White walls, white wine and white people.
That is how Diego Cortez described the gallery scene of the 1980s in New York, when Jean-Michel Basquiat burst onto the scene with nappy hair and an even nappier narrative that immediately clashed with the refined scene that, at the time, embraced minimalism and rejected anything too different.
It was a space Basquiat wanted to be included in as an artist — not a black artist — but also a space he and Cortez set out to change, evolve and revolutionize.
Decades later, has anything changed?
This was the first question posed to Maya Vivas and Leila Haile, co-directors of the Ori Gallery, an art space dedicated to amplifying the voices of trans and queer artists of color while also reclaiming and redefining “the white cube.”
OPB sat down with the creative team and had a frank discussion about fine art galleries of today versus the future, building a vibrant and creative community, the only night they got to celebrate themselves and why they believe the revolution is already being televised.
David Stuckey: One of the objectives of the Ori Gallery is to reclaim and redefine “the white cube.” Artists of color have been trying to do that for years. But it doesn’t seem too much has changed — why do you think that is?
Leila Haile: Because white people are good at keeping the status quo. And remaining in power. Folks of color are the only people pushing back against the white cube and naming it that. And because we haven’t been in positions of power we haven’t had the leverage necessary to push that paradigm. I think that’s definitely changing — so I don’t think we are alone in this, I think we are just one of the fruiting bodies of this network.
Maya Vivas: There’s a few popping up around, but maybe we should reach out. To find alternative spaces that are similar to ours. Because that is how power structures are created — by linking arms.
Stuckey: If we are still living in the age of “the white cube,” tell me what you think the fine arts gallery of the future will look like?
Haile: I want respect for the galleries that already exist outside of the white walls.
Vivas: Outside of the “institution”?
Haile: Yeah! Act like black and brown folks haven’t had galleries on our city streets since spray-painting existed.
Vivas: Even house parties: Where there are gatherings of people showing — not only performance art — but various kinds. But because they are not in an institution or recognized by an institution, they are considered not legitimate.
Haile: And those are literally, the most legitimate spaces!
Vivas: Most legitimate! Because those are the spaces not caught up in and entrenched in capitalism as most commercial galleries are. It’s just a different power structure.
Stuckey: You’re artists yourselves, started a gallery, extend yourselves to the community in a lot of different ways, not to mention life … sounds exhausting.
Haile: So exhausting.
Stuckey: So when do you find time to take care of yourself, have fun or just go have a drink?
Haile: We don’t. I mean, we still have some left over ciders in the back [laughter]. But it is exhausting. We were talking about it the other day — but how exhausting is it to maintain an oppressive system, though? Where do people find the energy to uphold white supremacy?
Stuckey: [Laughter] Sometimes I feel black people have different organs to deal with that.
Haile: Oh my god, black people have a different organ!
Vivas: Where is the code-switching organ? It is next to the pancreas?
Haile: Maybe that’s why black people get diabetes so quick, because the code-switching organ takes over the pancreas.
But seriously — trying to survive in this world is exhausting enough but where do you put that energy? Where do you concentrate it? You know, the revolution starts at home, we are trying to heal our generational trauma first and foremost before we go out into the world and do these things, and even that is a struggle.
Making sure we get to therapy and to our doctor’s appointments on time — because self-care is survival work. We have to make sure [we take care of ourselves] because we are doing this really deep work and I don’t think anyone will ever understand exactly what that means.
To deeply support our community in the transparent and radical ways we are trying to do — this means making sure our subcontractors have the emotional support they need to move through the community because folks are dealing with trauma. Folks are dealing with abuse and all of these issues that are at the root of these systems that we are trying to dismantle. That shit is exhausting.
Vivas: Ori exists because we bring people in from our community. There is no possible way we could have done this by ourselves. The person who built our disability ramp and our bathroom is a queer black person. The person who built these walls is a queer person, our caterers, our photographers …
Stuckey: So the goal is to build a real community that supports one another?
