True Grit + True Spirit: A Conversation with D.C. Artist Nekisha Durrett
February 1, 2023 @ 10:00am
A laundry iron. A hammer. A doorknob. An old liquor bottle. A tea kettle. For her exhibition “True Grit,” presented at Brentwood Arts Exchange and reimagined for James Madison University, D.C. artist Nekisha Durrett recreated histories of women’s work — healing, loving, creating — by capturing the ghostly shapes of household objects.
She collected items recovered from old slave quarters in the corner of her friend’s farm in Virginia. Other items came from her father’s childhood home in the Brentwood neighborhood of Northeast D.C.
She draped each item with a thin white porcelain sheet, the size and shape of a chalice veil. While researching the history of her father’s home, she learned more about her grandmother who volunteered her time to laundering the altar cloths of one of the Catholic churches in Northeast D.C. (also home to Catholic University of America and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception).
“This is a completely voluntary, devotional service that’s performed predominantly by women of the Catholic Church,” Durrett explains. “Drying in the basement, they looked like ghosts in the house. There are these quiet, domestic feminine acts that go unnoticed which protected this house and its inhabitants.”
These are the stories Durrett tells through her art: hyperlocal histories of the DMV, the tribulations and triumphs of Black women, stories of exhilarating joy and excruciating pain.
“I feel like it’s part of my assignment to bring forward stories I think haven’t been recognized or [should be] celebrated,” Durrett says.
Durrett is a chameleon working across many styles and mediums; if you’ve encountered her works in the DMV, you may not realize they’re by the same artist. Durrett, who lives in Petworth with her wife and two cats, creates her works at her studio at STABLE in Eckington — but finds her inspiration in the many stories and histories throughout the region.
“[My artworks] may look very different, but they all speak from the same voice,” Durrett shares. “There
is a distinctive voice I am championing, and that’s one of an individual who was voiceless.”
When you cross the covered bridge in The Phillips Collection, the art deco-stained, glass-like panels entitled “Airshaft” drench the space in primary colors. That’s Durrett’s nod to a Duke Ellington song — and to a decade of teaching at Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
The hemlock wood sculpture “Up ‘til Now” that was near Dupont Circle throughout the first two years of the pandemic? Also Durrett. The peephole in front allowed viewers to see the natural landscape of the District before white settlers moved in.
Over the last few years, several of her installations have been showcased at the renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, including the permanent piece “Prepare to Participate.” The installation reconstructed a mural of Dr. King’s legacy by using images of protest buttons held in special collections.
Then, in “Go-Go Belongs Here,” part of the 2019 Smithsonian Solstice Saturday, Durrett repurposed 1980s go-go posters painted by museum participants to create an expansive mural.
A key episode of Durrett’s childhood was viewing pictures from her parents’ wedding in D.C. in April 1968. In the photographs, she saw only newlywed bliss. In adulthood, her mother shared that the drive to the chapel was through the debris and charred remains of D.C. in the riots following Dr. King’s death.
“My parents weren’t revolutionaries, but their decision to get married is imbued in this resilience of spirit. And I think my work exists in between places like that: the photo album, where everyone just looks beautiful and perfect, but just outside the church door the city is on fire.”
Durrett continues to find new avenues for sharing her artwork and microhistories throughout the DMV. Upcoming features includes a work for the Baltimore Museum of Art about Harriet Tubman’s Maryland roots that goes on exhibit next April and a public art installation for Metropolitan Park
In Arlington, she is designing a 35-foot-tall brick structure that resembles a well. Inside, she’ll hang 903 blue waterdrop ceramics overhead, representing the individuals of “Queen City” who were displaced for the construction of the Pentagon in 1941. This is one of those histories of Chocolate City that has been erased in the name of progress. It’s one of those histories Durrett so carefully considers, reimagines and reconstructs in her artwork.
Durrett’s artwork lifts a veil, linking the past and present. And it’s everywhere, celebrating the lives and loves of those who call D.C. home and recovering forgotten histories of the District.
“These stories of people just living their lives get overlooked or lost in these big grand narratives,” Durrett concludes. “We don’t even recognize those gestures as carrying power or significance, but they are the story.”
Nekisha Durrett’s artwork “Frontiers” will be on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art starting April 26. For more information, visit artbma.org.
Follow Durrett on Instagram @nekishadurrett and online at nekishadurrett.com.
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