Internationally acclaimed artist and MacArthur Fellow Fred Wilson addressed audiences at The Block on April 16, 2019. In his talk, Wilson shared insights into his work Afro Kismet— resonant with themes of migration and history explored in the exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa. Throughout his career, Wilson has challenged assumptions of history, culture, race, and museum display by reframing objects and cultural symbols. In Afro Kismet, an extension of his work produced for the 2017 Istanbul Biennial, Wilson sheds light on the presence of Africans in Turkey through materials including glass chandeliers, monumental Iznik tile walls, cowrie shells, engravings, photographs, and Yoruba masks—all building upon research originally conducted for the 2003 Venice Biennial.
The resulting work draws upon written word, orientalist artworks, historical objects, as well as original sculpture to invert latent meaning. Utilizing the writing of James Baldwin amongst others, Wilson creates a dialogue addressing displacement, visibility, and identity.
Wilson discussed the origins of Afro Kismet, which began to develop while in Turkey for the 2017 Istanbul Biennial:
I wanted to make a project that was about where I am. And since this was a subject that I really knew nothing about, it was a great way to start…you see many African people walking around Istanbul. The majority of them are immigrants, but I found out that there [are] indeed people of African descent—now calling themselves Afro Turks—in Turkey. It’s a name, I believe, they came upon [from] understanding global African concepts and American history. And this seemed to be a perfect vehicle for them, this younger, newer generation.
Wilson commissioned local artisans and makers to create traditional Turkish and Venetian artworks for Afro Kismet. Subverting color schemes and iconography within mosaics, paintings, and decorative objects, Wilson creates layers of meaning that touch upon identity and visibility. Many of these commissioned artworks are exquisitely beautiful; Wilson remarked:
When I make work I’m interested in beauty, but beauty in service to meaning.
Following his talk, Wilson was joined in conversation by Block Museum curator Janet Dees.
Pictures from the evening
Presented by The Block Museum in partnership with the Keyman Program for Modern Turkish Studies