Liz Nielsen and Carolina Wheat-Nielsen are co-founders and directors of the artist-run gallery Elijah Wheat Showroom in Bushwick, Brooklyn. They were also organizers of Nasty Women Exhibition, a protest art exhibition that took place in January 2017 at the Knockdown Center in Queens. The exhibition had over 700 submissions and ended up raising over $42,000 for Planned Parenthood—it inspired over 80 other Nasty Women Exhibitions around the country and around the world.
Jessamyn Fiore (Rail): How did Elijah Wheat Showroom come to be?
Liz Nielsen: I’m a practicing artist—an experimental photographer. Alongside Carolina, who is my wife, life partner, and partner in business, we have been involved in our art community curating and running a gallery since 2008. Prior to Elijah Wheat Showroom, we ran a gallery in Chicago called the Swimming Pool Project Space. Both galleries allowed us to use a different voice than we use in our own artwork, addressing social and political issues from different perspectives.
Carolina Wheat-Nielsen: For the Swimming Pool Project Space we curated thirty-six shows in three years. When we moved to New York we were so focused on our full time positions that it was really difficult to pick up that momentum again. However tragedy shatters you. When we put the pieces back together and focused on our own life paths, understanding that life is very precious and we have to move forward toward our visions and dreams, a storefront space just kind of fell in our laps. We chose to name it after our deceased son, Elijah Wheat.
Rail:You often show artists who are also activists, emerging or from a younger generation. What led you to decide to use the platform of Elijah Wheat Showroom to support this type of art?
Nielsen: Part of it is to follow in the spirit of Elijah. He had a very independent political activist buck-the-status-quo type of personality. He was always testing boundaries and leading the way.
Wheat-Nielsen: He didn’t live long but he lived very wide; he lived his life to the fullest. And we wanted to absolutely honor that kind of risk. I remember we were down in Zuccotti Park during the 1% situation and he’s all whooping and hollering—I mean a twelve year old really excited about protesting in Zuccotti Park! It made us profoundly proud of him because Liz and I also have a strong activist streak.
Nielsen: We both have backgrounds in education and have been working with younger people for many years. Carolina has a twenty year history working in education in arts administration—and I have worked as a professor at the undergraduate level. We have connections with that age group and are interested in helping to foster and mentor young people in the art world.
Wheat-Nielsen: Helping young artists work through challenges that they may not think of while they’re in an educational facility. What is it like to be an independent agent? What is it like to read a contract and understand a consignment form? How to price your work? How to choose a gallery?
Nielsen: We’ve kept up a lot of relationships too. There are a lot of artists who did have their first solo show with us years ago and are still connected to us now and have many things happening in their world, more opportunities. We have been following their practice for many years.
Rail: So with this younger generation of artists you’re working with—talking about feminism and activism in art—what is the difference with their perspective?
Wheat-Nielsen: You have these “Generation Z” artists up and coming, bringing personal and contemporary social impact to the forefront—not only making work that is controversial but now focused on identity politics. We are very wrapped up in where we’re coming from—or how young artists are unique individuals, and where their voice can change or help elucidate those that don’t have experiences being engaged as a female or a trans male or a dark skinned woman compared to a light skinned woman growing up in the South or—just a lot of different ideas that surround themselves personally.
Nielsen: You have to be fighting the fight for people even if you are not having that same experience. So what I think is happening in feminism now is less about white feminism and becoming more about intersectionality and bonding together for people that have overlapping oppression. So a white woman isn’t going to know a person of color’s struggle the same way, but because we know that, we have to stand up for each other . . .
Wheat-Nielsen: . . . by listening and understanding and being able to assist with getting the voice that is not highlighted in this conversation out there. So with the gallery we strive to do that.
Rail: Both of you were part of the original core organizers of Nasty Women Exhibition—why did you want to be involved and what did you take away from it?
Nielsen: The idea of having a political voice through art is something that is really important. People don’t arrive at a piece of art with shields on their ears—they are reading it more openly. And I think at that moment everyone was just asking themselves, “what can I do?” Political online organization is revolutionizing the idea of protest and people are coming together from all over the world. That is what Nasty Women did. We got online and collected all kinds of voices.
Wheat-Nielsen: We spread the word.
Nielsen: When any woman, or person who identified as a female, wanted to have a voice this became a way to do that. One thing that was really incredible about the first Nasty Women Exhibition was that we didn’t exclude anyone who applied.
Wheat-Nielsen: But it had so many tiers—understanding not only how we made history by having an all-inclusive event of female identifying artists with work from all over the world but also it was innovative in terms of fundraising—the feel-good attitude created as people walked away with a 12 × 12 inch work that was $100 or less so they felt like they were activists themselves, they were becoming collectors, they were contributing to the cause for female reproductive rights by giving this money to Planned Parenthood.
Rail: The original Nasty Women Exhibition inspired many other people to do organize their own sister exhibitions. Last fall you curated a Nasty Women section of the Anti-Art Fair in London where I believe you were working with some of these other Nasty Women Exhibition organizers. How has this experience been?
Wheat-Nielsen: It’s so incredible because we’re still working with the organizer of Nasty Women Portugal, Inês Mourão, she’s putting on their third Nasty WomenExhibition in the coming months and she’s asked us to submit. We’re continuing our conversation with Nasty Women Amsterdam organizer Airco Caravan who is an incredible prolific activist artist. Also Lady Kitt, an organizer for Nasty Women of the North East in the U.K., might be doing a performance in the Showroom in July.
Nielsen: It’s just the connection with all of these people who are leading activists in their own areas. It reminds me of how any revolution that has ever changed anything began through tiny connected people, voices, groups, all becoming a collective together. And meeting all these people—all these Nasty Women—is really powerful.
Wheat-Nielsen: They’re allies, they’re peers, they’re colleagues.
Nielsen: People are hosting each other. Just taking care of each other. The movement is happening from several different places. That’s what I’m saying, talking about the revolution—it’s popping up all over.