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Hermannsburg Potters

Reposting from March 2016. Originally in Hyperllergic

Aboriginal Women in Australia Celebrate Their Football Heroes with Pottery

Rona Rubunjta Arrente’s “I’m Black” (2015) (left); Ngala Wheeler’s “Brotherhood” (2015) (right) in ‘Our Land is Alive: Hermannsburg Potters for Kids continues’ at The Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MELBOURNE — The desert of Central Australia might seem like an unlikely place to find an art cooperative making potent and beautiful pottery. But an exhibition at Melbourne’s Ian Potter Centre is featuring a moving display of hand-painted pottery by the Aboriginal women of Hermannsburg — a tradition not indigenous to the area — celebrating, of all things, their football heroes. What gives?

Settled by colonialists in the 19th century, the town of Hermannsburg is 80 miles west of Alice Springs and home to just 700 people. The indigenous Arrernte/Luritjapeoples here were subject to a radical and often violent disruption of their lives and lands — a sad story common to many countries and native cultures.

Around 1900, a group of Lutheran missionaries built a mission house and school in Hermannsburg, offering food, water, and protection from other white settlers to the local people if they converted to Christianity. Given their other options, it’s understandable why the Arrernte/Luritja people would embrace their European “saviors.”

The Lutherans proved comparatively benevolent occupiers. Among the many crafts they introduced were Western art-making in the form of pottery, watercolor painting, Western “women’s” skills such as crochet and knitting. (In the mid-1930s, a local watercolor style emerged and Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) became the most famous Aboriginal artist of his generation.) It’s a little unclear why the missionaries decided to introduce these arts to the Arrernte. I suspect they thought the sale of pottery to tourists could generate income.

Installation view of ‘Our Land is Alive: Hermannsburg Potters for Kids continues’ at The Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria.

In 1975, the land was officially given back to the indigenous inhabitants and the town became dually known as Ntaria/Hermannsburg. Shortly afterward, the local government built a ceramic workshop and the Hermannsburg Pottery cooperative was officially founded. Locals not only continued but developed the pottery tradition into artwork that has real resonance.

Initially, all the work was done by men. The pots, depicting local flora and fauna, were pretty, if not exceptional, and sold to tourists passing throughout the central desert. But in 1990, senior lawman Nashasson Ungwanaka invited a potter named Naomi Sharp to come to Hermannsburg and teach a workshop, and soon thereafter the women of Hermannsburg took over. No longer quite as passive as the male potters, the women of Hermannsburg began to make pots that reflected their lives in a more meaningful way than the “tourist art” had done.

 

Pot by Rahel Kngwarria Ungwanaka “Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer” (
2015), installation view, Northern Territory
 earthenware, under glazes.

It turns out that the women of Hermannsburg, by their own admission, are fanatical fans of Australian rules football, a rough and tumble team sport played only in Australia. Founded in 1908, the game has been traditionally a white sport and for many years the leagues (unofficially, of course) mirrored the racist attitudes of their nation. Aboriginal and other ethnic minorities faced discrimination and outright racism as they slowly integrated into the leagues. Famous and accomplished Aboriginal players such as Nicky Winmar, Michael Long, and Chris Lewis have publicly stood up against racism, and this, in turn, has given an enormous boost to the Aboriginal rights movements.

While the Hermannsburg women potters still continue the tradition of lyrical pottery depicting the natural world in which they live, it is their dynamic football pieces that reflect the personal and political victories of the players that pack a visual and emotional punch. One of the most famous moments in Australian football is portrayed in a piece by Rona Rubunjta that recreates the image of celebrated player Nicky Winmar lifting his shirt and proudly pointing to the color of his skin in 1993. The piece, entitled “I’m Black,” is a triumph of identity, and one can only imagine the empowerment that this gesture conveyed to his country folk.

