“The sacrifices we make for art.”
This is what I muttered to myself at 6:30 a.m. on Friday, October 21. I was slated to venture from my Alexandria duplex to DC’s Armory on a cultural adventure to Refinery29’s “29Rooms: Expand Your Reality” exhibit, currently enjoying its first national tour, concurrently making its DC debut.
The women’s publication first unveiled the concept in 2015, giving attendees of New York Fashion Week an opportunity to walk through 29 distinct artistic experiences, ranging from vibrant and fuzzy to interactive and talkative. Fast forward four years, and the exhibition is on the road visiting cities like Atlanta, Dallas and DC, along with bigger U.S. cultural hubs like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
“When I heard we were coming to DC it was an exciting surprise,” says DC native Olivia Fagon, Refinery29’s creative director. “Most of our team is from New York, so there was a little bit of mystery as to what it would mean to bring it here. I think for me, I was super excited to tap local artists who are from DC.”
The DC Armory stop runs through October 27, giving residents of the nation’s capital a chance to walk into, and throughout, rooms created by artists such as Kali Uchis, Yvette Mayorga, Dan Lam and NNEKKAA, and others. As part of this year’s rendition, 29Rooms has added what they’re calling “The Art Park,” an initiative intended to highlight local artists from the cities on the tour, including a stairway toward your dreams created by local illustrator Trap Bob, aka Tenbeete Solomon.“I’ve always wanted to work with 29Rooms,” Solomon says. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for forever. My mind went to something expansive. I loved being able to explore with different mediums, because I don’t have the capacity to do these major rollouts, but it’s great to partner with people who have the same ideas and same values.”
The team behind Refinery29 initially wanted a flat graphic, but she wanted something more engaging. When they suggested a staircase, Solomon approached the canvas thinking about its physicality from all sides, and though she wanted it to feel different than her illustrative works, it would still feel distinctly Trap Bob.
“It’s a weird thing to put a design on,” Solomon says. “I want to make sure each part is like its own piece, but still work together. I do hands a lot, it’s very relatable and something I love to do. They’re the perfect things. It’s my way to reach out to everybody and bringing that idea with the ‘follow your dreams’ theme, which is very, very close to me and my experience. It worked with the idea of climbing the stairs. Just the idea of elevating yourself and literally taking steps to get to where you want to get to. If I didn’t take those steps early in my career, there’s no way I’d be here talking about it.”
For more local flair, Refinery29 tapped Howard University master of fine arts graduate Jamea Richmond-Edwards to construct a DC-centric full-scale billboard to welcome guests into the gallery. The murals are exclusive to the respective city’s art scene, to highlight the local community.Upon walking past the “Traveling Billboard” and into the main area, you’ll notice the lighting in the Armory is dark, giving each room and piece a spotlight effect. This is apt, as all hold a unique point of view worthy of said spotlight. And no matter which you stumble into, they all are connected by the theme of a woman’s experience in several facets of society and empowerment, echoing that of the publication’s mission.
“It was amazing to bring this brand that is not only pro-female, but very intersectional,” Fagan says. “We’re looking at women from all kinds of points of view. There’s a lot of political undertones in the event as well and those aren’t necessarily supposed to resonate specifically to DC, but I think whatever city we take it to, it makes a strong statement.”
Giving a tour, Fagan identifies a few rooms as fan favorites including “Dream Doorways,” a display with several (you guessed it) doors leading to stunning visuals that could make you question whether you’re on psychedelics; “A Conversation With Your Inner Child,” an interactive room which allows you to tap into the dreams and desires of a younger you; and “29 Questions,” a collection of tables and chairs meant to evoke discussions among strangers congregating throughout the exhibit.
The different perspectives from a diverse set of artists is meant to represent and reflect those same qualities in the audience of the attendees. For Fagan, the doors are open for everyone, and she hopes people are as excited to explore the rooms to find their own favorites.
“We always welcome that,” Fagan says. “I think Refinery has perceptions around it: people know us as a women’s publication, people know us for having certain types of values. I think as much as we can attract people in, and then surprise them with something they may not have thought of in a certain way, it’s always a gift if we can. If we’re creating a space where our values are just resonating with that audience already, that’s great too.”
Gallery times are 1:30-10:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday and 10:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. on Friday-Sunday. Tickets start at $29 and guarantee access for one 2.5 hour session. For more information about 29Rooms, visit here.
DC Armory: 2001 E Capitol St. SE, DC; www.29rooms.com