Q+A with Neon Queen Collective

Jessi DiTillio, Kaila Schedeen, and Phillip Townsend with María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s Sugar/Bittersweet at Christian-Green Gallery | Photo by Justice Makynzee Madden. Artwork copyright María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Image courtesy of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.

Neon Queen Collective is a trio of Austin-based curators—Jessi DiTillio, Kaila Schedeen, and Phillip Townsend—who collaborate to investigate topics such as race, ethnicity, representation, class, sexuality, and gender in socially engaged art produced by feminist artists of color. Their first project (an ambitious two parter) features Afro-Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Her exhibition Notes on Sugar is currently on view at the John L. Warfield Center’s Christian-Green Gallery through May 3, 2018.

Rebecca Marino: What are y’all’s individual backgrounds in? How did Neon Queen Collective’s mission form?

Neon Queen Collective: We are all students in the department of art and art history at UT Austin getting our PhDs, and we all share an advisor, Cherise Smith. Our research interests coalesce around critical race theory and the politics of identity in the contemporary United States, though our particular research areas spread worldwide. Each of has experience working in museums and galleries, and we are all dedicated to curating as part of a larger investment in our research and practice as art historians.

Our mission evolved from a need we saw in the arts to provide more opportunities for artists of color, women especially. There continues to be a prioritization placed on white male artists in the history of art, and we wanted to create spaces to support artists who are making socially engaged art about race, ethnicity, representation, class, sexuality, and gender. These topics are incredibly important to us in today’s world.

We were also thinking about the importance of feeling in spaces generally thought to uphold objectivity; we love the idea of connecting to our audiences through a range of emotions and hope that the exhibitions we facilitate encourage people to explore a more affective relationship to art.

RM: Your first exhibition, Notes on Sugar, featuring artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons, is up at Christian Green Gallery. Congratulations! What’s next? What are you most excited about in terms of future projects?

NQC: Thanks, the first project is always a big push! Our work with Campos-Pons is continuing into our next projects. We’re releasing an exhibition catalogue with essays about and an interview with Campos-Pons in the next month and curating a video retrospective of her work at the Visual Arts Center in the fall, called Like the Lonely Traveler; that is going to open in September 2018. Campos-Pons has been mostly known for her photography, sculpture, and performance up to this point, so we’re excited to be featuring a selection of her videos from the early 90s to the present.

Other than that, we’re continuing to build our work in writing and online media. We’re all blogging for the upcoming Fusebox Festival, which is going to be super fun. Also, we’ve been brainstorming for a bit about a regular blog series on our own website that features interviews with feminist artists of color and other cultural producers that we think should be seen and heard!

RM: Judging from this inaugural exhibition, it seems like Neon Queen could be a really critical force in bringing outside and under-heard voices to Austin. Do you feel like being based in Austin has propelled things more so than if you were someplace else? Think the queens will keep it local for awhile?

NQC: So far Austin has been an incredibly receptive place for our projects. We have the benefit of being connected to the university and the resources connected to that, but also with the intimacy of the art world here it feels like we’ve already connected to a lot of the key players in some ways. That intimacy is one of the assets of living in a relatively small city; tapping into the network of active, creative people feels more accessible here.

We think there’s also something special about working in Texas. Being in Texas means (potentially) being at the forefront of a political sea change, especially thinking about difficulties facing immigrants and people of color. Austin is a strange case because it is one of the most liberal, progressive cities in Texas, but people of color are also leaving the city at incredibly disproportionate rates because of gentrification. Our hope is that, at least in a small way, focusing more attention on issues of race in Austin’s art world will shift conversations to make our community more accountable to living up to its own values.

RM: With the political climate being what it is, it seems a lot of folks in the art world feel a strong sense of futility and hopelessness. Can you relate? And what would you say to those who do feel that way?

NQC: As you know, our work deals with pretty heavy issues, and because of these weighty discourses we developed a regimen of self-care that we deploy FREQUENTLY. We spend time out in nature, constantly reaffirm our self-worth, read uplifting books, take long hot baths, spend loads of time with our furry friends (Moonpie, Owain, Crouton, Zola, and Daenerys), talk to friends and family face-to-face, listen to music, and do spontaneous things. So the best advice we can give is to develop your own “self-care/wellness toolbox” and pull out a “tool” when you need it.

One of our greatest tools is art itself; seeing and thinking about art, as well as interacting with artists, is what we love. We return to these things when other parts of the world feel too difficult. We use art as a tool to think through our experiences and to start conversations around issues we want to change.

RM: Imagine your dream exhibition (or just project): What does that look like for y’all?

NQC: The dream exhibition for us as a collective would definitely be one full of color, life, vibrancy, and diversity. Visitors would be treated to paintings by artists such as Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (Kent Monkman), Lina Iris Viktor, Nina Chanel Abney, and Nike Davies-Okundaye; photographs by Mickalene Thomas, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Zanele Muholi, Will Wilson, Carrie Mae Weems, and Deana Lawson; sculptures by Sokari Douglas Camp, Nnenna Okore, Sarah Sze, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Tammie Rubin, and Zilia Sánchez; film/video by Katina Bitsicas, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, E. Jane, Marcos Avila Forero, Aryson Heraclito, and Jacolby Satterwhite; installation by Karla Black, Shelia Hicks, Younes Rahmoun, Rebecca Belmore, and Francis Upritchard; and drawings by artists like ruby onyinyechi amanze, Robel Temesgen, Kara Walker, Zoe Charlton, and Shoshanna Weinberger. It would be on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a glorious place!


