Public Scholar Profile: Jasmine Mahmoud
An Interview by 2022–2023 Writer-in-Residence Nanya Jhingran
Jasmine Mahmoud is an Assistant Professor of Theatre History and Performance Studies at the University of Washington, whose research and teaching engage experimental performance, critical race studies, Black aesthetics, public policy, and geography. Since joining the UW in 2021, Mahmoud has participated in a wide range of groundbreaking projects supported by the Simpson Center including the Minoritarian Performance Research Cluster, teaching the “Black Curatorial Practices” microseminar, serving on the board for ASAP/14, co-teaching the 2023 Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities on the theme of “Black Sense: Time, Art, and Being,” and receiving a 2022 Digital Humanities Summer Fellowship for her project, Digitizing Black Curatorial Practice: Dr. James Washington, Jr. at MOHAI.
Mahmoud is co-editor of Makeshift Chicago Stages: A Century of Theater and Performance (Northwestern University Press, 2021), has contributed to Art Forum, ASAP/J, Hyperallergic, South Seattle Emerald, and Variable West, and has curated exhibitions including Abstractions of Black Citizenship: African American Art from Saint Louis (2020), Northwest Black (2022), and After the Quiet: On Black Figures and Folds (2022).
Mahmoud shares her trajectory as a scholar, curator, and public arts critic in this interview. This includes reflecting on her commitment to Black, Indigenous and People of Color arts communities; her interdisciplinary interests in art-making and urban arts policy in Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Detroit; and the unique challenges faced by early career faculty of color whose scholarship and mentorship crosses institutional walls to build robust communities of creative practice rooted in a radical, anticolonial sense of place.
N. J.: Your research, teaching arts, curatorial practices, and other forms of public scholarship all seem to be rooted in enduring inquiries about the intersections and antagonisms at play between differential racialization, Black arts and performance, racial capitalism, and policy/politics in urban spaces. I’m curious if you could talk about how long you have stayed with these questions. — Was there a particular moment, or series of moments, in your time in graduate school or before that sparked this inquiry? Where did some of these curiosities or commitments first begin to take root for you? What’s the origin story?
J. M.: I think for my academic interests, my origin story is really one of failure and misbelonging — or, unbelonging. For college, I went to Harvard in the early 2000s as a government major interested in working in public policy. While there, I also did a lot of arts extracurriculars, wrote for the newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, and ran a woman of color theatre company on campus. I always felt that those things really didn’t feel like they fit together. After college, I worked for a nonprofit progressive think tank called the Brennan Center for Justice and had a band. I was doing policy by day and music by night….
During this time, I found a Masters in Arts Politics program at New York University, which was brand new at the time and operated at the intersection between arts and politics. Everything it described was like an a-ha! moment for me because I’d always felt, especially in the policy space, that I was too silly or creative to be around policy talk, even though I was thinking seriously about policy in the arts space. When I got into the program, that’s really what changed my outlook and the possibilities I could envision for myself.
It was a one-year masters program, and we took courses in arts and cultural policy, such as the history of arts funding such as the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] Four (one of my professors was Karen Finley, who was one of the NEA Four), art politics, a class on African American theater, experimental performance, a black satire class with Daphne Brooks who was just here, among others…. When I finished that program in 2008 and moved to Seattle (where my husband’s from), I’d moved during the Great Recession. It was grim and I couldn’t find a job, eventually leading me to graduate school at Northwestern University for Performance Studies. I was interested in those same connections between policy and performance…. I believe that the Performance Studies program at Northwestern really made me feel like I belonged. So many scholars whom I studied under there — D. Soyini Madison, E. Patrick Johnson, Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, Joshua Chambers-Letson — all thought expansively about the ways in which performance was imbricated in the social, the cultural, the political, and the geographic, and how you could understand those “non-performance” things through performance.
N. J.: Thank you for sharing this background. How have some of these questions developed for you in your time here in Seattle? What is your current project, or projects, that are operating at these intersections?
J. M.: In my dissertation, I looked at experimental performance practices that took place in urban margins in New York, Chicago, and Seattle…. The book project I’m working on is a revision of my dissertation and it’s called Avant-Garde Geographies: Race, Public Policy, and Experimentation in the Urban Frontier. It looks at…the intersections of performance, public policy, and the racialization of space in each city. To the original three, I’ve added Detroit. In each city — New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Seattle — I’m thinking about urban margins through this idea of the “frontier” and how it allows us to think about the colonial logics operant in those spaces.
