2020/21 MCAD–Jerome Fellow Interview: Kehayr Brown-Ransaw | Minneapolis College of Art and Design

2020/21 MCAD–Jerome Fellow Interview: Kehayr Brown-Ransaw

By Melanie Pankau on May 12, 2021
Installation of scarves weaving together ; Kehayr Brown-Ransaw
Kehayr Brown-Ransaw

Kehayr Brown-Ransaw is an interdisciplinary artist, educator, and curator with a BFA in Furniture Design from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (‘19). Brown-Ransaw’s practice focuses on traditional crafts of quilting, weaving, and printmaking to engage in conversations of individualism vs. collectivism, familial histories, concepts of gendered work, tradition, and Blackness/Black identity. He has exhibited work at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; FilmNorth; Vine Arts Center; and BI Worldwide, with public works at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design Sculpture Garden. He is the recipient of a Fiscal Year 2020 Next Step Fund Award from the Metro Regional Arts Council, and 2020-21 fellow through the Emerging Curators Institute Fellowship program. Additionally, Brown-Ransaw is an active and operating member of the People’s Library having exhibited works at and collaboratively in arts programming at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Soap Factory, Walker Art Center, and Minneapolis Institute of Art.

In this interview, Brown-Ransaw discusses how abstraction and patterning drive his laborious fiber works to tell deeply personal stories and his familial diasporic experiences.

You describe your practice as creating a contemporary Black aesthetic within design that propels Black and African people into a future. What does this future look like to you? (Or how do you imagine this future?)

I believe that because I am Black, everything I produce is also Black or of my Black experience. When considering futures, and the idea of a Black future, I start to question why we add the word “black” and if I am separating Blackness from a collective future. In the creation of these categories – Black art, Black History, Black future – we open ourselves up to completely redefining who we are; but in that redefinition, we also are allowed to critique our past. When I try to write or think about a Black future, I long to ignore colonial intervention and the ways in which the subjectivity of Black people evolved from negro, new negro, colored, black, African American, and now Black.

So, I guess to answer the question, I’m not all that sure. I’m not sure that I agree with this statement anymore or challenge of my work. I think my phrasing here was rather suggestive and perhaps irresponsible in suggesting a monolithic Black aesthetic. I have hopes for the future of Black art which include visibility, for the modifier to elevate as opposed to othering. However, I will also say that there is nothing wrong with wanting to or not wanting to be a Black artist. The term isn’t reductive or centralizing or about race at all, but more to do with the relationship between artist and audience. In terms of futures, it is entirely about who is speaking for whom, and the power that is granted to the museum or gallery to speak on behalf of, when the work itself is autonomous in its own right.

Your practice challenges the anthropological and ethnographic systems in museums that displays non-western cultures only through artifacts as opposed to treating the objects as forms of art. Could you tell us more about your position as an artist who is dismantling and interrogating these ideas through a specific piece/project?

I think one the biggest challenges of being a non-white male artist is questioning whether or not the work is “modifier” enough? Do the aesthetics of the piece fit a kind of preconceived criteria of what that object should look like. In the case of my work that modifier is most frequently Black or feminist. Because I am a fiber artist my work is sits in a broad conversation of feminist critique of gendered labor and craft, but then the fact that I am Black creeps in and puts it in a whole new context. I like quilting and weaving because of how mechanic it is; the use of systems in order to create a visual pattern. Whenever I have spoken about quilting, I am immediately asked about my familiarity with Gee’s Bend, Faith Ringgold, Harriet Powers, the vast collections of slave quilts. And while I have a ton of reverence for these women and the historical necessity of quilts and coverlets, I wish that crafts conversation wasn’t so separatists.

My piece From Dust We Are Made, and Dust We Become was a practice in being comfortable and trying to contextualize my quilting practice within the canon of American quilting. I am using a standard and popular star pattern in order to construct, deconstruct, and reimagine my family tree, assigning certain fabrics to information and people. This piece took longer than I had initially imagined it would because I found myself unhappy with it and uncomfortable because it didn’t feel natural. The impetus for the piece was to make something that looked like textbook quilting to understand why me as a quiltmaker is separate from the likes of Elizabeth Walsh. I see the space of dismantling and interrogating the museum system that presents works in this way, as a place to kind of have conversation of ideas of how we pathologize Black people, Black art, Black representational art/ conceptualism/ abstraction. Ultimately that Black artist are not obligated to question or say anything about race or the system that exist, but it’s still there and we are still affected by it.

Dust We Are Made, and Dust We Become, 2020, fiber, 83 x 64.5 in.
From Dust We Are Made, and Dust We Become2020, cotton fiber, 83 x 64.5 in. 


I’m curious to know more about your process. For example, you mentioned that you use ancestral and historical techniques in your fiber works. Could you walk us through the creation of a work?

A lot of my work comes to me pretty vividly in my mind, it’s more of a process of how I make it real and a tangible object. Listening to the piece’s voice and letting its energy speak for itself and dictate what it is that works is key. I sit and literally hold my pieces for a long time, getting to know my materials very intimately that when everything feels right, I know it’s right. I aim to know understand the processes of making, where materials are sourced from, and how they’ve been processed over time. I find myself drawn to more physical and hands-on approaches. It’s all about instincts; the simplest and most natural part of who we are, it has kept us alive for centuries and will keep us alive for many more.

Your fiber works employ complex abstract forms and patterning. Could you speak to your relationship with abstraction and how you are using abstract forms and methodologies to translate the experiences of the African Diaspora?

In my practice, abstraction and patterning are a natural response to the urgency felt to explore and understand my own and familial diasporic experiences. Collectively, I believe that abstraction and conceptualism are responses largely accredited to a revisionist history and a narrative of Black Artists being figurative. I recently read a piece that discussed Charles Gaines’ work and his move to abstraction because it allowed them to be artists. The work was avowedly autonomous, especially post-Civil Rights era, when a Blackness and a black aesthetic was in an increase of urgency. And so in my practice, I am using complex systems and creating specific visual languages to tell stories that are so deeply personal to me without having to reveal myself to viewers.

What do you want a viewer to walk away with after experiencing your work?

I want viewers to walk away with a willingness and openness to have a conversation about aesthetics, ideas about art, culture, and history. But I also hope viewers understand that my work speaks for me, and my experiences only, though others may find familiarity and connect to it. My understanding and interpretation of broader history, my familial history and how they fit together and affect me are all my own and only one perspective.
Mama’s Quilt (quilt for my mother, her mother, and her mother’s mother), 2018, fiber, 44 x 44 in.

Mama’s Quilt (quilt for my mother, her mother, and her mother’s mother)2018, cotton fiber, 44 x 44 in. 

What artists, writers, musicians, exhibitions, performances are inspiring you at right now? And why?

I have been particularly reading a lot of writing by Charles Gaines, Thelma Golden, Hamza Walker, and Rodney McMillian as my current interests are directly concerned with ideas of the abstract and conceptualism within Black art.

How has winning the Jerome fellowship affected how you approach your work?

Being named a Jerome fellow has been one of the most legitimizing experiences of the work I’ve set out to do. It will allow me to take time to focus on my work and gain invaluable feedback from other artists, curators, and art critics.

If you could describe your work in one word, what would it be?


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