theo tyson on Breaking Expectations, Finding Common Ground –

Portrait of theo tyson.
Photo Frances Neyra Claudio

I joined the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [MFA Boston] a few months ago. I feel so fortunate to have fantastic colleagues, even beyond the fashion arts department, including curators Liz Munsell and Michelle Millar Fisher. When I first moved to Boston, my goal was to become part of the cultural landscape of the city and not work in a silo. And the space that has been created for me at the MFA Boston is one where I had the opportunity to invite more people in. As a Black queer curator, I’m encouraged that my work is being embraced and engaged by the institution. I’m excited about the kinds of changes that my colleagues and I can effect through our work both within and outside of the museum.

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Installation view of Elle Perez's exhibition

The Gray, chef Mashama Bailey’s restaurant in Savannah, is in a former Greyhound bus station that was once segregated. Trained in French cuisine, Bailey reclaims the ancestral history of soul food and dispels stereotypes about what Black and African Diasporic people eat and why. Her food is a gateway for larger discussions about colonial history and race. I come from a Southern background, where family meals were considered a source of care and nurturing. The Gray presents food as an opportunity for love, understanding, and shared experience—I still regret that last bite I didn’t take!

I’ve been holding All About Love by bell hooks [2000] close since last summer. The book explores the many ways we have learned, misconstrued, misunderstood, and belabored love. It offers opportunities to think about what love is and what it could be. Hooks writes about implicit gender bias and the way love is constructed for a man and woman using a heteronormative lens. And she does this very approachable unpacking—starting from childhood throughout the entirety of one’s existence—noting not just how we love others, but how we love ourselves and how we invite others to love us. Throughout the pandemic, there has been a sense of solidarity and love, but I don’t think many of us stopped to think about what we believe love is.

Zanele Muholi: Bester I, Mayotte, 2015.

Zanele Muholi: Bester I, Mayotte2015.
Courtesy YanceyRichardson Gallery, New York, and Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg

“Being Muholi: Portraits as Resistance, a show I curated on the queer South African artist Zanele Muholi, is on view [through May 8] at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Muholi is probably best known for their self-portrait series “Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” [2017], which conveys a sense of ferocity. But the stereotype of unshakable strength and formidable courage that needs no love, no support, no replenishment, no care is killing Black women. We’ve dug into roughly two decades of Muholi’s work, and highlighted moments of vulnerability, intimacy, and humanity. There’s a frequent “othering” that happens to Black and queer bodies, and Muholi’s work is an opportunity to deconstruct those faulty tropes, stereotypes, and archetypes. The show offers a space for Black and queer people to see themselves through an unapologetic, 365-day-per-year Black queer gaze.

British-Jamaican fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner recently guest edited the twenty-second biannual issue of A Magazine Curated By. There’s this amazing black-and-white image by Nigerian-based photographer Samuel Fosso on the cover that’s just haunting, yet calmly beautiful and engaging. One of the things I appreciate about Wales Bonner’s work is how powerful and subtle it is. It’s empowering to see not only her success, but the way that she is looking at identity, gender, sexuality, and critical race theory through fashion. She uses fashion to have bigger conversations, which is something I strive for in my career.

Nina Simone performs at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, 1985.

Nina Simone performs at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, 1985.
AP Photo/Rene PerezTown/Johannesburg

Singer Nina Simone [1933–2003] was an activist and a feminist. Through her artistry, she addressed social justice, poverty, and inequity. And while Simone’s voice was eerily soothing, she repeatedly challenged colorism. One of the reasons that I use she/they pronouns has to do with my ancestral history. When I show up as my full self, I show up with everyone whose shoulders I’m standing on. As Simone’s song “Four Women” says, we’re not all the same. We have different lived experiences, but there are similarities. And I really want to focus on those things that are shared.

—As told to Francesca Aton

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