Identity, Performance, and Black Womanhood: Tara Fay on Making Space in the Pittsburgh Arts

Interview by: Dominique Seneca

Tara wearing all black, sitting on a black couch, leaning her head against her hand
Artist and curator, Tara Fay. Courtesy Sarah Bader.

The art world revels in elitist exclusivity throughout western history. However, the artistic achievements of women and people of color have been continually ignored for centuries. Tara Fay, an independent curator and artist based in Pittsburgh, is one woman who is fighting to change that.  

Fay’s artistic and curatorial endeavors are in a continual state of growth–what started as a passion and skill for organizing and curating quickly evolved into burgeoning success as a performance artist. Fay revels in her nontraditional arts background, in fact, staying true to this part of her identity has inspired her goals as a woman in the arts: to nourish women and artists of color through addressing underrepresented topics in cultural institutions like colorism, intersectionality, and racism. 

Fay began her curatorial career as a manager at Social Status, a streetwear boutique in Pittsburgh, where she curated a series of exhibitions in the space with artists including Darnell Chambers, Larissa Rancurello, and Amani DavisShe has since been invited to curate exhibitions at Bunker Projects, Phosphor Project Space, Late Space, and The August Wilson Center for African American Culture. Fay is now stepping into the spotlight as a focused and nuanced artist in her own right, too. Two years ago, Fay organized her first performance art piece—a live hair braiding in the gallery of photographer Deana Lawson’s solo exhibition at The Carnegie Museum of Art (CMoA). Fay is finding her ground in the local art scene and through her curatorial and artistic practices continues to make space for all artists by celebrating gender, race, and heritage.

Opening of 24, an exhibition of the works of Tony Duff, curated by Fay at Social Status in Downtown Pittsburgh, July 2019. Courtesy Tyler Calpin.

a group of people standing in a storefront, with black and white art pieces propped up on a shelf above a rack of clothing

Dominique Seneca: Your curatorial career began at the streetwear boutique Social Status, where you curated shows with artists such as Grits Capone, LinShuttr, and DS Kinsel. How has working in this setting shaped your practice? 

Tara Fay: I worked there for a long time, so I witnessed a lot of collaboration between contemporary artists and streetwear brands. It really helped me explore the idea of introducing art in non-traditional ways to different demographics. That shapes a lot of my practice.  Curating in that space also helped me to realize that you can successfully showcase art in non-traditional settings. To me, the store is the antidote to the white-cube gallery. I realized these conditions appealed to me a lot and really aligned with my non-traditional arts background. 

Also while starting out in the art world you were balancing school and motherhood. How did you manage? 

I’m really, really fortunate to have a great support system for my children. Maintaining balance was always a challenge, and I don’t think anyone ever figures out the ideal or even the right  way to do it—you just wing it and hope for the best. I have never missed a milestone with my kids, so in that way I feel accomplished. My kids are at most of my openings, and they have met and created memories with some incredible artists. 

What have been the challenges, if any, of your curatorial career?

A challenge is not having the technical knowledge of curating, which I realize now is important. There are things that you can’t pick up on your own like arts writing and the ability to understand and correctly contextualize an artist’s work in order to properly align it with your vision. Also, research. I didn’t have a developed set of research skills early on and these are an essential part of curation. An understanding of the technical aspects of research and curation, especially from an academic standpoint is the difference between exhibiting and just throwing art on the walls. 

I think for a while I wasn’t taken seriously in a lot of ways. I don’t look, sound, or present myself like a “traditional” curator or museum professional. People have definitely made it a point to let me know. Sometimes I still feel that’s the case; I’m not an MFA student and I don’t have a traditional arts background, but I am very passionate about what I do, and I believe in staying true to who I am. 

Flow State performed by Shaquille Douglas and Tara Fay (sitting) in the Deana’s Lawson solo exhibition exhibition at the CMoA. Courtesy Sarah Huny Young.

Tara sitting in a red armchair in the middle of a gallery, getting her hair braided by Shaquille Douglas, who has black and red ombre hear and is wearing a camo print shirt. Behind them are two photographs capturing black folks.

Tell me about the first show you curated. What was your approach as a curator? 

It featured the local graffiti artist LinShuttr at Social Status in 2012. I remember that I received very little support from artists because I’m not making exhibitions that museums want to fund and in the street art community there is very little trust in newcomers because of the risk of exposure. However, this exhibition helped me learn early on to anticipate things not going how you imagined, and to prepare for anything. Lin had an idea of what he envisioned the space to be, and I really wanted to nourish that.

My process is very collaborative. I like to build on concepts and ideas with the artists I’m working with so that the narrative is one that everyone contributes to.

How does this process translate as you grow your artistic practice? 

