Curator’s Close-Up: Thalia Vrachopoulos

Curator’s Close-Up: Thalia Vrachopoulos

by Lilia Ziamou

Huffington Post / September 22,2015

Thalia Vrachopoulos is an art historian, curator, writer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. She has organized and curated over one hundred exhibitions in the US, Asia and Europe and has written countless scholarly essays, reviews and exhibition catalogues. This conversation focuses on one aspect of Thalia Vrachopoulos’ extensive contributions: her curatorial work at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery & President’s Gallery at John Jay College, a gallery that focuses primarily on art that explores social issues and social justice. She speaks to us about the gallery, her curatorial goals and the concepts behind her recent and upcoming exhibitions at the gallery. 

Lilia Ziamou: Tell us about the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery & President’s Gallery at John Jay College.

Thalia Vrachopoulos: John Jay College of Criminal Justice is a liberal arts college with a mission to explore justice in its many dimensions. Up to a few years ago when John Jay became a senior college in the CUNY system, a small group of faculty curated significant shows in a small space that we had turned into the Third Floor Gallery at the Haaren Hall campus. Through the efforts of many Art faculty and the leadership of President Jeremy Travis and Dr. Andrew Shiva, a trustee at John Jay, The Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery was inaugurated on the ground floor of our new building, in 2013. Until now, the exhibitions at the gallery have primarily focused on social issues. We have had shows covering issues of sustainability, violence to women and children, political torture, human trafficking, human rights, socialist art from North Korea and art of the incarcerated. We have also featured the work of famous black artists such as Faith Ringgold and Jacob Lawrence, and the work of women such as Judy Chicago and the Gorilla Girls. 

Lilia Ziamou: What are your goals as a curator at the gallery? 

Thalia Vrachopoulos: Since the gallery has many curators it is difficult to only speak of my own goals. But I can tell you that our exhibitions are usually related to the school’s academic offerings. As to what I personally would like to see at the gallery in the future, are more collaborations at the national and international level. A global presence is key in today’s world and great effort is being put into this direction by our school recently. So, if we had a decent budget for the gallery, I would involve university galleries from all over the world in intellectual dialogs and visual art exchanges. Of course, we have a limited number of these presently, but not nearly as many as we should. Collaborations in the form of exhibitions, symposia and fora on a variety of issues at a global level enrich students, faculty and the audience alike. Such a collaboration at a national level will take place at the gallery this coming spring. We will be hosting, Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate, an exhibition and a symposium that showcases the work of artists who have transformed thousands of anti-Semitic and racist books into an uplifting exhibition. 

Lilia Ziamou: Last Spring, you curated Of Human Bondage. What was the motivation for this exhibition?

Thalia Vrachopoulos: The exhibition Of Human Bondage was very successful in involving the John Jay community on a shared issue of interest. On a personal level, subjects like this are inspired by my drive to fight exploitation of anyone on any level. Injustice, prejudice, exploitation of any kind irks me to a righteous indignation affording me the passion with which to fight. The visual arts are particularly equipped to drive the point home. Exploitation occurs in multiple ways and in many different industries. This exhibition highlighted one small part of that experience, which is exploitation within the sex trade. It is a basic human rights violation that results in the commodification of humans. The victims can span all ages and gender identities, orphaned, runaways and those marginalized by poverty or documentation status.

Lilia Ziamou: The upcoming exhibition Pinned Stitched and Glitzed: Challenging Gender Stereotypes will open at the end of this month. What is the main theme of this exhibition?

Thalia Vrachopoulos: This exhibition, largely comprised of delicately appliquéd, sewn, pinned and woven works, challenges traditionally assigned gender roles and preconceived notions about what are/are not female or male work practices. Consequently, we hope to dispel traditional gender assignations to the work of these artists working with methods traditionally considered as “women’s work” because they are delicately and painstakingly produced. At its core, the exhibition questions the idea of ‘women’s work’ by suggesting that it is a social construct. It should also take us one step further into de-constructing traditional stereotypes, breaking with past models of gender classification and challenging our mainstream understanding of gender. In conjunction with this exhibition, the celebrated and renowned modern dance icon Sincha Hong (b. 1943-) will perform at the opening of this show. 

Lilia Ziamou: What other themes would you be interested in exploring in the future? 

Thalia Vrachopoulos: In December 2015 through early February 2016, Erin Thompson who specializes in Art Crime and I are curating an exhibition titled The Missing: Rebuilding the Past. The key theme of this exhibition is the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage. We have seen destruction of heritage sites throughout history and most recently with the destruction and looting of cultural artifacts in Iraq and Syria by ISIS. One way to define cultural property is as objects with a powerful connection to a community. A connection that continues to influence the community’s dreams, hopes and self-definitions even after the physical objects themselves have disappeared. Our world today presents many examples of disappearances of cultural property, via theft, unauthorized sale or even deliberate destruction. The upcoming show will focus on what happens after the disappearance. It will explore how artists and scholars express their love and need for the vanished objects through the creation of artworks that react to or refer to the objects, through the painstaking reconstruction of the objects or through fights to repatriate objects taken from one culture and tantalizingly displayed, out of reach, in another country. 

Lilia Ziamou: Any concluding thoughts?

Thalia Vrachopoulos: I believe that great art has several objective qualities, the first of which must remain the concept. But it must also be well made, speak to the issues of its own time, engage visually and effectively convey its concept to the viewer. 

Pinned Stitched and Glitzed: Challenging Gender Stereotypes, The Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 860 11th avenue, New York, NY, September 30, 2015 – November 13, 2015.