Milwaukee Art Museum Expands Cultural Outreach

An interview by David Luhrssen for The Shepherd Express.

The Milwaukee Art Museum is no stranger to multicultural programming and has provided educational opportunities and outreach to all Milwaukeeans for many years. However, one of the lessons of Black Lives Matter is that many institutions need to take good intentions—and positive actions—to the next level. With that in mind, the Museum has created a new position, Curator of Community Dialogue, to further expand its engagement with Milwaukeeans and local organizations representing all backgrounds. Off the Cuff interviewed the Museum’s newly hired Curator of Community Dialogue, Kantara Souffrant. She begins work on January 4, 2021.

Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up? Can you describe the influence of your Haitian heritage on your understanding of the meaning of art?

Being of Haitian ancestry doesn’t necessarily change how I interpret art or the meaning of art. However, it does make me more sensitive to the role art can play in representing marginalized people.

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in New Jersey in a large Haitian community in the 1990s. Stories about Haitian migration, deportations and politics always seemed to be in the news. In my memory, these stories, as well as the representations of Haitian people and culture on television, on the radio and in print, were always negative and one-sided—you rarely heard from Haitian people themselves. I learned not to talk about being Haitian because it led to ridicule in my schools by my peers and adults. Even today, I’m astounded by how often (and quickly) the news, television shows, literature and everyday references to Haiti only discuss Haiti as a place of “negatives.”

These negative representations of Haiti and Haitian people did not match my home and community experience. I grew up surrounded by musicians, dancers, artists and storytellers, people who used their arts to reflect our culture and to tell more holistic stories of the Haitian experience. I grew up with art that celebrated our culture and with art as a tool for challenging negative portrayals of black people, especially Haitians. My Haitian heritage taught me to see art as a tool for telling fuller and more complicated stories than what is popularly presented as the dominant narrative or single story.

You are an artist as well as an arts educator. Tell me about your art.

I consider myself an artist-scholar. Artmaking, research and writing are all critical to my work and life. I combine movement, song, folk stories, interviews and personal narratives to create what I call “embodied storytelling.” Embodied storytelling brings together all the dance and visual art training I’ve received from across the African diaspora.

I’ve trained with master artists in their craft from all over the world, including master dancer and cultural historian Adenike Sharpley, with whom I studied Yoruba and Kikongo aesthetics in visual art and dance; The Jaina Family Dancers and Drummers of The Gambia; and Alousane Soumake of the National Ballet of Guinea; and Mestre João Grande of the Capoeira Angola Center, New York; Mestre Renê Bitencourt of the Associação de Capoeira Angola Navio Negreiro, Brazil; and Contra Mestre Erik “Chicago” Murray of the Low Country Capoeira Angola Society, Atlanta.

Here in Milwaukee, I briefly trained with the Ko-Thi Dance Company, helmed by Ferne Yangyeitie Caulker-Bronson. I also can’t forget my storytelling training with Ex Fabula as an Ex Fabula Fellow! All my training places African cosmologies as the foundation of artistry and performance; here, performance, art creation and communal transformation are inseparable. Fundamentally, my art—whether it is an installation or a performance—and my scholarship are ways to encourage dialogue, reflection and change.

What role can art play in social progress?

Artists are dreamers, documenters of their contemporary moment and cultural critics. I think art’s role in social progress is to be all of these things. Art helps us dream and conceive new worlds. It documents where we’ve been and where we’re going as a local and global society. Art critiques and challenges us when we, as a society, are not doing enough to ensure the safety and well-being of all people.

I also think that art objects themselves can be some of the most democratic spaces for engaging in dialogue. Talking about challenging social concerns such as race or class can be a bit easier when there is a work of art that brings up social problems, and people can use that object to reflect on their own experiences, thoughts and feelings. No approach to looking at a work of art is “wrong,” and, because of this, we can listen to each other more fully when engaging with art. By extension, art advances social progress by reminding us that multiple approaches, experiences and stories can co-exist.

Until recently, art history as it was taught in the U.S. and many other places omitted or marginalized much of the world. Do you think that most people today have a broader understanding of cultures from across the world than in the past—and if so, has this led to questioning racist assumptions in this country?

I don’t think the issue is whether or not individuals are questioning racists assumptions. My experience as an arts educator, museum educator and college professor has taught me that many people are open to questioning their racial assumptions.

My experiences have also taught me that many people are not interested in questioning their racial assumptions. The issue isn’t merely about the individual-level challenging of racist beliefs; it is about how public and private institutions maintain and perpetuate these racial assumptions. These institutions include schools, museums, governments and other places of influence. For example, it is hard to make a factual argument about why and how racism physically, emotionally and historically harms people when you have institutions and people in positions of authority who say, “Nothing is wrong. Everyone is fine and happy with how things are right now.”

All I can do and hope for is that my work in the arts and museums helps alter individual assumptions, eventually changing larger institutional assumptions. That’s the exciting thing about the Curator of Community Dialogue role: collaborating with area partners to create these transformations on an individual and institutional level.

Can you describe your responsibility as the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Curator of Community Dialogue—and explain why the word “Curator” rather than “Director” was chosen for the title?

The Curator of Community Dialogue, as the Museum describes the position, is responsible for “developing and implementing a comprehensive plan for adult community engagement, building the institution’s capacity for making art relevant to our community and delivering robust community programming, two key pillars of the Museum’s 2020 Strategic Direction.” The position will ultimately build and oversee the Department of Community Dialogue. In this role, I will also be responsible for organizing (or “curating”) pop-up exhibitions throughout the community, explaining some of why the title is “curator” rather than “director.” Further, a curator often brings together disparate things (be they objects, ideas or people) to tell a story, lend a new perspective, so the title seems fitting.

For me, the Curator of Community Dialogue position is fundamentally about aiding the Milwaukee Art Museum in becoming a more accessible, culturally relevant and culturally responsive institution for all of Milwaukee. Nationally, museums are at a turning point: addressing what it means for their establishments to be seen as exclusive—catering predominately to wealthy and exclusively white audiences. As someone who previously worked at the Milwaukee Art Museum, I know the Museum tries to be a welcoming environment regardless of income, racial identity and area zip code. The Curator of Community Dialogue position is an institutional commitment to growing the Museum’s support and welcoming of Black, Latinx and Communities of Color—in our exhibitions, our programming and in the partnerships that we build.

The question that drives me in this role is how can the Museum support building a stronger and healthier Milwaukee for all people? Creating new programs and curating exhibitions is one aspect of this work; the other is collaborating and listening to Black, Latinx and People of Color. I’m excited to collaborate and work alongside Milwaukeeans who are already building a vital and inclusive Milwaukee.

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