Q&A: La keisha leek

By Zora J Murff | Published March 16th, 2017

La Keisha Leek is the Exhibitions and Community Programs Manager at Mana Contemporary Chicago. As an independent collaborator and exhibition-maker, select projects include: The Petty Biennial, the Arts Incubator in Washington Park (2017); Yelling At the Sky, Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation (2016); an Artistic Producer, the 4th annual Chicago Home Theater Festival (2016); Closer Still, Chicago Artists Coalition (2015); Another Plan, Terrain Exhibitions and Terrain South (2015); How to Make A Hood, the Arts Incubator in Washington Park (2014). From 2012-2015, she was the Executive Administrator and Special Projects Manager to artist Theaster Gates where she coordinated many artist-led programs and research residencies with artists such as Leslie Hewitt and Bethany Collins, and was Curatorial Assistant for Retreat co-organized by Theaster Gates and Hamza Walker at Richard Gray Gallery. She has held other positions with artist Maria Gaspar and Open Engagement, a conference dedicated to the field of socially engaged art. She was a 2014-2015 Chicago Artists Coalition Curatorial Resident, 2016 Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation Curatorial Fellow; 2016 participant of Independent Curators International's Curatorial Intensive in Dakar, Senegal; and 2017 Arts + Public Life Curatorial Collective Resident with Sadie Woods. She received her BA in Art History from Columbia College Chicago.

This week I am excited to share my conversation with La Keisha Leek about her curation of the exhibition How to Make A Hoodwhich, "unfolds a wide canon of stereotypes that foster misconceptions as they relate to black bodies and their environments. The artists in this exhibition produce works that explore the multi-faceted characteristics of the word ‘hood’ in some fashion: a slang term for a black neighborhood; a suffix in cultural theory concepts like 'objecthood,' 'personhood,' 'negrohood;' and Trayvon Martin's hoodie, which, along with his being an objectified young black male, served as a signifier in an act of radical injustice." La Keisha worked with Candor Arts, a publishing house in Chicago, to recently produce a publication about the exhibition. 

How to Make A Hood  by La Keisha Leek, image courtesy of Candor Arts

How to Make A Hood by La Keisha Leek, image courtesy of Candor Arts

Zora J Murff: Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey into curating. 

La Keisha Leek: I came to Chicago from Tampa to be an interior architect and a writer. I was really interested in the built environment and how bodies are influenced by space and move through it. When I got to the program at Columbia College, I found it to be more of an interior design track, than interior architecture. I spent more time thinking about how to manipulate space, than anything. when I got to my final year, my advisor Dr. Amy Mooney suggested I take the Curatorial Practicum. The Practicum was to provide all the knowledge of exhibition making and the tools we would need to create an exhibition proposal and prepare to produce a show at the end of the semester. So I took the course pretty seriously, and decided to propose the exhibition How to Make a Hood at the Arts Incubator in Washington Park. 


ZJM: How did you come to curate How to Make a Hood?

LL: The show began as a way of working through a challenging time, and trying to find a new language for myself around protest. It was a response to the death of Trayvon Martin. A cousin of mine. I don’t talk about it too often, but i’m sure you knew there was this connection from reading the publication. You know, you never imagine that a personal loss would impact others so deeply that it would have the power to ring across nation. Bit it did, and I am still thinking a lot about empathy, and collective public mourning because of it. I wanted to present this exhibition with grace at the moment of its inception, and remain autonomous and true to what I want this exhibition to do. Which was to demystify stereotypes and dignify Black life.


ZJM: Can you talk about the word ‘hood’, what it means to you, and how it informs the exhibition? 

LL: The best way for me to consider the real complexity of the Black experience required me to open up this word as far as I possibly could. I couldn’t consider Trayvon without considering all Black boys. I couldn’t consider a Black boy without considering his environment or his mother. I couldn’t consider pain without also considering a Black woman’s supernatural ability to overcome, to connect, and to thrive. I couldn’t consider a reimagined reality without consideration of where we are today, and where we were almost 4 years ago when I mounted this exhibition. 


ZJM: In the opening essay, Adding A Hood To Anything, there is a quote, “Its physical and social manifestations, coupled with a consideration of site and time as they relate to the body, are prominent themes within How to Make a Hood.” Reading this makes me think of Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence, Gender, and the Environmentalism of the Poor. (1) Were these conceptions of “fast” versus “slow” violence (the hood in relation to the body, and the geographical “hood”) something you took into account with your curation? If not, how do you think they could relate to the exhibition? 

