Artists Space

The Work Between Us:
Reflections on Jean Fisher

Readings & Discussion
January 10, 2018, 7pm

Shanna Ketchum-Heap of Birds
Zoya Kocur
Valerie Smith

“I should like to make a plea for visual art everywhere.”
– Jean Fisher, “The Work Between Us,” 1997

Black and white photograph of Jean Fisher looking to the right.
[Black and white photograph of Jean Fisher looking to the right.]

Independent scholar Zoya Kocur, writer Shanna Ketchum-Heap of Birds, and curator Valerie Smith lead an evening of critical reflection on the work and legacy of Jean Fisher (1942–2016), co-curator, with Jimmie Durham, of We the People at Artists Space in 1987. An early exhibition of Native American contemporary art in New York, this project sought to broaden representation of Indigenous artists while condemning the white gaze of institutional recognition. A text contributed by Durham will also be read.

The Work Between Us: Reflections on Jean Fisher is organized by Zoya Kocur in conjunction with the exhibition Unholding (November 19, 2017 – January 21, 2018). Special thanks go to Jean Fisher's longtime friends and collaborators Judith Barry and Ken Saylor.

A writer, teacher, curator, and editor, Jean Fisher’s theoretical formulations and critical writings on art between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are yet to be given due recognition. Fisher made a lifelong commitment to meticulous dialogue, pursuing close engagement with artists and artworks and maintaining a distinct focus on the social contexts whereby culture is produced. Her engagement with “the other” as a political construct illuminated debates around multiculturalism and postcolonialism from the 1980s onward, offering a mapping of ethical coordinates for artistic practice. The conditions producing and continually informing these discussions, and Fisher’s incisive inflections upon them, remain urgent priorities.

Fisher resided in New York City for a decade, and in this time became a proponent of Native American contemporary art. Particularly, Fisher’s intuition might be described as not simply to promote Indigenous art but to listen and think across the line of Indigenous epistemology. She developed an energetic theoretical and methodological affiliation with the figure of the trickster, in which she found “a polymorphous persona as adaptable to change in adversity as the classical western hero is fixed in his tragic search for the absolute” (“Unsettled Accounts of Indians and Others,” 1989). At the time of her death Fisher was working on a book on this subject, of which there is an incomplete manuscript.

Shanna Ketchum-Heap of Birds is a citizen of the Diné/Navajo Nation and a PhD candidate at Middlesex University London in the School of Art and Design. The focus of her research is contemporary Native American art by artists that are socially and politically engaged with mainstream issues from an Indigenous perspective. Her writing has appeared in Third Text and in catalogues published by The Guggenheim. Since 2007, Ketchum-Heap of Birds has been an instructor in the Native Studies Department at the University of Oklahoma where she is affiliate faculty in the Women and Gender Studies program and the Center for Social Justice.

Zoya Kocur is an independent scholar with over twenty-five years of experience in the field of art, as an artist, educator, and museum worker. She was a faculty member in the MFA and Art Education programs at New York University and at the Rhode Island School of Design, and is the former Associate Curator of Education at the New Museum. Kocur's publications include Global Visual Cultures (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) and Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004). She is co-author of Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education (Routledge, 1996).

Valerie Smith has served as Director of Sonsbeek 93 in Arnhem, Netherlands, Senior Curator and Exhibition Director at Queens Museum of Art in New York, and Head of Fine Arts, Film and Digital Media at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. She was the curator of Artists Space from 1981–1989.

Jimmie Durham is an artist, poet and writer who currently lives in Europe, who has taken part in numerous international exhibitions such as Documenta (1992, 2012), the Whitney Biennial (1993, 2003, 2014), the Venice Biennial (1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2013), and the Istanbul Biennial (1997, 2013). In 2017, a retrospective was exhibited at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In 2018 this will travel to the Remai Modern, Saskatoon. Durham recently received the emperor's ring of the city of Goslar (Goslarer Kaiserring) (2016) and the Robert Rauschenberg Award (2017).

The Work Between Us: Reflections on Jean Fisher. Reading & Discussion documentation, January 10, 2018, Artists Space. [Video of a reading and discussion on the work of Jean Fisher, presented with a projected visual aid.]