Rasu Jilani is a Caribbean-born, New York City native with a dynamic practice as an independent curator, cultural producer, social sculptor, and entrepreneur. His work investigates the intersections of art, culture, and civic engagement to raise critically-conscious conversations between artists, their local communities, and the wider public. Jilani's projects are dedicated to promoting awareness around pressing social issues through exhibitions and community-driven programs. Currently, Rasu serves as the Director of Recruiting and Community Engagement at NEW INC, The New Museum’s creative entrepreneurship incubator for art, tech, and technology.
As a former technologist, Rasu served 11 years as the Senior Information Systems Officer at Columbia Law School. His work included enterprise information systems architecture, data migration, and systems design. Rasu is a proud Alum of Syracuse University.
Brett: What was the origin of your artistic practice?
Rasu: It’s a very winding road. My relationship with art has always been as an outsider. Historically, I was a technologist and I had this envious relationship with my friends who were more creative and unbounded by a job or the rigidity of being in a technical field.
On the side, I used to do parties, festivals, ad hoc exhibitions. I would document and interview a lot of street artists spanning the late 90s to early 2000s. I have a history of doing too much, but at that time it was not formed as an art practice.
Fast forward, and I had a brand called Coup d’etat Brooklyn, which was a fashion and graphic design business. I worked with multiple graphic designers to create social campaigns on T-shirts, which evolved into a movement of artist collectives. Coup d’etat Brooklyn worked with over 120 artists from 2004 to about 2016. From that grew Coup d’etat Arts, and that is what fast tracked me into the cultural sector as an event and cultural producer. I started to be hired by institutions to think about programming in a way that wasn’t traditional. They wanted to figure out, how do you bring more people of color? How do you bring people from the streets and from disparate communities throughout the city into more formalized institutional engagement? That is what started my process of formally being in art.
“How do we take all of the politics away, bring art into it and make it very human? That was my magic.”
BW: What are some examples of the boundary lines of your practice?
RJ: One of the first institutions that gave me validation and credit, and still to this day holds weight, was being part of Afropunk’s early team. At the time it was literally a block party happening in Brooklyn in my neighborhood and the co-founders were friends of mine. Matthew Morgan, one of the founders, put me in to help build out the community beyond [punk] enthusiasts to people who may complicate the notions of punk. That looked like a lot of my friends. We set the foundation for the growth of the Afropunk community.
Between around 2007 and 2013, I was in charge of creating public murals for Afropunk, and I would enlist between six and ten artists a year with a theme. That set the tone.
I went on to do cultural production with Pratt Institute’s Pratt Center for Community Development, as their the first ever art consultant. And then went into theater and built out a whole department of community engagement and community programs for MAPP International, and now I’m at the New Museum working with the NEW INC team.
BW: How do you see these strands tying together?
RJ: This is the magical part, right? I am literally discipline and art agnostic. I never would have considered myself an artist because I don’t have a clear discipline. I can work seamlessly in music, theater, public arts, museum, visual arts, and so on. Whether it be Interactive, VR, AR, and all of the emerging technology phenomenon we are seeing, now, I would focus on the nucleus or the common denominator and work with that. One aspect would be storytelling and the other aspect community building. How do you galvanize people around an authentic story? That’s where I come in.
“I had a friend who got shot because he pulled out a 3 Musketeers bar and the cops thought it was a gun. I was 19 years old when that happened.”
This is where the social sculpting comes into play. I never had a notion or a title to ground the practice. One day I came across an essay describing Jonathan Beuys practice. He is a German artist who did a lot of theater work on the idea of bringing people together to talk about social issues in the arts. And thought,‘That’s what I do!’ I would present very dense political, or scientific, or polarizing material in a way that everyone was interested in. That would be mass incarceration, or gender and women’s rights – these highly publicized and politicized subjects really come down to human interaction. How do we take all of the politics away, bring art into it and make it very human? That was my magic.
BW: What is an example project that sticks in your mind as a hallmark of your practice?
RJ: Combating Mass incarceration is very dear to me. It aligns with many other issues like immigration and gentrification. I was raised in New York City, primarily Queens, which historically is one of the most prolific drug areas in city history. Growing up in that time was oppressive from both sides: from the community in which drugs are pervasive and from the overpolicing of that community. I had a friend who got shot because he pulled out a 3 Musketeers bar and the cops thought it was a gun. I was 19 years old when that happened.
A lot of my friends growing up were in jail over bags of weed or just having things that you and I would probably have in our pocket on a good night. Rockefeller Drug Laws facilitated the mass incarceration of black and brown youth. That was an unfortunate and unjust reality growing up in New York City. That was a flashbulb-memory moment during my youth that left many feeling helpless. I always wanted to do something about it.
As an adult, I immersed myself into philosophies and the history of law enforcement trajectory and criminal law while working at law school for 11 years. I realized there was a correlation between slavery, [Jim Crow] and mass incarceration in this industrial complex that has a history of locking black and brown bodies up.
When I was at MAPP International, I was given the honor of working for the artist Liza Jessie Peterson, building out her community engagement around her project, “The Peculiar Patriot”. We designed a curriculum with the New School. I became her collaborator in de-contextualizing the dense material that she’d been discussing in her artwork after researching for years.
That led to my teaching a course at the New School called Theater for Social Action: Student Incubator on Mass Incarceration with Liza Jessie Peterson, and professors Cecilia Rubino and Brian Lewis.
