AJ Girard has a disarming presence. There’s a calm reserve that hits peaks of joyful excitement and then returns to a subdued state of attentive listening. His passion for art and community is palpable, while his demeanor remains that of someone familiar; speaking with Girard feels like catching up with an old friend. It’s that mixed with his commitment to reimagining representation à la his statement shoe, a pair of Jordan’s, which made so many people feel personally invited into his debut show this past spring at the Jeffrey Deitch museum, titled “Shattered Glass.” AJ Girard just welcomes you.
Living in LA by way of Dallas, Girard is relatively new to his role as a curator. “I’ve only been in the fine art space for five to six years, and I don’t come from a background of fine art,” he tells me. It was the transition from a performing arts high school, where he studied theater and visual arts, to Howard University that Girard got his stronghold on African American culture and the contribution to visual expression.
Eventually finding his way to The Broad as a museum educator, Girard honed his lens and voice through conversation and observation on the exhibit floor, refining the intuitive intersections of pop culture, sports, and street art that his individual experiences have delivered him. “I wouldn’t be here today without the influence of sports and pop culture on my life. I never played a sport, but I grew up with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, and those images - the flying black man, the shattered backboard - have had a lasting impact on my identity and references.”
And so “Shattered Glass,” much like his follow-up show currently on display until October 9th at Anthony Gallery in Chicago titled, “Growing Pains,” has become both an archive of Girard’s universe and a bold breaking of the universal lens of aesthetics through which people of color have had to view themselves.
“This is my first year as a curator, so it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. ‘Shattered Glass’ came from needing to give a safe space for people of color during such a difficult year, but it evolved into so much more - it became a reconvening for my community. I think my trajectory, and the show’s success, is proof of the power of authenticity and community,” says Girard.
Through his curation of both “Shattered Glass” and “Growing Pains,” Girard challenges subjugation, redefines access, and creates a space that feels like a familiar embrace; a space full of warmth, love, and unbridled unity for a community ready to rejoice in the joy of black and brown identity. It’s there, at the point of intimate conversation in both the physical and ideological, that AJ Girard exercises the transformational power of art and the necessity for self-affirmation and representation for people of color in all spaces.
Below, we chat about his debut show, the power of fashion in identity, and how he’s building communities through curation.
Last year was a year of massive social change, not only in America but around the world. How does your debut show, “Shattered Glass,” represent this seismic shift in society?
What I’m still really proud of with “Shattered Glass” is that we didn’t do the thing that the art world has always done; we didn’t present the artists that have the institutional cosign. Instead, we gave our community the microphone, and we became listeners. I think that’s the healing power of art, though. The only parameter we gave to our artists was that they needed to present work that our community could see themselves inside of. I’m still so proud to look back at that and know that we served such a large purpose through that intentionality.
How are you redefining the role of a curator?
Through accessibility - and I mean that in a wholehearted way. I am in the room at my art shows, trying to make sure that my presence is felt and that it looks similar to the people in the communities where I come from. This is something I’ve always reflected on; the way I dress and how I don’t stray from my identity, whether I’m giving a tour, talking about art, or in my daily life. You’ll find me in a pair of Jordan’s regardless of the venue because I want to be the person that can be identified with in a way that gives inspiration. If you can see it, you can be it.
I use my energy to command what I can - whether that’s getting artists paid, telling people’s stories, or being a reflection for younger generations to see themselves.
This season feels very much like a new age Harlem Renaissance, with you and so many other creators as the movement's leaders. How are you navigating that responsibility?
I always come back to my start and how so much of this world-building that we’re doing is coming from a very honest place. That alone gives me a sense of deep responsibility instead of looking at my work as superfluous. I’m committed to the next generation of thinkers because I see it as a blessing to even be in this position where I get to do this work. I also don’t think success is climbing the ladder higher as an individual, but instead, I think success looks like an expanded horizon. How wide of a landscape can I create? And so I use my energy to command what I can - whether that’s getting artists paid, telling people’s stories, or being a reflection for younger generations to see themselves.
The title “Shattered Glass” can take on many meanings. I initially thought of broken social structures, uncared for communities, and shattered dreams - but it can also be interpreted as optimistic; as in, broken ceilings. How do you reconcile between this duality, and how is this bifurcation told through your curation?
