Vision 2020: Ella Ray

"There is this level of resistance coming from formerly colonized people who are marginalized, and I feel something bubbling under the surface"

Ella Ray is an art historian who, as she puts it, “produces environments, partnerships, and texts that explore the relationship between the interpersonal, the public, and the in-between.” She has a B.A. in art history/critical theory from Portland State University, and works for the Portland Art Museum and Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. She is community partnership coordinator for Portland Art Museum’s Hank Willis Thomas exhibition All Things Being Equal, which closes Sunday, Jan. 12.


Ray is a multifaceted creative who uses Black studies and Queer studies to examine the ways Black popular culture and Black fine arts are defining contemporary culture. She earned her degree from Portland State University in Art History with a focus on Critical and Queer theory. As a historian and a community member, she is leading challenging conversations around race, historical erasure, and the fruits we all can gain through open institutional critique.   


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


What I’m going to do is go through a list of questions. Just whatever is on your mind, go ahead and let it flow. Give me whatever is in your crystal ball. Let’s start with your current professional background.

Currently, I work at the Portland Art Museum, formerly as a Kress interpretive fellow through the Kress Foundation. At the same time I am the community partnership coordinator for the Hank Willis Thomas All Things Being Equal exhibition. In addition to that, I work with PICA in their youth program, freelance consult for various arts organizations, and art adjacent things, and I write about Black theory, Black studies, and performance.

Art historian Ella Ray, using “Black studies and queer studies to think about the ways in which Black popular culture and Black fine arts are defining western culture.” Photo courtesy Ella Ray


You also have a background in art history. Can you tell me just a little bit about your education and what you went to school for?

I graduated from Portland State University in 2018. I got a degree in art history with a focus on critical theory and then a minor in queer studies. I spent the majority of my time thinking through the politics of refusal within institutions, and thinking about the way Black contemporary art is the basis for a lot of what is going on culturally, without being credited. So, I use Black studies, and queer studies to think about the ways in which Black popular culture and Black fine arts are defining western culture in a lot of ways.

What is your view of the cultural scene right now?

My question to that question is, what is the cultural scene? For me, it completely depends on who you’re asking. As someone who identifies as a Black individual, my cultural scene varies greatly from the popular cultural scene in Oregon and in Portland. I believe that Black, Indigenous and brown artists, creative people, the movers and shakers in Portland are making incredible waves right now, and really showing up for each other in a lot of ways, refusing institutions and refusing a kind of static, single-place, single-definition approach to creative endeavors. We’re on to something. I feel like young QTPOC people in Portland, especially creative individuals, and people who find themselves in activism and organizing are doing such incredible things. I am hoping that means some of the institutions are going to step aside in 2020 and understand that they need to be resourcing this work without influencing or putting their own rules on it.

Yes, and this idea that QTPOC people come into an institution, and there are these rules that are honestly rooted in really poor assumptions, and we’re questioning all of that essentially, right?

We’re in this strange moment, where gentrification is obviously taking hold, and spaces are just going away. But, there is this level of resistance coming from formerly colonized people who are marginalized and I feel something bubbling under the surface, and that’s what I think about the cultural scene.

I don’t really know what “cultural scene” means beyond my community, and beyond the communities that we intersect with, because we’re multi-layered people. We’re multifaceted and we do lots of stuff, and I think we – maybe I should say “I,” but, I want to question that there’s a singular cultural scene, what are we getting at when there’s one?

That goes back to all kinds of historical erasure. Also, I’m sure this question is going to yield so many different answers from all of the people that we’re interviewing. Some of these people aren’t involved in my community, so their cultural outlook is going to be completely different than mine. But, I feel what you just said about QTPOC people rising up, and there’s a sense of bubbling tension, not a bad tension, but a “we need to shed these old ways” tension.

Especially because we live in this place that pretends BIPOCs don’t exist. The amount of cultural producers who have titles, who have social capital, or monetary capital, who say “there are no Black people in Portland,” well actually, that’s wrong. It’s a form of systemic erasure to pretend that there are no BIPOC making work here, no BIPOC thriving here, living and being in community.

