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Who Will Shape the Art World in 2021?: ARTnews Presents ‘The Deciders’

Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic, Movement III - The Triple Deities, 2020–21.
Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic, Movement III – The Triple Deities (still), 2020–21. Courtesy the artist

Tiona Nekkia McClodden

A Philadelphia-based artist, filmmaker, and curator who explores issues at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and social commentary, Tiona Nekkia McClodden won last year’s prestigious $100,000 Bucksbaum award for her mixed-media video installation piece I prayed to the wrong god for you in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. And her future aims are ambitious, with work underway to set up her own gallery to show Black conceptual art in a venue to be built out of her Philadelphia studio as a sort of project space that she hopes to open next year.

“The way that I’ve engaged with the art world has been changed by this time,” she said of both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. “I’m coming out of this a different person. The move to make my gallery project was very much about this time. I don’t think things should move the same. I don’t think I should be the same.”

Part of McClodden’s work overall has long included a desire to build local community around the arts. Earlier this year, she had planned to screen her latest work, Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic, Movement III – The Triple Deities, in North Philadelphia, where she lives. “I wanted to challenge myself to debut a work in my own community because the neighborhood has been my reference. People wouldn’t have to go to the museum to see the work—they could just come around the corner.”

Portrait of Tiona Nekkia McClodden
Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Courtesy the artist

McClodden previously ran a booking and management program for Black, queer, and trans women artists after her own experience trying to navigate Philadelphia’s mainstream art scene. In 2014, she became the first Black woman member of the artist-run collective and exhibition space Vox Populi—but she didn’t stay long, after failing to find the support she needed there.

“I live in a community that doesn’t cross over or, quite frankly, attend these spaces,” she said. “That pushed me to be in the streets in a different way, putting together my own programs. That’s when I realized that curatorial work would be a way to not only deal with what my work can be, but also how I can exhibit peers who are not always considered. Curators don’t come to do studio visits here—they don’t know what artists exist here.”

That desire traces back to McClodden’s four years of research into the work of experimental musician Julius Eastman, resulting in a retrospective that debuted at various venues across Philadelphia in 2017, and convened contemporary artists and musicians to reflect and create on the forgotten artist’s work. “The show naturally came about in regard to my interests,” McClodden said, “but also what it would mean for me to bring the same kind of rigor I have in my own practice and give it to someone else.” Maximilíano Durón

NACF board and staff members.
NACF board and staff members. Courtesy Native Arts & Cultures Foundation.

The Center for Native Arts and Cultures

Yale Union, an influential nonprofit contemporary art center in Portland, Oregon, set an institutional standard for reparation when it transferred both its building and the land on which it sits to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF)—and formally dissolved itself in the process. The 36,000-square-foot space now operates as headquarters for the Center for Native Arts and Cultures, an organization that previously worked remotely to connect and spotlight Native artists nationwide. Future visions for the building include major exhibition space, a black-box theater, and areas for cultural ceremonies and celebrations. “Having a multidisciplinary space where Native artists are able to produce and present work without having to subjugate [it] to Western/mainstream preconceptions of indigeneity,” the NACF said in a statement to ARTnews, “is instrumental to reclaiming the Native narrative and ensuring that Native artists and culture-bearers have ample opportunities to express their truth and tell their stories.” Tessa Solomon

View of Kambui Olujimi’s exhibition 'Walk With Me,' 2020–21, at Project for Empty Space, Newark.
View of Kambui Olujimi’s exhibition “Walk With Me,” 2020–21, at Project for Empty Space, Newark. Photo: Anthony Alvarez

Jasmine Wahi

Jasmine Wahi was appointed the first social justice curator at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York earlier this year, a new role created in tribute to the institution’s beloved longtime leader, Holly Block. Wahi had already established herself as a force to be reckoned with as a cofounder and co-director of the nonprofit Project for Empty Space in Newark, New Jersey, which has been staging socially minded, impact-oriented exhibitions since its establishment in 2010, and she has organized exhibitions including the acclaimed 2020 presentation “Abortion Is Normal” at Galerie Eva Presenhuber and Arsenal Contemporary in New York.

Portrait of Jasmine Wahi.
Jasmine Wahi. Photo: Brendon Cook.

The Bronx Museum is now the home for her next phase, and the curator has been at work organizing programming to mark the institution’s 50th anniversary in 2021. Presentations in progress include group shows focused on feminist futurity and ball culture as well as a solo exhibition of Faith Ringgold’s illustration paintings for her children’s books and some of her sculptural work from the 1970s. Beyond what goes on the walls, Wahi is working on complementary programming to engage the museum’s surrounding community. “Dialogue is so important, particularly for some of the topics that I’m addressing: racism, sexism, homophobia, and intersectional oppression,” she said, adding that she feels primed to engage such subjects with her experience at Project for Empty Space. “I grew with the organization and with that philosophy of curating.”

Wahi said that the coronavirus pandemic, which hit the Bronx particularly hard, has “shed a brighter light” on some of the issues she addresses in her work. “A lot of the things that I’m talking about are visibility and equity as well as inequity within the context of social justice. The rest of the world now is paying more attention to that. The themes have not changed, but Covid has definitely impacted the lens through which I am looking at those topics.”