Photograph of Hermannsburg Women Potters fans

The Ian Potter Center exhibition consists of 20 pots, with animated scenes from famous football games painted (in fired underglaze) around their exteriors. Each is topped with a sculptural finial portraying one or several athletic figures in three dimensions. The drawing and modeling is loose and fun; the pots self-assured in their design and fabrication, and bold in their statement of ethnic pride. Each pot tells its story in a circular way, the narrative traveling around its exterior, though each maker has a different portrayal of space. In some, the figures are foreshortened and slightly warped, as their bodies conform to the undulation of the classical ceramic shape. Others tell a visual story in space that is compressed, both horizontally and vertically, so the story reads more as a band of images. The color is universally bold and opaque. The individual drawings are personal and idiosyncratic; there is no mistaking the work of one potter for another.

Because this is a significant political and cultural exhibition, I was slightly dismayed that the curators decided to design it as an exhibition primarily for children. Officially entitled Our Land is Alive: Hermannsburg Potters for Kids, the show is set up like a football field: a red floor with boundary markings delineates the gallery and the pots are placed in vitrines that mimic the official football starting positions. The gallery is hung with the banners of Australian Football teams. It’s lively for sure, but also a little chaotic, and I fear decreases the social import of the artwork. I am all for enticing children into museum shows, but this one feels a little like an amusement arcade. I’m not sure why the giant wall text needed to say “For Kids.” The art and the message presented in this exhibition is in no way childlike. I could see adults read the signage and turning away from the exhibition, which would be a loss for everyone.

Lindy Panangka Rontji, “The tackle” (
2015), installation view, Northern Territory
 earthenware, under glazes

While I had no idea of the personal significance of the pots and their various scenes of football triumph to those who made them, the exuberance and joy need no explanation. The exhaustive wall text connects each pot to its episode and makes the pieces feel even more important in a larger context. And while each of the 20 pots stands on its own, there is something very moving about seeing them all together — like a team whose individual players collectively create a new and powerful entity.

Our Land is Alive: Hermannsburg Potters for Kids continues at The Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) (Ground, Federation Sqaure, Flinders St & Russell St, Melbourne, Australia) through April 10. 

 

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The Urgent and Necessary Images of Shahidul Alam

Published Jan. 8, 2020 in Hyperallergic

At the Rubin Museum of Art, ” Truth to Power” spotlights Alam’s tireless documentation of over 40 years of struggle and change in his native Bangladesh.

Shahidul Alam, “Smriti Azad at Protest at Shaheed Minar ( Shaheed Minar, Dhaka, Bangladesh)” (1994), photograph (all images courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World, unless otherwise noted)

Shahidul Alam did not set out to be a photographer, a social justice activist, or a political leader. He wanted to be a scientist — a chemist, to be exact. While working on his PhD in London, he purchased a camera by chance, for a friend who turned out to be too broke to pay him back. Stuck with this thing, he started using the camera himself,  capturing images of London street life as he was finishing his degree.

Alam returned to his native Bangladesh in 1984 during a time of political turmoil and hit the streets to document the lives of his countrymen and women. Capturing on film the myriad dimensions of Bangladeshi life proved to be his calling.  Alam has documented over 40 years of struggle and change in the country and in the process, founded some of Southeast Asia’s most important photo agencies and photography programs. 

Shahidul Alam, “Protesters in Motijheel Break Section 144 on Dhaka Siege Day (Motijheel, Dhaka,Bangladesh)” (1987)

A retrospective of his career is now on view at the Rubin Museum of Art where it will run until May. Truth to Power is arranged chronologically, and starts in the 1990’s, when Alam’s photos first began to be picked up by the international media and circulated worldwide. As a photojournalist, he has chronicled flood, war, famine, joy, refugee migrations, street life, and political oppression. Select images also allude to his work as the founder of the Drik Picture Library, the Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography (now the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute) and the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, each dedicated to free speech and self-expression. These institutions are actively training  future generations of photojournalists in Southeast Asia. Alam’s is an extraordinary career of commitment to capturing and telling stories that matter.

