“Every Time We Say Her Name”: An Interview with Kajette Solomon, RISD Museum SEI Specialist, on Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, I Will Not Bend an Inch

Mei Zheng
MA TLAD 2024 & BFA ID 2023

Ziare Greene
MA TLAD 2024 & BFA ILL 2023

Samantha Hernández
M.ARCH 2025

From February to August this year, the RISD Museum highlights the works of renowned sculptor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, born in Providence, Rhode Island, in the exhibit I Will Not Bend an Inch. Prophet, in her life from 1890 to 1960, experienced many trials and pursuits as an African and Native American person, yet she flourished, utilizing her artistic practice as self-expression. Born to William and Rose Prophet, she grew up and graduated high school in the city, funding her extracurricular art tutors herself. After working for six years, she enrolled at RISD, where she focused on free-hand drawing and painting. Prophet moved to Paris after her studies, where she had an intense and prolific period of sculptures and emotions. She remained there for 12 years. Prophet later taught at Spelman College and Atlanta University before returning to work in Providence. At the age of sixty-one, she converted to Roman Catholicism, which influenced her future body of work. Her notable pieces include La Volante, her first to-scale figure statue, Discontent (pictured below), a woodhead, Negro Head, a bust of her Uncle Frank, and Poverty/Prayer, a lifesize sculpture.

Mei Zheng and Ziare Greene, Teaching + Learning Art + Design (TLAD) MA graduates, sat down with Kajette Solomon, the RISD Museum’s first Social Equity and Inclusion Specialist, to discuss how the exhibit came together to honor and remember Nancy Elizabeth Prophet. The interview coalesces our desire to reflect and delve further into conversations surrounding prominent artists as we develop our own selves. Though she is celebrated today for her accomplishments, Prophet faced underrepresentation of her work in her lifetime. She continued with a determined devotion to her practice, resisted erasure, and fought to claim space throughout her creative career.

Solomon impresses the idea that as a viewer, one’s own experience is just as valuable as the artist’s work. It is possible to relate to and understand the joys and strife of life as an artist, Native American, Black individual, woman, and more. The exhibit introduces Prophet’s works through her tools and journal first, and concludes with a video by Simone Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich of contemporary Black female artists’ work. Though the exhibit honors Prophet and her works, the experience of the exhibit is unique and personal for each museum-goer; the viewer brings just as much to the table as the exhibit. We understand throughout the course of the interview how important accessibility is, both in art and in museums. Solomon reminds us that, through Prophet’s own words and handwriting, through uttering her name, we honor and reflect upon the legacies and works that came before us while moving forward in our own ways. —Samantha Hernández

MZ and ZG We’d love to have you tell us a bit about you and who inspires your practice.

KS I am an art historian. My bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in art history. I’ve been in the art and design world for forever, since I was like 14, when I went to art and design high school. My interest came before that, junior high and probably even younger, for as long as I can remember. Aries. I give Aries energy.

It’s hard to say a “who” specifically inspires me. I am the first person to do this role at the RISD Museum. A position like mine has not existed before. I am inspired by museum people like curator Kelli Morgan and Thelma Golden [Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem], who has made such an impact in the field and she’s only worked in two museums. I’m also inspired by the representation of Jamaican women in the arts right now. Kayla Coleman is a new executive director of NEMA, New England Museum Association. She’s a Black, queer woman, and Jamaican. Marilyn Jackson, the new CEO and director of AAM, American Alliance for Museums. She’s also a Black, Jamaican woman. We’re here! Oh, it’s not just me!

I’m inspired by my daughters. I have two little Black girls who are looking up to me. They help me be my best self. We’re not playing around, you’re influencing a generation in your house. I don’t want to sort of leave them with these false, stereotypical, or burdened views of motherhood or Black womanhood. I am clear about boundaries even with them. I have a really fantastic partnership with my spouse. They’re seeing male-female dynamics in the household that are probably different from how I was raised. I’m inspired to be intentional about who I am and how I show up.

