Donna Karan and Mashonda Tifrere’s Empowering “King Woman” Show

Courtesy of Donna Karan and Mashonda Tifrere.

Yesterday at Donna Karan’s Urban Zen space in New York, the exhibition “King Woman” closed. Since March 8, the collaborative presentation between Karan and nonprofit ArtLedHER’s Mashonda Tifrere was an empowering expression of feminist art, just in time for the 32nd annual Women’s History Month. Along with an exhibition of works by artists like Swoon, Bisa Butler, and Genesis Tramine, “King Woman” was also joined by conversations by art world leaders and patrons like Carmen Hermo, associate curator of feminist art at the Brooklyn Museum, and Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, director of Jack Shainman Gallery. The theme, overall, was women supporting women, and celebrating those who aspire to be a king.

“Artists selected for this show project their own gender identity in a powerful and unabashed way. The exhibition’s title, “King Woman,” intends to subvert the cultural notion that women should aspire to be just a ‘goddess’ or a ‘queen.’ Each artwork selected for “King Woman” emotively positions women subjects as the pinnacle of power and strength, while evoking a deeply human connection with the viewer,” said Tifrere.

Both Karan and Tifrere know advocacy and art well—Karan, an obvious fashion powerhouse, honors her late artist husband Stephan Weiss through hand-selected presentations, in his old studio, now Urban Zen; and Tifrere, a music veteran, an author, a co-parent to Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys, and a master’s graduate of the contemporary art program at Christie’s. Together, they make a dynamic duo.

Whitewall spoke with both Karan and Tifrere about “King Woman” and about how they live with art.

Courtesy of Donna Karan and Mashonda Tifrere.

WHITEWALL: Donna, tell us a bit about Urban Zen.

DONNA KARAN: Urban Zen is a space and place where like-minded individuals come together as a community, to create, collaborate, communicate, and make change happen in preservation of culture (past), healthcare (present), and education (future). For me, it’s about dressing and addressing the issues that matter most and creating the change that is so needed today.

WW: Tell us a bit about the exhibition space at Urban Zen, where “King Woman” is being presented.

DK: It used to be my husband’s art studio so in a way it truly is a space for art to live, and it’s a place where people can come together. That is really what Urban Zen is all about and that what is meant to be. When I look at this exhibition, I see women sharing their vision—each artist having a completely different way of expressing it. Our philosophy of living is all about creating, collaborating, communicating, and through that, positive change is possible.

WW: What did you want to make sure was included in the show?

DK: What is and always is most important to me is that the artists feel represented in a way that they want to be seen. As a woman you have to be seen in your own way. I’ve always said the clothes don’t make the woman, the soul of a woman makes the clothes.

Courtesy of Donna Karan and Mashonda Tifrere.

WW: Tell us a bit about how you live with art.

DK: Art has always been a way of life for me. I was always hanging out in the art department in my high school. I went to Parsons School of Design and then married an artist, Stephan. He was a sculptor and I am designer, so art has been a part of my entire life. It is the way I have always experienced life and known life to be.

WW: Tell us a bit about your and Mashonda’s relationship. What values do you share?

DK: The minute I saw her in my Sag Harbor store I said, “Wow you are so beautiful. Tell me who you are.” I felt her beauty immediately, both inside and out, and loved what she was doing for women.

Mashonda has something to say, a point of view, and a soul. Through her vision she brings female artists together to celebrate them. Mashonda has a way of creating a community—as a mother, as a friend, and as a woman. Mashonda’s gift is to truly bring it all together. We share that love and passion for creating awareness and inspiring change in everything we do.

Courtesy of Donna Karan and Mashonda Tifrere.

WW: Mashonda, can you tell us a bit about your platform, ArtLeadHER, and its mission?

MASHONDA TIFRERE: For the past three years, ArtLeadHER has provided a platform for emerging women artists to show their work and participate in discussions with arts professionals. With the launch of the physical space this spring, we are able to expand the program to serve younger aspiring female artists, particularly in underserved communities. We want to create a pipeline for women in the arts industries where it wouldn’t otherwise exist.

WW: “King Woman” benefits the artists with 60 percent of the proceeds, and ArtLedHER, with proceeds going back to girls in New York and New Jersey.

MT: We are a unique arts nonprofit because instead of soliciting artists to donate work for the cause (as is typical), part of the cause itself is to enable emerging female artists to exhibit alongside more established names. So, we function a little bit like a gallery in that way, but instead of the remainder going to the gallerist, it goes to the nonprofit. 

Courtesy of Donna Karan and Mashonda Tifrere.

WW: Tell us a bit about selecting the artists for the show, like Swoon, Butler, and Tramine. How did you go about making those decisions?

MT: ArtLeadHER’s practice is to exhibit emerging female artists alongside established names. Swoon is a longtime supporter of ours. We adore her work and dedication to her social practices. Bisa Butler and Genesis Tramine’s work inspires me on many levels. All of the artists are special and amazing women. I’ve had the opportunity of getting to know and understand each of them. There’s something special about that woman to woman connection that play a huge part in my process for choosing artists.

WW: What is the overall message you aim to have with the exhibition? What does “King Woman” mean to you?

MT: The exhibition itself, and the notion that its title refers to, challenges women not to stop at aspiring to be “queen,” but to be a “king”—the pinnacle of power and strength. This entire month has been a series of curatorial talks, wellness seminars, women-hosted dinners, and more. It’s about positivity and humanity. It has been a complete honor to work alongside Donna Karan. We share so many of the same values. She has been beyond supportive and uplifting to myself and all the artists in the show. The programming, which Molly Krause helped organize, was also a huge component of the entire “King Woman”month. It’s all about women empowering women.

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