This article was previously published in the special edition, ALUMNAE (December 2018).
With a BA in History from Northwestern University, Naomi Beckwith arrived at The Courtauld in 1998, where her MA thesis focused on Adrian Piper and Carrie Mae Weems.
From 2007 to 2011, Beckwith was an associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, an American art museum devoted to exhibiting works by both emerging and established artists of African descent. Here she curated her first key exhibition, 30 Seconds off an Inch, in 2009, presenting works by an international roster of artists, the majority artists of colour, and questioning how social statements can be expressed in art.
Photograph by Nathan Keay (Copyright: MCA Chicago)
Since returning to her home city in 2011 to join the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, Beckwith has been involved in organising numerous exhibitions to explore America’s uncomfortable heritage, including Color Bind: The MCA Collection in Black and White (2012-13) and the upcoming Prisoner of Love (2019). In 2017 she participated in a three-part series to commemorate the MCA Chicago’s fiftieth anniversary, We are Here, with an exhibition You are Here (2017-18) which aimed to “overturn the traditional model of the anniversary exhibitions by focusing instead on the relationship between artist and viewer”, declaring that “the meaning of a work may shift based on a viewer’s perspective or the passage of time”. The museum explained that “together, the three independently curated ‘chapters’ invite the viewer to bring their own perspectives to the museum’s collection and to think about how to be active participants in the meaning of art and its making”. Beckwith’s You are Here specifically examined how the role of the viewer has changed over time from passive onlooker to active participant.
A highlight of Beckwith’s curatorial career so far has been the highly praised 2015 exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now. The exhibition, timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), showcased the vibrant legacy of the 1960s African American avant-garde in Chicago and linked it to global contemporary artistic interpretations of this heritage. It displayed works of music and art from original members of the AACM, including founder Muhal Richard Abrams alongside those from visual arts collectives such as the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA). The Freedom Principle combined these historic materials with more recent responses from artists and musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Renée Green, and Nari Ward to demonstrate the continued world-wide relevance of the engagement with black cultural nationalism that concerned these Chicago-based organisations during the civil rights era.
Earlier this year she co-curated the first retrospective of Howardena Pindell, an inspirational female artist of African descent who, much like Beckwith, challenges the traditions of the art world. With this, the most recent in her series of ground-breaking exhibitions on race and gender, Beckwith continues to show herself to be a remarkable, forward-thinking curator interested not only in exploring history, but in connecting it to today’s world and using it to bring people together.