Taft's 2019 Artist-in-Residence: independent filmmaker Ya’Ke Smith

Warning: The WOLF trailer above contains graphic content.

A museum artist-in-residence stint may see an artist confined to the inside of a museum, tolling away at their work to create magnificent display pieces. But there are pioneering artist-in-residence programs, like at Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art, where it’s one of the artists’ prerequisites to go beyond the walls of the museum, engage with the community, and share their work with the public; actualized through the museum’s Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program.

Calling San Antonio, Texas his hometown, the Austin-based educator, artist, and acclaimed filmmaker, Ya’Ke Smith has been chosen as this year’s artist for the program, and will live in and work with the Taft Museum in downtown Cincinnati from October 4–18.

Smith, best known as a visionary pioneer for the advancement of African American film, will lead public programs, teach workshops, and visit schools across Greater Cincinnati during his time here in the Queen City.

Smith is best known for his breakout film, WOLF, which premiered at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival. “It centers on sexual abuse in the church," Smith says, “and one family’s struggle to find closure after they discover their son has been molested by their pastor.”

As this year’s Duncanson Artist-in-Residence, Smith also will work with area institutions like The Art Academy of Cincinnati and The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center serving as an organon so that more can learn more about the inspiration that drives his work.

During this year’s Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival, Smith plans to screen films and hold panel discussions at both the aforementioned local institutions on Friday, October 4th and Saturday, October 5th.

Currently, outside of serving as a film professor and associate dean at The University of Texas at Austin, Smith sharpens his filmmaking chops by diving into several independent film projects of his own.

“I just completed principal photography on a short film titled Brother," Smith says. “It is the story of two young boys whose friendship is put to the test when one of their brother’s returns home from a long prison stint.”

“The other project, he continues, “which is tentatively titled Edwin, tells the story of Edwin Debrow Jr., who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder at the age of 12, and who was recently released from prison at the age of 40. The short documentary chronicles his first day out of prison, and a producing partner and I are also developing his story into a narrative series.”

His residency at The Taft provides a unique opportunity to bring his vision to our region and respond to his newly branded artistic landscape — both physical and human.

“The residency is an opportunity to work in the two fields that I am most passionate about: filmmaking and teaching,” says Smith. “Having the chance to engage with the community, share my work with them, discuss my filmmaking process, and share anecdotes on the ways I’ve been able to maneuver the tricky world of independent film, is always an experience that fuels me creatively.

“Also,” he continues, “as an artist, there’s always a desire to bring your work and ideas to groups of people who haven’t had the chance to experience them. I’m really looking forward to spending two weeks with the people of Cincinnati and learning more about the artistic community there.”

In a statement released by The Taft, they also tout how excited they are to have Smith in Cincinnati.

“We are delighted that Ya’Ke Smith has been named the 2019 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence,” says Phyllis McCallum, a member of the Taft Museum of Art Board and the Duncanson Society. “He is an important voice in independent cinema and is known for his unflinching and veracious style of storytelling.”

A brief history of the program and the artist behind the name

Nikki Giovanni
Conducted annually since 1986, The Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program has held steadfast with its mission to honor the achievements of contemporary African American artists working in a variety of disciplines. And, in some way, exposing many of the struggles those artists faced while doing what they loved to do — create.

And the program’s namesake’s experience was no different. Beloved by 19th-century audiences around the world, Robert S. Duncanson soon fell into obscurity, only to be celebrated as a genius a century later. Now, Duncanson is known in many American art circles as one of the greatest landscape painters in the West.

Duncanson made a living working as small-time artist, mostly in Detroit and here in Cincinnati. But in 1848, his career received a major boost when anti-slavery activist Charles Avery commissioned him, which lead to a relationship with abolitionists who wanted to support African American artists, and spurred a passion in Duncanson for landscape painting.

And while he never overtly addressed racial issues in his paintings, subtle messages appear in his work. Found in Duncanson’s “View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky,” Duncanson contrasts African Americans laboring along the Ohio River on Kentucky’s slave plantations as whites lounge nearby.

In addition, Nicholas Longworth, an established winemaker and philanthropist here, commissioned Duncanson to create a series of landscape mural paintings to decorate the halls of Longworth’s grand Pike Street home, Belmont, now the Taft Museum of Art.

Over its more than three decade history, The Taft’s annual residency program has selected prominent artists in their respective fields — invited by local and regional professional artists and Duncanson Board members — to live and work in Cincinnati to enhance the area’s vibrancy as a center of artistic and creative expression.

The program’s very first artist-in-residence was realized through the prophetic and poetic prose of Nikki Giovanni in 1986.

Alyssa Nicole Harris
Just in the past few years, in addition to hosting a visual/performing artist, the program has included a dancer/choreographer, a vocalist, and a poet exemplified respectfully with Vanessa German (2018), Stafford Berry (2017), Carla Cook (2016), and Alysia Nicole Harris (2015).

The Duncanson Artist-in-Resident program is ideally positioned in the center of it all and is a wonderful way to celebrate the area’s many creative residents while attracting artists from around the country, local thought leaders, and literary luminaries into the heart of downtown Cincinnati for lively discussions and artistic gatherings of all kinds to not only celebrate art at its core, but also celebrate the beauty of the African American diaspora.


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Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.