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New Brooks Fellow Heather Nickels Shares First Project for the Museum

The Brooks Museum recently created a fellowship to help usher more professionals from under-represented backgrounds into careers within the art museum field.

The Brooks announced the Joyce Blackmon Curatorial Fellowship in African American Art and Art of the African Diaspora in 2018. Washington D.C. native Heather Nickels was appointed to the position and she arrived in Memphis in August of last year to begin a two-year commitment.

In her role, Heather will organize exhibitions, support the goal of promoting inclusive & diversified programming, and lead efforts to acquire more works by artists of African descent for the museum’s collection.

In just her first few months on the job, Heather has organized her first exhibition and it’s on display now. A Journey Towards Self-Definition: African American Artists in the Permanent Collection pulls from the 103-year-old museum’s holdings of African American art and features photography, carvings, sculptures, paintings, textiles and more from Gordon Parks, James Van der Zee, Ernest C. Withers, Edwin Jeffrey Jr., William Edmondson, Purvis Young, Patrick Kelly, and Lonnie Holley among others. 

Heather spoke with us about the path that led her to the Brooks and how the exhibit came together.

The Fontenelles at the Poverty Board, Harlem, New York, 1967 by Gordon Parks

Having just moved here, what were your first impressions of the city and how are you acclimating?

Moving from London here has been quite the transition — I’ve moved around a lot since leaving for college at 18, but this might be one of the starker contrasts I’ve experienced. Memphis is one of the smaller cities I’ve lived in— everyone seems to know everyone, especially in the arts. Even in the short time I’ve been here, I’ll meet people who say they’ve seen me around or we have mutual acquaintances!

One thing I love about living here is that people are so friendly and approachable. When I first arrived, my colleagues helped me find an apartment, let me stay with them before I signed my lease, provided me with plates, cups, bedding— all because they wanted to. They made the transition easier, and for that, I’m very grateful.

Even though Memphis feels like a small city, there’s so much happening, particularly in the arts. My calendar is constantly filled with after-work art openings, concerts, theatre productions— for its size, I think Memphis is full of people doing really exciting and meaningful work. And it’s continuing to grow! I see many young people moving here from other places because of the cost of living and the feeling that they can pursue their passions without as many constraints.


What was it like putting together your first exhibition for the museum? How’d you narrow down what you wanted to include? 

I’m so thrilled to have had the opportunity to curate an exhibition in my first few months at the museum. Not only did the process allow me to become more familiar with our holdings of African American art, but it has allowed us to highlight works in the collection that have either never been seen, or have not been exhibited in recent years. 

As I looked through our storage, I brainstormed possible narratives that would weave together art by African Americans from as early as the beginning of the twentieth century to as recent as a few years ago. The main theme that emerged for me was identity, and the ways in which individuals self-define and present themselves to others. When we ask ourselves who we are, questions as simple as “What is my political affiliation?” and “What are my religious beliefs?” or as complex as “What community or communities am I a part of?” and “Where do I fit in a larger history?” can shape our responses. I wanted to highlight these categories in the exhibition, focusing on African American artists and subjects, which is why the show is loosely grouped in sections: politics, religion, community/family and legacy/history.

Another priority for me was to showcase a range of media in the space — photography, painting, sculpture, and textiles — in order to demonstrate the breadth of the exhibited artists’ practices. 

Photo by Averell Mondie

When did your love and appreciation of art begin?

My brother and I grew up going to museums, even though our parents did not grow up with that luxury. They both understood the importance of the arts as adults, so I credit them with initially exposing me to art around my hometown of Washington D.C., and beyond. 

When did you know you wanted to turn art into a career? 

In middle school and high school, I wanted to pursue a career in fashion, but realized through interning and taking art history classes about mid-way through college that I enjoyed museum work most. After working in editorial, development and education departments in museums and other non-profits, I found I loved working on exhibitions and curatorial projects. In life and in art, I’ve always been interested in underrepresented or misrepresented groups — in art history, my focus has centered on African American and African diasporic artists and subjects. An African American woman myself, I’m particularly interested in African American women artists and wrote my master’s dissertation on Loïs Mailou Jones and an art collective and workshop — made up of mostly African American artists and teachers — she co-founded in Washington D.C. in the 1940s. 

How’d you find out about the role at the Brooks and what made you pursue it?

I found out about the Brooks fellowship somewhat serendipitously— I heard about the position in spring of 2019 when I was completing my masters in London, U.K. While a student at The Courtauld Institute of Art, I worked two part-time jobs, one of which was as an assistant in the institution’s gallery print room. My current colleague, Dr. Rosamund Garrett, also attended The Courtauld and worked in the gallery. While we never worked together, we had the same boss at the gallery, and she connected us. I flew out to Memphis (my first time visiting) for a full-day interview when I was home in April conducting research for my dissertation, and accepted the job a few months later.  

I was drawn to the position for many reasons, but mainly because in this role, I have the ability to curate my own exhibition based on my area of interest. Very few curators, especially those at my age and level, have the opportunity and, frankly, time, to propose and execute an exhibition of their choosing. The main exhibition will be the culmination of my fellowship and will be accompanied by a scholarly catalogue. I feel very fortunate to be at the Brooks at this exciting moment and in this capacity, and look forward to continuing to highlight the extraordinary stories of artists in the collection and beyond over the next two years. 

A Journey Towards Self-Definition is on view at the Brooks Museum of Art through May 10, 2020. See museum hours and admission info here

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