I think we came into the space with so much uncertainty; the show opened up on the first day of Spring, and that in and of itself became a big metaphor for breaking away. It wasn’t planned that way, but I suppose that speaks to the divine timing. And everybody showed up! We had lowriders out front, food trucks, and whole families; really, a community of people committed to seeing themselves reflected in the space. It became a beautiful reflection and reconvening after such a sad year of death, joblessness, and unrest. I lost my aunt to Covid-19 last year, which was a very difficult season for me but also a big motivation in creating this show. I wanted to tell other people’s stories; people who historically aren’t given a stage to share their experiences but deserve their stories to be elevated and archived. The museum became a healing space, full of huge canvases, bright colors, and familiar faces. In the end, my community bloomed there.
Looking through images from the show, it didn’t feel somber; instead, it felt celebratory.
We were able to realize each other; this community of 40 artists and my co-curator, Melahn Frierson, all people of color, doing this for the first time. It became a space of joy and sharing.
What was it like working with Mr. Wash?
Mr. Wash was one of my favorite stories to give tours for at the space. He had served 20 years in federal prison for a non-violent drug charge, which took a large piece of his life. While incarcerated, he taught himself to draw and paint, so his perspective and voice were so unique that they brought out people who also saw themselves reflected; people who had served sentences and had these amazing stories that society had silenced.
One of my best memories from that night was when Mr. Wash’s daughter came up to me with tears in her eyes, thanking me for telling her dad’s story and representing so much of where we come from. I think that we’ve been promised this for a long time but have always been told to wait - one day it will happen, we’re told. Well, that one day came, and we made it happen. Everyone is better off for it, and Mr. Wash finally got to where he deserves to be.
There are amazing groups and thinking patterns that are really applying pressure on traditional norms and making room for all of us to be rebellious and unique.
What is the role of fashion in identity?
These are places to make choices. We’re living in a world where society’s norms are shifting, and we’re offered more choice, whether that’s in your pronouns or the way you tie your shoestrings. There are amazing groups and thinking patterns that are really applying pressure on traditional norms and making room for all of us to be rebellious and unique.
How does art inform fashion? And conversely, how does fashion inform art?
I know of so many fashion designers who use fine art as their inspiration for pattern making, textiles, and materials design. Fine art presents opportunities for fashion to think differently, and on the other end, fashion allows artists to speak without using words. Fashion is all about individuality and painting your identity through your jeans or your shoes. It allows you to show who you are while maintaining your reserve.
How are you using fashion as a vehicle for breaking stereotypes in the art world?
I always felt pressured to have a sort of conventional look that was business-appropriate. The art world comes with a ton of wealth attached to it, so I had to decamp from these traditional viewpoints that are ultimately non-inclusive to people of color and women. It takes growing, but now I’m able to enter these spaces and bring ease to the convention by making my look accessible. I enjoy wearing expressive fashion pieces and luxury items, but I also want a kid to see me in jeans and Jordan’s and feel they can approach me because I look familiar. I’m very aware of the power of fashion.
The word origins of “curator” mean “to take care,” so I always want the projects I build to be safe spaces for people to reimagine themselves.
How does a curator foster community development that has an impact outside of the museum?
It’s always about who we’re talking to and putting together projects that make the working-class person, who doesn’t always have space to think outside of their normal circle of life, feel welcomed and seen. The word origins of “curator” mean “to take care,” so I always want the projects I build to be safe spaces for people to reimagine themselves.
Tell me about your Chicago show, “Growing Pains.”
Easy Otabor, who is very much a mentor-type figure for me, asked me to curate this show at his space, Anthony Gallery. I knew I wanted to bring the same energy as I did in “Shattered Glass,” but then I realized - “Shattered Glass” was about my community in LA, but who is the community in Chicago? So I did my research to find artists with similar sensibilities rooted in the working class. I wanted to reflect on that starting point and bring together a group of people who could capture this city’s culture of survival and determination. What I ended up with was a story of a shared, grounded upbringing told by people from this city and centering on women’s voices. You hear so much about the guys from Chicago, and I’m a huge fan, but I wanted to shift the narrative and allow the women to take center stage to transfer some weight and create equity.
In one sentence, what does the future of art look like to you?
We are the art.