BW: What have you seen that art can bring uniquely into the conversation around things like mass incarceration or these very polarizing topics in American society or just any society?
RJ: I’m not sure which artist said this, but art allows us to look at society from a critical lens. And that’s art’s role. It’s to critically assess who and where we are. We may not agree with the artist at times, but in retrospect they really captured the moment. We look at James Baldwin who was before his time, but a unique voice to bring light to the injustices of that era. And we look at Salvador Dali or da Vinci, who was an inventor and also a thinker. Artists always set the tone for what’s going on in the times.
What art can also do is present very complex and dense subjects in a way that allows you to digest or reflect back. It gives you time, especially in an era when everything is quickly ready to drive people in that political direction. Art still allows us to depolarize things, to become neutral, and, from a humanist perspective, ready to stand. What do you think about this? How does this make you feel? What is going on? It takes away all the junk we’re fed and allows one to reflect.
I think art does that very well whether it’s media or paintings and sculptures or even a performance. I find performances to be the most impactful. There are so many other ways to really engage with the art rather than sitting down – you can yell and scream and applaud and really get into the engagement of the thing.
For me, the most impactful artists or the most powerful are also activists. They thread their activism and their art. It’s sometimes subtle. Other times it’s explicit and smacks you in the face.
I think about Hank Willis Thomas, for example. I think about Mickalene Thomas. Even Derrick Adams and Shaun Leonardo. They’re folks who are really imbedding topics in a very complex way.
“Often times immigrant and brown communities capitulate to the European and white aesthetic in America in order to figure out how to commodify their ideas.”
BW: How do people get involved when they want to get more engaged ? What can be some ways to make projects like these accessible outside of the art bubble?
RJ: Look at what’s going on in your neighborhood and who are the activists. Take a second with people who are handing out pamphlets. Sometimes they’re engaging something on a grassroot level that you haven’t seen yet. I remember when the climate march started happening being in Union Square. I was working on a climate project called Holoscenes with Lars Jan and he was building these aquariums, so it was high on my consciousness. I looked at this flier and I remember passing it on to Lars, like, ‘Yo, we need to get involved with this.’ At the time it wasn’t a thing yet, but it was really starting to bubble up.
Taking the time and slowing down and listening to what people have to say around the topic, whether you agree or not. Reflecting and having a dialogue: “I don’t agree with that. That’s cool. Thank you.” But at least you opened the gates for some information to come in. I also think it’s important to be part of community boards or block associations to find out what’s going on locally that impacts your immediate community. It’s something that you can actually have an impact on. Sometimes we look too far ahead, and we look at the president, and if an issue gets to the president it’s probably too late.
Look at your local churches, synagogues, and mosques, because they are usually places for convening around social issues. The Center for Urban Pedagogy, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Brotherhood Sistersol, LES Girls Club, and the Laundromat Project do it on a super grassroots level. I look at the Theater for the Oppressed. The Rubin Foundation. A Blade of Grass. Echoing Green. These are tremendous programs that are open to the public and many people are not aware.
BW: What are you most excited about?
RJ: NEW INC has inspired me to another degree. It made me realize that my work is appreciated and I need to figure out how to put it all together to tell a bigger story. It’s also given me the inspiration and motivation to pass it on to the next generation. Former students of mine, former interns of mine, peers, and the youth from around the way [my neighborhood], to hand them tools. Tools are needed especially now. We’re just a lot of talking heads but there’s not enough tool sharing and methodology sharing.
I’ve been told that this should be a manifesto or methodology shared from my practice. But I think it should be more than just me. There are some peers of mine like Ebony Golden or Chloe Bass, who hold a wealth of information. Dr. Thomas DeFrantz in North Carolina. Even with Stephanie Dinkins is doing with bringing awareness to AI and implicit bias. We can pull resources together and create a manifesto and tools for people in the activist world.
I do think a lot about the idea of hyperlocalism and how you can create a self-sustained and self-reliant and sustainable economy both artistically and financially for a community. I think many times communities look outwards too much and they need to bind and lock-in and then share like nodes in a network.
If a node is not strong enough the signal can’t get there. In order to create a huge and viable circularity network, create a node (or a multitude of nodes) that actually work. Each community can be fortified and centered in their self-reliance so those resources can really flourish and circulate throughout our city. How do we create tools for each node or each community to be fortified with their own self-reliance, whether that be economically, artistically, or culturally?
It’s a very big question to tackle and I want to start at home to figure out what this economic development will look like. Cultural sustainability and cultural preservation within the lens of economy but also within the lens of art.
BW: We’re in another period (post post-postmodern) and it’s all about multiple temporalities. There’s not one art history. There’s not one story. Things are simultaneously global and local. And, bimodal.
RJ: A big question for me is how do I figure out a space for local residents, especially people of color, to generate their ideas and express their culture without the gaze of the dominant society. We all know that experimentation is essential to innovation, but many urban spaces are under-resourced with few institutions that allow for ideas to incubate. Maybe I’m sounding a little ambiguous, but it’s something that I’ve been through enough to know that it’s a real thing. Often times immigrant and brown communities capitulate to the European and white aesthetic in America in order to figure out how to commodify their ideas. I think there are ways to fortify and actualize it in their community.
The other thing is I’ve been thinking about the next evolution of my social sculpting practice: how does one integrate spiritual practices in to the work? Whatever one’s spiritual practice is, how does it ground the artistic in the cultural practice? For me, my practice is a form of gratitude back to the community that made me who I am. And that becomes a spiritual practice of radical generosity.