By Anya Shukla
Leilani Lewis, a Seattle native, was first exposed to visual arts when her mom was offered a job at the Detroit Institute of Art. “I would go run around the museum, terrorizing the security guards,” she reminisces. Growing up in the ‘90s, Lewis noticed art--particularly hip-hop inspired murals and street art--all around her. But as she grew older, she began listening to lectures by visiting artists, shifting from a passive consumption of art to active participation. Simultaneously, her newfound artistic knowledge, particularly around black history in the arts, began to shape her worldview: “I learned about history; I learned about black history in art. I learned my most critical, foundational identity and historical identity through the arts.” Lewis’s mother is white, and she didn’t have much connection to the black side of her family, so the arts shaped her understanding of her heritage.
Even though she was immersed in art from a young age, she didn’t think of it as a potential career until she was in her mid-twenties. One of the only people who stayed awake during a visual art slideshow, she discovered a passion for art history. After she graduated, she started working for Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) in Marketing and Communications. There, she discovered the power of giving space for visual artists. “I think the most beautiful art is truthful,” she says, “Therefore, I feel like art has a wonderful way of healing people.”
While working at NAAM, Lewis also began curating on the side at Lucid Jazz Lounge. Lewis would either come up with a show’s concept, then find artists to fit the theme, or vice versa: stumble across an artist and curate a show around their work. In order to curate to the best of her ability, Lewis constantly researched new artists and their work, drawn to those who created art centered around current events: “I like artists who are responding affirmatively to the culture… the zeitgeist.” She cites several contemporary artists as examples, including Wangechi Mutu, an artist commissioned for the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who created, “in one of the most historically white and exclusionary institutions,” Lewis says, “these beautiful, black representative figures” as a response to societal oppression of black women.
Lewis doesn’t curate anymore, nor does she work at NAAM, but she still maintains the connections and mindsets that she cultivated during that period of her life. And her work is still centered around artists of color. “If I’m consulting with a company,” she says, “people know that if they hire me, I’m bringing a whole posse of artists of color.” Nowadays, artists don’t only work with museums, but with sprawling businesses--Microsoft, Amazon, Apple--as well. Artists of color are left out of that pipeline constantly, and it is Lewis’s mission to ensure that marginalized artists have space in that business environment.
Additionally, she brings her equity lens to the University of Washington, where she works as the Associate Director of Diversity, Communications, and Outreach. Lewis chairs equity committees within University Central Marketing, working closely with communicators to ensure that they can ask critical questions about representing, specifically in images, the historically marginalized. A picture is worth a thousand words, and pictures can often contain tokenization, stereotyping, and over/underrepresentation. These issues go against the ethos of not only photography, but art in general, where authenticity is key. “If you don’t have authenticity with people you’re representing,” Lewis says, “you’re going to end up falling into one of these traps and causing harm to a community.” On the other hand, she finds that “if equity and belonging are authentically practiced, valued and worked on while creating for marketing, art shows or any other presentation or program, you’ll end up with incredible work that inspires positive action.”
For many companies, “diversity” is the new buzzword, with institutions racing to incorporate equity into their practices. Homogenous organizations are being bashed and “canceled” online for their lack of inclusion, and rightly so. But this can create an environment where diversity becomes another checkbox, rather than the cultivation of authentic relationships with marginalized communities. In the art world, inclusivity is being talked about more and more, but, for some, their words lack action. As Lewis notes, “unless there’s a shift in practice, there’s not much you can do.” Institutions must make sure they are following through on their promises of diversity, not just making surface level changes. “There’s so many decisions that go into a practice,” Lewis says, “that have money attached to them. And where that money goes says a lot about what you believe. If you’re tokenizing--Look, our speaker or our artist is a person of color--but everything that we’ve done around this artwork is white money, then you’re not living your values. You’re not doing the right thing. And that’s the authenticity piece. And I’ve seen this; I’ve seen this many times.”
That’s not to say that organizations aren’t doing important work in EDI, but there does need to be a critical shift in the mindset of the arts world before we can truly call ourselves diverse. Especially in visual arts, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of passively interacting with art, rather than engaging with it critically. Lewis calls for organizations to incorporate programming and speakers, just like the ones she learned so much from as a child. Furthermore, she’s interested in art that brings people with different backgrounds together, rather than pieces that call out people in power. There are enough divisions in the arts; she wants to create a sense of community. “What I’m interested in is art that is the connective tissue,” she says. “Artwork that reconstructs identity for people, so they can take pride in being able to unpack their own culture.”
Lewis does critique organizations, but she also prides herself on her solutions-based approach to the issue of a lack of diversity: “Doing things proactively is part of a solution,” she says. “I’m not just criticizing. I can help.” As she states, “The more solutions you can envision, the better the world.”