Conversations with a Docent

I can genuinely say that I love working at the Stamp Art Gallery. Who knew that as a docent I would have so many opportunities to meet interesting people? No guest is ever the same. Since working at the Stamp Art Gallery I have encountered quests from all sorts of backgrounds who were genuinely curious about our current exhibition, Looking Black at Me by D.C. based artist, Larry Cook.

From the front desk I see quests sometimes walk inside the gallery hesitantly and look around the room with much curiosity in their eyes. Sometimes they take their time around the room and read Cook’s commentary on his work. And other times they rush through the exhibit without truly observing his beautiful and provocative art. I can easily tell – just from observing our guests – how Cook’s work elicits many responses, both negative and positive, from our guests.  Through these various responses, I often encounter the best conversations.

When I was asked for the first time to express my personal interpretations of Cook’s work, I was taken by surprise. In my head I thought, well, why would guests want to know what I have to say? I did not feel that my opinions, in some way, were worthy to be heard, not because they were not valuable, but because my preconceived ideas about my responsibilities did not allow me think this interaction could be possible. I did not expect such a thing to happen at work. Before I began this job I thought that my task was to primarily greet guests, make them feel welcomed, and inform them about gallery related things. But instead, I have had quests walk towards me and ask questions about the art, not as a person seeking additional information about the work, but as a person interested in knowing what I had to say – my opinions mattered to them.

Because Cook’s work is somewhat abstract and open to many interpretations, guests found it helpful to hear what I had to say. My interpretations gave them a guideline into what direction Cook might have taken in his work. It also allowed them to see whether their interpretation/s aligned with someone who knew a little more about the work.  Unititled #1 and Untitled #2 would receive the most questions. I had one guest ask me if someone in the video had died. I had other guests ask what the Morse code represented in context to the people in the video and their surroundings.  My response would always be that Cook potentially tried to showcase the black body in a different light. By different light I mean that Cook tried to reverse the stereotypical images that are often shown of black people. We are portrayed as thugs, violent, untrustworthy, criminals, etc. Because SOS is used by people in need of rescue and is played in both videos, I interpreted that Cook wanted to represent the black body as innocent. When you look into the individual’s facial expression and their surroundings, you can almost imagine them crying out for help. This portrayal destroys the stereotypical images we both African Americans and non-African Americans are often forced to believe. From this interpretation both the guest and I would discuss how Cook’s work accurately portrays how African Americans are portrayed in this conversation. This often lead to insightful exchanges and a deeper understanding of the work as a whole.

If Cook were to read this, he would probably say that my interpretation is completely wrong. But this post is not meant to convince anyone that my interpretation is true, it was written to show how thought-provoking art such as Cook’s work can influence the kinds of conversations we have with our peers. These conversations force people to consider and reconsider how race, social-economic class, gender, sexual orientation, and religious values alter our human experiences and how people are perceived differently because of these elements. As I expressed earlier, Cook’s artwork has prompted some of the most profound conversations I ever had with guests. Essentially, I think this is the essence of art. If it can make you think and share with your fellow peers, the work of the artist has been done. With that being said, I encourage you to visit the art gallery and share your interpretations with me. I would love to converse with you.

– Genesis Henriquez


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