North Mississippi Avenue’s Ori Gallery is about to celebrate its two-year anniversary, and founders Maya Vivas and Leila Haile have a lot to show for a relatively short span of time. Ori has had more than a dozen exhibitions featuring work from a wide range of artists who identify as QTPoC (Queer Trans People of Color). They have held workshops on grant-writing, tattoo history, and methods for direct political action through art; and hosted life drawing classes, artist lectures, and parties. As if all that weren’t enough, Vivas and Haile were recently awarded their second Precipice Fund grant to support Ori’s programming into 2020. The two also maintain their own creative practices – Vivas is a ceramic and performance artist whose work has been shown throughout Portland and across the country, and Haile is a tattoo artist who specializes in working on melanated skin.
VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS
Their collaboration as co-directors of Ori has brought attention to the voices of historically marginalized artists and contributed to the larger conversation surrounding equity, institutional bias, and the arts in Portland. Amidst a jam-packed schedule that included the opening reception for an exhibition of the Nat Turner Project’s Drinking Gourd Artist Fellows and the award ceremony for the Precipice Fund at PICA, Vivas and Haile found a few moments to share their thoughts on what the coming decade has in store for the arts and artists in the Rose City. (Responses without a name preceding them were submitted as joint comments.)
For those who don’t know, what specific circumstances or experiences led the two of you to create Ori Gallery? Was there a singular moment of inspiration or was it a gradual evolution?
We were tired of fighting to be in spaces that weren’t built to support or include us. It became evident to us early on that there needed to be art resources in the hands of marginalized peoples. We just had the right combination of skills and resources to make it happen.
Ori Gallery has been going strong since early 2018 – congratulations! It is no small feat to keep an independent, artist-run space open and vibrant. Where is Ori at now?
It feels like the last two years have been a blur! As of now we’re developing new leadership to help take over so that we can take a step back and allow the community to take ownership of the space. Of course we’re always working on funding so that we can pay artists and support the creation of new work and continuing resources.
Ori’s stated goal is to amplify the voices of queer and trans POC artists. Have you seen this mission affect the larger arts community as a result of providing a platform for these voices to be heard?
We’ve seen locally and in the art world at large, (people are) just beginning to recognize the work of QTPoC. We can see the intentions of many institutions as a movement toward positive change. However, unless there are QTPoC in leadership positions (i.e. curators, directors) it will most likely result in tokenization and continued exploitation of those on the margins.
Mississippi Ave was once a thriving center of Portland’s black community. These days it is a major tourist destination, and a lot more white than it used to be. Does Ori get a lot of visitors from out of town? Do they know about the area’s history? How do folks from outside Portland respond to your programming?
Before Mississippi was the only place in Portland where white folks would allow black folks to own homes and businesses, it was the traditional lands of native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. We are a part of a proud legacy of resistance of colonial violence, and spreading that knowledge and history to visitors and locals alike is a part of our praxis. Responses range from enthusiastic to repulsion but we are here for our people regardless of public opinion.
Beyond the shared identities and experiences of the artists and the works shown at Ori, do your curatorial or business practices reflect your mission as well? How do you run a gallery in a radical, community-minded way?
If our curatorial and business practices didn’t reflect our mission, then what would be the point of a mission to begin with? We have an open call for art up all the time but only invite artists whose work reflects our mission statement. Because we exist outside the bounds of a traditional commercial gallery we leave room for our artists to take risks, transform our space to suit the needs of the work, and if/when work is sold we only take a 30 percent commission to cover our administrative labor costs. In all things, we prioritize the needs of our artists because that is where our commitment lies.
How has running a gallery and community space affected your own professional practices as artists and organizers?
Maya: For me, my default is typically to work in a more solitary manner. Having Ori has opened me up toward working in a more collaborative space. There is something about connecting with others through the work that puts you in a different frame of mind. There is a feeling of bouncing off one another. This feeling is something I want to carry with me into my personal practice.
Leila: It’s definitely expanded my ability to serve my community and support more far-reaching collaborations.
From a political/cultural/environmental standpoint it feels like 2019 has been… interesting at best. But if you talk to artists and activists there still seems to be a lot of hope and energy in the air! What do you think 2020 will bring for Ori and the Ori community? What about the larger Portland community?
Our exhibition lineup for 2020 will consist of all local QTPoC artists and scholars. We will continue to support, uplift, and bring recognition to those most under-represented within our community, and invite the larger Portland community to also recognize and support these critical voices.
It’s kind of wild to think we are approaching the second decade of the 21st century – sounds rather futuristic! Depending on who you ask, the idea of “the future” might conjure visions of utopia or dystopia. What do you think the decade of the 20s will be like for our city, culturally speaking?
Anything sounds futuristic if you word it right, but the concept of utopia vs. dystopia is really limited binary thinking and probably far removed from a likely outcome. Whatever the future brings, as artists during the brink of revolution in the U.S. we have our work cut out for us.
What one thing would you most like to see happen in the arts in Portland over the next year? How would it impact artists, audiences, or the entire landscape of the arts?
More QTPoC in paid leadership, less gatekeeping of resources.
What advice would you give artists who are interested in starting a gallery or collaborative project like yours? How do you get an idea like that off the ground, and what keeps it going?
We often joke about how we would love to not be the only Queer, Black-run art space in town. The community has many needs and deserves multiple options and resources. For those who may be interested in running a space we think it’s important to look around, reach out and see what resources may already be available to you. You don’t have to do it alone. See who you can collaborate with. Always ask for what you need.
How does our city support places like Ori and encourage more artist-run spaces and venues that promote underrepresented groups? How can we do better?
In all honesty, there are no places like Ori, as of now we stand alone in the cultural landscape because of the city’s inability to support similar spaces run by artists of color. Bureaucratic gatekeeping of support is the biggest challenge to independent art spaces run by folks of color. Requiring 501(c)(3) status (or in our case, fiscal sponsorship) for funding is a huge challenge for small groups needing startup money to get started. Encouraging unrestricted funding and support would be a great place to start.
What are you both working on outside of the gallery right now? Do you have goals or resolutions for the new year?
Maya: Outside of Ori I have my own multidisciplinary practice. I’m currently working toward an exhibition at Portland Community College’s Paragon Gallery, opening September 2020. As mentioned before, I’m looking for new ways for collaboration to make its way into my work. My goal is to always give myself permission and space to allow my practice to evolve in the ways it needs to.
Leila: I have a dance and tattooing practice apart from Ori. This year will be about diving deeper into different styles for each and giving my practice the time it deserves as more community members take ownership of the gallery.
This is the fourth 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.
- Rachel Barreras-Kleemann. The Newport dance teacher’s “small” goals: 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.
- Darcy Dolge, Sarah West, and Nancy Knowles. Three leaders of Eastern Oregon’s Art Center East in La Grande say funding cuts could have been dire in their rural area, but the community stepped up to keep arts thriving.