It’s Friday, school is over, and yet the Duke Ellington School of the Arts is buzzing with activity. Deliveries are being made, a band is warming up, and I’m following around freshman art teacher Asha Elana Casey as she helps put the final touches on Ellington’s annual senior show. As Casey jumps from classroom to classroom, talking to students, helping teachers and doing whatever last minute work needs to be done, it’s clear that she is in her element.
While Casey continues to help with the set up, student Maina Sharmin shows me her sci-fi influenced prints about the power dynamics between Bengali women and society. Remarkable in their use of symbols and color, Sharmin explains that most of her work this year has been about her culture. “Some of the things I talk about are religion and beauty standards, things like that,” she says, adding, “I made 12 pieces… These were the ones that were the most powerful, the most arresting.”
An alumnus of Ellington herself, Casey takes me into an office where a poster she designed for her senior show still hangs. It’s covered with portraits of her old classmates (including a small, but detailed self portrait) looking young and filled with energy, an energy that’s playing off in realtime all around us. Students have been working hard all year, and this is their opportunity to show off their best pieces (and win some prizes).
Casey has been hard at work too. Between running around and checking on things, she pulls out her phone to show me what she’s working on now. Imbued with more color and even more texture than her older work, her new pieces managed to be both serene and striking. Surrounded by the art of her students, Casey walks me through all of the new things happening in her life. New job. New apartment. New art.
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Tell me all about what you’re doing now.
So I’ll start by saying that I work at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. I teach visual arts. I am the freshman art history and 2D concepts teacher. So we’re setting up the senior show and I also do public programming for the department and community outreach. So the hope is that we can bring more people in here to see what the kids are making because they’re making some intense, amazing things. But also, for more of the D.C. community to join us and be a part of what we’re creating and working on.
How has your artwork changed in the last year?
I’m talking about the shadow self more with my work. I’ve had a few series since I last talked to you. Before I was in the When Watching God series, I had a Spirit Rises series and it was a bunch of gold pieces with black women as gods and goddesses. The When Watching God series, which you saw in my studio, was me getting back to my meditative space and my peaceful space. So [my new work] is a combination of all of that energy. We’re talking about black women as god and goddess, but we’re also talking about that shadow self and how you heal yourself and make peace with that.
One of the things you mentioned last time I talked to you is that you were going to start a Watch the Throne series, which involved a portrait of your mom. It was your white whale, at the time. How is that going?
I’m still working on it! The hope is that I finish it, but so far so good. I think I’ll finish it this year. I’ve been working on it, I guess for a year, off and on. But yes, the Watch the Throne series is still a thing.
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I feel like the last time I saw you your art was so black and white and textured. And you had little splotches of color, but it looks like you’re melding the styles together. This is the most color I’ve seen you use.
Yeah. The year before I was making really gold pieces. The Spirit Rises series was all gold. I’m bringing them all together… And my mentor and my old teacher, Melchus Davis, he used collage drips on his pieces and I was like,”That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I’m going to do that too.”
I was just re-reading the story I did with you yesterday and I totally forgot about the connection with Buddhism in your work. There’s so many good nuggets I’d forgotten about.
Yes! A lot of [my new work] is self portraits. So they’re me with super long hair.
Different variations of you.
Different variations of me and my spiritual elevation. That’s where I’ve been with my practice and the new pieces I’m working on.
There’s this one piece I’m very excited about. I’m starting to move into the full figure as well, like full body, so this piece is a take on Olympia and it’s about this black woman throwing her weave away. In the original piece it’s this white woman reclining with a black woman serving her, and I was like, “What if the reverse is happening?” For me, the weave and her throwing it is her getting rid of the societal norms, assimilating to whiteness and respectability politics with hair. This will have the patterns I’ve been using, but something interesting is the background patterns I’ve been using are now present in the body. These patterns that were all over the background are now being tattooed on the women’s bodies. It’s really different.
Another thing we talked about is that you were really interested in branching out into sculpture and 3D work, have you had the chance to get into that?
I haven’t yet, but there’s this awesome sculpture teacher here. What’s really amazing about Ellington is that a lot of really awesome artists work here. So I can pull from each of them and learn different things. My drawing and painting skills have flourished being here. It reinforced the idea that I need to be working, I need to be making, I need to be doing.
Working with the students and all the other teachers here, do you find yourself more interested in collaboration and working on pieces with other artists?
Collaboration in a different way. I’ll go to Mr. E or Mr. Walker, who are very talented renderers and be like, “Does this look right?” And they’ll be like, “Lift the eye up a little bit, bring that nose down some, shade this part lighter.” It’s collaboration in the sense that they’re helping me grow and helping me evolve.
Do you still have the same studio space?
No! A lot has changed. My studio space is definitely my living room now. I moved out of my mom’s house. I have an itty bitty apartment.
When I talked to you last year, you said sometimes you would paint two days a week, but you would put in eight hour shifts. Do you still do that?
Thank you for reminding me! I’m not, but the good news is that summer break is coming.
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Are you still showing all the time?
I have a show opening next week. I’ve slowed down a little bit… But I had a show here actually, it was an alumni show, and I sold five pieces from that show. It was amazing. I had a show at DC Arts Center and then the show that’s coming up is at a gallery downtown. Then I have another show that I’m about to okay in June… I’m going to have a show in Baltimore… They’re kind of stacking up. The momentum is coming back. There was a little bit of a dry spell.
Do you have anything else coming up that you’re really excited about?
What I’m excited about is the really cool things that we’re going to do with the program here at Ellington, and public programming, and really getting you guys to invest into our young people as legitimate emerging artists. That’s the biggest thing I’m excited about, working under our leader Mr. Rodney Little, to bring this department to the next level, Introducing our kids to artists in the city, getting them residences, solo shows, just really helping them evolve and grow.
What would you change about D.C.’s art scene?
I would make [Duke Ellington] a cultural hub for D.C. artists to come in and give back to the kids. Support us, really involve themselves in mentorship and make this a place for reporters like you to come in, see the senior shows and student shows and what we’re producing. It only gets better from here. This should be an incubator for young emerging artists to come in, established artists to come in, and really create a safe space for us all to coexist and evolve.
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