MZ The legacy of Nancy Elizabeth Prophet inspires generations before and after ours. How does it feel to see the Nancy Elizabeth Prophet exhibition from all stages, transitions, and processes? As a co-curator, what are those feelings? Were there experiences left unsaid?

Portrait of Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet Collection, James P. Adams Library, Rhode Island College

KS The first month since the opening has been a whirlwind of fantastic experiences. This is my very first time co-curating an exhibition that matters. I work really well as part of a team with Sarah [Ganz Blythe, Deputy Director, Exhibitions, Education & Programs] and Dominic Molon [Interim Chief Curator & Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art]. We are three very different people. We definitely have similar values and vision for the exhibition. We received lots of grants and foundation support. Not every exhibition has a publication like this one. I have been published before, slight flex, but I’ve never edited a whole volume. It’s different, with many different authors, voices, perspectives. Instead of us trying to make one voice, we honored the differences. 

Each label in the exhibition was written by myself, Sarah, and Dominic, as well as Gabrielle [Walker, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet Curatorial Assistant] and Maureen [O’Brien, Curator, Painting & Sculpture], who are curators here as well. I wrote about Discontent. Every label is signed, and I love that curatorial approach. We’ve been doing more of that here, where we don’t exude an on-high, museum voice that we know everything. People work here, we have perspectives, and we honor their scholarship, so each object label is signed. I feel extremely honored to be here at RISD, at this time, to be involved in this project. This could have happened 20 years ago. It didn’t, it probably should have, but I believe things happen for a reason. I think it mattered that I was here.

I don’t know if the museum has ever had leadership that was Black, or Black female. All I know is it’s me, right now. Women of color. Tsugumi’s here! Love her. [Tsugumi Maki is the RISD Museum’s new Director]. I advocated to be involved. I said, “There’s no way as a Black woman who works here, you’re not doing this project without me.” Point, blank, period!

Throughout the curatorial process, we thought, what would Nancy Elizabeth Prophet want? Throughout all the research and writing, I read her diaries probably three times. I feel like we’ve honored her in the fact that she always wanted a solo exhibition, never had it in her lifetime, and never had a scholarship dedicated just to her. It feels very important to carry on her legacy as a RISD alum. The gallery spaces where the exhibition is would have been the original footprint of the museum. She would have walked the space, been in the space. I feel every time we say her name, every time there’s an article written about the show, we’re honoring her all over again.

Prophet’s legacy will last way beyond the exhibition because, first of all, it travels to the Brooklyn Museum, then Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. Second of all, there’s now a publication dedicated to her that will exist way beyond us. She should have had all these things during her lifetime, and we know why she hadn’t. I’m grateful that the museum of her alma mater is who’s organizing her first ever solo exhibition. It has to be us. It should always have been us.

Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Discontent, 1929. Gift of Miss Eleanor Green and Miss Ellen D. Sharpe. RISD Museum, Providence, RI

MZ The exhibition’s subtitle in Nancy Elizabeth Prophet: I Will Not Bend an Inch is a quote from Prophet’s 1929 diary entry, speaking to her commitment to making art as a form of resistance, being, and determination against racist and sexist expectations of her being a Black and Narragansett woman. Ziare had a question that’s responsive to time, change, and legacy.

ZG I was wondering, what was the process behind shaping the visitor experience. Is it kind of a chronological timeline of her life? You see the tools she used, then you see her work. You exit and see a video by Simone Leigh, who is kind of ushering in a new era of Black female sculptors.

KS You got it! Context. The thesis of the exhibition on the entry wall—the thank yous and acknowledgements, the tools, her diary, and chronology is orienting visitors who have zero idea who Nancy Elizabeth Prophet is. Unfortunately, RISD has nothing that represents her. The museum has had a fellowship in her name, but not the college. There’s not a room, not a hall, not a dorm [named after her]—nothing. We knew that many students and even faculty would not know who she was. We knew we had to provide as much context as possible. We did a lot of the work for the chronology in the publication. We remixed it, shortened it, and included visuals for the exhibition.