Shahidul Alam, “Woman in Ballot Booth (Lamatia, Dhaka, Bangladesh)” (1991), photograph

Alam’s early photographs are very much in the spirit of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos of India from the 1940’s. High contrast and dramatic framing heighten the narrative. In his photo from 1987, “Protesters in Motijheel Break Section 44 on Dhaka Siege Day,” he presents a formalist view of an urban street, a wide and long expanse framed by buildings. Backlit, the figures of the protesters are sharply thrown into shadow. They appear as dark cutouts  in a brilliant haze of light. Everyone in this photograph is moving. There is an air of expectancy, unrest; at the same time the elegant lighting and composition reads simply as a beautiful moment captured on film.

From this section of early work, the exhibition moves us into a grouping that addresses Alam’s social justice practice head-on. In the 2010s Alam produced three bodies of work addressing the disappearance of feminist activist Kalpana Chakma, who was kidnapped in 1996 and of whom no trace has since been found. Entitled Kalpana’s Warriors, Alam’s series ventures into a realm of imagery that is abstract and artistic, rather than journalistic. Bits and pieces of women’s clothing are photographed in color, as well as Kalpana’s journals and shoes (shot in black and white). They depend heavily on their labels for explanation, and although I think that Alam was attempting to create an atmospheric portrait of the missing activist this grouping does not have the power of his straightforward documentarian work. 

Installation view of “Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power,” presented by the Rubin Museum of Art, November 8, 2019 – May 4, 2020 (courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art, photo by David De Armas Photography)

“Red Orna” (2013), is  a photograph from this series presents what appears to be a piece of deeply saturated woven red fabric (an orna is a woman’s garment common to Southeast Asia). It stretches across the entire picture plane, light streaming across it accentuating the richness of the color.  The extensive wall text explains that this is part of Alam’s interest in how a photographer and their viewers “interpret the truth” about an image. Personally, I prefered the photographs that are more straightforward, which allowed me to experience his vision without conceptual explanations.  However, as the exhibition is arranged chronologically this part of Alam’s body of work is important to consider. 

Shahidul Alam, “Airport Goodbye (Dhaka Airport, Bangladesh)” (1996), photograph

It is fascinating to see the evolution of Alam’s work and vision. From the early black and white film photos, to the later digital color work one can see both the continuity in his work and the changes that new technology have brought. At the terminus of the show, which focuses on Alam’s imprisonment, the museum has mounted several terminals that show, in slideshow mode, his most recent photographs taken on an iPhone. I wish that they had given this work a bit more prominence. These new photos carry a sense of energy that is fresh and captures Bangladesh right now. They would have made a great counterpoint to the vintage images in the show.

Over the course of his career, Alam has tirelessly produced bodies of work documenting the movements of migrant laborers, sex workers, environmental devastation, and most recently the forced migration of the Rohingya people. His photos are urgent and necessary. There’s an interesting line that activist artists must walk — having your social justice bonafides in the right place and making great art are sometimes different skill sets. It can be complicated to have to critique journalistic images that are timely but sometimes don’t work as well from an aesthetic perspective. Luckily for us, Shahidul Alam is an important humanitarian with a beautiful aesthetic sensibility. This exhibition will move you on both levels; Alam bears witness to troubled times and people. And he makes beautiful photographs.

Shahidul Alam, “Rohingya Refugees After Having Just Landed in Bangladesh (Shah Porir Dweep, Teknaf, Bangladesh)”
(2017), photograph

Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power continues at the Rubin Museum of Art (170 West 17th Street, Chelsea) through May 4, 2020. The exhibition is organized by Beth Citron.

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WEIRDEST YEAR EVER

A rant about 2020……..

Housebound- 2020. Oilstick, graphite. 10 x 8

I haven’t posted a rant or a rave in many years. But man, oh, man, if ever there was a time in the history of the Universe to post a rant, this would be it.

I left NYC on March 13 for a normal weekend at my house up in the Catskills. Little did I know what was about to come down. The Spring up here in the mountains was long and cold. Unusually so. Time slowed down as the days slipped by. Disoriented and scared I  tried, like so many, to wrap my head around what was happening in the world. Jobs disappeared as the art world closed down and everyone hunkered down, just trying to be safe and be sure that those we loved were safe.