Haile: I feel like we are funneling the community that already exists.
Vivas: Because these are people who already possess these talents and skills and we just want to make sure we are tapping them first so they can reap the benefits of getting paid and adding something to their portfolio.
Haile: Especially for someone that has been in the nonprofit sector for a minute and got real sick of it, real quick. It feels so wonderful to have agency over our own projects and to have my review process be directly with the people and not with a funder. I’m beholden to my community, first and foremost, and that feels so good.
Stuckey: Speaking of feeling good — and I’m going to go off script here. I was at the Solange concert last year and I felt what it meant to people there — specifically black women. It was something that’s not describable, but the feeling was almost … tangible. What was that night like for you two?
Haile: Oh my god! The fashion, even in the foyer beforehand, oh my god!
Vivas: We were just …
Haile: Cloud nine … we just saw everyone who kind of scraped together money to get those tickets and folks in the community who I helped arrange for them to get access to a ticket.
Vivas: Everyone was there.
Haile: Everyone was there! Everyone’s hair was on point! Everyone was well moisturized, the outfits were glowing. It was like, yes! We just don’t get that space here [in Portland] — just celebrating each other and not having it be a fucking vigil — because that’s where we were at that point.
Especially when you are an activist and an organizer. You really don’t get the chance to come up for air and that was coming up for air … with cocoa butter and honey, all together. During the first number I cried.
Vivas: What was it … “Rise“?
Leila: “Rise.” And when she does it live, because I saw her at Afro-punk too, she goes a little further with the vocals. And in that space, that’s a beautiful fucking space.. It was this beautiful utopian, Afro-Futurism that I hadn’t experienced before in my adult life.
Vivas: It was everything.
Leila: And just feeling those vibrations so deep in your chest. It was spiritual. It was a spiritual moment and I was reminded of the holiness of art — and that is the crux of Ori, the sacredness of creation and creativity and the place that art has in our lives.
That is holy, that is spiritual, that is fucking African, that is just so deep, DNA deep. Folks ask “What is blackness?” or what it means to be African … I can point to that moment.
So … it was OK. [grand laughter]
Stuckey: I saw this quote the other day: “Ghetto is nothing but creativity that hasn’t been stolen yet.” What is the significance of the Ori Gallery being on Mississippi Avenue, a very gentrified area of Portland?
Vivas: We were talking about this the other day — about reclaiming and what that meant. Because I feel like, in our excitement to reclaim Mississippi as a black neighborhood and a black street, I think it’s also important to zoom out a bit further and to recognize that we are on Native land and even though black people have been pushed out and marginalized and suffering, the people who were originally here have suffered the most.
Haile: Indigenous and African solidarity is incredibly important to our work. We are talking about how do we make those connections with folks, so we are not just cherry-picking and finding our token. Not recreating those same systems that we are trying to get away from. But using our connections to seek out artists in different phases and different intersections. Not only seeking out a popular Native artist but maybe a young Native artist or disabled Native artist that people are not paying attention to — we are constantly asking ourselves who is not at the table.
Stuckey: I want to ask about your relationship. I know Maya, you were homeless for a second at the same time Laila was looking for a roommate. Then you were introduced. Both of you are black and queer. So going back to that black spiritual thing, which I feel is hard for people to understand if they are not black — it just seems this was meant to be — you were strangers before that and very soon after you have this great space. That shit is written. Talk about what this relationship has meant to you both personally and creatively?
Vivas: At that point, I was so desperately in need of community. I had just gotten out of a relationship and I feel like — it was a “heterosexual relationship” — and I feel like in that dynamic, it’s a tendency to be lonely … I don’t know. I was in need of community and I decided to move into a space that was very gay. How did that change me?
It changed my entire world. My entire world was flipped upside down. I was introduced to an entire community and was able to see support and unconditional love … almost … well … for the first time in my life. To know that there are people out there … I get emotional.