Installation view of Nancy Elizabeth Prophet: I Will Not Bend An Inch

A Black female curator visited recently and said something amazing. @theglamorousacademic said, “It is especially powerful for the initial part of the exhibition to feature a wall covered in Prophet’s handwriting, an excerpt from her journal, and the title written in her own hand. As a scholar of sound, this orients you to immediately hear Prophet speaking, in the absence of the cacophony of documentation that would have accompanied the collection of white male artists in the 1930s. This serves as a way into Prophet’s intellectual history.” Forefronting her handwriting, that’s something I really advocated for. Her handwriting is so distinct. She signed all of her work. Everything. Even the tool box says: “handle with care.” If it ain’t signed, it ain’t hers. 

This exhibition represents the body of work that we know exists. We had iterations of how we would display the photographs of lost, missing, or destroyed works. We’re like, “Do we want to project the images according to specifications because she has notations on the back of her photos on how she wanted them executed or displayed?” We didn’t want to pretend there was more work than there was. So, we scratched that idea. There’s a nice amount of space in between each work. It’s not organized in a grid. The three earliest works she made in Paris are followed by the influential 1930s and then the show ends in the 1940s.

Also, the Simone Leigh video especially speaks to legacy and contemporary influence because Leigh does claim Prophet as an artistic ancestor. At the end of the video, there are Black women’s hands holding tools, which are very similar to the tools that Prophet has in the opening gallery, so it almost bookends the exhibition. The show ends with text from Prophet’s diary entry as wallpaper. That particular page from the diary reads like a poem. It’s pretty powerful, you can still read what she’s going through. All these dichotomous feelings. Credit to the installation and preparation crew. They were very helpful with the identity of the exhibition, colors, and lighting.

MZ There’s space. Works are missing and destroyed. In this absence, presence is important. In institutional archives, there’s power in memory or recall. Ziare and I recently led a Teen Drop-In workshop around the show, on memory, connected to relationships and figures in our lives. What methods can we as educators use to evoke memory?

KS I’m still a museum educator at heart. I’ve been teaching from Prophet’s Negro Head since I started working here. It’s always on view. To me it’s fascinating to have biography as context and fact, but not to have it overshadow interpretation and current perspectives. In terms of memory, when you have an artist’s own words about a specific piece or their own perspective, use it. Say it out loud in the space around their work, cause they said it out loud. The artist’s words and biography are contextual to facilitating experiences with works of art.

People come to works of art with their own toolkit, meaning they’re gonna have personal associations and experiences. People are sometimes intimidated to interpret works of art. Sometimes, I want to have fresh eyes. I found ways to deliberately do that, especially when going to other museums. Our own connections are just as important as the artist’s interpretation and purpose. We, as museum educators, can be a type of a reciprocal conduit for visitors. You want whoever you’re facilitating with to feel, “Oh, that was cool. I had a good time.” As opposed to, “This wasn’t for me, my perspective was shut down. I didn’t feel comfortable talking.” You want people to feel they’ve come to conclusions, to see differently, to hear other people’s voices and perspectives.

MZ Ziare recently introduced me to educuration. Ziare, in your thesis, you’ve been interested in how to get …

ZG Marginalized or low-income people into the museum space by creating programming and exhibitions that cater to them.

KS So, the question is, how to do that? Exhibitions like Prophet’s are representational. People can see themselves in the works of art, the different tones of wood sort of mimic our skin tones as people of color. I can see myself in this, literally. We need more exhibitions that are as diverse and accessible as possible. Accessible, in a physical way, ADA compliance, too. Museum education is interpretive work. We create writing and drawing prompts, organize lesson plans, and have desired outcomes and learning goals. Curatorial work is visible to visitors. What art educators do is shake it up, maybe we don’t start at the beginning, for example. “We want people to look closely and think deeply”—that’s a phrase I did not come up with, but I love.