LL: It wasn’t something that I had thought about in the framing of the exhibition initially. I was really thinking through compassion, beauty, sight, and site. The two seminal texts for me during the process of forming an conversation with the works were Franz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and Darby English’s How to See A Work of Art in total Darkness. Particularly Fanon’s ideas about depersonalization and the objectivity of Black identity really stuck with me. But I am glad that you brought up this point from Nixon. It’s absolutely a tie in. This notion of fast vs. slow violence connects to a similar idea for a project that I am currently working on. I’ve been thinking a lot about the fleetingness of absorbing violence and the media as it relates to the Black community. I’m thinking a lot about the structure of news feeds and hypervisbiilty. I frequently return to Martine Syms’ Reading Trayvon Martin project. 


ZJM: I really enjoy the exhibition’s unpacking of the word ‘hood’ as a descriptor for a Black neighborhood – especially the contrasting of Green’s Beacon of the ‘Hood and Casey Winkleman’s Chicago Liqour Stories – which imparts not only the sense of “outside versus inside”, but also makes us question what could be stereotypically considered “unsafe”. I would be interested to know how you chose these works, and how you see their relationship to one another. 

LL: In this exhibition and every one that I’ve curated after this, it’s important for me to create a multi-layered narrative, and either at the beginning, middle, or end, of that narrative to insert a moment of accessibility to the viewer. Anyhow, yes these two pieces were the works that show a very familiar image of Black life in American – recognizable to Black and white America. But of course, they aren’t the only images of Black life in America. Green and Winkleman’s work were meant to contextualize the exhibition and the ‘hood, as I asked the viewer to stay a little longer and consider a little further: what are the ways to reconsider a People? What are the ways to dignify a human life? Reimagine a future? In order to understand. 

Still from  Beacon of the 'Hood  by James T. Green

Still from Beacon of the 'Hood by James T. Green

Harvey  by Casey Winkleman

Harvey by Casey Winkleman


ZJM: The multilayered narrative becomes visible in the text of the book that ebbs and flows between essays and conversations. Can you speak a bit about your editing and design process? Also, the chain-link design gives the book a very tangible quality, almost like you're holding a piece of the community in your hand. I'd be interested to know what that specific material means to you and to the exhibition. 
LL: I wanted the publication to not only serve as documentation of the exhibition, but an archive of how people were making sense of the social and political climate at the time, and sorting with their own personal copings. I initially left it to the contributors to mediate on these themes in the exhibition however they wanted to. The book cover was a conscious decision. The chain link was really the first and only thought in thinking of the design of the book cover when I met with Matt Austin, the designer and Founder of Candor Arts. We had a few ideas but this was the one that stuck. It's inspired by avery r. young's piece in the exhibition, Ballad Fo Twin Lakes. The assemblage uses found material as language and reads gated doesn't equal safe. 


ZJM: What are your future plans for the exhibition? Do you think it will exist as is, or is it something that you see evolving over time? 
LL: It's something I think about often. I have some idea of what comes next but nothing I'm ready to share publicly yet. 

ZJM: What's on the horizon for you?
LL: Many things, but the main focus is The Petty Biennial co-curated with Sadie Woods this May.

ZJM: Thank you for your time and your work, La Keisha. 
LL: Thanks Zora.

1. “To confront slow violence requires that we attempt to give symbolic shape and plot to formless threats whose fatal representations are dispersed across space and time…In the gap between acts of slow violence and their delayed effects both memory and causation readily fade from view and the causalities thus incurred pass untallied.”  

Image courtesy of Candor Arts

Image courtesy of Candor Arts

To purchase a copy of How to Make A Hood, please visit the Candor Arts website

How to Make A Hood by La Keisha Leek
Published by Candor Arts
Designed by Matt Austin
Softcover Edition, ISBN: 978-0-9968161-1-3
106 pages
Artwork card insert: Motherhood by Emily Hooper Lansana

How to Make A Hood includes works by: 
Amir George
James T. Green
Caroline Kent
Emily Hooper Lansana
Jasmine Murrell
Eliza Myrie
Casey Winkleman
avery r. young


Exhibition documentation courtesy of Kiara Sinclair