The California African American Museum’s new visual arts curator, Essence Harden, is embracing community and supporting artists, artwork and story through mindful cultivation of scholarship on Black visual arts and the West Coast.
Harden’s new position as the museum’s visual arts curator started on Dec. 13. Founded in 1977, the museum is an art institution fully supported by the state of California. It’s dedicated to the history and role of African Americans in the American West’s cultural, economic and political development.
Harden, who has previous experience as an art writer and independent curator, said that they have worked with CAAM in some capacity in the past. Harden, speaking on the love they have for the museum and its significant role, said that they appreciate CAAM’s role in Los Angeles as a dedicated African American art institution.
“For art institutions that hold collections, I really appreciate CAAM’s placement in Los Angeles and how it’s been able to expand and guide collectors who are here with a lot of contemporary, working Black artists,” Harden said.
“It’s not just people who passed away, it’s about sustaining and building for now. CAAM’s mission has always been how to you maintain a relationship with the broader Los Angeles community but certainly, the Black California community.”
Harden grew up in Oakland, and following their Ph.D. qualifying exams at UC Berkeley in African diaspora studies, Harden moved to Los Angeles in 2015. Harden said that their academic work focused on Black artists in LA from 1977 to 1983 and moving to Southern California primarily had to do with “being on the ground” and continuing research.
Whether it’s Ph.D. work, curating or writing, Harden said, “My concern, as a Black person from California, about my work is the West and how do we continue to thrive and shine but also how do we create supportive elements for folks to stay here.”
The move led Harden to explore writing art reviews and going to art exhibitions. In 2016, Harden gave a presentation at a Black portraiture conference in South Africa with her friends Sadie Barnette and Adee Roberson. The Black portraiture conferences are a three-day series of conversations with artists, scholars, curators and other international attendees to cover the field of art and to share ideas, experiences on the topics history and current research with regard to African and African American diaspora.
“We had a really good time doing it and I took that idea, the way I designed our presentation, and I made it my first exhibition,” Harden said.
In 2017, Harden curated a group exhibition at the Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown called “Black is a Color,” which is described as an epistemological exhibition seeking to consider Black diasporic wonderings.
From then on, “I never really stopped curating,” Harden said.
Harden curated and co-curated exhibitions like “Shinique Smith: Refuge” and “Plumb Line: Charles White and the Contemporary” at CAAM in 2018 and 2019, prior to building a list of curations for other exhibitions and art institutions.
“It’s been natural,” Harden said about the transition between academia and art curation. “A lot of the capacity for research (in education) and the public presentation of work, ideas and taking folks who don’t necessarily belong to each other and creating a narrative around that (in curating) is a lot of what teaching is, too.”
In their new role, Harden hopes to create more impactful and thoughtful writing about artists and their artwork, effectively tying in experience of scholarly pursuits.
“Artists need quality and thoughtful writing around their work,” Harden said.
“They need generative writing for their own practice. How people get grants, fellowships and residencies is having words written about them and their relationships with people who are writing about their work, or they can point to words written about their work to fill out applications. That’s huge.”
Though Harden said their career progression felt natural, to go from writing for nonacademic spaces to curating, Harden explained that there is an understanding of responsibility in their new role as visual arts curator for CAAM.
“Thinking about what an institution like CAAM can really mean for folks who are emerging artists or who aren’t from California or LA but have shown there before is that it can be a pivotal step for them,” Harden said.
Harden said that their desire and want in their new role is to grapple with the migratory passage of Black artists and their ancestry, from the Midwest to continental Africa, and how that transition impacts the artwork created.
“The idea of migration, transition, the type of work that is created here, from an assemblage to dematerialized art practices to a real formation around community; those are the ideas that were in my dissertation, and they have always followed me when I’m doing my work,” Harden said.
Harden spoke about the importance of community and the impact it’s had on their life, describing the manifestation of community as being something akin to real friendships and a network base for emerging and existing artists, those involved with CAAM and the art world.
“To be a curator and do what I do has very much been about having friends and people having open arms with meeting new people. Those relationships made it possible to have this job,” Harden said.
Harden described the role and interaction between a curator, an art institution and artists as “a single organism.”
“One of the roles of a curator that’s so valuable, especially at an institution, is it can be life changing for someone. Someone who hasn’t had a solo exhibition might have their first, and often, once you get one thing you get other things,” Harden said.
“CAAM has this incredible role, along with the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco, which are two of the only art institutions in California that are dedicated to Black people, to do that for someone, to provide that platform and pivot point (in their career or life). I think about it like that.”
Harden described their position as an honor and how it’s humbling to be able to show work from artists who deserve recognition.
“My hopes are that people that haven’t had representation at CAAM before get it,” Harden said. “I hope that people come to CAAM and see (artists’) work and that those artists are able to use those solo or group exhibitions as pathways to get residencies that they desire.
“My goal as a curator is to care for artists, and their work is a part of that. Also, the people who are making the work are foundational to what I can do (as a curator). I think of being a curator, and continue to practice it, as a collaborative effort.
“People are vulnerable and (their work) is their whole heart, so I take that quite seriously and I think about how community and friendship can form in a deeper way,” Harden said.