Olivia House ’20 knew something was bubbling up inside of her—something she had to get out.
“Everyone was finally decompressing from a lot of what had happened in 2020, and I just remembered how much we were working as Black designers, and especially as Black femme designers,” said House, a Minneapolis native now living in New York City. “We were constantly working since that summer, whether that was designing handouts and posters, designing curriculum around anti-racist training, and things like that.
“For me personally, I felt like I hadn’t had a chance to take a deep breath and think about my work and the future. I felt like I was just responding to the things happening in Minneapolis and the rest of the world.”
That feeling was the inspiration behind “To Illuminate Abundance,” an art show that House and fellow Augsburg graduate Silent Fox ’18 curated at Augsburg’s Gage and Christensen galleries in the winter and spring of 2023. The show featured the works of nine Black femme artists from the Twin Cities: Ashley Koudou, Kelsi Sharp, Leeya Rose Jackson, Marcia Rowe ’22, Olivia Anizor, Sabrina Peitz, and Terresa Moses, along with the two curators.
“The overall theme of the show was the radical act of joyous making,” House said. “I felt that if I was feeling this way, other Black femme designers in the Twin Cities must be feeling that way as well.”
And House knew just the space for the show.
“The energy around Augsburg is that it’s a community school. It just feels so Minneapolis, and that was really important for the show,” she said. “I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to have this in a super-fancy gallery, because I just don’t feel like that would connect with the theme. I really wanted it to feel like it could be accessed by anyone in the community. I don’t think there are any other gallery spaces that embody that view like Augsburg’s.”
Jenny Wheatley, Augsburg’s coordinator of galleries and exhibitions, agrees that “To Illuminate Abundance” had a lot to offer the community.
“The Augsburg Galleries work to create supportive and meaningful experiences for artists, developing work that serves the Augsburg community, which is a reflection of our broader community,” Wheatley said. “Olivia and Silent exemplified that ethos by providing supportive opportunities for artists to explore what was meaningful to them and share those ideas with an engaged audience.”
“Olivia and Silent had a vision to create meaningful connections,” Wheatley said, “and out of that—out of the labor, imagination, and creativity—a successful exhibition was created. That success was certainly measured in the public response to the show, but also in the experience the artists had creating and installing their work together.”
Supporting students and artists
“To Illuminate Abundance” is just one example of the impactful experiences that the Augsburg Galleries strive for. Wheatley approaches her role at the university with a double-pronged focus in mind, making sure her efforts are spent both on students and artists. She employs students as gallery interns, empowering them with the responsibility of a variety of tasks, including maintaining the galleries, installing exhibitions, giving tours, and designing promotional materials for the shows.
“When I train the interns, I tell them that they will do a bit of everything in this job,” Wheatley said. “It is rigorous, physical work. But most of all, they will develop as creative problem solvers. I tell them that I think of each show like a new puzzle that has never been done before. We figure things out as we go, and it’s important that they are part of that process.”
She added that working in tandem with the artists helps demystify the creative process and inspires the student interns’ confidence in their own creative visions. It also helps ensure that the artists feel seen and heard every step along the way.
“If the artist leaves feeling supported and wanting to make again, we have done our part in helping us all be more connected, because that is what it is all about: art as connection,” Wheatley said. “When we better understand ourselves, we better understand each other. When we better understand each other, we tend to be kinder, more caring individuals. Supporting artists, creating experiences for students, fostering connections: that is how I approach my work in the galleries.”
In keeping with the goal of strengthening cultural ties to communities around Minneapolis, the Augsburg Galleries have fostered a relationship with Soomaal House of Art, the only Somali artist collective in the United States, located near campus in the Seward neighborhood. The Soomaal Fellowship, which was established in 2018, provides focused support for two artists working in both traditional and new media to collaborate with Augsburg instructors and students over an 18-month process that culminates in a gallery exhibit.
The 2021–22 fellows were photographer and visual artist Yasmin Yassin and poet and visual artist Khadija Charif, who are both based in Minneapolis. They exhibited their work in separate shows at the Gage and Christensen galleries in Fall 2022. Augsburg and Soomaal House will welcome two new fellows into the program this fall.
Charif believes the fellowship will help open the eyes of young Somali artists to the possibilities of making a career out of their art, and she hopes the exhibits at Augsburg were as meaningful to the audience as they were to the artists.
“With Augsburg being an academic space, I hope that students would find anyone’s work, anyone’s craft, anyone’s exhibitions to be of inspiration for them to do something similar—to tell stories, to share narratives, to participate in peeling back the veils of their lives and their thoughts so that others can learn more about them and learn more about their own communities, cultures, and thought processes,” Charif said.
“For myself, it was thrilling,” she added. “It’s one thing to have something in your mind. But it’s another thing when it’s tangible and it’s in a space where other people are seeing your most intimate thoughts.”
She added that the experience also created tendrils that will reach beyond the campus and immediate neighborhood.
“The beautiful thing about this collaboration is that it’s inviting other artists to explore creating their work in academic institutions. After the exhibition, several artists from different backgrounds reached out wondering how they could participate and where they could collaborate with this fellowship and apply,” Charif said. “Some expressed interest in collaborating with students at the university, creating work that advances curiosity and allows the freedom of exploration and experiment.”
It’s another example of how art appreciation is a two-way street, with both the artist and the audience growing from the experience.
“These were moving exhibitions that documented important perspectives and invited audiences into intimate conversations and meditations on human experiences,” Wheatley said of the Soomaal Fellowship exhibits. “It’s the work of the artists that garnered significant attention. And it’s the work of the artists that I believe demonstrates in a meaningful way what the Augsburg Galleries are about.”
House agreed, adding that these unique exhibition spaces combined with the Art and Design Department’s dedicated faculty make Augsburg an ideal destination for young artists.
“All of the professors are so ready to be mentors in a way that’s just really rare,” she said. “I developed a tight relationship with all of them, even some of them who I didn’t have classes with. And it’s a huge advantage to have multiple galleries. Each space is so different and has its own vibe. It’s one of Augsburg’s biggest strengths.”
Top image: Two people view the artwork in the “To Illuminate Abundance” show in the Christensen Art Gallery on Augsburg’s campus. (Photo by Courtney Perry)