N. J.: My next question relates to the way in which your work is always traversing disciplinary and institutional boundaries. Could you reflect a bit on your experience of working inter- and cross-disciplinarily? What have been the challenges and gifts? You mentioned that you got into this work because you felt like you didn’t fit comfortably within just one or the other discipline. How has that feeling evolved now that you’ve built some more tissue around working in between or at the seams?
J. M.: That’s a great question! One of the reasons I was so happy to find Performance Studies is that even within the discipline, performance is often called an “interdiscipline.” Those cross-disciplinary conversations are naturalized.
There’s the idea that no type of knowledge is ever just bound in discipline. So, I think getting the Performance Studies PhD gave me the confidence to really assert that this is naturalized, that this is the way in which we think, and to silo thought is unnatural. I’ve also found places in every city I’ve been that allow me to think about knowledge beyond just the disciplinary frames….
I’m housed in the School of Drama, which is very much like a theater department, and I teach Drama 101, which is the big class for non-majors. In that class, I really care about facilitating their understanding of what theater is across history — Greek, Asian, and African — and across the Western world through modernism, postmodernism, etc. Additionally, they also learn about the work of theaters. So, in that class, they don’t just read about what playwrights do. I actually changed the class [so that the students] write a short play for which they submit a set or costume…. In one version of the class, they wrote directing treatments. So, they really get to practice the doing of performance, and I think that this concrete practice of doing the performance — whether you’re beyond or within a discipline — versus just “studying” in a more removed sense is very important to me.
N. J.: More to this concrete practice of doing and having your own art practice really transform how you think about administrative or logistical work, I’m curious about how your own scholarship, criticism, and art practice have interacted with each other. Have you felt like they were different hats you had to put on and take off? Or has organic synthesis emerged? Particularly in your own creative practice, how has this scholarly work shaped it? Have there been moments that felt particularly generative, a particular project or a particular conversation?
J. M.: I think across most of that work, I’m really invested in centering the stories of minoritized artists, especially artists that have not been archived and legitimized. I think a lot about the ways in which certain archives, institutions, or frames — like newspapers, scholarly journals, books, etc. — legitimize artists…. In 2019, while at the UW, I met the artist Tschabalala Self who had a show at The Frye that Kemi Adeyemi (Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies) was engaged with through “The Black Embodiments Studio.”
I said to Self that I was really interested in her work and would like to write about it, and she said that I could only write about her if I got it published in Hyperallergic. So, I said challenge accepted! and just pitched it cold to Hyperallergic and got accepted. I wrote that, and it sparked a bunch of other arts writing. I did an interview and review of Deana Bowen’s work…. Then, when COVID-19 began…I was on the board of an arts organization and met Marcus Harrison Green, the editor, founder, and publisher of the South Seattle Emerald. He asked me to write for them. As a result, I just started writing about BIPOC artists in Seattle and have written 8 to 10 articles. That writing just spiraled on to a few other things and last year, Kemi Adeyemi and I were co-project editors of a series with Crosscut called the Black Arts Legacy Series, and I’ve continued that work in a more minor role this year.
Besides my journalism and scholarship, I started curating three years ago, including a show called “Abstractions of Black Citizenship: African American Art from Saint Louis” which was supposed to open at the Hedreen Gallery on April 2nd, 2020, but shifted into a virtual show due to COVID-19.
Since then, I’ve curated a show with Vivian Phillips on Black arts for Nepantla, a gallery in the White Center neighborhood of Seattle in November 2021. I also had a bunch of former students, Black students, who had come to me wanting to be in a show, so I connected with…the Mini Mart City Park and curated a show there in January 2022. Finally, this last year in Fall quarter, with the support of the Simpson Center, I taught a micro-seminar on “Black Curatorial Practice” for students who had been involved in art history or museology but had never curated before. I’m working with them to curate a show on Black Surrealism that will open in late June of this year at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. In that case, I’m more of a facilitator. In all this work. I think curation is part of this larger goal of centering those minoritized in the arts. Though I think it's important work, I don’t have any preciousness over curation and I’m hoping to increase BIPOC students’ access to curatorial work.