My studio here in Shokan NY is in the stable of an old barn. It’s a Summer studio, not heated and it was cold. But I cranked up the music, put on five or so layers of clothing ( no exaggeration) and even if I couldn’t make anything, I forced myself to spend the day out of the house and in the studio. Slowly, drawings began to emerge. For the first time I was making work that was more directly autobiographical than ever before.It was unsettling. but then again everything was unsettling.

Curfew 2020- paint, pastel. 20 x 17.50

Slowly I worked on pieces- drawings, sculpture and assemblage- the figures were lost, locked down, locked out, broken.. and yet they contain with a glimmer of hope.

Broken. 2020. Clay, glaze, ink, encaustic, object. 20 x 8 x 3

You don’t need me to go through the list of what has battered us this year. You know. I just wrote a huge impassioned paragraph listing every assault upon us that has happened this year (and it’s still October). I deleted it. You know, we all know……

Luckily I had a show to work towards. My solo exhibition -DOES SHE OR DOESN’T SHE? will open at Firecat Projects in Chicago on Oct. 23. (2019 N Damen Ave.,Chicago, IL 60647. see link). I had deadlines and people who were waiting for me to finish new work. It’s been a godsend, and I am deeply grateful to the gallery and Stan Klein.

I will go to Chicago. I hope that people come to see the show. I hope that we win and win big in November. I hope that a safe vaccine is found quickly and I hope that the brutality and hatred that has been unleashed in America will somehow be contained….. that’s alot to hope for. But I’ve always been an optimistic pessimist.

Eight months later,and I’m still in the Catskills. Trips to NYC once a month to pick up mail, art supplies have shown me that my beloved city is bent but not broken.

And the beat goes on…….

Good night and sweet dreams to you all.

Sweet Dreams. 2020. Ink, collage. 18 x 23.5
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A Memorial to Crimes Against Women and Children in Ghostly Glass

Published in Hyperallergic August 22, 2019

Northern Irish artist Alison Lowry addresses the 200 years of crimes perpetrated by the Catholic Church in collaboration with the Irish state.

Alison, Lowry, “Instead of the fragrance there will be stench; instead of a sash, a rope; instead of well-dressed hair, baldness; instead of fine clothing, sackcloth; instead of beauty, branding (Isaiah 3:24)” cast glass, rosary beads, human hair (2019)

DUBLIN — How do artists respond to the institutional horrors of the world? This is a huge and urgent question in our tumultuous time. I found a deeply affecting case history in Dublin, Ireland.

Northern Irish glass artist Alison Lowry has mounted an exhibition that addresses well over 200 years of crimes against women and children perpetrated by the Catholic Church, in collaboration with the Irish state. It is a devastating exhibition.

Alison, Lowry, “These are their names (Numbers 13:4)” Screen printed enamels, found objects (2019)

A brief background: In 2012 a mass grave holding the bodies of 796 children was discovered in Tuam, Ireland on the former site of St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, an institution run by the Bon Secours Sisters order of nuns from 1921 to 1965. Mother and baby homes (a tragically ironic name) were homes for unwed mothers and their children, many of whom were forcibly taken from their mothers for adoption, and the women forced into manual labor to “pay” for their care. The hygienic and medical conditions were abysmal; as a result, many of the babies, children, and mothers died.

This grim discovery was coupled with the ongoing investigation of another site of institutional abuse. The Magdalene Laundries, a Catholic institution run by nuns where unwanted women and children worked in forced servitude benefitting the church as a lucrative laundry facility. It is estimated that upwards of 30,000 women and teenage girls lived in slavery in these institutions from roughly 1760 until 1996, when the last workhouse was closed. Children in families where there was domestic violence were also routinely taken by the state and placed in “industrial homes,” also run by the Catholic Church, where the victims’ treatment was cruel and brutal.