Joining the crowd on a December Miller Family Free Day in the community partnership space that Ella Ray programmed for Hank Willis Thomas’s “All Things Being Equal.” Photo courtesy Portland Art Museum

Beyond the next year, what does the next 10 years hold? What does the next decade look like to you? Do you see any overall trends that are happening, or trends within the one we just talked about?

In the next 10 years, I’m tracking how museums, creative spaces, and arts organizations are resting on neoliberalism, resting on colorism, resting on desirability, and respectability politics. So, this idea of bringing in “model minorities” to avoid actually diversifying their institutions. Rather than actually diversifying or dismantling the kind of violent work they’re doing. I think we’re going to see that for a little bit longer, which makes me sad, but I also understand my position: I’m a light skin, Black individual, mixed-race. So, we have to understand in the 10 years, in the next 10 years how some institutions are kind of latching on to this idea of, “diverse but acceptable.” I know that’s going to continue in the next decade, but I’m hoping that people begin to give up their power, because they have to.

That makes me think of Kai’la Ferrell-Smith. She’s an indigenous artist from Oregon, and was asked by Governor Kate Brown to hang work in her office this year. She declined in a public letter published by The Oregonian. Kai’ila is one of the leading activists on the No LNG pipeline protests in southern Oregon. She said I’m not going to hang my work in your office when you haven’t taken a stance on this, and Indigenous populations are absolutely opposed, you’re being quiet and that’s not helping our community at all. To me that’s feigning diversity; the behavior speaks to entrenched oppression, to remain quiet.

I think in the next decade hopefully we can see an end to that. People always think that I’m living in a dream state when I say that but, I honestly believe within the next 10 years it is possible for real change to happen. There’s a lot of really young people doing incredible work that honors those that came before them, honors the labor that came before them. Particularly in the creative scene, I’m hoping I can help those people, to be a resource for them in rising up. Maybe that sounds grand, but, I believe it’s possible. There’s this tension with “the powers that be” latching onto diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives while the young people are really calling them on their shit. I think that there will be a tug of war between them, and you probably know whose side I’m on! We’re going to reach a breaking point. We have to.

I think the voices on our side are becoming stronger and louder and it’s not to say there isn’t room for everyone in the conversation, but there have been people excluded from the conversation for so long.

I think a lot about how technology is also playing a role in what our cultural future looks like, and how social media and digital technologies, while in a lot of ways are an extension of the surveillance state, also have the capacity to be a part of a larger opening of collective consciousness. Again, I think this whole interview will be me pointing out tensions, because that’s what I think about. I wish I could give you a straight answer but, thinking about the ways that performance and body movement is evolving via technology, the way sound and music is evolving via technology.

Painting as we know it, all of these mediums are evolving with technology. So, I’m hoping technology and social media lends itself to being a part of that dismantling, but I am nervous about that because technology has a very scary role in maintaining the status quo. I don’t want to sound paranoid or anything, but…

I’m with you. It has both capabilities, right?

Yes, yes. Yes. Yes, duality is a theme for this interview.

I feel like the entire world right now is in a state of duality. Inside of that question, then, are there any trends or people specifically right now that you’re watching and just love, or follow that you are excited by?

Oh my gosh yeah! The list goes on, my goodness! I should start by saying, I’m a huge user of social media, I grew up on MySpace, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, I’ve had them all because I’m that weird nugget age, I was 12 when I got on MySpace and my mom didn’t know. I’ve connected with black cultural producers in Portland and outside of Portland my whole life. Even if we live in the same space, there’s something about that initial internet connection that is very exciting to me.

Do you want me to start regionally or do you want me to go far, and then come back?

Well, let’s go locally because it’s going to be for a local or regional audience. But I guess it would be cool if there’s anyone here in the area or any groups in the area, start there.

Sharita Towne, Ray says, “is doing incredible, textured, and multifaceted [work] in a way that confuses me. I think confusion is a good thing.” Photo: Harold Hutchinson

Thank you for asking me that, no one ever asks me! I think the work that Sharita Towne is doing is incredible, textured, and multifaceted in a way that confuses me. I think confusion is a good thing. I think the work she’s doing around gathering people, writing about that, and producing ephemera is something that I strive to do. She is also a person who just links people, and that makes me feel hopeful. Sharita Towne’s work makes me feel hopeful.

