Meet Block Curatorial Fellow Ashleigh Deosaran

In September 2022 the Block Museum welcomed  Ashleigh Deosaran as a 2022-2023 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.  Fellows are integral members of the museum staff supporting projects through exhibition and collection research, curating, writing, and catalog production.  We took a moment to sit down with Ashleigh, a PhD student in the Department of Art History, to discuss her background and forthcoming work at the museum.

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

I was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, a twin-island nation in the Southern Caribbean. After high school, I moved to New York City and earned a Bachelor’s in Fine Art and Psychology at Pace University where I had the opportunity to self-organize a thesis exhibition, the first solo exhibition held by a student at the university gallery. In considering graduate school, I was particularly interested in programs with a strong curatorial focus, which led me to Columbia University’s MODA program. Completing my M.A. while holding several research and curatorial positions outside the classroom, I became more interested in the intersections between art-making and networking. These experiences have had a direct bearing on my research here at Northwestern as a 3rd year PhD in the Art History Department. My dissertation will focus on contemporary artist-led spaces around the Anglophone Caribbean—including Alice Yard in Trinidad, Fresh Milk in Barbados, and New Local Space in Jamaica—which form hubs of creative and collaborative action, and constitute networks of artists, intellectuals, and organizers across and beyond the transatlantic world.

What interests you about working within an art museum?

Given not only my research interests but also my own art practice, I have always been interested in peeking behind the curtain of exhibition presentations; what are the conversations and relationships that make this ‘final product’ possible? Working with organizations and galleries over the years, I’ve found that each art space has its own idiosyncratic way of engaging with artists, speakers, academics, and the public. These dynamics have such a direct bearing on the resulting exhibition, but they have historically been less visible, documented, and emphasized in classroom settings than the art objects around which they oscillate. Working at the Block, or any museum, I have an opportunity to not only witness how these relationships unfold, but also to become part of this wide, globe-spanning network of makers, thinkers, and organizers.

What will you be focusing on while you are here?

My work will involve curating a small exhibition of ephemera, photographs, and other works centered on the Pat Patrick Collection of Sun Ra materials here at Northwestern. I’m thinking broadly about Sun Ra as one node in a dynamic network of Chicagoan artists, writers, activists, and musicians around the late 60s and early 70s, including students right here on the Evanston campus. I’m drawing materials primarily from the Block collection and Northwestern library archives to tether the Afrofuturist ethos, championed by artists like Sun Ra and his Arkestra, to the performances, demonstrations, speeches, and other sonorous public acts of creativity and activism led by students and faculty at Northwestern.  

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

During my visit to Northwestern for prospective student weekend in 2020, I was able to chat briefly with Janet Dees about the Block Fellowship and the robust relationship between the Art History department and the museum. I remember appreciating not only the introduction to the fellowship program, but also the very warm welcome that I experienced at the Block, from the moment we entered the lobby to the time Janet spent with us, answering our questions with generosity and care. It not only drew me to the museum, but also to Northwestern more generally. 

What museum exhibitions or programs have inspired you lately?

I was able to travel to documenta fifteen this year, where one of the collectives/art spaces that I am interested in for my dissertation—Alice Yard—presented some incredible work. I was particularly excited to see a sugar sculpture made by a friend and collaborator, Luis Vasquez La Roche, whose work I am currently writing about in an article to be published in 2023. On my way back to Chicago, I caught a group exhibition of Caribbean artists at Americas Society/Council of the Americas in New York City, Tropical Is Political: Caribbean Art Under the Visitor Economy Regime. It featured artists that appropriate and/or counter the images and representations used to market the islands as a paradise to uphold a tourist industry that has continued to thrive on the economic precarity of the region.

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

I am looking forward to next year’s Dario Robleto exhibition, The Heart’s Knowledge, especially since it has been such a generative parallel for thinking about Sun Ra’s philosophical outlook. I’m excited that the exhibitions will have some overlap; visitors who are familiar with either artist individually are unlikely to have seen them side by side. By uniting Robleto, Sun Ra, and Northwestern’s own network of artists and students, the exhibitions can catalyze unexpected and generative connections between art, activism, performance, and technology.

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