Installation view of Alison Lowry: (A)Dressing Our Hidden Truths at the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History, (photographed 13 May, 2019 by Peter Moloney)

These are the verifiable facts that Lowery used as a basis for her exhibition, titled  (A)Dressing Our Hidden Truths. Her primary medium is a form of glass fabrication called “pâte’ de verre,” meaning literally “paste of glass,” an extremely labor-intensive 19th century form of glass casting. The technique is more typically associated with beautiful, ethereal forms than the commemoration of slavery. The aesthetic beauty of the material that Lowery is using serves to amplify the horror that it depicts. The exhibition also employs text, audio, and video to tell the stories of the survivors of these two separate but interwoven institutions.

Housed at the National Museum of Ireland–Decorative Arts and History, near central Dublin, the exhibition is installed in a slightly claustrophobic rabbit warren of small rooms, and painted black. You enter and begin a beautiful and emotionally wrenching journey. The first cases illustrate how women were shorn of their hair, their possessions and even their name; they were given new, Biblical names by the nuns.

The first object one encounters upon entering the exhibition is a life-sized, old-fashioned work apron fabricated of unfired pâte de verre over fabric. The beads of glass are textural and thick, giving the apron a slight fuzziness — like an old-time photograph that is slightly out of focus. The apron is both hard and soft, an interesting visual metaphor for the labor of laundry.

Alison, Lowry, “His clothes became so white they shone. They were whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them (Mark 9:3)” Linen apron (created by seamstress Ann Burrows) pâte de verre (unfired) (2019)

A piece hanging in a glass vitrine has this chilling title, “Instead of the Fragrance There Will Be Stench; Instead of a Sash, a Rope; Instead of Well-Dressed Hair, Baldness; Instead of Fine Clothing, Sackcloth; Instead of Beauty, Branding (Isaiah3: 24)” (2019). Four pairs of giant glass scissors dangle from rosaries in the case, glittering in a very bright spotlight. Piles of long human hair lay in a heap on the floor of the case. Next to the case is a listening device where one can hear the voice of Catherine Whelan, born in 1935, now deceased, who recounts being conscripted to a Magdalene laundry at the age of 14. She describes in detail how she was “punished” by the nuns, in particular the experience of being held down and having her hair cut off.

Almost every work of art in the exhibition is accompanied by audio testimony. The recordings are deeply saddening to listen to. The exquisite beauty of the objects focuses us on the disconnect between what we are seeing and what we are hearing.

Alison, Lowry, “Bridget’s Story” pâte de verre, ceramic decals, ribbon. (2019)

In the piece “Red Cardigan” (2019), Lowry collaborates with poet Connie Roberts to memorialize Roberts’ experience growing up in an industrial home. Taken by the state at age five, along with her 14 siblings, she endured 12 years of incarceration. After her mother’s death, she returned to her childhood home where her father presented her with a red woolen sweater that she had worn before being taken. Its innocent color and the evidence of her mother’s hand mending the frayed old garment inspired Roberts to write a poem about her life that sparkles with crystalline sorrow. Lowry then responded by casting a replica of that sweater — a small artifact of a little girl’s sad life. As with the other pieces there is an audio recording of Roberts quietly reciting her poem.

Alison, Lowry, “The Cardigan” cast glass, ceramic decals (2019)

The showpiece of the exhibition is a group of nine infant christening gowns, made of pâte de verre and nylon fibers. Entitled, “Home Babies” (2017), the gowns hang slightly above our heads and gently turn and move as viewers in the two rooms bear witness and disturb the still air. A voice intones solemnly the names of the 796 babies whose bodies were discovered in the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. Like a mantra, the soothing, mesmerizing incantation of names becomes the background sound of the entire exhibition.

Installation view of Alison Lowry: (A)Dressing Our Hidden Truths at the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History, (photographed 13 May, 2019 by Peter Moloney)

When I visited the exhibition in mid-May it was the only crowded room in an otherwise almost empty museum, itself a former military barracks. The visitors were mostly women, some weeping openly. There are many survivors of these homes who are still living and this project is an important documentation for them of the abuse that they suffered. It is also gorgeous to look at. Lowry successfully marries the content she is working with to the beauty of her materials, a very tricky relationship to accomplish.

Delicate yet hard-edged, sensitive yet unflinching, deeply personal and yet universal, this show is most worthy of the stories it tells.