It just changed my entire life.
Haile: Every time someone asks us about this, we start crying. But yeah: It is written. This has been one of the most dynamic, creative, interpersonal partnerships that I’ve ever had in my life. And it’s magic what two people can accomplish when they gel well and get resources — look what can fucking happen.
I feel like I see relationships or partnerships like ours so often in the community that are just not allowed to thrive. And I’m just really grateful that we have each other but also that wider ring of folks that will show up in the middle of the night, or steal insulin from me and take me to emergency rooms, and drive us through the snow. And just show the fuck up. I don’t think … funders like to ask this question “What do you need outside of monetary support?” and I’m just like, “I don’t know how to quantify what sustains us.”
And I feel again, that it’s African as fuck.
Vivas: The community aspect of it.
Haile: Yes, because we care about each other and the people that we work with on such an interpersonal level. That’s what makes us successful. Because we don’t have to run around covering our asses about anything because we are living our truth and being transparent.
Vivas: And we are interested in genuine connection. That is at the forefront of our purpose: to create those genuine connections.
Vivas: People came out!
Haile: Because blackness was invented to be consumed! That’s why. It’s the function of blackness as a concept [to make money].
Stuckey: My thing about its success — you had a black director, black musical directors, black wardrobe stylists, actors, digital artists, set designers. My thing is — if you are talking about American art and culture — in America, that starts with black people. That’s just a fact. So to get all these black artists at the very top of their game — well you’re going to make something special.
So a gallery like this, I feel all people should support it, because if it’s one thing black people know in the history of this country, it’s art. Do you think people even get that — that you can trust black people when it comes to the creation of art. Does Portland or even the country get that?
Haile: People don’t trust black people when it comes to shit!
Vivas: People don’t even trust black children, can we talk about that? I think when a black creation is co-opted or stolen from a white person, it’s then considered legitimate, anything outside of that, anything that is a black creation that remains in the hands of a black person is automatically delegitimized or politicized, just because it comes from black hands.
Stuckey: Black film and television is going through sort of a revolution. First, it was said black films couldn’t make money and that’s been dispelled as false. Now more black people are getting opportunities and creating great art. How do we have that type of artistic revolution with fine art?
Haile: It’s in full swing. I was just complaining the other day. People have this framework of when the revolution comes, I’m like …. umm.
Vivas: It’s happening.
Haile: Kids are being shot up in schools and cities are burning and people are starving. What does revolution look like to you?
Vivas: Children marching in the streets for their lives. That’s what it looks like. It’s here, we are currently in it.
Haile: And I feel like anytime I say that in a room full of white people they are shocked. People are shocked I didn’t slurp up “Black Panther” like it was from heaven. Look, I have genuine criticisms about the film.
Vivas: I would like to get to the point where so many things are made and are out there that some things can be good and it’s fine and some things can be bad and it’s fine.
Stuckey: What’s next for the Ori Gallery?
Vivas: Well, I host POC figure drawing.
Haile: Yeah, we’ve gone through years of training and never painted a black body.
Vivas: I wanted to create a space where artists of color can come see themselves reflected in an art learning setting. I don’t teach it but I facilitate. I make sure all the models are of all body types and they’re all POC and they get paid. So I wrote a grant to fund this and made it so it can be free or people can donate as much as they want. And in the works, I am going to have a POC critique night. So artists can come and share their work and get feedback if they want to and just to be around other artists. And of course we have rotating shows, and the current exhibition is over on the March 22 with the next show coming on April 1. It will be a solo show.
Then, we have a residency in May. We are going to Caldera — it’s in Sisters, Oregon — to kind of take a break. Personally, to focus on our personal craft and unplug. There’s no phone service and we are just gonna be in the middle of nowhere and try and regroup and heal ourselves.
Then we’ll get back to it.
The Ori Gallery is located at 4038 N. Mississippi Ave. in Portland, Oregon. It’s open Wednesday–Sunday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space.