An Artist With History

An Artist With History
An Artist With History

Rubenstein Guest Artist Nekisha Durrett’s work brings hidden stories to the fore.  

Sidwell Friends School students are no strangers to the work of Washington DC artist Nekisha Durrett. Scores of them have studied her work since the installation of her public commission, Air Shaft, at the Phillips Collection in 2021. But even that experience couldn’t compare to hearing her discuss her work in person when she came to campus in late November as the 2023 Daryl Reich Rubenstein Guest Artist.

“I am concerned with erasure,” Durrett told one of her audiences during her stay. That erasure can mean the legacy of Black women or the displacement of a neighborhood. But it is always created with an eye toward the historical connections that too often remain unseen. In this way, Durrett said, her pieces are works of activism.

Take Air Shaft, for example. An assemblage of glass, light, color, and translucence, Air Shaft is a two-story, stained-glass-style installation, inspired by a Jacob Lawrence painting of a Harlem tenement. For Aaron Brophy, Sidwell Friends Middle School art teacher and director of art exhibitions, having Durrett on hand was an opportunity for students to connect with an artist already on the syllabus.

Like a number of previous Rubenstein Guest Artists—including Suzanne Firstenberg, Sam Gilliam, Lou Stovall, and Kenzo Digital—Durrett’s work celebrates light, space, and empathy, the core components of Sidwell’s Foundations Art Program. “It has been said that the study of art history is the history of light,” says Brophy. “In Nekisha Durrett we have a contemporary Renaissance woman at the confluence of our past and our future.”

The “presence or absence of light,” Durrett told the audience at the Rubenstein Guest Artist Lecture, holds great power. She described Air Shaft as a presence-of-light work that uses the natural environment (sunlight) to amplify color—turning Lawrence’s painting of a tenement laundry line into “something sacred” and church-like. In another work, Frontier, the absence of light is used to reimagine Harriet Tubman’s legacy: An obsidian mirror is perfectly bisected with a thin line of white light to represent the invisible border between freedom and enslavement. “I wanted to make something that was specific to Harriet Tubman,” Durrett said, explaining why creating a painting of Tubman’s likeness wasn’t enough for her. “I wanted to create a portrait of her mind.”

A graduate of Washington’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Cooper Union in New York City, Durrett creates both vast freestanding sculptures and intimate gallery installations. Her Magnolia installation, now on exhibit in the Kogod Arts Center at Sidwell Friends, uses the hearty, near-indestructible leaves of magnolia trees to showcase the names of Black women who died at the hands of police. Using shadow boxes, light shines through each woman’s name, which Durrett hand stippled directly into the leaf. “Why just women?” she said. “Because usually I just hear the names of Black men when it comes to police violence. Again, it has to do with that sense of erasure. I wanted to lift these women’s names into the conversation.”

It was in front of these Magnolia pieces—in addition to a special presentation at an assembly for the students—that Durrett spoke to Middle and Upper Schoolers about her work and what inspires her. Durrett explained that history informs every aspect of her art and that there is freedom in upending expectations, as in Frontier, her “portrait” of Tubman.

“That freedom has shaped me as an artist,” Durrett told students. “My body of work is so varied and so particular to what I want to say.”


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