The Indies Arts Awards often honor outward-facing entities that aim for the broadest audience possible. But the most important thing that happened in the Triangle art world this year happened largely out of public view, and it benefitted the few dozen people who were part of it more obviously than it benefitted the public.
This inward-facing collective, the Durham Artists Movement, did the unglamorous but essential work of consolidating power among artists of color, queer artists, Muslim artists, female artists, and others who are structurally marginalized in the art world.
After DAM moved into the former Carrack Modern Art space on Parrish Street in July, its members could examine their work in a gallery with mutual understanding of its cultural context. More important, they had a place to gather for ongoing succor, present action, and forward planning in dangerous timesa base from which to expand a radically inclusive vision. If art must speak for everyone, the necessity of DAM is axiomatic.
“I’ve been searching for a radical queer brown community for years,” says DAM member Sufia Ikbal Doucet, who identifies as Pakistani-Cajun and Muslim, among other intersections. Grand artistic projects are often willed into being, but DAM harnesses energy that was there, filling a real need.
“It feels like an undercurrent no one person created,” says Catherine Edgerton at her Durham home, sitting alongside Saba Taj, the other prime architect of DAM’s transition from itinerant collective to rooted organization. “All of a sudden this was happening, and our process has been learning as we go, shapeshifting and fitting.”
Both are artists themselves. Edgerton is currently working on a series of stained glass TV sets, while Taj is making apocalyptic collages dense with Islamic eschatology and science fiction. They were the two DAM members who had the wherewithal to step into leadership roles when the collective suddenly landed a space. When Laura Ritchie decided to move the Carrack to Golden Belt, she had six months left on her old lease. She helped DAM take it over, a turning point.
“When it was a really unstructured informal thing, there was a collective of seven people,” Edgerton says. “As this rent thing started happening, that morphed into a larger, less centralized group. Having the space brought more people into the movement.”
“We needed someone to see us, and Laura did that,” Taj says. “Moving forward, that’s the kind of work we want to do as well: seeing folks, seeing that need. The impact is so much greater when you’re bringing in people that don’t get recognized otherwise.”
One of DAM’s distinguishing features is self-definition, even as it builds coalitions in the art world. “All the structure and momentum comes from the people we’re serving,” Edgerton says. “So much of the art industry is centered around a certain demographic, a typically white audience.”
Doucet’s experience is a case in point. “Growing up, I was surrounded by the sense that art, healing, and devoting time to creative expression were all things I’d never have access to,” she says. “This is perpetrated by our ivory tower institutions, by capitalism, and by systems of oppression. Creative spaces that shatter these notions are crucial.”
In its time on Parrish Street, which draws to a close this month, DAM has hosted workshops, events, and exhibits. But it has conducted many of its most vital activities, from mental health services to protest work, in more spontaneous ways.
“One unexpected thing is the way we’ve been sharing resources with local organizations,” Taj says. “During the Charlotte uprising, a space was needed to make signs and gather supplies for folks going to protests, and we could offer that.” For a while, it seemed like DAM might again become nomadic after its Parrish Street lease ended. But that changed after the presidential election, even though fundraising is uniquely challenging for these artists.
“A lot of spaces have someone who can contribute all their energy without worrying about paying their bills,” Taj says. “That’s not what we’ve got going on, which means thinking about fundraising in a bigger way. I thought we might need to not have a space.”
But after Trump’s election, DAM convened at the gallery. “Some of us made these banners that were really beautiful,” Taj recalls. “Others were just writing or doing their art-work. It hit me so hard that we need this, and it’s not just a fun thing but survival. It feels hard because the system makes it hard, and that’s exactly why we can’t back down.”
For now, DAM will take a break from rent to work on fundraising, enlarging leadership, and figuring out how to pay people. They expect to land in a new space in about six months. In the meantime, they will have a show at the Carrack in February and are working on an alphabet book that serves as a political education tool.
“All of this has been like, it’s here, let’s do it!” Taj says. “We threw some great parties and made it work. But moving forward we really want to be thoughtful. What we’re thinking now is having more than me and Catherine in this core [leadership] group.”
“We’re trying to articulate structured roles,” Edgerton says. “If that structure is well established, it’s easier for more people to step into leadership.”
Before DAM decamps, it will throw one last party and fundraiser on Dec. 22. It will then move on to the next stage of its life, with all its glinting possibilities. “DAM is a glimpse of the power of the ‘other,’ the ‘marginalized,’ the unknowable,” Doucet says. “I am able to catch a glimpse of the future we are building that will tear apart fascism, misogyny, white supremacy, and transphobia.”
The larger art community is glimpsing it, too. “I get so many emails!” Taj says. “People are realizing we needed someone to be focusing on this stuff. They are seeing and valuing what we’re doing, and that feels really great.”
But it all comes back to uplifting individuals. “So many people who intuitively felt drawn to this movement didn’t identify as artists, but now those people are stepping into their creative instincts,” Edgerton says.
“I see so much beauty in what’s happening in Durham, everything that’s created the climate for DAM,” Taj adds. “We can make this city, transform this state, into something …”
“Some glittery shit,” Edgerton concludes, and everyone laughs. “And art can be a gateway to that. It’s critical. It’s not just a commodity or window dressing for the movement.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Survival Tactics.”