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Bringing Everyone In

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Photo by Christopher Smith

A.B. Wilkinson and Fawn Douglas of Nuwu Art

YOU HAVE 300 words to answer this question: Give us a past example of how your art or practice succeeded in reaching the community. Take another 300 to answer this one: What’s your approach to social justice work? Hold on, you’re not done yet. The next question has to do with the kind of workshops you might run, and why. Responses are required.

It seems the fledgling Nuwu art and advocacy complex won’t rent an art studio to just anyone. Don’t expect to roll in, paint your pretty pictures, and slip back out, a solitary creative enigma.

As the application questions make clear, the fluid interplay between art and activism is Nuwu’s jam. “We’re looking for community-ass people,” says co-owner Fawn Douglas, the well-known artist and indigenous activist (her partner is UNLV history professor A.B. Wilkinson). “People who have been doing work in the community, people who have been doing their work around social justice in some way. People who are active, and want change.” Emphasis on POC creatives and their allies.

Nuwu, which began soft-opening in late December, owns four buildings on South Maryland Parkway, not far from Circle Park. Two are more or less finished, while work on the others proceeds as time, finances, and the plague allow. It’ll take three to five years, Wilkinson guesses. Probably less, Douglas thinks.

In addition to studio rentals — eight total when it’s all built out — Nuwu will provide space for activists, organizers, cultural healers, workshops, panel discussions, and, post-COVID, community events. A sizable corner of one building will serve as a “cultural makerspace,” with looms and other equipment for textiles, weaving, and beadwork.

The occupants they’ve already signed up suggest the chewy cultural thickness Douglas and Wilkinson hope to cultivate: In one light-filled, wood-ceilinged studio you’ll find married artists Xochil Xitlalli and Juan Quetzal, whose work each incorporates indigenous elements and cross-cultural explorations; another space will go to filmmaker Ben-Alex Dupris, whose 2019 short film Sweetheart Dancers explores gay identity within a traditional Native American context. In still other spaces, Douglas hopes to bring in educators and art therapists and more. She imagines everyone sharing ideas in the common areas, collaborating, helping each other extend their networks.

To hear the pair tell it, creating Nuwu has been both a labor of love and a multidisciplinary pain in the ass — from the financial aikido of dealing with sellers, brokers, lenders, and, in the case of one building, a baroque probate transaction, to the extensive refurbishing that was required. The buildings were in bad shape when the pair bought them last spring. “It was like walking in a funhouse,” Douglas says now. You wouldn’t know it from the room she’s sitting in, a pristine cube soon to be occupied by artists Brent Holmes and Ashanti McGee, but the place had been neglected for years and trashed by squatters.

That’s where the literal labor of love came in: patching roofs, clearing debris, refinishing walls and floors, night after weary night. The muscle-aching, time-sucking work inched forward through the long, scorching summer of plague deaths, protests, and intensifying political rhetoric. Not to mention their own packed schedules — day jobs, academic commitments, creative work, advocacy.

“I would have to write a book to explain everything we went through to get going,” Wilkinson says with a sigh. “Every little detail has a story.”

For example, the floor in the standalone studio out back. It’s a smooth expanse of concrete — now. But the building had once been a bathhouse, with a one-person pool inset into the floor. You can probably guess the next detail: No one had bothered to empty it before vacating however many years ago. The water was so dark and foul they couldn’t gauge how deep it was. It was July, so the temps were in the triple digits; anything would be more enjoyable than draining the black lagoon. But the tile guys were coming soon.

“We looked at each other, and it was like, gotta f*cking do it,” Douglas recalls. How? “Did you ever see Fantasia, where Mickey gets the buckets? We kept handing off the bucket and handing off the bucket. And it was like, Ew, it got on me!” And we’re talking a lot of bucket work here: “It was five feet deep,” Douglas says. “It was awful. But at the end it was satisfying. It was like, man, that was really shitty. But now it’s done.”

You can take that as a lightly comic anecdote illustrating the foibles of renovation, but it contains deeper resonances if you’re alert to them: the unseen, unglamorous work of building community; the hard pragmatism required to deal with someone else’s leftover sludge; the obstacles nonwhite artists frequently confront in trying to realize their work. If that last one seems like a stretch, you might want to consult the headlines. It’s never been easy to be an artist of color. But the resurfacing of white-supremacist energies in response to last summer’s protests and in events like January 6 has almost certainly upped the difficulty factor.

“I have definitely felt that to my core,” Douglas says. “It has really rattled me.” She pauses. “America has some work to do.” Wilkinson mentions a flag-bedazzled pickup that cruised slowly past the Nuwu buildings recently — and the fact that it made him nervous prompted him to quickly push back against that anxiety in a way that mirrors Nuwu’s philosophy. “I want to bring people in,” he says. "How do we be inviting to all groups?”

“It’s difficult,” Xochil Zitlalli says of the social climate right now. “There are people who are angry that you want to share certain types of information. I’ve heard comments like, ‘That was 500 years ago, get over it.’ But these things are still important to some people!”

Though Douglas is wary of overusing the R word, Nuwu really is about resilience. “For all the awful, negative things that are happening,” she says, “there has to be a positive push. There has to be a dream of a better future.” But first, they’re gonna need those 300 words about social justice.

Nuwu Art, Cultural Arts + Activism Center
1335 S. Maryland Parkway
fawnart.org

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