Interview with Rafael Soldi from Strange Fire Collective
The Strange Fire Collective is a group of interdisciplinary artists, curators, and writers engaging with current social and political forces through their work. Formed in 2015, the Strange Fire Collective seeks to “create a venue for work that critically questions the dominant social hierarchy and [is] dedicated to highlighting work made by women, people of color, and queer and trans artists.” The In Solidarity, editorial team had the pleasure of interviewing Rafael Soldi, one of four Strange Fire co-founders and a Seattle-based photographer and curator.
In Solidarity, Editorial Team (IS): Thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today. Rafael, we wondered if you could tell us a little bit about your trajectory as a photographer and how you became a founding member of the Strange Fire Collective.
Rafael Soldi (RS): Thanks for having us, we’re excited to talk with you. I was born and raised in Peru and I moved to the U.S. as a teenager. For as long as I can remember, being an artist was the only thing that I could really see myself doing. I went to school in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art and worked in New York before moving to Seattle, which is where I live now. I’ve been here working as an artist and as a curator. About five years ago, I was approached by Jess T. Dugan about creating some kind of project that would contribute to an art world that represents who we are and that stands for the values that we stand for. We saw an art world that’s primarily white, that’s primarily male-driven. That’s primarily cis and heteronormative. We wanted to create a space for ourselves that represented us, and that’s how Strange Fire Collective was born. I think a big part of the collective, and why it has worked so well, was because we wanted it to be something we were passionate about, that was appealing to us, and what we would have liked to see as young artists.
Jess invited me, Zora Murff who is an artist based in Arkansas, and Hamidah Glasgow who is the curator at the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado. Ever since, we have added two coordinators to the group who’ve been helping us with a lot of logistics and doing really fantastic work and creating new content as well: InHae Yap, and Keavy Handley-Bryrne The collective has really progressed over the years and taken on a life of its own. The primary activity of the collective is the weekly interviews—we produce one in-depth interview every Thursday of every month for the last five years.
So far we have nearly 250 interviews. For us, it was really important to find a core activity for the collective that was sustainable. All four of us are very busy, very engaged people in our own lives. And we knew that we needed to come up with a straightforward deliverable and that it needed to be something that we could all handle without dropping the ball. So there’s four of us, there’s four weeks of the month, and we each do one interview per month.
IS: What is it like working with partners that are kind of all over the country? I imagine that your work took you all over the globe in a pre-pandemic world.
RS: It’s been really interesting. I think, especially now during the pandemic, because we were already working in the ways that most people are working today. We had a program recently at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design where we gave a lecture and people were really surprised to hear that that was only the second time we had all been in a room together. So we’ve been working virtually and on the phone for a long time, and it’s worked really well. A big part of that has been because we came up with a manifesto that we all agreed on and that guides our work. We came up with a structure that we all feel we can deliver and that we can sustain and hold each other accountable.
We have created an environment in which we trust each other to do the work, and a set of values that we rally around and are each personally really committed to. I think that’s what sustains the work long-term, even though we’re not in the same room. And then within that, we started the collective in a very democratic way, in that we would all vote on everything. We would all agree on everything. And we would disagree oftentimes, but you know, we would come to an understanding.
And finally, in the last few years, we’ve learned to give each other a little more independence and each of us has something aside from the work that we rally around together. Each of us has taken on projects that we’re passionate about within the collective and have spearheaded, and that’s been much more productive because you can’t have four people working on everything all the time. It just takes a lot of time.
IS: I think you’ve already mentioned it briefly, but part of the mission that you all are coalescing around is to highlight work produced by women, people of color, queer, and trans artists. Can you say more about the importance of intersectionality to your work?
RS: Yeah, it’s huge. It’s always interesting because we use those words very clearly to define the spectrum of people that we work with. But we’re being specific because it’s important for us to call out those identities loudly and clearly, even though we’re not really interested in indexing people into categories. Intersectionality is at the core of what we do; I would say most of the people that we work with fall under more than one of those categories. And oftentimes, all of those things connect in really interesting ways. So, intersectionality is incredibly important and it’s really at the core of what we do in connecting all these identities. We started this collective to show the world that it’s a lot more complex than what we’ve been seeing on the surface.