Getting audiences into the museum that typically wouldn’t come also means removing any barriers to entry. Free days, pay-what-you-want days, later open hours. I see a little bit more diversity when we’re open late. I just did a program on Sunday, Black Girls in Art Spaces. I couldn’t do a program like that if I didn’t have a show like this for them to actually come to. We have lots of artists of color and Black artists on view. Sure. But I would have had to make a tour. Sharing Prophet’s life and work with Black women was phenomenal.

Representation alone won’t save us.  There also needs to be more of me. All of our education directors are white, while junior education staff are people of color. What we’re not going to do is burden them to do all that work. More art educators, too, who are in the communities and part of their communities. I think we need to be in classrooms more, which we do—our educators physically go to schools. We want lots of students from Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Central Falls, to come. I live in a neighborhood with a bunch of Black and Brown people. I’m at my local library, everybody there knows that I work at the RISD Museum, but I also live in and am of the neighborhood. What would get people in the door is outreach that feels genuine to these communities.

Museums aren’t important in everybody’s life. You don’t need the museum to survive. Museums cannot provide what communities need, but they can align with community goals. If you want a warm place to go in the middle of winter recess, when your kids are driving you nuts at home, we have Super Art Sunday. It’s free, come and participate. You don’t have to buy a ticket at all to sit in the Common Room space in our lobby. What I’m working towards as much as I possibly can is to make museums become like libraries. My local library, listen, when I tell you how kids just be up in there. This is our space. They have the abuela corner, a knitting circle, reading time during the day, you can get free COVID tests and masks. Free internet. Whatever. I want anybody to visit our Museum. It’s not a cathedral. You don’t need to be quiet. We’re not a monastery. We are people-focused, visitor-first. Even at exclusive libraries like an Athenaeum or the Library of Congress, where you can’t check out a book and take it home, you still have access to all the books. You can’t take paintings home, but you have access to them. That’s what I want for museums on a grand scale; accessibility, because if you’re accessible to those who may have the least to give then you’re accessible to everybody. Then it becomes a space where people feel like they belong.

Books provide entrée into different worlds, perspectives, ways of being. Art does the same. I love museums. I always knew that I could go to museums, even though museums do things that make me feel like it’s not my space. I was a little arrogant when I was younger. It would be like, I paid my admission, of course I’d be up in here. I went to an art and design high school in the middle of Manhattan. So I’m at The Met, raising a ruckus because I got work to do. Security staff, stop clocking me, I’m doing my homework. But that was my personality. That’s not everybody’s.

I’m one person with my own perspectives and life experiences. I cannot speak for every person of color. I can’t speak for every Black person, can’t even speak for every Black woman. I know I’m a little bit conservative. I’m not like, flip the table over and burn it all down, and I’ve never been that way. I’m more likely to infiltrate, be in leadership, and I want to influence decisions. What if the people making the decisions change? Then, museums will change. If I’m not here, then, Ziare, who are you gonna see doing things in museums as a Black woman?

Just because your income is low doesn’t mean you don’t care about art or assume that you must come to museums—you don’t. Our volunteers are older white people, and that’s because they have the time and exposure. When I retire, absolutely, I’m gon be up in here. Put me on a board or imma volunteer to be a docent. If we get K-12 students to feel this space thought of them, that they belong, when they’re 65, they’ll be members too, donate, and be on the board. That’s going to take a couple of generations. Let’s be in this for the long game.

MZ What else excites you currently?

KS I’m turning 40 on Friday. I have renewed energy to double down and do the work. Right now the museum is creating a new strategic plan. This is my first time being heavily involved in the process. It’s very labor intensive, but it is a wonderful opportunity to survey our colleagues and have focus groups. Being in a creative community doesn't always mean making things, it can mean making ideas, making possibilities happen. I feel like I’m a prime example of that, because I have a role that no one’s had before. That’s creative work, too.

Samantha Hernández is probably sitting in her chair by the window today.

Kajette Solomon
is your friendly neighborhood Black girl who loves museums.

Mei Zheng and Ziare Greene
are besties who always work together #happybelatedbirthdayKajette #ariesseason.