Deirdre Visser is the curator of The Arts at CIIS. Prior to joining CIIS, Deirdre taught photography, digital imaging, and photo history and criticism at Mills College and the California College of the Arts. She is interested in non-traditional approaches to cultural production and cultivating collaborative relationships with communities. Deirdre received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine, in 2000.
Could you explain the Chroma program?
Chroma is both an exhibition and a publication program of The Arts at CIIS, envisioned to promote pluralism within contemporary photography by fostering the visibility of emerging artists of African, Latino, Native American, Middle Eastern, North African, Asian, and Pacific Island heritage.
Where do you see the need for this?
There are artists, curators, and writers who have done extraordinary work in this area, work that we want to promote and build on; one particularly vivid example is En Foco, a gallery and publication program in New York which is in the midst of celebrating 37 years of supporting a diversity of artists who are exploring and reinventing tradition.
But the need remains and is most starkly visible when one compares the number of photographic publications at large, and the number of those by artists of color. Or if you go to a museum bookstore and open the one that purports to reflect the 50 contemporary artists that you need to know, there might be two or three artists of color, and five women. Notwithstanding the period in the late 80s and early 90s when “multiculturalism” was somewhat more visible in the arts, there is still a dearth of publications and exhibitions by really interesting artists who reflect the pluralism of our country. I was in school in the late 80s, and it was artists like Carrie Mae Weems and Yolanda Lopez and Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie who helped shape my understanding of the arts. Artists of color have been doing important work all along. Chroma is about showcasing this work in all its complexity.
I believe that the work we’re exhibiting is some of the most exciting work out there in lens-based media; it runs the gamut of conceptual concerns from looking at the historical and spiritual dimensions of the landscape, to artists who draw on the complexity and constraints of identity formation. Oscar Palacio’s project History Re-Visited looks at American landmarks and the way they both reflect and shape our collective imagination about what this country is and has been. Suné Woods creates photos that are fictional narratives in a landscape, which draw on history and contemporary literature. I want to emphasize the breadth and the complexity of the questions these artists are asking.
Organizationally my interest as a teacher, artist, and curator is to expand and complicate the field of photography and foster the possibility of social change by including the richness and diversity of voices in our culture.
When does Chroma start?
On Sept. 10, 2011 we’re officially launching the program, which has been taking shape over the past year and a half. The event will start at 6 pm in the Main Building of California Institute of Integral Studies, located at 1453 Mission Street in San Francisco. We’re bringing together six amazing people in the fields of photography, arts education, and funding for a discussion. We want to talk about where the field of photography and lens-based media is today, and what innovations are moving us forward to a more representative and pluralistic field.
Will there be exhibitions of these artists at CIIS on the night of the launch, Sept. 10?
Yes, there will actually be three exhibitions on view that are part of the Chroma program. Megan M. Morgan’s show Anthromorphosis is already open at the CIIS Minna Street Center at 695 Minna Street in San Francisco. Anthromorphosis is a made-up word which translates to the process of becoming human; Morgan is investigating the complexities and constraints of race, gender, and family history, the things that inform our identity construction. At the CIIS Main Building on Mission Street, there will be Lyssa Palu-ay’s show called Places Left Unfinished. Palu-ay is drawing on cultural traditions as disparate as the Celtic and Tibetan to discover in the landscape both a spiritual and literal geography. Then three artists are collaborating on a show titled Home? opening that night. The artists are Jeanno Gaussi, Diala Khasawnih, and Ola Khalidi, who all met at a workshop in Shatana, Jordan. Collaboratively they will be exploring the nature of home that transcends place; the exhibition will continue to evolve over the duration of its run. After giving folks time to view the exhibitions, there will be a panel discussion on “Re-framing Pluralism in Contemporary Photography,” including several leading figures in this field: Deborah Willis, Pato Hebert, Miriam Romais, and Darius Himes. Our project editor, Carla Williams, will be coming from New York as well.
Who would be interested in the Chroma shows and panel discussion?
Everyone, in a sense. We all live in a visual culture; we all have a relationship to the photographic image. But beyond that the questions we’re discussing are broadly important within the arts and within arts education. We also want to cultivate an intergenerational dimension to the discussion by including student voices.
You mention arts education. What is the relationship between Chroma and the schools?
The Arts at CIIS is developing a relationship with Marshall Elementary School in the Mission District in San Francisco. We feel this is particularly important at a time of budget cuts to arts programs in schools. We’re involved with a group of students who have now moved from fourth grade to fifth and we’re working with the teachers, students, and their families to make the arts integral to their education. Exhibiting artists go into the classroom to do workshops with the students and Marshall students come into the gallery to respond to the art. This past spring we had an exhibition at CIIS of work by the students and their parents done in collaboration with the local artist and cartographer Shizue Seigel about their immigration stories. Not only do we seek to develop best practices in arts integration, but we want the students to feel the gallery is their space.
For more information, visit The Arts at CIIS.