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The Laundromat Project’s Kemi Ilesanmi Wants to Make Art a Necessity

Portrait of Laundromat Project Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi by Dread Scott. Courtesy of Kemi Ilesanmi.

Portrait of Laundromat Project Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi by Dread Scott. Courtesy of Kemi Ilesanmi.

Community members gather at Feeding Tree Community Garden in Bed-Stuy during 2019 Create Change Artist-in-Residence Bianca Mońa’s project, Wholeness Manifested. Photo by Neha Gautam. Courtesy of The Laundromat Project.

Community members gather at Feeding Tree Community Garden in Bed-Stuy during 2019 Create Change Artist-in-Residence Bianca Mońa’s project, Wholeness Manifested. Photo by Neha Gautam. Courtesy of The Laundromat Project.

Kemi Ilesanmi’s laugh is gloriously infectious. As I listen to her speak, recounting stories of her experiences during the past seven months—over Zoom, where my spotty Wi-Fi connection requires me to pay very close attention to every word she utters—her chuckle finds its way behind almost every sentence: a sweet and relaxing reward for my ears after each statement. Even when discussing serious matters, Ilesanmi is good at giving weight to issues, such as the pandemic, while also showing levity without the slightest sign of insensitivity. Despite the hardships and adjustments we’ve all had to make due to COVID-19, Ilesanmi is still full of warmth, joy, and laughter—a testament to not only her overall character and sense of humor, but also her sense of resolve to trudge through the muck, so to speak, and dedicate herself to what she loves best: working with communities.
Ilesanmi is the executive director of The Laundromat Project (The LP), a New York–based, POC-centered organization that aims to meet the concerns of local communities of color and enact change through public engagements with the arts by actualizing spaces like community gardens, plazas, and, yes, laundromats: hubs where people come together, share ideas, and work out creative solutions to the problems affecting them and their neighbors. She has held this position for the past eight years, but has been part of the organization for many more, playing a significant role in the early stages of The LP’s existence.
“I moved to New York in September 2004—I celebrate my anniversary every year,” she said, followed by a spurt of laughter. “Two weeks after I moved here, I met Risë Wilson for brunch, the founder of The LP. It was a mutual friend’s brunch, and she spoke to me about her project, which she had just gotten a grant for—Echoing Green did the seed funding.”
View of 1476 Fulton Street this fall while construction is underway inside. Courtesy of The Laundromat Project.

View of 1476 Fulton Street this fall while construction is underway inside. Courtesy of The Laundromat Project.

Ilesanmi had just left her job at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to start a new post at Creative Capital. A year later, in 2005, The LP incorporated, and Wilson invited Ilesanmi to become a board member. She joined in 2006, but then left for five years later to go to graduate school, all the while keeping her day job at Creative Capital.
“When I graduated two years later, I came to them with the idea of becoming the executive director. Risë never wanted to assume that role, so The LP never had a reason to hire someone for that position. It was my last year of grad school, so I went on vacation and had an epiphany, which often happens for me,” Ilesanmi said. “That’s why you need vacation, to have space to think. I turned to my husband and said, ‘I know what my job is. Now I have to go get it.’”
A few weeks later, she met with the board to discuss the position. “They put me through a vetting process that included many interviews and lasted many months,” Ilesanmi recalled. She was the only candidate for the position and was hired in 2012.

Curriculum and community

The Laundry Project’s Field Day Festival in Harlem, 2015. Photo by Ray Llanos. Courtesy of The Laundromat Project.

The Laundry Project’s Field Day Festival in Harlem, 2015. Photo by Ray Llanos. Courtesy of The Laundromat Project.

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I first encountered The LP and Ilesanmi at the 2015 Creative Time Summit at the Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The event was a redux of Creative Time’s initial 2015 summit, which took place in Venice during that year’s Biennale. The summit’s theme was “Curriculum,” and in an effort to ground the thematic schema of the event in specifics of daily life—as opposed to a more conceptual conversation around the topic, as happened in Venice—Creative Time opted to have a second edition in New York, with a more pointed focus on education in the United States.
It was there I first heard Ilesanmi speak about her upbringing in Nigeria and her move to Maryland with her mother as a young teenager. She described a profound culture shock, recalling the kind of cognitive dissonance that comes with being part of a predominantly Black student body at a school with all white teachers—a hallmark of life in many communities in the U.S. She went on to talk about her work and The LP, describing the organization by focusing less on what it is and more on its purpose.
“What we really do is we build, we nourish, and we equip people to be community leaders and use their full creative arsenal to envision and make the world that they deserve and want to live in,” she said. I was immediately intrigued by this and fully engrossed in the possibilities of socially engaged art. Soon afterwards, I applied to become a Create Change fellow, a six-month program with the purpose of imparting the values and tools of The LP to create meaningful projects with its anchored neighborhoods: Harlem, Bed-Stuy, and Hunts Point/Longwood.
At The LP, I learned valuable approaches to working with communities and, in effect, finding ways to make art not only accessible and meaningful to other folks, but also to myself. It was an important experience for me and underscored what The LP is all about: working “in the hope that art would become a necessity and part of people’s everyday lives,” as Ilesanmi put it.