I’ve always enjoyed art, but never envisioned myself becoming an artist. I wanted to do something that enabled me to work behind the scenes as more of an organizer. I decided it was time to create art when I realized there were very personal things I wanted to express, and curation limited me in doing so. My work is primarily centered on identity, so it’s very personal.  I use different mediums to explore different themes, but I want to keep it all within the same vein so there’s always some consistency.

I’m very much building a narrative of my own. I feel like there’s also more pressure as an artist. If a show I collaborate on isn’t a success or the outcome isn’t as I envisioned, I am receptive to criticism and make changes for the next time, but criticism should always push you to improve. If someone thinks my art is bad, I find it’s more difficult to navigate around that. There are differences in the processes too. Art can be more intuitive and less technical. 

What has been the most unexpected or difficult part of this transition?

Just putting myself out there as an artist is challenging. Curation was something I got into very organically. Calling myself an artist was not something I felt I had the right to do, and even now I struggle with that title. But at the same time performance felt organic in that I’ve always subscribed to the idea that existing as a person of color is performative, which is also a part of my process. What drew me to it was wanting to be expressive about things that were important to me. I was feeling limited to exhibitions, and I wanted to take time to explore my own practice. My process is really about communicating things about my identity, and my experiences. As I do more, I do struggle a little less, and I feel myself beginning to own that title.

Your debut as an artist was at the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMoA) through a performance piece, Flow State, at the solo show of American photographer Deana Lawson in April 2018. In the performance you had your hair braided while visitors viewed Lawson’s photographs and trap and hip-hop music filled the gallery. The piece was soon recognized by Sarah Huny Young in Elle Magazine as an example, alongside Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Pharrell, of “Blackness as art.” What was the inspiration?

At the CMoA, I wanted to stage something that aligned with my experiences, Black womanhood and Deana’s work. I had the idea in mind of something very non-conventional in a museum setting, and when a good friend of mine suggested I stage a performance piece, it felt right. The idea for hair braiding didn’t come to me until the night of her opening at the CMoA and it clicked; I knew all at once what the work represented to me, and what I wanted to convey through my performance. Deana’s work is incredible. I’ve followed her as an artist for so long, and her success is so well deserved. That exhibition and her work definitely inspired that entire process. 

Fay at the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Annual New Members Exhibition where she presented on her performance piece, Flow State. The documentation titled, Hair Braiding at the CMoA, of the performance is pictured in the background and on view at the exhibition. Courtesy Chris Uhren.

Tara with her hair tied back in a low bun, wearing gold necklaces and hoop earings, in front of a photo of her performance piece where she is getting her hair braided

You were recently inducted as a new member for Associate Artists of Pittsburgh (AAP), and had your work, Hair Braiding at the CMoA (performance footage from Flow State) in the Annual New Members exhibition,  Do these recognitions help you feel more confident as an artist?

It feels validating in a lot of ways, because I respect the AAP as an arts organization and it’s incredibly well established. Having my work included means a lot, especially having already been recognized by them for my curatorial efforts. It just affirms that I’m on the right path and that I need to keep creating. 

You’ve since participated in other performance art including Rashaad Newsome’s ongoing performance project, Shade Compositions which made its Pittsburgh debut in conjunction with the Andy Warhol Museum in 2018. Newsome cast self-identifying black female and femme performers to form an “improvisatory orchestral music” set against audio/video collages on stage. What was participating in this project like?

Newsome did open auditions at the Warhol, but I didn’t think I was particularly well suited to be a part of it. There’s always confusion about performance art and what it entails. I am NOT a performer, but a lot of people encouraged me to do it and I decided to audition on a whim. The experience brought a lot out of me and I value having worked with him as an artist. 

Rashaad Newsome’s Shade Compositions, a performance project that explores the complexities of social power structures and questions of agency. Fay is pictured in the second row, far right. Courtesy Sean Carroll.

a warmly lit stage with 16 people in front of microphones, with 3 projector screens above showing the same image of Rashaad Newsome

Do you feel supported in other ways as a woman artist of color in Pittsburgh ? 

When I do feel supported, it mostly comes from other femme artists. There are pretty obvious gender imbalances that I notice, especially when you look at who and where the most resources are allocated here. In Pittsburgh it feels like some people stand on a pillar in the arts community. To even be recognized in certain circles you need a cosign from some of these more prominent men and it gets tiring. I tend to stay quieter now then I have in the past, because I can afford to at this point. There are alot of femmes standing up and speaking out, and I’m making space for that. I’ll know when it’s time to speak up again.

As your artistic and curatorial practice evolve together, what message do you hope to convey?

I hope to inspire people to take the time to learn about themselves and to be expressive through that process. Our identities define us, and then they become a part of our legacies. If it takes me ten years to discover who I am and I built a body of work around that, then I’ve achieved a goal. I’m grateful to have these channels to create around personal experiences and I hope for others to have that experience as well.

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