IS: In doing these interviews and amplifying all of these different artistic practices, I’m wondering how you start to build solidarity across folks of different identity categories. How do you see that kind of communication happening through the sharing of artistic practice particularly?
RS: Absolutely. I think that art is particularly well equipped to do that work and that the reason, or one of the reasons art exists—Nina Simone said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” I’ve always identified with that quote because I think that artists have always held a mirror to the horrors, joys, beauty, and injustice in the world
Art is an incredible window through which to see the world. A good example of how we’ve used the collective to address these themes in an intersectional way, is that when we gave our talk at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, we did a pretty deep audit of the collective to understand what are the themes that are showing up in our work? What are the things that the artists were engaging with and looking at? There were many—maybe 10 or so. And we zeroed in on three themes that we found really important: Policing bodies, Here & Now, and access to power.
We presented four or five different artists who were engaging with each of those themes in completely different ways, completely different mediums, from different perspectives. I thought that was really great because we did want to show how Strange Fire could be a very useful teaching tool as well. And to be able to say, are you talking about gender? Are you talking about blackness? Are you talking about any of these themes? Here’s five perspectives from five artists who are looking at it from really different points of view, from very different experiences, age groups, countries, and how they’re engaging with it through different mediums. So I think that’s where the collective can offer an intersectional perspective on certain topics by way of its growing archive.
IS: I’m really interested in this newer mission to become an educational practice as well. It also seems that book reviews are a slightly newer thing that you are doing. I’m curious how you see that kind of fitting into this directed mission towards educating people who are thinking about blackness, thinking about queerness, thinking about these issues, and intersectionality.
RS: The book reviews are a new section of the website as well as our educational resources, which we just launched a few months ago. We got to a point where we realized we got the interviews down, we love doing it, and it’s the core of our work. We can peel anything back, but that stays sacred in the middle. And we wanted to provide new channels through which to engage with artists; we wanted to challenge ourselves to do something new and there’s a few of us in the collective who really love books. Jess T. Dugan spearheaded this effort and then folks like myself and Kelli Connell have contributed reviews as well.
What was really important to us from the beginning was that our writings would be substantial and that they wouldn’t be clickbait. We wanted to be able to not just give readers a thoughtful review of a book, but also give the artist a review that they would be proud of and that they deserve. That’s been a really important part of our mission as well; we’ve started to see the interviews and the content we’re producing with artists show up on curatorial texts, on the wall of their shows, to be quoted in press releases, and to be included in texts written by curators. So we really love this idea of being able to provide artists with something they can use as they move forward with their careers.
IS: One other way we’ve been thinking about your work at Strange Fire Collective is as an archival project or an archival institution. In some ways, over these five years, you all have developed this really incredible and deep archive of interviews. I’m curious about how you and the collective relate to this idea of the archive, whether you think there’s such a thing as archival activism, and if so, what that might mean to you?
RS: We often speak of Strange Fire in archival terms: we consider ourselves as building a new archive. That being said, we have had conversations and we’re really aware of the fact that the “capital-A” archive as we know it is the purest expression of colonial intervention. So it is really important for us to both recognize that, and then become part of a new archive or a larger kind of microcosm of archives that are being created in different places, and that tell a new story or perhaps a more accurate history. The archive as it is, is very corrupted. How do we infiltrate that? How do we create something new?
At the same time we have had conversations, for example, when we ask how to make our website more searchable? How do we categorize things? How do we put our educational resources into sections that make sense for people? And understanding too, that that system of indexing, of naming things, also has a colonial past. It’s a really tricky thing and I don’t think we can necessarily escape it, but you can question it.
IS: I think you’re spot on to say that the archive has a colonial history. I do a lot of archival work too. Even though the archive at Yale, for example, is free for the public to get into, there’s something very threatening about coming onto Yale’s campus, especially for a BIPOC, queer, trans person not affiliated with the university. So I think even the aspect of your website being a website and accessible is already a radical statement about the archive.
