No doubt a picture is worth a thousand words, but why stop there? Why not double the value by adding to that picture a thousand words? And why not draw those words from contemporary artists of color in conversation with one another about matters of race, culture, politics, and their careers and lives? And why not have those imperative, indispensable words exchanged by those significant artists in the same room together over a meal? Then you would have something priceless.
That, in essence, is what New York-based artist Elia Alba is doing in The Supper Club, a project of hers that's now in its seventh year. The picture side of it consists of photographic portraits, each of an individual contemporary artist and made employing the visual language and style of fashion photography. (Alba's inspiration was Vanity Fair's "Hollywood" issue, which pictorially elevates its subjects to the level of, at the very least, aristocracy, and at most, godhood.) As Alba's images play off not only society's rarefied depictions of celebrities but also portraits throughout the history of art, as well as archetypes and figures from myth – Alba bestows upon her subjects such iconic titles as the Oracle, the Star, and the Disco Shaman – one could easily expend more than a thousand words on each.
The words side of the project relates to its name: literal gatherings for dinner, which Alba hosts as a means of bringing together artists of diverse backgrounds (African-American, Latin American, African, South Asian, Caribbean) to share their thoughts and experiences about their creative practices, their daily lives, and social issues ranging from racial prejudice and homophobia to safety and sanctuary. Alba makes a point of cooking the suppers herself since she feels "there is something about a home-cooked meal that brings people together, like family." In an interview, she cites empanadas as her signature dish and notes a preference for "food that can be passed around the table, rather than plated. This gives a chance for guests to interact with one another more." With support from the organizations Recess Art and the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, Alba has been able to host 25 dinners in New York City, and the Agora Culture helped her hold two more in Washington, D.C. Each of the dinners has been audiotaped and transcribed, and a book on the project will be released by Hirmer Publishers in March.
Before that, however, Austin is getting a chance to experience The Supper Club. The UT Department of Art & Art History is hosting the project – both sides of it – for a month, starting Jan. 25. Not only will visitors to the Visual Arts Center in the Art Building be able to see all 58 photographs that Alba has produced to date, but a select group of local artists, curators, art historians, and other creatives will be able to sit down together and dialogue over dinner at the home of Austin philanthropists Joyce Christian and Rudy Green. To provide the public with an opportunity to learn more about these suppers, three local participants will discuss them in a panel: artists Tammie Rubin and Xavier Schipani, and Dr. Cherise Smith, executive director of the Art Galleries at Black Studies and associate professor in the Department of Art & Art History. (This will be Fri., Feb. 1, 4pm, in the Art Building, Rm. 1.102).
This first presentation of The Supper Club outside the Northeast has been organized by art department faculty members Amy Hauft and Nicole Awai. Awai has had a long and intimate connection to the project, having attended one of Alba's first suppers back in 2012 and had her portrait made two years later. That image, The Kaisonian (Nicole Awai) – which shows the artist standing at the water's edge under a pier, framed by monumental concrete pillars receding into the distance – will be part of the VAC exhibition. While far from the most theatrical photograph in the series, its connection to the elements (and particularly that hallway to the horizon) place its subject in a heightened, timeless space like those in Alba's other portraits. This is someone who compels our attention, who has something vital to communicate to us, who deserves to be seen and to be listened to. In this portrait, as in all of Alba's portraits, is an invitation to join The Supper Club and prepare to be filled.
Elia Alba’s “The Supper Club” will be on display Jan. 25-Feb. 22 at UT’s Visual Arts Center in the Art Building, 2300 Trinity. For more information, visit sites.utexas.edu/utvac.
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