

Different types of exhibitions will involve different structures and challenges. If we partner with another institution, as liaison curator I’m adapting that exhibition for our galleries and our audience.

Women to Watch on the other hand has a very particular structure that is unique to NMWA. It is an exhibition series held every 2 to 3 years and sees a close collaboration with the museum’s national and international outreach committees. These committees take our mission of championing women through the arts to the regions where they are based. For the Women to Watch shows, NMWA curators pick the overall theme, often a medium or genre, and work with our outreach committees and consulting curators in those regions to nominate artists working in that theme; we select an artist from each participating committee resulting in a group show at the end of the process. The goal is not to have a competition as much as create a cohesive, yet dynamic display where the works can be in conversation with one another and introduce innovations within the theme.

A few months before any show opens, NMWA curators, registrars, and our exhibition designer will get together in a design summit to map out the layout, graphics, paint colors, and any other requirements specific to that project. In general, organizing exhibitions at NMWA is a very collaborative process amongst many different departments, and often all-hands-on-deck for the opening.

What are your favorite artworks from the collection of the NMWA?

There are so many jewels in this collection, it’s difficult for me to choose. Although my training is in historical painting, I have really been drawn to our collection of modern and contemporary photographs and works on paper. Hung Liu’s woodcut print Winter Blossom is stunning with its luminous, saturated tones, and our recent acquisitions of photographs from Rania Matar’s series SHE speak to my love of vibrant, textured landscapes.

The current pandemic has accelerated the importance of online access to the art. NMWA has embraced social media with the campaign #5womenartists. What else does the museum implement to adapt to the situation and reach the public beyond its wall?

Even before the pandemic, NMWA recognized the power of social media in communicating our message to a wider audience, as seen through the successful #5womenartists campaign created by NMWA back in 2016. But since the pandemic hit, we have really amped up our digital content. For Paper Routes, we held virtual studio tours with the artists, hosted virtual panel discussions, filmed a curator-led tour, recorded an audio guide, and created an accompanying online exhibition that highlights each of the artists featured in the exhibition. (More information). Outside of exhibition programming, the museum has held online happy hours on the occasion of artists’ birthdays, such as for Frida Kahlo, Alma Thomas, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Our Education department organizes weekly informal art chats about select works from the collection, and conducts a monthly lunchtime art conversation program with the Baltimore Museum of Art, focusing on themes like Healing, Power, and Art in Protest.

Graciela Iturbide (left) and Orin Zahra (right). photo credit Kevin Allen.

What do you like the most about your work and what would be your dream project?

The most special and gratifying moments of my job at NMWA have been getting to know the artists, at times even forming close friendships. It’s been surreal to walk through the galleries with Ursula von Rydingsvard as she installed her monumental sculptures or standing arm-in-arm with Graciela Iturbide at the opening of her exhibition. I studied nineteenth-century modernism, so to have artists voice their thoughts and opinions is a new experience for me, but ultimately collaborative and rewarding.

A lot of my work has been on ideas of imperialism and cultural exchange between Europe and its now former colonies. I would love to work on a major project depicting many of those historical works side-by-side with contemporary responses from the perspectives of women artists who identify with those historically “othered” and oppressed communities.

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