DELVE Interview: Isissa Komada-John

Welcome to DELVE Interviews, a look into the unique paths of artistic and creative individuals. These conversations are a branch of our DELVE Workshops and Events, where we celebrate and discover everyone's unique paths as artistic and creative forces. Join us for our next DELVE: Comedy + Art event on Feburary 3rd at Made in NY Media Center by IFP in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Get tickets here!

Today we're excited to be speaking with Isissa Komada-John, the Exhibitions Director at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). Isissa has curated and organized over fifteen exhibitions, including ARE YOU YOU, PIXELATING: Black in New Dimensions, and Pattern Recognition, reviewed in The Huffington Post, ARTINFO, Daily Serving, and other publications. A multidisciplinary curator, designer and writer, her practice focuses on building a bridge between curatorial work and interior design to create innovative spaces for dialogue and social change. Isissa holds a degree in Africana Studies from Brown University, and has completed coursework in Interior Design at Parsons the New School for Design. When she’s not creating spaces, Isissa spends her time reading tarot cards, cooking for friends, learning about the stars, and riding her bicycle around her neighborhood. A native New Yorker, she currently lives in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn.

Thanks, Isissa, for sharing your thoughts with us!

Isissa Komada-John, photography by  Jovan Julien

Isissa Komada-John, photography by Jovan Julien

Can you describe your path in the creative industry – from where and when you began, until now?

I actually never thought I would work in the arts, despite coming from a family of architects, designers and makers, and always loving learning in creative contexts. As a kid, I would redecorate my bedroom each summer when school was out, and in college, friends would ask me for advice on how to spruce up their dorm rooms. Seeing the world as full of spaces and opportunities to make things beautiful has always been a part of me, but it wasn’t until interning at MoCADA (Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts), and meeting creatives who were turning their mix of passions and talents into careers, that I realized that I too was an artist, and that I could use my eye to have an impact on people’s lives and my community. At Brown University I concentrated in Africana Studies, with a focus on how contemporary Black artists use creative expression as a tool for community transformation. With this background, I was drawn to MoCADA, but I never would have guessed that I would find myself growing with the institution on the curatorial side of the museum. Looking back it makes perfect sense. I spent a couple of years taking courses in interior design at Parsons The New School for Design, and establishing the link between my curatorial work and my love for creating inspiring home and community spaces. In the last few years, I’ve focused on building a freelance practice where I can work collaboratively with other artists and creatives on curatorial projects, and as an interior, graphic and production designer. As 2015 begins, I’m excited to see what creative opportunities find me next.

I encourage the artists I work with to think beyond the narrow confines of the art world, and consider creative ways to bring their work into the streets, public spaces and local businesses of our communities. As an artist, how can your work bring you money and resources, and also be in service of strengthening our neighborhoods?
— Isissa Komada-John

Can you describe a day, or week, in your professional life?

I love having my hands in a number of projects, because it means that from week to week, my professional life can look really different. I spend my days at MoCADA’s Fort Greene, Brooklyn office, collaborating with amazing co-workers, planning exhibitions and programs,  communicating with artists about upcoming shows, and hosting evening artist talks and public events in the gallery. One week, most of my work may take place at my desk, and the next, I’m working hands-on in the gallery installing exhibitions, or out doing studio visits with artists. In the evenings and on weekends, I may be vintage shopping for an interior design project, on set working on a film, or spending time at a cafe planning a new artistic adventure.

ARE YOU YOU exhibition at MoCADA by  artist Shantell Martin , photograph by  Roy Rochlin

ARE YOU YOU exhibition at MoCADA by artist Shantell Martin, photograph by Roy Rochlin

What is your favorite project that you've worked on?

Picking a favorite project is tough, because there’s something in every project that I love, but it was such a blast working with artist Shantell Martin on MoCADA’s spring 2014 exhibition, ARE YOU YOU. At MoCADA, our shows use the work of contemporary visual artists to spark thought and dialogue on pressing social and political issues facing Africa, the Diaspora and the world. ARE YOU YOU took a more personal approach to this mission, and placed viewers at the center of Shantell’s world of playful improvisation, whimsical characters and dancing lines, all inviting folks to enter a space of self reflection and honesty. Rather than talking about what’s going on out there, in curating ARE YOU YOU, I was interested in asking us all what was going on within ourselves. The show was organized around the question: Are you being yourself every day, no matter what? We had such fun bringing the exhibition to life with drawing workshops, yoga classes, cooking demonstrations and discussions in the gallery, and the show burst open the expectations around what can and can’t happen at a museum. ARE YOU YOU asked us all to think like artists, and in a broader sense, offered this as an important element in our collective project of creating a more just and equal world. Shantell’s authentic and creative spirit was infectious, and in working with her, I found myself opening up more in my own creative life, taking more risks and trying new things.

ARE YOU YOU exhibition at MoCADA by   artist Shantell Martin , photo by  Steven Harris

ARE YOU YOU exhibition at MoCADA by artist Shantell Martin, photo by Steven Harris

What's the most valuable lesson you've learned from managing all of your projects?

The importance of developing flexible templates and strong workflow systems. With each project, I keep an eye on the process, where things are going smoothly, and what slows me down. I guess I’m kind of nerdy in that I get a kick out of designing templates for budgets, timelines and other organizational documents, and whether I’m doing production design for a short film, curating an exhibition or developing a visual identity for an organization, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel each time. This is especially helpful when starting a project that’s completely new for me — I have the security of knowing that I’ve got tools to draw from amidst all of the unknowns that come with trying something new. Last year, as I took on more freelance work, I created a funky color-coded spreadsheet to keep track of all of my current projects, as well as my ideas and inspiration for future projects. It has also turned out to be a great way to see a quick snapshot of my artistic life and where I’m headed. For anyone who works on multiple projects at once and has tons of ideas swirling around in their head, I really recommend trying it. It’s grounding and helps me to appreciate all of my opportunities.

What advice do you often find yourself giving to the artists that you work with?

I’m often asked by artists how to get their work out there. I think we’re living in a unique time when people are waking up to the reality that having an artist on their team is a tremendous asset. I encourage the artists I work with to think beyond the narrow confines of the art world,   and consider creative ways to bring their work into the streets, public spaces and local businesses of our communities. As an artist, how can your work bring you money and resources, and also be in service of strengthening our neighborhoods? Can you team up with a small business to help them create a more engaging storefront? Does the community garden up the block need help beautifying their planters? The opportunities are endless, but they may need to be created.

And finally, where is one of your favorite places to go to be inspired?

My couch. I’ve got everything I need in my apartment — Old family photos, a quirky collection of dishes, my favorite textiles, plants galore, Black feminist texts, vision boards, vintage lighting and art by my favorite visual artists.

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