Lauren Tate Baeza is the curator of African art at the High Museum of Art. She has been director of exhibitions at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, where she curated the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection and organized numerous temporary exhibits using the visual arts to engage social issues. Baeza also writes, consults and speaks on a range of cultural and sociopolitical topics related to Africa and the African diaspora.
I was in East Africa in March when things started closing due to the novel coronavirus. In the first days of celebrities testing positive, sporting events being canceled and businesses bracing for closures, I was navigating my way back to the U.S., catching news highlights on my phone and on airport television screens. I was notified of the closing of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in a staff email received while sitting at a gate during a layover in Doha [Qatar]. It had been difficult to get a sense of what exactly was happening at home until then.
When I landed in Atlanta, it was clear I’d just missed the hysteria. I couldn’t find toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning products, feminine products, thermometers or masks anywhere. And because I’d been traveling on crowded flights full of people who hadn’t been given protective wear, I quarantined for two weeks, including isolating from my daughter who I’d already been missing dearly. Over the next several weeks, every conference I was scheduled to speak at and all of my exhibitions for 2020 were canceled. Then I was briefly furloughed. I was disoriented, then devastated.
I’ve observed this to be true for many people this year. After I mourned all the things I wasn’t going to be able to do and embraced the uncertainty of institutional employment, I became my most creative and entrepreneurial. When things around you crumble, you have no choice but to rebuild. And that process can be exciting. These moments are opportunities to imagine great new options and outcomes. This year reminded me that so much of what we need is within us, not outside of us, and cannot be taken away.
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