Interview: Kantara Souffrant
Kantara Souffrant is a recent Milwaukee transplant and an artist who works in installation and performance. She is currently the Manager of School & Teacher Programs at the Milwaukee Art Museum and is a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Her research looks at feminist and queer art in the Haitian diaspora after the earthquake of 2010.
Open View: What brought you to Milwaukee?
Kantara Souffrant: I first learned about the Milwaukee Art Museum about 10 years ago when I was doing research on Haitian art and artists like Hector Hyppolite and [Philomé] Obin. Through a series of wonderful events, I learned about a job opening. I hosted a symposium called Beyond Coasts: Haiti in the Midwest, and the whole idea was to make it a space for scholars, art makers, and community members to come together and begin archiving the history of the Haitian diaspora in the Midwest. We invited the Museum to participate. On the drive up to Milwaukee [to meet with the Museum], I remember thinking, “I need a job, universe!” Something that feels like it’s supporting the work that I’m interested in. I get to the Museum and I see these moms with their babies in Windhover Hall and I think, “what kind of place am I in? This doesn’t happen in museums. I could work here.” After the meeting they said, “we’re actually hiring for our Manager of School & Teacher Programs, we’d love it to be someone who knows about Haitian art.” And that was that.
OV: What role do you see the Museum playing as an institution in the local arts community?
KS: My dream is that the Museum can be a place where all people feel like it belongs to them and that they have a right to be there. I did not grow up going to museums. My parents are Haitian immigrants. I think I went for the first time in maybe 4th grade for a school field trip. It always seemed like something beyond our class and means. The moment I saw Hyppolite’s work in the gallery, I felt like something in me had changed. I felt like, “oh, I belong here.” It was an access point. So for me, making sure that poor people of color, people who consider that space to be beyond them, feel like they deserve to be there and actually see their culture reflected back to them–that’s my dream. The Museum as a low-stakes classroom.
OV: What are you working on at the moment?
KS: I’m working on my dissertation [at Northwestern University], but the project I’m most excited about is this amalgamated performance community workshop/visual art series that I’m curating through Links Hall in Chicago called “I Shout to Keep My Devils at Bay: The Spiritual and/of/in the Profane.” It investigates joy in art in the works of communities that are targeted: low-income, black and brown, bodies in crisis. Art is not only a way for us to come together and heal and connect and reveal, but it’s also the thing that’s been sustaining us since we’ve arrived in the New World.
OV: You make work in both Milwaukee and Chicago. What are the benefits of working in two places at once?
KS: The benefit of being in Chicago and Milwaukee and doing work in both of these space is that I feel like I get to increase my network of amazing art organizers and people who are really committed to taking action to make this world a better and just place for all people. Bringing all of these wonderful folks to the table together is something I’m interested in. It’s also a profound opportunity to learn about how these cities have divergent and convergent histories. During my first two weeks in Milwaukee, I learned about how the city had just had it’s 100th homicide. That person was a black person, a brown body. In that moment I thought, “oh, ok, I’m understanding Milwaukee more.” I also realized I wasn’t surprised by this because I’ve been living in Chicago and realizing the parallels in terms of socioeconomic status and what bodies are really the most vulnerable. I get to see the different tactics at play in these cities.
OV: What has surprised you about Milwaukee?
KS: Chicago is a place with amazing jazz and blues, but I never got to take advantage of it. Since moving to Milwaukee, I’ve gotten to experience so much live music, and a lot of it has been really good. It might just be because of my neighbors, it might also be tied to the quality of life. If the music scene is a reflection of the greater art scene, then it’s been very generous. I see my neighbors perform bluegrass, country, and hip hop, and it’s not ironic! There’s an actual sort of cultural understanding of what they’re doing. That’s what I would say has surprised me: how generous and open it is.