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Race and region crop up subtly in Nikita Gale’s work

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com

The heat and humidity were suffocating, and the precipitation lay heavy over the city threatening to break into one of this summer’s frequent downpours.

Nikita Gale, a visiting conceptual artist-in-residence from Atlanta huddled with Neil Belenky making small talk at the Elsewhere art space on South Elm Street in Greensboro. George Scheer, co-director of the facility, stood nearby. Nancy Doll, the director at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, made brief greetings and excused herself to grab a cold beer from the kitchen.

Gale, a diminutive woman with natural hair teased to full Angela Davis boldness, spoke in an easy, open manner approaching languidness.

The matter of race hung in the air at the art space that night, with the George Zimmerman verdict less than a week old. The verdict would be indirectly referenced by Gale in her talk and the subject of a handful of sideline conversations throughout the evening. And 1961, a recent project by Gale, uses the freedom rides by civil rights activists as its point of departure, while venturing into far more personal and subconscious territory.

Race. That and the South. The region — its history, culture, peculiarities, significance or lack of same — is raised as a puzzling question in the name of the Southern Constellations fellowship program, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the NC Arts Council and United Arts Council of Greater Greensboro. Gale is the fifth fellow in a series of six, and continues her residency at Elsewhere through the first week of August.

Scheer traveled to 11 cities across the South and developed a nomination panel of artists, editorial columnist, curators and educators. The program received about 40 applications, from which six artists were selected.

“We were looking for artists who had a strong body of work, who were dealing with experimental and challenging material and who were part of a network in their city — hence ‘constellation,’” Scheer said. “Nikita’s got a unique perspective in the Atlanta scene being connected to a social-justice network.”

The program will conclude in November with a convergence with reflections on the network of Southern artists and conditions for experimentation, cross-disciplinary engagement and creative practice in the South.

“It’s an experiment; I can’t predict its outcome,” Scheer said. “I can ensure that the networks that are created and the ideas raised will expand and continue.”

With about 15 people gathered, Gale showed slides of her work, beginning with 1961. She explained that the project presents the more large-scale public events of that year alongside more personal, ambiguous material, and recounted buying two boxes of slides processed in 1961 from a novelty shop on a road trip. Her mother was born in 1961, she added.

“I was interested in this dissonance between personal experience and what gets documented as history,” Gale said.

Another slide showed a piece in which Gale wrote the word “please” 580 times from floor to ceiling.

“I think I had a crush on somebody at the time,” she said. Since arriving at Elsewhere earlier this month, Gale has developed a loose conceptual framework that will document what she calls the “invisible labor” of the art installations fashioned from surplus materials accumulated by Scheer’s grandmother.

“It’s a good challenge for me in that the way I’m used to working is with a blank canvas,” Gale said. “This is a place where you have to subtract.”

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