Notes on "Notes on Sugar"

The story behind Neon Queen Collective's first art exhibition

As an undergrad art history student at the University of South Florida, Phillip Townsend met the subject of his thesis, the Afro-Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons. “I met her during undergrad and followed her work and pitched the idea to her about a show, and she was like, 'Yeah, whenever you are ready let me know,'” Townsend says.

Fast forward a few years to last spring, when Townsend and fellow University of Texas art history doctoral students Jessi DiTillio and Kaila Schedeen decided to create the curatorial group Neon Queen Collective, and they were ready. They reached out as a team to put a show together.

DiTillio explains the goal of the collective: “We’re all art historians together, and we all focus on writing about contemporary art and thinking about race and gender and thinking about socially engaged contemporary artists, so as curators the point is to kind of bring those interests and priorities to performances and events and also writing.” Schedeen agrees: “Our goal as a collective is to approach the really difficult topics we work with, which deal with trauma and pain, and do that in a way that brings humor and lightness to it and starts conversations.”

Considering these goals, an exhibition with Campos-Pons seemed to be a perfect first project, with Townsend’s personal connection serving as a logistical bonus. “Considering, politically, what’s happening right now, the atmosphere around immigration and women’s rights, we figured this would be a perfect artist because these are things she tackles in her work,” Townsend explains. “The way women’s labor and labor of minorities is hidden, it’s not always out front, and this show highlights the labor and atrocities minorities have experienced. So with sugar, sugar is everywhere, we don’t really think about the history of sugar, and this show highlights the history of sugar and the labor involved in it and the history of the people involved in it.”

The learning curve of putting together a professional-quality show was steep, as the members all readily admit. It didn’t help that the central piece of the show was an especially difficult installation project. Notes on Sugar, borrowed from Harvard, hadn’t been shown in a while. “It’s composed of almost 500 pieces. It has all these rings of sugar and glass, and they’re precariously balanced on these spears that are placed onto African stools,” DiTillio says.

From conception to installation, the project has moved at an exceptionally quick pace, but with an overwhelming amount of community support. Neon Queen raised almost $23,000 for the inaugural project, mostly from the University of Texas and local art patrons. They say this support is Austin’s way of letting them know they are ready – ready to partner in their goal of “trying to fill a gap in the diversity of Austin’s art world.”

In moving forward, the group hopes to work with arts communities within Austin. “Because we’re a collective ourselves, we’re really interested in the idea of collaboration, so we’re interested in how we can connect with organizations and groups already in Austin and how we can add to their conversations,” Schedeen says. Considering the buzz thus far, “Notes on Sugar,” showing at the Christian-Green Gallery in UT's Jester Center, has already added to the conversation and serves as a sign of more to come from Neon Queen Collective.

"Notes on Sugar: The Work of María Magdalena Campos-Pons" is on view through May 5 in the Christian-Green Gallery, Jester Center A232A, 201 E. 21st, on the UT campus.
Campos-Pons will give an artist's talk Fri., Feb. 2, 3pm, in R. 2.206 of the Gordon-White Bldg, 210 W. 24th, on the UT campus.
A recption will follow at 5pm in the Christian-Green Gallery.
For more information, visit the Neon Queen Collective website.

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Neon Queen Collective, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Phillip Townsend, Jessi DiTillio, Kaila Schedeen

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