For Simmons, reading is the first step in making a new work, and access to information without barriers is critical to everyone's liberation.
Simmons will be joined in conversation with Dr. Rhea L. Combs, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the National Portrait Gallery, to discuss how the artist’s billboards fit into her larger body of work. Following a presentation and discussion, audience members will have the chance to preview Reading Work: Season One, a new multi-year online project forthcoming this fall, produced and directed by Simmons with collaborators across the country.
This program, and the presentation of Simmons’ artwork, are made possible through support from the DC Public Library Foundation.
Read on for more detail.
Installation of Xaviera Simmons' Freedom is Not Guaranteed, MLK Library, 2023
Artwork courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery.
About Freedom is Not Guaranteed
Simmons’ artwork on view at the MLK Library is part of a series of photographs investigating the contemporary political landscape. Written in bold lettering across the image of a pointing figure in the landscape, the phrase ‘FREEDOM IS NOT GUARANTEED’ alludes to many of the same themes that have resulted in book bans across the U.S, such as White Supremacy, Reparations, Indigenous Sovereignty, Trans Rights and Incarceration.
The artist has said:
When I write or contemplate the phrase ‘freedom is not guaranteed,’ … I start with the most vulnerable, those are the people who should be centered at every turn. I am in Los Angeles right now, where the people most vulnerable are the unhoused, many of whom are Black men and women. The most vulnerable are also Trans persons and the multitude of Indigenous communities across this country whose lands and lifeways are the foundation and continuation of everything we have here.
Originally commissioned by the artist collective For Freedoms in 2018 as part of a 50 states billboard campaign, FREEDOM IS NOT GUARANTEED has been exhibited in South Dakota and in Brooklyn, NY. Each location–and the changing political climate–brings a new layer of meaning to the work. Simmons’ message resonates in Washington, D.C as it is the seat of the country’s political power and is a place meant to hold the varying voices of the United States.
When creating a new piece, Simmons has said “My first step is to go get books.” Her 2023 museum exhibition, Crisis Makes a Book Club, distributed almost 4000 titles over the course of its six month run. Simmons’ message Freedom is Not Guaranteed takes on renewed urgency at a time when book bans are on the rise nationwide, in particular titles that address racially-based inequalities or that center on LGBTQ themes.
More About this Event
Following a presentation and discussion with Dr. Combs, audience members will have a chance to preview Reading Work: Season One, a new multi-year online project produced and directed by Xaviera Simmons with an interdisciplinary group of artist and non-artist collaborators with contributions from participants in over half of the 50 states. The project aims to provide political education while also distributing books and monetary funds to creative collaborators, particularly those in vulnerable communities. Reading Work:Season One is generously funded by Agnes Gund’s Art For Justice. This will be the first public preview of the work prior to its public launch in November.
About the Presenters:
Xaviera Simmons’ sweeping practice includes photography, painting, video, sound, sculpture, text and installation. Her work engages the formal histories of art through the construction of landscape, language, and the complex histories of the United States and its continuing empire building internally and on a global scale. Simmons received her BFA from Bard College (2004) after spending two years on a walking pilgrimage retracing the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade with Buddhist Monks. She completed the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program in Studio Art (2005) while simultaneously completing a two-year actor-training conservatory with The Maggie Flanigan Studio, NY. The artist has exhibitions, performances, large scale installations and web-based projects slated to open globally through 2025. Recent solo exhibitions include Crisis Makes A Book Club at The Queens Museum (2023) Nectar at Kadist, Paris (2022), The Structure, The Labor, the Pause at Sarasota Art Museum (2022), Convene at Sculpture Center, New York; Overlay at Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University; The Gold Miner’s Mission to Dwell on the Tide Line at The Museum of Modern Art- The Modern Window, New York; and CODED at The Kitchen, New York. In 2021 Simmons was the inaugural guest editor of Art Basel Magazine. Simmons has held teaching positions at Yale University, Columbia University and Harvard University. In Spring 2020 she was awarded the prestigious The Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters from Bard College. Simmons is a recipient of Socrates Sculpture Park's Artist Award (2019) and Agnes Gund’s Art for Justice Award (2018).
Dr. Rhea Combs is the director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Combs was previously at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture where she served as the curator of film and photography and head of the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA) She previously taught visual culture, film, race and gender courses at Chicago State University, Lewis & Clark College and Emory University. Additionally, Combs has independently and successfully curated film exhibitions nationally and internationally for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, the National Black Programming Consortium, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, to name a few. She also worked as the assistant curator for the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta and as a public programs educator at the Chicago Historical Society (now Chicago Historical Museum). Combs received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University, a Master of Arts degree from Cornell University, and a Doctorate from Emory University. Her writings have been featured in anthologies, academic journals and exhibition catalogues on range of topics including African American female filmmakers, black popular culture, visual aesthetics, filmmaking and photography.
This discussion will invite audience members to consider the true meaning of freedom and repair in a country where those freedoms continue to be taken away. This program is one of the DC Public Library’s featured Banned Books Week programs and activities celebrating the public library’s role as a space of intellectual and creative freedom.
Learn more about DC Public Library's Banned Books Week programming.