RS: It was really important to us that all the programming, and anything that we do is free and accessible to the public. It’s a really important part of the collective, and the internet can be a very democratic medium to do that.
IS: I recently watched a really interesting panel discussion called “How to have Sex in a Pandemic: Intimacy, Disease, & the Politics of Vulnerability,” hosted by New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. It was a really lovely discussion amongst a group of queer theorists. One of the panelists said something that I jotted down in between cooking my dinner: “allyship is a form of kinship.” I just loved that quote and I think there is some connection here to Strange Fire’s work. What do you think the role of non-biological kinship or kin-making is within the Strange Fire Collective?
RS: It’s a big one. I mean, I think it’s why we came together. I would say at the time we formed the collective, the four of us—Zora, Hamidah, Jess, and myself—were, I wouldn’t say strangers to one another, but we weren’t very close. We knew of each other’s work, and I think a few of us hadn’t met before. But what brought us together was this kinship around issues that were really important to us. Strange Fire itself is a reflection of that notion: that kinship around issues that are important to you, or things that you’re passionate about, that you connect to on a deeper level, can create something really meaningful.
For us, for example, we always talk about this Strange Fire Family. Anyone we feature is immediately a part of this Strange Fire Family. Anytime we curate a show or do any kind of programming, we always pull from within the archive because we have 250 people ready at any time, and it keeps growing. And when we see any of our Strange Fire featured artists or curators doing something cool, then that gets amplified, that gets celebrated. So that type of kinship is really important for me personally.
I would say queerness is probably the identity that carries the most weight within me. I’ve always felt a really strong kinship with other queer artists, even those whom I don’t know well. I’ve always felt that there’s a shared experience that carries a lot of weight within our identities.
IS: For this issue, part of the work we’re doing as editors is soliciting letters to activists, but another part is to crowdsource different definitions for allyship, advocacy, and housekeeping as they relate to solidarity work.
Interestingly, two of my colleagues on the editorial team for this issue are from different lingual backgrounds: Limy is a Spanish speaker and Laura is a Portuguese speaker. In gathering these definitions, we’ve already come upon some interesting issues regarding translation. For example, advocacy doesn’t have a direct translation in Spanish and Portuguese. So we end up having this multiplicity of definitions that are very tangential or personal—not coming from Merriam Webster. We were wondering if you would share your own definition for one or several of these terms.
RS: I would love to. As a quick side note, and as a Spanish speaker myself, I find that speaking two languages or coming from two different cultures is such a gift because you immediately see the world through two different perspectives. Language is so interesting, it’s just fascinating. I saw a post from a deaf activist recently. He said that sometimes when he wants to understand something better, he will take the phrase, or the concept, or whatever it is, and translate it into sign language and then translate it back to English. I can’t remember the exact example, but he was saying something like, if we say “I care for you” or “I really care about you,” the sign language translation might be something like, “I hold your heart in my hands.” I wish I could find the exact example that they used.
Because there isn’t really a direct word translation, it’s a series of ideas that are woven together through signing. I thought that was such a beautiful way to use language, to understand something, or a concept in a more nuanced way, you know? Just beautiful. In terms of allyship, advocacy, and housekeeping, I just wanted to say that I’ve been thinking about them a lot. Obviously during this year from the pandemic to the social uprising; I think it’s really important for people to really think where they can make the biggest impact.
For me, I feel that I can make the most impact within these concepts in the arenas that I can most deftly navigate and where I yield the most influence. And for me, that is the art world. And I think Strange Fire is a very clear reflection of that. I know my way around the art world. I know the people in it. I know that I have colleagues, and resources, and access, and that’s where I’ve chosen to do my work. So thinking of allyship in this context of social justice framework, I would define allyship as discomfort.
I think that not doing what you’re already doing, but doing what you haven’t been comfortable doing yet to stand with, for, and behind those who suffer from systemic injustice. For me, the true meaning of allyship is something that I’ve reckoned with myself where I was like, “well, I’m already an ally.” And I was like, yeah, that’s easy to just do what I’m already doing. There was so much more that I could be doing, that I’m not doing because it’s just a little bit uncomfortable. So I think that’s where true allyship comes in.