(A) Dressing Our Hidden Truths, at the National Museum of Ireland–Decorative Arts and History (Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin, Ireland) runs through May 2020. It was curated by Audrey Whitty.

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Figural Sculptures That Weave an Enigmatic Story of Disassociation and Isolation

Claudette Schreuders’s most recent show at Jack Shainman gallery, In the Bedroom is perhaps both her most revealing and most enigmatic body of work to date.

published June 17. 2019

Install shot: “School Days” (2019) Lime wood, enamel paint. 10 x 9.) and “Little Table” (2018) Jelutong wood, enamel and oil paint. 20 7/8 x 8 5/8 x 17 5/16 ( all images by the author)

Claudette Schreuders occupies an intriguing place in the contemporary art world. Born in South Africa in 1973, before the end of apartheid, but in the center of its crumbling, her work has always elegantly danced the line between the personal and the political. Mention is often made of Schreuders’s “search for her African identity,” but I’ve always found her work to be firmly grounded in a deeply personal narrative — the political content of her work sneaking in around the sides rather than hitting you full frontal.

Her most recent show at Jack Shainman Gallery entitled In the Bedroomis perhaps both her most revealing and most enigmatic body of work to date. The title hints that viewers will be privy to something intimate. It’s a little titillating, a tad seductive. Yet once you enter the gallery the first thing you see is a wall hung with five drawings, displayed closely together. Drawn in acrylic ink on paper, the five create a powerfully ominous narrative (all of them made in 2017). Entitled (in order) “Mingle”  a close-up portrait of a very intense adolescent boy staring intensely to the left, outside of the grouping. Next to him is “Note to Self” — a young woman staring blankly to her right. She is faced by “Anna in Uniform,” — a young woman with a traumatized expression staring to the left. She is next to “Loved Ones” — a young girl, topless with pre-pubescent breasts. Her body faces us, but her head turns away looking into the distance. This jovial grouping is punctuated by “The Neighbor” —  a middle-aged man grimacing angrily as he stares back at the group, a bloody wound on his forehead. Everyone is avoiding meeting each other’s eyes, as well as ours. This is a portrait of intimacy of the most terrifying sort. Whatever psychodrama has happened here feels like the stuff of the morning tabloids.

Install shot of five drawings (all 2017): “Mingle” acrylic ink on paper, 19 11/16 x 17 5/16; “Note to Self” acrylic ink on paper, 19 11/16 x 17 5/16; “Anna in Uniform” acrylic ink on paper, 19 11/16 x 17 5/16. “Loved Ones” acrylic ink on paper. 19 11/16 x 17 5/16; “The Neighbour” acrylic ink on paper, 19 11/16 x 17 5/17

This show is complex. When I first saw it I thought it looked too small for the gallery. The figures seemed isolated and even a little lost in the big, clinically lit space. But on second viewing I began to understand the almost desperate loneliness that this body of work conveys. The irony of the title is belied by the installation. We may be in the bedroom, but it is a room of emotional loneliness of a primal sort. Even the figures engaged in sex acts (there are two) seem dissociated from one another. This is sad sex. In the show’s title piece of sculpture, “In the Bedroom,” (2019) a couple lays intertwined. The man has his head buried deep in the woman’s neck. We cannot see his expression. She stares upward, her eyes blank. Not a lot of joy in this lovemaking.

Claudette Schreuders, “In the Bedroom” (2019) Jelutong wood. 24 7/16 x 11 7/16 x 8 5/8

Everything in the show is carefully placed to advance the mysterious narrative that Schreuders is telling. Near, but not too near the loveless couple making love, is a large girl or woman; the ambiguity of age is yet another intriguing element of these mysterious tales. Entitled “Guilty Bystander,” (2018) she is the largest figure in the show standing about 51 inches. Alert, she stands, body slightly twisted, looking at us. She seems aware of the couple behind her, but unable or unwilling to look at them, or perhaps they are her dream. She is wearing a jaunty little patterned dress and exquisite vintage shoes. Her ensemble is impeccable. Her painted hair is in a perfect coif. Yet she seems uneasy, unnerved perhaps by what is happening around her. Her eyes seem to follow you around the gallery with a haunted expression.