N. J.: Yes, that feels deeply related to your interest in archival work and expanding who gets archival legitimation. My next question stems from our intentions in writing this showcase of your work–to surface some of the crucial labors involved in work that happens across different disciplines, institutions, and fields of practice. In bringing together various institutional publics such as bringing students to galleries, or building relationships between students and other practitioners in the area and, particularly, place-based communities, are there concerns or needs that come up particularly for you as a faculty member working within the institution? What are the dynamics that are at play around how this labor gets distributed, both for yourself and across your communities?
J. M.: In a “Performing Social Justice” class I was teaching with Nikki Yeboah (Drama), our students were leading a series of workshops. In one student’s workshop, she asked us to write our responses to two questions on slips of paper: “What do we have in abundance? What do we need?” I wrote, “I need time, sleep, and an administrative assistant.” I feel really at capacity and would love a well-paid administrative assistant. I think many faculty of color, who do so much unaccounted-for mentorship, are extra-burdened…. I think one great thing would be to go to especially Black women, women of color, non-binary folks of color, and trans folks of color, and say, how can we support you? These populations are exhausted, they’re tired. They have been holding so many people and funding never accounts for that.
Funding never says, “let me get you an assistant or let me get you a day off.” Instead, the ask is always, “what else can you do? How can we put you on the cover of a web page?” I think that funders should think more about how they support communities of color who are often quietly working to dismantle systems of oppression in super expansive and inclusive ways.
I think the team at the Simpson Center has been really supportive. At the same time, I think more administrative support for faculty doing this work is just crucial. It’s the small things that go a long way in making our programs more inclusive and effective: robust signup lists for people who come to Minoritarian Performance Cluster events to get looped into future events, organizing food for drop-in writing retreats, extra budget, and coordination to offer pairs of tickets for performances by BIPOC artists around Seattle so that folks can come with family members or friends. These are the small but effective ways that we can make our programming more inclusive and impactful, but it also requires a lot of administrative work that could use more support.
N. J.: In closing, you mentioned the Minoritarian Performance Cluster and I know you’re co-organizing the Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities with Habiba Ibrahim (English), Bianca Dang (History), and Chari Glogovac-Smith (DXARTS). I’m curious if there’s any events, activities, or hopes that you have regarding either of those projects that you want to highlight or talk about?
J. M.: This past year with the Minoritarian Performance Cluster was very successful. I’m going to aggregate the numbers at some point, but we gave out over 100 tickets for members to see at least ten shows in Seattle. We brought several guest speakers, Bimbola Akinbola (Performance Studies, Northwestern University), Julius Fleming (English, University of Maryland), Joshua Chambers-Letson (Performance Studies and Asian American Studies, Northwestern University), and Chloe Johnson with Coya Paz (Theatre and Performance Studies, Lake Forest College). We had regular drop-in writing retreats. I will say the last workshop with Johnson and Paz was so amazing because it was 30 of us in a circle doing fun, embodied activities for two hours. They put us in random groups where we were working with a mix of folks, like in my group, I was working with an undergrad student, graduate students, junior faculty, senior faculty, and staff members. That, to me, is an ideal way to co-create knowledge. We’re in different lanes and we do different stuff, but there’s ways in which we can and should learn from each other.
That was a crystallization of what I want the research cluster to do–to center minoritarian practice, not just listening and writing, but getting on your feet or moving to make work in community. In the coming year, we’re going to give away more tickets to shows centering minoritized artists and continue to do those drop-in writing retreats.
For the Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities, with Habiba Ibrahim, Bianca Dang, and Chari Glogovac-Smith, the theme is “Black Sense” and it’s thinking about Black studies through the sensorium and the aesthetic. I’m really excited for students to study the aesthetic dimension of Blackness — Black people, Black art, Black culture, especially given how often when we think about Black people, there’s a focus on Black people as the carriers of civil rights. Again, often, they do that work. But that’s also a burden placed on Black people. I think studying Black aesthetics allows for this multi-dimensionality to honor the art and aesthetics of their work in nonexclusive relation to the social justice work that many Black folks have done as well. I’m excited for that!