It’s the same with the folks who run Home School. They do this pop-up-ish model where they’re thinking through art, theory, and criticism. They were just in a residency at Yale Union, and had artists like D.A. Carter and Mandy Harris Williams (also known as Ideal Black Female) who are presenting art history, Black theory, critical theory, and media literacy through their work. They provide a platform in Portland that I think we are lacking. They just won a Precipice Fund Award through PICA this season, and I’m so happy to see them keep going. The work they do is critical to a healthy art ecosystem.

There’s also poet, performer, writer, and host Jayy Dodd. She is incredible. Her poetry and video work is incredibly exciting for me purely from an aesthetic standpoint, but it’s also challenging. I’m very interested to see more from her.

Demian Dine Yahzi from Rise Indigenous is really making wonderful work. Their work at the Portland Biennial on the glass, I stood there forever, and read it over, and over again. I’m a freak for text-based work. But, I love when text shows up in unexpected ways, so I’m really excited by how they’re doing that.

There’s The Numberz 96.7FM, a Black radio station broadcasting to predominantly Black neighborhoods that have been gentrified out of Northeast Portland. They play Black music however they want to define it, and do this curation series that activates Portland beyond just who you think are making playlists. They have someone doing a Black punk playlist, and are having artists make playlists. I think there’s something so sweet about sharing music; it feels very “at home.” It’s like when you used to make a mix CD for someone and it feels special, like a person you want to be friends with or have a crush on, you give them that mix CD. They’re doing that on a large scale. They’re inviting youth in to learn about radio technology, which I haven’t seen happening in any other tangible way.

There’s this heartbeat in Portland and there always has been, and I think there will always be people making really great work. Portland creatives eat, and I appreciate being in proximity to those people and getting to experience their work.

Returning to when you were initially talking about technology, how do you see social media impacting the community as well as institutions?

I want to answer that question backward because I’m difficult. What scares me about social media is that it allows for institutions to use marginalized people’s, and creative people’s, content, mood-board it, and then do it themselves. They kind of absorb what’s happening in the more exciting and challenging parts of social media; they put us on a mood board, do it themselves, don’t hire us, and don’t credit us.

It’s interesting how on one hand social media is allowing people to relinquish themselves of that “You have to find a gallery” idea. But, it also makes us incredibly vulnerable to institutions absorbing that work, and just producing their own version of it. That work can be a person, that work can be a performance, or that work can be language.

I’ve even seen some language I created on the internet. It’s very specifically mine and was used by an institution without credit. I know it only existed on the internet, so it plays this funny role, and I have very mixed feelings about it.

I use social media every day because it’s part of my job; it’s how I get freelance work, it is how I’ve gotten a lot of non-freelance jobs too through connections I’ve made via the internet. But I am weary of the ways in which social media makes us accessible to the folks running the big accounts. We cannot be grab-n-gos for creative folks who aren’t that creative.

As someone who has an art history background and understands former trends, are there any movements now, or any people in particular that you see being sort of enshrined in history in the future?

Hmmm. Whose art history?

Well, you’re making it. So it’s your art history.

I think it’s hard for me to forecast in a historical sense. Because my brain is so fed up with that, I actively try not to make icons out of people … but some people are just icons, you know? I think that’s what Solange is doing with performance. We will be talking about her performative work, her choreography, and sculptural work, because it’s interesting and beautiful. But it’s digestible; it can happen on Jimmy Fallon and people are okay with it. Because there’s music to it, it makes sense to people.

I’m hoping we’ll start to define history more broadly, and a wider breadth of people would be in that big book. I don’t know, I’m troubled by this question, in the sense that I’m fighting whether or not popular art history will even exist, or if we’ll move onto something else. Will art history become passé?

I think that’s actually a real answer, right? The question is rooted in the institution, assuming that it continues, but we’re hoping that it doesn’t, or it’s mutated by that time.