I would say advocacy is ceding space, understanding your own privilege, and then being able to cede space for somebody else to take it. So, if you have access and privilege the worst thing is to abuse it, but the second worst thing is to not use it on behalf of others.
And then finally, housekeeping. I’m going to use this in my own context and also in the context of Strange Fire; I think housekeeping for us is holding ourselves accountable. We had an important moment when all the Black Lives Matter protests started, and we wanted to put out some kind of statement. We then realized that we already do the work, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune. It doesn’t mean we don’t have blind spots. It doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to grow. And a lot of the work that we’ve done since has been around identifying blind spots and figuring out what are the areas in which the collective has to grow. Like, native representation is minimal on the website. Not only do we not have a huge representation of differently abled artists, but our website isn’t really accessible per se. So I think to me, that’s housekeeping: it’s to really look inside our own collective, get the broom, and start sweeping—figuring out what needs to be put away, what needs to be sorted out, what needs to be taken care of.
IS: I love those definitions. And your definition of advocacy is particularly interesting because we often think of ‘taking up space’ in terms of our language and our privilege within institutions. But ‘taking up space,’ is also a deeply spatial and material issue. And for students thinking about how to cede space as an architect is a very challenging question to approach, but I think it’s one of the most crucial questions. It’s something that a lot of people at the school of architecture are wrestling with.
RS: Yeah. And I mean, racism is deeply seated in architecture and the way we build the spaces. We know that that’s not a taboo, that’s not a secret. It goes hand in hand with urban planning as well.
IS: Yes. We were wondering when you all found Strange Fire Collective, were you thinking of any other collectives as models for the kind of work you wanted to do? Or are there any precedents for the kind of work you wanted to do as a collective?
RS: There really wasn’t, and so there are two parts to that answer. There wasn’t in the sense that we decided to come together and we didn’t really look at any specific reference or collective as to what we wanted to do. I’m really glad that we didn’t because we were able to build something that worked for us. The collective has really developed very organically and into something that has really served our own time, our own sort of bandwidth, as four people..
We don’t feel ownership over the idea of the collective. We feel that if you want to go out there and start a collective or a group that touches on the exact same subjects that we touch on, we’d be thrilled. I think that would be an amazing addition to our world and, if you want to use ‘our system’, that’s great. We have gone on to highlight and reference and celebrate many other collectives and groups that have come through our path that we love and admire, like Women Photograph, For Freedoms, Shades Collective, the Center for Photographers of Color, Photo Emphasis, In Plain Sight, and many more.
IS: What’s on the horizon for the Strange Fire Collective? How can students at Yale School of Architecture keep up with your work?
RS: We have some actual things that are happening, and some ideas and dreams. The immediate future is that we are continuing to do the work that we’re doing right now. That’s really important for us to say, because we’re often asked, “Okay, great, what’s the next step? How are you going to grow?” And we’ve come to an understanding that we like the work that we’re doing and that’s where we’re going to stay..We have a couple of exhibitions coming up in Seattle at Soil Gallery in January 2021. We also have an exhibition opening in February 2021 at the Gustavus Adolphus College.
A big part of our efforts right now are going to educational resources. They’re very much a working document because we wanted people to just be able to see what’s in there so far and to contribute ideas, content, criticism, questions. So a lot of the effort of the collective right now is focusing on building this really robust resources page that’s very tied to teaching and learning. One of our amazing coordinators, Keavy Handley-Byrne, put together a section of alternative canons which I loved; if you typically assign Sontag, for example, consider assigning these other young black scholars who have something to say about this thing this white person wrote about in the seventies.
And then, the dream world is two things—we have our eye on the horizon. One of them is a book, or books, of some compilation of the interviews. And some kind of retreat is also something we’ve been thinking a lot about: creating a week-long retreat that is completely free for young artists, queer artists, BIPOC artists who can come and do a whole week of professional development, growth, and critique. It’s back to that idea of ceding space and access, and leveling the playing field.
IS: Thank you so much for sharing your time and your thoughtful responses with us. We really appreciate it.
RS: Yeah, of course. Thanks for sharing this space with me and Strange Fire Collective!