RM: We’re gonna need to do a Neon Queen Collective Reading List, of course.

Jessi’s Reading List:

Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art by Jennifer Doyle

I love to start sentences with the words “I feel,” and Jennifer Doyle makes me feel like that is an acceptable intellectual strategy. She writes about great art, and she writes about it in great ways that make you value (and think critically about) your own emotional response to artwork, whether it’s positive or negative.

Camp by Mark Booth

This book is hilarious, insightful, and has the best illustrations. Booth has a bone to pick with Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” which is most people’s go-to essay for defining camp. Booth’s definition is not perfect either, but it is really fun to read.

The Transmission of Affect by Teresa Brennan

This book was recommended to me by professor Ann Reynolds, and it seriously blew my mind. If affect theory seems like a bunch of wishy-washy nonsense to you (or if you’ve never heard of affect theory), then check out Brennan.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

If you have a funny feeling something is off with our criminal justice system (and you should), Michelle Alexander will give you all the data you need to make you angry as hell. This book is super accessible, and I think if everyone read it we’d have a revolution on our hands.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

This might be my all-time favorite novel. Love Medicine was Erdrich’s first novel, and it follows multiple generations of a Chippewa family living on a reservation in North Dakota. It is beautiful, creepy, historical, political, and sexy all at once. Erdrich has a new novel out (Future Home of the Living God) that I haven’t read yet, but I can’t wait to check it out this summer.

Kaila’s Reading List:

Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route by Saidiya Hartman

A truly life-changing book, so much so that all of us could have put it on our list. In it Hartman traces the Atlantic slave trade through Ghana as a stranger in search of strangers, as she attempts to come to terms with the effects of slavery on African and African-American history. Hartman’s writing is often more a series of questions rather than statements, which I always try to emulate.

Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empire in the Early American West by Ned Blackhawk

A fantastic example of how scholars are complicating understandings of colonial histories and the ways we tell them. Blackhawk shines light on the little-explored Great Basin region of the United States and draws out a complex story of the American West as it was shaped by both indigenous and imperial histories. His thoughts on violence as a methodology of colonialism, rather than a byproduct, are useful across fields.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

My favorite fiction book, film, and soundtrack! I love the way that McEwan questions memory and the way our actions manifest in other people’s lives. As the title suggests, the book is all about forgiveness and how we empathize with ourselves and others. Atonement brought World War II to life for me; I will forever be haunted by McEwan’s description of the evacuation at Dunkirk.

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

This recently released memoir details a woman’s struggle with mental illness as she comes of age in the Pacific Northwest. Hospitalized and seeking clarity on her familial relationships, Mailhot is handed a journal and writes her way through trauma. Her frenetic writing style really highlights the unsettling nature of memory. Super depressing. Super important.

The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry

An essential text for thinking about the effects of violence on the human body. Scarry describes the inexpressibility of pain in incredibly complex ways and looks particularly at how war and torture unmake people’s worlds and how creative production in turn makes them. This book continues to unfold in new ways every time I return to it. I also completely love how perfect her last name is for the topic.

Phillip’s Reading List:

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

One of my all-time favorite novels! Kindred is the story of Dana, an African-American writer living in 1976 who finds herself transported to a slave plantation in antebellum Maryland. There Dana meets her distant slave-owning relative whom she must keep alive to ensure her existence in the future. By centering the time-travel narrative on the black female experience, Butler does something quite extraordinary.

Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred by M. Jacqui Alexander

M. Jacqui Alexander is one of the most important theorists of transnational feminism working today. Here she critiques imperialism, the state, and colonialism in the Caribbean and the United States. Using the metaphor of the crossing as a foundational framework, Alexander’s work moves across transnational boundaries to explore issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality, as well as the state’s role in perpetuating neocolonial practices.

The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” I cannot sing enough praises about this book. The Souls Of Black Folk exposes the material causes of racism. Du Bois argues that race is socially constructed and that whites invented the concept of racism to protect, advance, and affirm their socioeconomic superiority within a capitalist economic system. Read it and get woke!

The Production of Space by Henri Lefebvre

This book was recommended to me by Dr. George Flaherty, so I knew I was in for a treat. Lefebvre searches for a “reconciliation between mental space (the space of the philosophers) and real space (the physical and social spheres in which we all live).” He touches on a range of disciplines, including art, literature, architecture, economics, and politics. This “spatial bible” will shed light on how space is in a constant state of becoming.

Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics by Joy James

James examines the emergence, integration, and consolidation of black radical feminism as a response to both women’s sexual oppression and also black American racial discrimination and domination by the state. This book highlights how black women, as petitioners and protesters, use intersectionality as tool against racialized capitalist systems.


Keep up with The Queens and be sure to follow their blog posts during Fusebox Festival later this April!

Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest and works as a visual artist and curator in Austin, TX.

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