I think art history will exist in 10 years, in 2030 yes it will be here, but in what form? In what shape? I started studying art history in 2012 and eight years later it’s very different. I’ve also made it different myself, and my peers, my colleagues, and people I would consider family in a lot of ways. They’ve made it different for me, too. So, I don’t know who is included in art history. But, I hope we can keep changing it. I love it and hate it at the same time.

Hank Willis Thomas,”Guernica,” 2016. Mixed media, including sport jerseys, 131 × 281 inches. Private Collection. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas. Ella Ray is community partner coordinator for Thomas’s exhibition “All Things Being Equal,” which continues through Jan. 12 at the Portland Art Museum.

Is there anything that is particularly unique about the community here, that sets it apart from other creative communities?

Yes, yes, strong yes. I think it comes back to what I was talking about earlier, the ongoing erasure of black, indigenous, and communities of color, not that any of those are mutually exclusive, but, there’s something really interesting about the way in which people create here – knowing that the rest of the world thinks we don’t exist.

There is something special and incredibly challenging, and fruitful, to create in a place where people are watching you and also ignoring you. There’s something you can feel that is different here; there aren’t as many institutions, and there aren’t as many resources. We are put on the map in some ways, but also not. I think we are dancing between the light and the shadow, which produces people who work incredibly hard and do what they want. There isn’t this “Oh, you live in New York, so you’re expected to do this thing, or, you live in Los Angeles or Miami, you need to be doing X, Y, and Z.” It’s a struggle, but I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of a community of folks who show up for me, and I show up for them.

Are you working on any projects you can share, or something that you’re excited about?

I’m working on an archival project that has to do with my family and house music. My dad was a house, dance hall, and techno DJ in the ’90s and late ’80s in Los Angeles. So, I’m working on a project that includes ephemera, questions, interviews and analog items.

I’m working on that and simultaneously pushing myself to write in more public spaces. I’ve been writing for a very long time, I read more than I write, which is probably a good thing, but, I’m trying to put a little zine out into the world with a series of questions.

I’m also a nut in the sense that I find the arts administration and consulting work I do incredibly creative and fruitful. A lot of the times there isn’t a tangible product but I get to talk to people; make projects, programs, and things happen. So it’s a very different jump to go into this production mode of my own ideas. I don’t do that very often but, in 2020 Ella Ray is making some things!

***

This is the eleventh in a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.

Previously:

  • Rachel Barreras-Kleemann. The “small” goals of the Newport dance teacher, who learned African-Brazilian dance forms in Brazil and performed with the marching samba band Lions of Batucuda: keep kids motivated to dance, give low-income kids a place to go.
     
  • Niel DePonte. The Portland percussionist, composer, and conductor for more than 40 years thinks about thorny issues ahead, and how to tackle them.
     
  • Darcy Dolge, Sarah West, and Nancy Knowles. Three leaders of La Grande’s Art Center East, which helps serve a sprawling ten-county stretch of Eastern Oregon, say funding cuts could have been dire in their rural area, but the community stepped up to keep arts thriving.
     
  • Maya Vivas and Leila Haile. The founders of North Mississippi Avenue’s Ori Gallery “often joke about how we would love to not be the only Queer, Black-run art space in town.”
     
  • Christopher Acebo. The longtime key figure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and recent chair of the Oregon Arts Commission talks about diversity, funding, and who controls the gate to the castle.
     
  • Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson. Beyond the arts bubble, the Wobbly duo see a dangerous world: “Hate based crime directed against people with disabilities has gone up.”
     
  • John Olbrantz. The director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art talks about the museum, Salem’s lively arts community, and its “blessing and curse” of being near Portland.
     
  • Joamette Gil. The lowdown on the Power & Magic of creating an indie comics universe that tells tales of life, love, and adventure in a nonbinary culture of color.
     
  • Rachael Carnes. The Eugene playwright, who’s written more than 80 plays in three years, praises her city’s bubbling arts community but fears it’s getting harder to break in: “Access is the foundation for a vibrant arts scene.”

  • Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini. “There’s a notion in Portland that anyone living outside Portland is a Klan member. … in fact the small towns and rural communities here are incredibly vibrant and resilient.” A new generation of leaders takes the renamed Five Oaks Museum deeper into the arts and into the diversity of culture around it.

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