Artist Za'Nia Coleman on making space for 'Black millennial thought'

Za'Nia Coleman
Za'Nia Coleman is an interdisciplinary artist from Minneapolis.
Courtesy Za'Nia Coleman

On Minnesota Now, we love to talk to creatives around the state to get insight into their art and their lives.

Today, we’re featuring Za’Nia Coleman. She’s an interdisciplinary artist from Minneapolis who works with textiles, digital media and film as well as cultural curation.

Coleman spoke with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer about finding inspiration in Black feminist theory and her childhood dance studio, and creating community through curation.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: As you all know, on Minnesota Now, we love to talk to creatives around the state to get insight into their art and their lives. Our next guest is Za'Nia Coleman. She's an interdisciplinary artist from Minneapolis who works with textiles, digital media and film, as well as cultural curation. Za'Nia's on the line right now. Welcome to the program.

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: Thank you for having me.

CATHY WURZER: I mentioned in the intro that you're a cultural curator. What does that mean?

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: I think in a non-traditional sense, cultural curation for me means art in many different mediums that brings people together and it's culturally specific.

CATHY WURZER: So I understand you're a current Emerging Curators Institute fellow, which is a really big deal.

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: Yeah. So the first portion of the fellowship was a lot of information and background knowledge around curating as a craft, as a medium. Then the second portion is we get to do an exhibition. And my exhibition is going to be a work that focuses on the archive as contemporary art, which was really big in the '70s. But it's something that I've always been interested in with my background in oral history.

And so I'll be doing it on Hollywood Studio of Dance, which is on the corner of Broadway and Penn. It's a dance studio that has been there since the '30s. And I will be focusing on a where are they now story with the people and the women who have come through that space, as well as the owner, Miss Diane.

And I have artifacts and photos. There'll be some fabrication. There'll be some extra story collection. And also some calls to community to give any artifacts that they have, whether it's old costumes, photos. Or to come and tell me a story.

CATHY WURZER: Oh. I love that. Do you have a background with that dance studio?

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: I do. I was actually a participant from 1999 to 2001. So I have a whole bunch of pictures with lipstick and tutus. The whole thing. It will be my first solo exhibit. But it's also my first time getting to tie together all my different disciplines into one show.

CATHY WURZER: Say, I want to talk a little bit more about curation. A traditional curator is a cultural gatekeeper, right? So how will you become a different curator as you move forward, as you go beyond the ECI fellowship?

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: Traditional curation is really rooted in a lot of boundaries and restrictions about how involved a curator can be. And I break a lot of those rules. My intention with curation is moreso people's experience with the art as well as the artist's experience being showcased. I look at it in a very hands-on no boundaries. Artists can be curators, curators can be artists. And it's a very reciprocal interaction and it's as much collaboration as you would like in the process.

CATHY WURZER: Can you also community build through curation?

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: I believe so, because I think how people feel in a space is as important as what they're there to see. Sometimes in white cube spaces, Black folks don't feel comfortable. And so I think it's really important for me when I'm making space for Black artists and Black community to come together that it's a very enjoyable, affirming space for folks to be in. Or the DJ. There's really good food.

There structured time. But there's also time to just talk and commune with people. And I think of art as a tool for revolution and liberation. I think those are very lofty concepts. However, I believe if you give people healthy, safe spaces to be in frequently and commune with one another, a lot of solutions and problem solving can come out of that.

CATHY WURZER: So speaking of space, another of your projects is Tangible Collective. I know you celebrated your fifth anniversary last year. You describe it as creating spaces devoted to millennial Black thought. Tell us more about what that looks like.

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: Yeah. So myself and my best friend started Tangible in 2017. And it came out of a need for our peer group needing a space to go to. I think at the time there, were two really popular open mics in the Twin Cities that were lovely beautiful spaces that I also participated in as an audience member for years.

But it didn't really feel like what we wanted to do or what we needed. And so we created this open mic that was very open format and comedy to dance to spoken word of course and all varying mediums. And we built this organic network. And I think recently, we were-- or last year, we did an artist cohort, teaching artist cohort. And we were talking to youth at North High School.

