“It’s not a passive experience” – Docent Mina Malaz on her exhibition label writing journey

The Block Museum student docents contribute to projects throughout the museum. This season the opportunity arose for members of the team to contribute to the Fall 2021 collection exhibition Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection, through the contribution of gallery labels. We sat down with Mina Malaz (Art History and Psychology ’21), to discuss this research process…which included an interview with contemporary artist Rashid Johnson.

How did you come to work on the labels for Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts?

As a docent, I really wanted to give tours but I had a conflict with the public tour training.  Erin Northington, Associate Director of Campus and Community Engagement, piloted the idea of this other project that was label writing.  I was intrigued because I had been interested in getting more involved in museum education to understand how it differed from the curatorial path. As I learned more, I got excited about the educational challenges of writing something to fit a broad audience, that offers understanding in only 150 concise words.  This kind of work is critical to museum education because that’s usually what educators are trying to do, appeal to a public with language that’s accessible.

I think one of the biggest challenges I had in mind was paying the work justice.  I wanted to prompt meaningful interaction, using my labels as a springboard for conversation. I wanted it to be simple, but also inviting for complex discussion, that’s a hard thing to do.

How did you pick the work that you decided to focus on?

So we were presented with options and we ranked our favorites and then picked names from a hat! I was the second person to pick so I actually got my first option, Tseng Kwong Chi posing with mannequins, from the series Costumes at the Met (1980). I already knew I wanted to work on that label since I had taken an anthropology class last quarter about Asian American Advertising and Consumption. My project was focused on the cultural appropriation of fashion and we presented on the 2015 Met Gala that had a theme of “China: Through the Looking Glass.”

Tseng Wong Chi’s Met Gala work was very much on my radar.  I was drawn to something that was so darkly comical on such a heavy subject. I chose that one because I thought Ichad something to say…. and then in the second round, there was Rashid Johnson’s work Untitled (Anxious Man) (2015)

What were your thoughts about that work?

I was like , “Oh no, abstraction.”

I don’t know what to write about. Also, I don’t have much experience in contemporary art so more abstract pieces of art kind of make me anxious. I think it’s been a real experience of growth for me because I was able to push myself and come up with my own strategy.

Can you tell me more about the process of label writing?

So first, since this work is so abstract, I wanted to know more about it.   But I resisted the urge to look it up. I wanted to make my interaction similar to an interaction I would have in a gallery space without any prior knowledge about the work.  I just put up a picture of it on my computer and put a timer for ten minutes because I figured– someone’s going to maximum spend 10 minutes in front of this work.    So in that 10 minutes,  I just scribbled down everything that I noticed.

I know that you’ve worked with the docent team on ideas of close looking.  Were you inspired by that process?

Yes, I think that definitely helped. I kind of tried to combine close looking with some of the questions and strategies you would use leading a tour. Something that was always in my mind was the difference between a tour and a label.  Asking, “Is this something that should be written, or part of a guided experience?”  If the idea was too complex to be shared in 150 words – it might be information that was better included in a tour.

I think what helped me most was that the curators shared with us two guides on how to write a label and we had a discussion on them that I took notes from.  When something seems too hard for me, I try to make it into something smaller and more approachable. So I made a document for myself that I titled “How the heck do I write a museum label.”  I just put down everything that I retained from the guides, and also our discussions and just made my own master document, and then I followed the document as I wrote.

I tend to have a lot of ideas and it’s hard to get them out in a very organized way. So that helped me get everything clear before seeing it in person.

What was it like to visit the work in person after studying it?

When I went to see the works in person, the Tseng Kwong Chi work didn’t make that big of a difference for me because it was photography.  I actually find that sometimes I like photography digitally more because I can zoom in on one thing. The one thing that changed was they also showed me the other work in the portfolio. I think that helped me with my understanding. The curators asked me if I would like to include one more from the portfolio in the exhibition instead of just two works. I added the third option of Tseng Kwong Chi, posing with the security guard who was supposed to keep him out of the Gala.  This subject of infiltrating this private space is interesting to me so I love [what] the security guard added on to that understanding.

Then I went into the museum’s storage because the Johnson is so heavy it couldn’t be easily moved. I think that really made it even more special because I was walking towards it, and I was so excited. And then I saw it, and I was just amazed. I don’t think I’ve ever had this much amazement, with a work of art. Being familiar with it digitally and then seeing it in person I had two completely separate reactions.  Wow, I think I hadn’t really meditated on the idea of its material when I saw it digitally. I think the materiality is what makes it so stunning. It’s not a passive experience. You kind of experience that artwork as a living thing when you see it.

Image: Mina Malaz

I think the materiality is what makes it so stunning. Its not a passive experience. You kind of experience that artwork as a living thing.

Mina Malaz

I began noticing it’s done by stripping the hot wax away from the canvas. I thought that it was really intriguing that it’s not about adding on but you’re taking away from the material to make it. Another thing was that there were these parts where the wax accumulated. In some parts it looked very organic and, in some parts, it looks kind of added on. I wasn’t sure and decided I would be interested to know if the wax just builds by itself? There are these ridges and like typography.  Is it accidental or a choice?

The Block offered the opportunity to connect me with Rashid Johnson. When I met with him, I asked him and he told me that when he is working with the hot wax it’s drying up relatively fast, so you have to be really quick in the process to do it before it dries.  He said that the marks came from this vigorous, anxious movement. It is all kind of organic and part of the process, but that after it dries he goes back in and adds on some touches. So it’s a bit of both. I thought that was really interesting.

Rashid Johnson (American, born 1977), Untitled (Anxious Man), Black soap and wax on white ceramic tile, 188 × 119.4 × 7.6 cm. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of the Kruger Family. 2020.9.1

It seems like you had this one experience online and a different experience with the work in person. How did your conversation with the artist change your understanding of the work?

I don’t think there were drastic changes to my understanding of the work, but it did make me question, “How is my own identity is influencing my label?”  I am from Turkey, which has its own history of unofficial colonization and violence against women. I have these identities and perspectives in my mind. But I do also have a very Western education. It made me realize talking with him that I need to be mindful. I’m trying to perhaps make something palatable to a wide audience that the artist didn’t necessarily mean to be serving or educating everyone. That’s something that stuck out to me and affected what I wanted to write.

The artist said that he makes his work abstract because he wants [it] to be applicable to a broad range of interpretations. Perhaps Black audiences would come to see themselves in the work, and an encounter like that builds a sense of private community within that audience, that might not be for everyone. I’ve been thinking about this. How can a label function to be inclusive, while also not making a work of art subservient?

How will this inform your work going forward?

I think that, as art historians, we tend to put the artist on a pedestal, but it also becomes very easy to critique. Meeting the artist is a different experience. Aside from career and academic questions, I like I feel like I’ve personally grown with this project a lot. It was a really maturing experience.

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