Meet Block Museum Fellow Rikki Byrd

In September 2020 the Block Museum welcomed Rikki Byrd as a 2020-2021 graduate fellow.  Block Museum Graduate Fellowships are offered to two graduate students annually, one from Art History and one from any department within the Graduate School.  Graduate Fellows are integral members of the museum staff and support projects through exhibition and collection research, curating, writing and catalog production.  We took a moment to sit down with Byrd, a PhD student in the Department of African American Studies, to discuss her background and forthcoming work.

  1. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your field of study?

I hold a Bachelors in Journalism from the University of Missouri and a Masters in Fashion Studies from Parsons School of Design. Before my time at Northwestern, I was an adjunct professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where I developed new courses on fashion history and fashion and race for the university’s fashion program and the African and African American Studies Department. 

  1. Can you tell us about some of your previous research at Northwestern?

My research and writing generally focuses on Black history, blackness, fashion, art and visual culture. As a freelancer, I’ve written for publications such as Teen Vogue, Artsy and Hyperallergic, among others, and interviewed people such as André Leon Talley, Amy Sherald, Mickalene Thomas and Dario Calmese. As a scholar, I’ve published across fashion studies and performance studies journals and books, where I’ve written about Black models and performance, hip hop and luxury fashion and enslaved women seamstresses. I have also written for a host of exhibition catalogs. And, I manage two digital humanities projects – the Fashion and Race Syllabus and @blackfashionarchive on Instagram.

Currently, my dissertation project looks at how Black people perform mourning through clothing. I plan to look at fashion objects, such as the R.I.P. T-shirts and those used in the Movement for Black Lives protests; 20th and 21st century visual and literary art by Faith Ringgold, Devan Shimoyama, Toni Morrison and Essex Hemphill; and fashion designers such as Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss and Thebe Magugu. 

  1. What interests you about working within an art museum?

Since childhood, I’ve spent a lot of time at art museums (it was one of my mother’s favorite things to do). As an adult, I’ve been involved in a variety of arts-related programming, whether it be giving lectures or speaking on panels, and I’ve done a handful of arts writing (as previously mentioned). Most recently, I co-launched a collective in my hometown of St. Louis called Artists in the Room that fosters community among the city’s budding Black arts scene and esteemed artists and arts professionals who visit the city. I’ve somewhat been around the museum all this time, but I’ve never had the opportunity to work inside of one. I’m interested in learning about curation, programming and more generally how museums actually function. And I’m interested in bridging this new knowledge with the work that I’m already doing and will do in the future. 

  1. What will you be focusing on while you are here?

As with pretty much everything at this point, COVID-19 has disrupted existing plans. Originally, I was assigned to contribute to an exhibition on Rosalie Favell’s work, but the schedule has shifted some, postponing that presentation. Now, I will be collaborating with staff at the museum to curate an exhibition on the idea of solace. 

  1. What drew you to the Block Museum mission, exhibitions, and collection?

When I was accepted into the university, I started noting all the opportunities I wanted to take advantage of while I was in the program. The Block’s interdisciplinary graduate fellowship was at the top of my list. I hadn’t heard of such opportunities before and was really excited about the fact that they intentionally sought out interdisciplinary scholars to come and work at the museum for a year. As I’ve developed relationships with the museum staff, I’ve learned about their upcoming exhibitions and related programming and work, which I’m also excited about. I’m also in love with the architecture of the building! 

  1. What museum exhibitions or programs (outside the Block) have inspired you lately?

Duro Olowu’s Seeing Chicago at MCA Chicago is truly a tour de force. His curatorial methodology is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The way he puts certain works into conversation (there’s one room where David Hammons’ African-American Flag hangs across from Theaster Gates’ In Case of Race Riot II and I just can’t get that juxtaposition out of my mind right now). I also saw Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry at MOCA in Los Angeles a few years ago, and that really blew my mind. I’m looking forward to an upcoming exhibition titled Enunciated Life by my friend Taylor Reneé Aldridge that’s opening at CAAM in LA this fall.

  1. Is there anything upcoming at the Block Museum or Northwestern you are particularly excited about?

I’m looking forward to all of the upcoming exhibitions at The Block. I’m also excited to continue my efforts with the Black Arts Initiative Graduate Working Group that I co-launched with my colleague Nnaemeka Ekewelum last academic year. 

More on Rikki Byrd’s work

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