With photographs and a move to rural Minnesota, artist Jovan C. Speller explores the protection of black lives


OSAGE, Minn. – This house, surrounded by space and trees, felt like home from the start. Artist Jovan C. Speller could imagine his two boys growing up here, safe here.

So they moved from Minneapolis to a rural road near Park Rapids in northern Minnesota.

“This is where I’d like to plant apple and pear trees,” Speller said, walking the property in early May when his compost was still thawing and his tomato seeds were still growing inside. , under lamps.

The color of the house, a deep forest green, harmonizes with the walls of the gallery of his exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, titled “Feeding and Other Protective Rituals”. When she chose him, she hadn’t realized she would be summoning her own house. But that made perfect sense.

The exhibit – her first solo exhibition in a museum – explores comfort and care in black culture.

“This color makes me feel like I’m at home,” Speller said as he walked through the gallery before the exhibit opened to the public. “Green in general feels like life in abundance. And that’s one of the things I wanted to amplify in this space.”

Clinging to this green, large photographs of protective gestures, cut out and superimposed. A boy wrapping himself around a parent’s leg. A child coming out of a pleated skirt. Speller’s husband, artist Yunior Rebollar, holding their son, near tears, while his brother plays in the snow.

Hands — so many hands — touching, holding, placing a crown on a head.

Speller welcomes you into the show via a living room, inspired by the living rooms of her grandmothers, with a fireplace and record player and a sofa covered in transparent vinyl. Playing are Speller sounds captured and layered. As his mother’s voice sings “Brown Baby”, Speller and Rebollar discuss telling their sons about race.

“How do you prepare a person to be black? »

How, they now ask, do you prepare a person to be black in rural Minnesota?

Speller’s family lives 8 miles and three roadside Trump signs from Park Rapids, with its small but mighty community of artists, bolstered by the Nemeth Art Center. Artist Aaron Spangler, a Nemeth board member, encouraged Speller to consider the area in his research, which stretched from Grand Rapids to Byron. Nemeth opened its season with an exhibition of works by Rebollarincluding a portrait of Speller in vivid reds and blues, appearing both ancient and futuristic.

Despite this reception from artists, the makeup of the wider community “is something that worries you when you go to a predominantly white, predominantly conservative place,” Speller said. “You never really know.”

But she believes the earth is on their side.

The eye of the artist

As a 12-year-old at art camp, Speller fell in love with the mystery of the darkroom.

Today, at 38, she is best known as a photographer. But in recent years, she has explored soundscapes and installations, forming entire worlds.

When artist Andy DuCett asked Speller to collaborate on a project for this year’s Great Northern Festival, the topic was lighthearted: winter culture. Then George Floyd was murdered, the city was burning and the National Guard was rolling through his neighborhood, she wrote last year. “All I could do was hold my newborn and 2 year old and look out the window.”

The couple began thinking about ways to center and protect black lives.

In an alley in St. Paul, they built a glowing greenhouse encased in ice, titled “Conservatory”, a highlight of the party. Inside, plants of deep hues – black cone flowers, velvet petunias – grew in the damp air.

But the amplified cracking of the ice constantly reminded you of the cold outside, the federal courthouse across the street, the world beyond.

Even his photos are not photos, on their own. Speller often cuts and layers images by hand, playing with scale and orientation.

“Photography is not sacred to her,” said Nicole Soukup, assistant curator of contemporary art at Mia. “Concepts are, of course. But she’s not afraid to cut a print or get a little behind on the nitrate process.”

Speller’s experience as a curator informs even the early stages of her practice, Soukup said. “She’s really grappling with the audience, with the interpretation. How will that be seen?”

Hung in predominantly white spaces, her portraits reveal a care and attention not always reflected in the media. But these are familiar scenes to black people.

“His installations transport you to places of origin and landscapes of memory that black people know intimately,” said Nicole Nfonoyim-Hara, who met Speller while they were working together at the Rochester Art Center.

Nfonoyim-Hara credits Speller with showing her that she could “cultivate my own radical freedom” without needing permission from a job or institution. “When I became interested in his work as an artist later,” she said, “I also saw the search and the claiming of that same freedom and liberation there.”

On the back wall of the exhibit is a photograph of Speller’s assistant in two layers. In a calm, blurry image, they are turned away from the camera. But then they emerge, clear, from a thin white space that Speller has created for them.

This version of them is staring at you.

“A chance for freedom”

A video Speller made last fall begins by looking up — the sky, the trees, the individual leaves.

“Last summer, I moved my family to this secluded and private place…” Speller said, “so that me, my husband, my boys would have a chance. A chance to live. Maybe even a chance of freedom.”

In the video, meant to record his studio practice for the arts journal Brooklyn Rail, the camera sees Speller raking and planting before gluing or painting. His sons are there too, their little fingers touching lichen on a log and drawing curls on a wall.

“People ask me all the time, ‘How are you treated there? How does it feel to be black there?’ ” she says. “This question always makes me laugh, like, how does it feel to be black anywhere?

“At least here there are consequences for trespassing and I can lock my children in area and protection and distance.”

Prior to moving here, Speller could have claimed that more of his practice took place in the studio, concentrating his images there. Or that she has a real studio, which she doesn’t exactly.

But instead, she was honest. Right now, being an artist means composting, maintaining, sawing off branches. That means making art in the garage or small office she uses for her full-time job with the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. It’s waiting for his boys to fall asleep before pushing aside the living room furniture to finish a large-scale collage.

That means using her husband as the next photo subject, in part because there are few other black people living nearby.

“Part of the move was being able to live authentically and not have to pretend anymore and be comfortable being myself,” Speller said, emotion flooding her voice. “You know, I’m not going to cry.” She paused, then explained:

“A side effect of my move is to become more vulnerable,” she said. “Living in the city…in very dense spaces where the police presence is very active…I’ve always been on my toes. I haven’t let things in to some extent.

“And now that I’m out, I’m just like, a mess. I feel everything now.”


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