And somebody was like, what's the biggest thing that you got out of this? And it was like, at any moment, we have people that can come through and be a DJ, that can come through and do art, pull up with something. Have food and just be in space. And so I think the open mic was my introduction to how community can form and what it looks like when it's really organic and with great intention.

CATHY WURZER: Are you pleased with how it's turning out?

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: I am. I am. I really am. I think our initial goal was to provide a platform for people to not only show work, but develop. And a lot of the people that came to our open mics in 2017 are now all, for the most part, professional. Sometimes we'll get stories like, I didn't feel comfortable enough to identify as an artist until I was in y'all's spaces.

CATHY WURZER: So speaking of identifying as an artist, how did you become an artist? Have you always considered yourself to be an artist?

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: What's funny is I had asked my mom recently. I was like, when did you know I wasn't going to be a scientist or something math related? She was like, early. I knew early. I remember my aunt was a singer. And my my aunt is Thomasina Petrus. And--





CATHY WURZER: She's great.

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: Yeah. She is. My aunt's Thomasina Petrus, and then my aunt-in-law is Junauda Petrus. And so a lot of my childhood was seeing these two amazing women show up differently than I had seen anybody show up. And I remember my parents were in education, so we had very traditional 7:00 to 5:00, 7:00 to 4:00 schedules. I remember my aunt used to come in with these knee-high boots late on Friday nights and these coats. And I was like, whatever she's doing, I want to do it.

And I think just seeing that example was really important as an alternative of how you can express yourself and be excited about something and tell a story. I went to school for fashion design at St. Kate's. And then I got involved with the Hilton Sisters Project, where we documented the story of Women Religious. And then I just started building up this tool of storytelling, whether it was clothes, film. Whether it was bringing people together to tell their stories.

And so it just became this thing that felt really natural and instinctual to me. And that's something I just really leaned into. I was like, I don't want to go to a 9:00 to 5:00.

CATHY WURZER: Good for you, because I think found your place definitely as an artist, you know? I'm wondering, who or what is inspiring you right now as an artist.

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: Ooh. I would say since 2018, I've really been heavy into Black feminist thought and Black feminist theory. And it's been really pivotal because to look at how a lot of these women just put language to experience has been something that has resonated with me. And I think one of the first times I saw that was in For Colored Girls by Ntozake Shange. I don't want to say her name wrong.

But in her text version of the poems, it was just beautiful to see a lot of the experiences of Black women around me with language added to it. And it just felt really empowering. And when I need inspiration or I'm cultivating something, returning to text. So Saidiya Hartman. Beautiful Lives and Wayward Experiments I believe it's called. And then I also have Yabo by Alexis De Veaux.

Of course, Toni Morrison. One book I'm really interested right now in is Sula. And one concept that's been really landing for me in Sula, she has this concept where the people live in the bottom and the bottom is actually the top of the valley. But they say it is the bottom of heaven to justify the weird labeling.

But I just think it's so cool and metaphorical for so many things about Black life and Black existence in relationship to heaven, spirituality, placement in society, all that type of stuff. And I think that that's really been helping me recently with my new venture into projection mapping.

CATHY WURZER: That sounds like an interesting way to use technology in art.

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: Yeah. It's been really cool, because I think it allows me to think about taking up space with my ideas around cultural curation. Affirming images, moving images, still images. You can almost project onto anything. It's really beautiful. And I actually have a show on March 25th. It'll be outside, and it's in collaboration with two other artists, Kreis and Sabrina Ford.

And we're all doing an ode to the community kind of in the Rondo area. About what it used to be and what it is now.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. You have got a lot going on. How exciting. How exciting. Thank you. Thank you so much for talking about your life and your work and what's inspiring you and your upcoming shows. Za'Nia, thank you so much and all best to you.

ZA'NIA COLEMAN: Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Za'Nia Coleman is an interdisciplinary artist from Minneapolis. You can find her on Instagram at @zania_s or follow tangible collective at @tangiblecollectivemn. Arts Programming on MPR News is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendments Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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