Diaspora Values: Arnold Kemp’s new position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

We all know that adage that ‘variety is the spice of life.’ We see it in art all the time, in music and in Bahamian people. Given the current turmoil and tension in the world – all the negativity and discrimination against those whose existence seems to fall outside that delineated path of good or normalized- it is good to be able to share a bit of good news.

For this we look to the Bahamian diaspora; those folks who are like us, but dey lil’ different. To those whose difference we should embrace and be proud of; those we hold dear because of the affinities we see in them; to those that shine just a little bit different. We do not often give them much acknowledgement or credit, unless there is something for us to grasp at and feel a sense of national pride towards, these ‘quiet pioneers’ aren’t often considered ‘tru-tru’ Bahamians.

We think of them as not involved in our affairs, but this at times not the case – more often than not, they make their contributions at home and make them silently so as to avoid fuss but ultimately from a deep-seated love of the place. Establishing that, we would like to bring to attention the recent success of Arnold J. Kemp; a multidisciplinary artist of Bahamian descent who lives and works in the US. Kemp was recently appointed as the Dean of Graduate Studies at the renowned School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).

Alongside this position, he will also be joining the Department of Painting and Drawing as a professor. Kemp, already an artist with international acclaim, has shown work in the Bahamas before, both exhibiting and engaging in panel discussions as part of the programming for the 7th National Exhibition (NE7) at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB). He is a published author in addition to having an art practice and role as an educator.

Kemp is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Artadia Fund for Art & Dialogue, Art Matters Grant, and Printed Matter Award for Artists as well as awards from Tufts University and the American Academy of Poets. He was also one of the artists exhibited in the iconic ‘Freestyle’ exhibition held at Studio Museum in 2001, the inaugural ‘post-black’ show curated by Thelma Golden, featuring artists like Sanford Biggers, Rashid Johnson, and Julie Mehretu.

“I am very excited about my new colleagues at SAIC.,” says Kemp, “I used to keep a little newspaper clipping above my desk at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts that I had cut from the New York Times on the day Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize. She said, “I am outrageously happy!” That is how I feel about being a part of SAIC and Chicago. I am looking forward to leading, growing and learning with you.”

The School already boasts an impressive selection of art practitioners in their faculty and is lauded as ‘one of the most historically significant accredited independent schools of art and design in the (US)’ and remains one of the top three graduate fine arts programs in the States. Kemp has been well aware of the outstanding faculty, facilities and students at SAIC for some time, and informs us that though he knew of the institution’s reputation, his more formal professional relationship with the school started when he was contacted by the search firm Isaacson, Miller.

“I contacted other artists whom I knew in Chicago to ask what they thought of SAIC; artists like Theaster Gates, Candida Alvarez, Gregg Bordowitz, Jefferson Pinder and Richard Rezac. I also asked one of Isaacson, Miller’s managing associates how he found my name and he said that many people in Chicago had known of my reputation, and they felt that I would be a possible good fit for SAIC. So before I applied, I felt like I was already part of a strong artists’ community.”

Though we call it the ‘art world,’ it does not feel quite so big. Sometimes it can be a close-knit and welcoming community of dedicated and socially-conscious art workers; an ecosystem where no-one is removed from another, there is always a connection in this growing network of cultural practitioners. It is important in times like these to share some light, no matter how big or small. We are in a period of great tension towards those who might be ‘different’ or ‘Other’ to ourselves, based on particulars such as race, whom we choose to love and our ideologies.

Now more than ever, we must celebrate the multiplicity of our experiences and the innumerable ways that this diversity adds richness to the quality of our lives; the value that coming across people from all walks of life (even within your nation) adds to your own. In that sense of kinship to and loving those who are ‘like yourself but also unlike yourself’, it feels appropriate to look to our diaspora – those who are Bahamian while simultaneously holding other cultural understandings.

The Bahamas has always been a land of people from elsewhere, and certainly, as a region we have our nomadic tendencies, with Bahamians of all creeds, class and colour going off and starting life elsewhere. It is important and crucial to highlight the successes of those in our diaspora, to naturalised Bahamians and all who love and claim this place as home – whether that home is one of two or one of many. In some ways, nomadism seems to be the state of many Caribbeans hence our ever-expanding diaspora.

It seems fitting when we think of our Bahamas and how so many of our peers tell us they cannot ‘wait to get off this rock.’ However, is that truly the case? Is it a need to ‘get away’ or more so part of our nature and drive to see and experience more? Perhaps the raison d’etre of the diaspora is not to ‘get away’ or to ‘leave’, but maybe a plight more connected to meaningful cultural exchange.

A genuine drive for the arts and arts education will never fail to be inspiring, whether it is witnessed here or felt from afar, and Kemp’s enthusiasm is infectious. “I am excited to bring my experiences as an artist and educator and my passion for innovation and diverse models of excellence to shaping the vision for 21st-century art education to SAIC.” Moreover, we shall look forward to seeing what fruit will bear from this newest move.