The Curators of This Year’s Portland Biennial Imagine the Future of Regional Art by Uncovering Oregon’s Past

“We were really interested in having some voices that haven’t been included in past biennials, so we made a concerted effort to mix it up and have some artists that haven’t been included in past versions."

(Left to right) Curators Elisheba Johnson, Ashley Stull Meyers and Yaelle Amir focused on artists overlooked by the last Biennial. (Sam Gehrke)

If you walk into Disjecta during the next few months, you'll find large black-and-white photos of demolition on your right and a massive Japanese diasporic shrine to your left. It's a wide-ranging start to the fifth Portland Biennial, yet it barely scratches the surface of the exhibit's depth.

Presented every two years by Disjecta, an ambitious contemporary arts hub in Kenton, the Portland Biennial is the city's largest survey of entirely regional art. This year's edition marks a turning point not only for Disjecta as a creative arena, but also for what the Portland Biennial represents. After an overly grandiose biennial in 2016, the festivities are taking a turn for the conscious better, thanks to Disjecta's executive art director Blake Shell and her diverse choice of curators: Ashley Stull Meyers, Elisheba Johnson and Yaelle Amir.

The 18 projects in the exhibition deal with Oregon as a place of displaced, disgraced and sometimes erased identities. A majority of the artists featured are of color. The three curators came to the theme after dissecting the significance of biennials in the larger art world and the experience of living in Oregon, which is in no way the same for everyone, especially when considering the state's unsettling past with many of its inhabitants.

"We had conversations where we were talking about what biennials are and kind of unpacking our own role in that type of structure, since the whole role of a biennial can be problematic," says Johnson. "It has this anointing quality of picking some people over others, so we weren't necessarily interested in that."

Typically, a biennial is a statement of a regional identity and an attempt to establish a city as a major player in the international art market—exhibiting at the Whitney Biennial in New York is akin to earning a stamp of approval from contemporary art's upper crust.

The Portland Biennial is one of the region's largest showcases of contemporary art, but it has often slipped under the radar of this city's general public. The last iteration was held in 2016, near the end of the tenure of Bryan Suereth, Disjecta's founding artistic director. Suereth brought in guest curator Michelle Grabner, who had co-curated the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and expanded the festival to venues across the state. The plan was overly ambitious. Resources were spread thin, and artists complained of a lack of support. A few months later, Suereth was ousted by Disjecta's board. (Shell took over in the spring of 2017, and the leadership transition partly explains why the biennial skipped a year in 2018.)

This year's Portland Biennial takes a much different approach to reaching new audiences. Instead of dozens of venues across the state, all of this year's programming will take place at Disjecta. And instead of one big-name, out-of-state curator, it was organized by three curators with deep ties to local communities and artists.

"It took time to come to the decision of the trio of curators," says Shell, "but ultimately, we chose the new model of the three curators for their knowledge of the region and ongoing curatorial work here."

Amir, Johnson and Stull Meyers have years of experience working in Portland and the Pacific Northwest. Each curator has a history of working well with diverse communities and communities of color, which is integral to creating a different audience experience. That ability is evident in the trio's choice of the "unknown histories" theme for the biennial.

"The theme was an interest in Oregon as a site, the identity that comes with living in Oregon, either growing up or coming here, and just really an interest in the histories that can be uncovered in Oregon that maybe we know less about," says Amir. "There are a lot of artists who are really invested in figuring those out and bringing them to light. You'll see a lot of that in the Biennial."

Naturally, that subject means that Amir, Johnson and Stull Meyers came across many artists of color and indigenous artists, whose histories and creative output often go overlooked in competition with bigger-name, white artists. Sabina Haque's Signs of the Times is a video installation looking at how land and power interact with communities of color living east of 82nd Avenue, while Jovencio de la Paz created confronting woven works with Options for a Racist. Created in conjunction with artist and activist initiative Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment, or RISE, Demian DinéYazhi's A Nation Is a Massacre reflects on the past 500 years of Indigenous massacre by colonization.

"We were really interested in having some voices that haven't been included in past biennials, so we made a concerted effort to mix it up and have some artists that haven't been included in past versions," says Stull Meyers. "Some of that includes artists of color, indigenous artists and black artists within the community—people who have different perspectives on what it is to live and make work in Oregon as a creative practitioner."

"I also think that all of us are not interested in tokenizing, we're interested in the breadth of our makers," adds Johnson. "When you have that type of frame, you're opened up to see many different stories and many different people. This exhibition, I think, is 80 percent people of color, not because we were checking boxes, but because we were interested in uncovering these unheard histories."

With Amir, Johnson and Stull Meyers, attendees are getting a look at art and creators that would usually remain hidden by the wider art world's conventions. Already, the new outlook is reaching a wider audience—the Portland Biennial's opening night drew about 600 attendees, a record number for the festival. Shell is hoping to keep that momentum going.

"Disjecta is a large space, when space is becoming sparse for artists in town," she says. "I want to maximize what we do for as many artists and art viewers as possible, and listening to the needs and getting input from people is key to that."

SEE IT: The Portland Biennial is at Disjecta, 8371 N Interstate Ave.,, through Nov. 3.

The Curators of This Year's Portland Biennial Imagine the Future of Regional Art by Uncovering Oregon's Past

Following the Departure of Its Director, Portland Opera Is Attempting to Engage With Modern Audiences—While Also Recovering From Financial Disarray

After Making Marvel Comics History With "America," Gabby Rivera Is Re-Releasing Her Debut Novel Set in Portland

Nataki Garrett Is Updating American Theater For the 21st Century, and Attempting to Repair Oregon Shakespeare Festival's $2 Million Deficit

NW Film Center Is About to Get Its First New Director in 40 Years. But Can It Adapt to an Era of Streaming Services and Content Overload?

Where to See Local Jazz Every Night of the Week

The Five Book Events We're Most Excited to See This Fall

The Five Theater Shows We're Most Excited to See This Fall

The Five Visual Arts Shows We're Most Excited to See This Fall

The Five Music Shows We're Most Excited to See This Fall

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.