A people curator is born

Neighbors weave together as part of a workshop facilitated by Weaving Hand and organized by 2017 Create Change Bed-Stuy Fellows during The Laundromat Project’s Bed-Stuy Field Day Festival in Hancock Community Garden, 2017. Photo by Neha Gautam. Courtesy of The Laundromat Project.

Neighbors weave together as part of a workshop facilitated by Weaving Hand and organized by 2017 Create Change Bed-Stuy Fellows during The Laundromat Project’s Bed-Stuy Field Day Festival in Hancock Community Garden, 2017. Photo by Neha Gautam. Courtesy of The Laundromat Project.

I asked Ilesanmi how she started down this path, or her epiphany, as she called it—when she realized she wanted to work in this programmatic way that looked at the intersection of art and community activism.
“I started with a one-year internship at the Walker Art Center,” she recalled. “My curatorial and art career is a surprise to me. I don’t have any art degrees. I love the arts, but I thought I was going to be a college professor. I dropped out of school—I had a scenic route through college. I didn’t get my undergrad degree until my late twenties. I was writing my thesis, and my professor Kellie Jones told me I should apply for this internship at the Walker. I was like, ‘The who, what, where?’”
She landed the internship and ultimately ended up as a curator at the Walker for six years. At the onset of her internship, the Walker had just received a grant to support residencies that would bring in artists to connect with communities in the Twin Cities; she was assigned to work on projects with and . Ward’s project, in particular—around the Black community of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, which was destroyed by the construction of interstate I-94—had a tremendous effect on Ilesanmi’s connection to art and community. “He was interested in the history highways and how they cut into neighborhoods,” Ilesanmi said, “much like Longwood was affected and dismantled by the Bruckner Expressway here in New York.”
The initial idea for the project led Ward to explore notions of home in different communities. With Ilesanmi’s help, he spoke with many community and immigrant groups.
“That was game-changing for me,” Ilesanmi told me. “One day in particular, we met with a group of elderly Korean women and we were asking what their notion of home was. And one woman goes, ‘I can’t believe someone is asking for our stories.’ A story is a gift. People don’t have to share their stories. But she wanted to share, and what it meant to be part of this community in the Twin Cities. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember the feeling, which Maya Angelou told us is a thing. And the feeling was of such warmth and gratitude to be asked, and such a joy to be able to share. It was at this moment where I was like, ‘This is something else. I like this.’” Ilesanmi’s experiences with Ward helped shift her focus to a more expansive curatorial approach, and set her on the trajectory that eventually led to The LP.
“It took many years to figure this out, but I wasn’t an objects curator, I was a people curator,” Ilesanmi said. “I like relationships, I like relational work, with all the craziness, complications, and nuances that it comes with. I like people. I knew that this was the feeling and connection I was after, and that was the moment that I literally knew what I wanted to do.”

Fostering community amid COVID-19

The Laundromat Project’s storefront space at 1476 Fulton Street near the intersection of Kingston Avenue. Courtesy of The Laundromat Project.

The Laundromat Project’s storefront space at 1476 Fulton Street near the intersection of Kingston Avenue. Courtesy of The Laundromat Project.

The original idea behind The LP was to actually own and run a laundromat. “And we could kind of slip in some art,” as Ilesanmi put it. “It would be an art space, but you didn’t have to know that to engage. It would draw you in and we do a little situation on you, in the hope that art would become a necessity and part of people’s everyday lives. But it turned out no one had let’s-buy-New-York-real-estate money—key detail!”
As a result, The LP had to adapt and figure out new ways to implement its vision. “It gave us space to experiment, since we didn’t have any money. So we went citywide immediately.” The LP first established connections in Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene in Brooklyn, and later on in Harlem and eventually in Hunts Point and Longwood in the Bronx, establishing long-term relationships with the community in those areas.
The year 2020, however, was going to be a period of reenvisioning how The LP looked for the future. After many years of working throughout New York City, the organization decided to return to this idea of being anchored to one place, and establishing a permanent home. “We spent all of 2019 asking our community and Create Change fellows where we should get a space, and by the fall we narrowed that down to Harlem and Bed-Stuy. We finally landed on Fulton Street (a.k.a. Harriet Tubman Avenue) in Bed-Stuy.”
And, as happens with a lot of 2020 stories, in the final hours of the decision-making process, the pandemic hit. “First couple weeks of COVID-19 we signed the lease,” Ilesanmi said. The pandemic has made things difficult for The LP, an organization used to being physically present and active with people. It made it more difficult to plan for the future in its new home in Brooklyn. But The LP adapted, continuing its Create Change fellowships and residencies, albeit with some adjustments.
“It was all done virtually as opposed to going into the community, but it was the same fellowship,” Ilesanmi told me. “But several of [the fellows] talked about this as one of the anchors for them during this period, while everything else was falling apart. And instead of working with the community, everyone was working on their own personal project and putting a The LP process or conversion to it.”
This pivot was no easy feat for The LP, which had to shift its approach at a time of crisis for the community and renewal for the organization. Ilesanmi said it put things into focus, clarifying what it means to hold community in a time of such uncertainty, to actively listen to the folks who needed the most help and were struggling to make ends meet. The pandemic “slowed us down,” she added. “And we had to go slow in order to go fast.”
Terence Trouillot