Outside of her work with institutions, Wahi has built up an Instagram following of more than 20,000—an audience with whom she shares a sense of community and who can offer measures of validation and affirmation that are central to her curatorial practice. “I just say what’s on my mind,” she said of her approach to Instagram. “I’ve reached a point of exhaustion trying to convince other people of my value as a curator or as a person or as a woman or a business owner. I would rather speak to people who believe in the value of those identities.” Claire Selvin

Interior view of the art space FLORA in Bogotá.
Interior view of the art space FLORA in Bogotá. Photo: Gonzalo Angarita L.

José Roca

Portrait of José Roca.
José Roca. Photo: Alejandra Quintero

Shifting his attention across the planet from Colombia to Australia, José Roca is the artistic director in charge of the 2022 Biennale of Sydney, with a long list of laurels that includes stints as an adjunct curator of Latin American Art at Tate in London and curatorial roles in the Bienal do Mercosul in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and the Bienal de São Paulo. Roca plans for the Biennale to take up notions of collaboration and sustainability—and, in putting it together, will forgo shipping artworks whenever possible in favor of using local products and services. “The idea is to put together such an important event while being conscious of the impact on the environment,” Roca said. “We have to be conscious of the conditions of production and not only think of sustainability as a theme but as a strategy.”

Roca founded his nonprofit FLORA ars+natura art space in Bogotá in 2012, with an exhibition program exploring the intersections of art and nature that has in recent years offered presentations by such artists as Tobias Putrih, Alberto Baraya, and María José Arjona, as well as residencies that have been closely watched by some of the world’s top collectors, including Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Jorge Pérez, and Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza. And Roca plans to keep his ties to Colombia tight. “I will be thinking hard on what to do, and how, while in Australia, and then when I come back to Colombia, we will see what is next for me,” he said. Claire Selvin

View of the exhibition 'Colored People Time: Banal Presents,' 2019, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.
View of the exhibition “Colored People Time: Banal Presents,” 2019, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. Photo: Constance Mensh

Meg Onli

Portrait of Meg Onli.
Meg Onli. Photo: Marcus Maddox

As a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Meg Onli has become a pivotal figure in Philadelphia and beyond. Her work has figured in conceptually assured and searching shows like “Speech/Acts” (2017), which explored experimental Black poetry in relation to the social and cultural constructs of language, and “Colored People Time” (2019), a three-part series surveying what has been called “the banal and everyday ways in which the history of slavery and colonialism permeates the present and impacts the future.” She also helped organize Art for Philadelphia, a collective effort with artists this past summer that raised more than $100,000 for a local organization that supports incarcerated and detained transgender people.

Onli’s future at ICA includes a solo show for multimedia artist Jessica Vaughn in February and, for next September, a years-in-the-making survey of Ulysses Jenkins that she’s co-curating with Erin Christovale from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Of Onli’s curatorial prowess, artist Martine Syms, who has figured in Onli’s past shows, said, “I love working with Meg because it’s fun, and I know the show will be good. She knows how to hang out. She is straightforward and rigorous and hilarious and brilliant. She takes her time. I genuinely enjoy talking about ideas with her because she cares.” Andy Battaglia

Nancy Baker Cahill, Liberty Bell, 2020, animated AR drawing with sound via 4th Wall app, National Monument Reflecting Pool, Washington D.C.
Nancy Baker Cahill’s AR project Liberty Bell, 2020. Photo: Joy Asico/; courtesy the artist and Art Production Fund

Nancy Baker Cahill

Since launching an app called 4th Wall for viewing augmented reality (AR) artworks through smartphones in 2018, Los Angeles–based artist Nancy Baker Cahill has been at work on a number of projects merging technology and public art. She contributed two works to the 2019 Desert X Biennial in California, created AR activations at Facebook’s office in L.A., organized a sprawling city-wide AR exhibition across New Orleans, and hosted an AR iteration of “In Plain Sight”—a skywriting campaign protesting immigrant incarceration organized by artist rafa esparza and performance artist and activist Cassils (plus fellow ARTnews Decider Patrisse Cullors)—on the 4th Wall app.

Portrait of Nancy Baker Cahill.
Nancy Baker Cahill. Photo: Alia Kate

Over the summer, she also debuted a new multisite work commissioned by the Art Production Fund, Liberty Bell, which features a shape-shifting animation and accompanying sounds inspired by the famous bell that came to symbolize American independence. The piece aims to address the notion of freedom and the ways it can be breached in historically resonant locations across Philadelphia; New York; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Charleston, South Carolina; and Selma, Alabama. Liberty Bell was occasioned by the presidential election, but Baker Cahill did not foresee that, when it opened on July 4, a pandemic would give it even greater significance. “It’s part of the great gift of public art in general,” the artist said. “In a moment of social distancing, it can be experienced by most people if they have access to a phone or aren’t putting themselves at risk by being outside.” And even when the pandemic dims and visitors return to museums, Baker Cahill believes AR—with its combination of images, sounds, and haptic effects—will remain an appealing art experience for a broad audience. “I think there’s so much poetry in the medium,” she said. “If used thoughtfully and intentionally, it’s both visible and invisible—it opens up an entirely new universe.”

Some of the projects on the horizon for Baker Cahill are a site-specific AR work for South by Southwest in Austin in 2021 and a number of proposals for other public-facing pieces, many focused on climate change. “[AR] really is one of the most environmentally conscious mediums,” Baker Cahill said. “It is an urgent subject to address, and I think this medium is beautifully suited for that.” Claire Selvin