The Center for Art and Social Engagement (CASE) at the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts and Project Row Houses (PRH) have announced the 2018 CASE-PRH fellows, artists Eyakem Gulilat and Regina Agu. The CASE-PRH Fellowship, introduced in 2017, gives artists the chance to work with local urban planners, educators, policy makers and the community of the Third Ward, the historically black neighborhood that borders the University of Houston. Through this collaboration, the Fellowship can confront issues important to both the neighborhood and the fellows. The Fellowship, like UH’s Third Ward Initiative, reinforces UH’s desire to connect with and help the Third Ward’s schools, businesses, health and arts.
Lives and works in: Oklahoma City
What he wants you to take away from his work: “How marginalized communities make their own communities, and how they celebrate that space. I want to present another American narrative that, oftentimes, gets overlooked.”
Eyakem Gulilat changed career paths after discovering how photography connects him to other communities and their stories.
“I really enjoy the process of conversing with other people. Having a camera allows me a sort of license to connect with other people,” Gulilat says. “Photography creates an avenue to sit down and talk to people. I can’t take a portrait and not talk to them.”
Gulilat examines the concept of bonds and belonging through his art. For example, in his piece “The Promise Land,” he went to Boley, Oklahoma, a historically Black town, to observe how African Americans operated within a space of their own. As he was driving around Boley, he came across a Mennonite community, an ethno-religious group committed to pacifism, who migrated from Mexico. He then wanted to capture the way the two groups coexisted.
“The work became this documentation of two communities living side-by-side, found inside the context of a Black town,” he says. “The project is called ‘The Promise Land’ because both communities settled in a space that accepted them as they are.”
In regards to his CASE-PRH Fellowship, Gulilat aims to do the same in Houston. He wants to observe how the members of the Third Ward community celebrate in their own space and “forge their own unique identity” in the face of obstacles like de-investment and gentrification. Underlining his art’s continuous theme of connection, belonging and identity, Gulilat wishes to bond with this community, document and share this American story.
Gulilat says, “I’m looking for the beauty, the hopes, desires and wants of the Third Ward community.”
Where she’s based: Houston, Texas
Her Fellowship goals: “Connecting with community members and stakeholders, and developing opportunities for collaboration, conversations and engagement.”
From vinyl prints of brown sand and blue skies to photos of mankind’s remnants in nature, Regina Agu addresses environmental justice, spatial and social politics, and cultural history through her work and intends to do the same with her CASE-PRH Fellowship.
“Third Ward has been my creative home ever since I moved back to Houston. I am continually inspired by the history and legacy of the arts and culture of Third Ward and its creative entrepreneurs and activists,” Agu says. “Project Row Houses, the Community Artists’ Collective and Dr. Alvia Wardlaw at the University Museum at Texas Southern University, as well as my artist peers, all nurtured me as a young artist. They are why I decided to pursue a professional practice to begin with.”
As a former Third Ward resident, Agu is familiar with the community’s origins and ongoing concerns. She recognizes the barriers locals face, such as economic opportunity and affordable housing, as well as the community’s initiatives in response to these obstacles. Agu wants to highlight the work the neighborhood and her friends have done in conjunction with the relationship between communities of color and surrounding environments via her art.
“I plan to use the CASE-PRH Fellowship period to develop a ‘psychogeographic’ exploration of Emancipation Park and other urban green spaces in Houston,” she explains. “I will focus on the dynamics of access to these public spaces for communities of color and tie in research questions related to public health, environmental justice and property ownership. I will also look to Emancipation Park as a case study, learning from the history of the park as a space of celebration and from the radical imagination of its founders.”
As an active leader in the Houston arts community, Agu served as the co-director of the alternative art space Alabama Song and on the PRH Board of Directors.Agu says, “Now as a CASE-PRH fellow, I want to bring the lessons I’ve learned as an artist and collaborative organizer to create work in conversation with the community that has sustained me over the years.”