Install shot: “In the Bedroom” (2019) and “Guilty Bystander”(2018)

Schreuders carves her sculptures from Jelutong wood, a type of rubber tree found in Asia. It’s a soft wood, buttery yellow and smooth grained. The carving marks show, but softly, giving the works an air of gentility. The materiality is obvious, but the edges have been smoothed. The sculptures are painted in mellow, muted colors. Everything is just fine … which to me makes the depth of the psychological content all the more strange and powerful.

The scale of these works is also disorienting. I mentioned the dance that many of them do between ages — girl or woman? Part of this ambiguity is due to most of the pieces being the size of a large doll, or a small child. With adult faces and impassive expressions they can be seen as adults trapped in their childhood memories. Or perhaps they are about the inner “adult” dreams of children.  The consistently diminished scale of the figures, with their slightly oversized heads and feet and impeccable attention to small details of dress (beautiful delicate shoes are of particular interest to Schreuders), create a universe of people that seem benign, even toy-like, and yet their dramas are huge.

Install shot of In the Bedroom at Jack Shainman gallery

Another potent relationship is between the pieces entitled “Little Table” (2018 and “School Days” (2019) “Little Table” portrays a man and woman in the act of sex, the woman bent over forward and leaning on a literal, little table as the man enters her from behind. His head lowered, his expression passive, as is hers. The vibe is one of obligation, rather than passion. The piece is set off by a very small sculpture of a crucified little boy that hangs near them on the wall. The lad in “School Days” appears to be wearing a school uniform, Catholic school perhaps? The juxtaposition of these two sculptures creates a narrative that sets up pieces of a story, but each viewer must provide their own ending.

All the figures in the show are of European origin with the exception of a large formal bust of a Black African man. Simply entitled “The President” (2019), it is, according to the gallery, a portrait of the current South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa. It is an odd intrusion of the outside world into Schreuders’s dreamscape. Perhaps this is a brash reality check about the possibility of real intimacy or privacy? (The government is always watching.) This sculpture is carved out of teak and the wood is obviously rougher and darker. The artist’s carving is bolder than in the other pieces, the deep gestural carving marks enhancing the beauty of the teak. The artist has left the sides of the bust raw, exposing that this is carved from a large block of wood. The figure sports the same passive expression that permeates this show, but her looser carving imbues the bust with a more robust energy.

Claudette Schreuders “The President” (2019)Teak wood, enamel paint. 15 ¾ x 14 3/16 x 14 3/16

There is an admirable continuity in Schreuders’s artistic vision. Whatever odd world or dream we’ve wandered into is completely consistent in its logic. I would posit that In the Bedroom is a journey into our individual psychic rooms, where memory mingles with childhood, desire and loneliness, a potent cocktail that haunts the viewer long after you’ve left.

In the Bedroom runs through June 22 at Jack Shainman Gallery (513 West 20th St, Chelsea, Manhattan).

 

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Claudette Schreuders occupies an intriguing place in the contemporary art world. Born in South Africa in 1973, before the end of apartheid, but in the center of its crumbling, her work has always elegantly danced the line between the personal and the political. Mention is often made of Schreuders’s “search for her African identity,” but I’ve always found her work to be firmly grounded in a deeply personal narrative — the political content of her work sneaking in around the sides rather than hitting you full frontal.

Her most recent show at Jack Shainman Gallery entitled In the Bedroomis perhaps both her most revealing and most enigmatic body of work to date. The title hints that viewers will be privy to something intimate. It’s a little titillating, a tad seductive. Yet once you enter the gallery the first thing you see is a wall hung with five drawings, displayed closely together. Drawn in acrylic ink on paper, the five create a powerfully ominous narrative (all of them made in 2017). Entitled (in order) “Mingle” — a close-up portrait of a very intense adolescent boy staring intensely to the left, outside of the grouping. Next to him is “Note to Self” — a young woman staring blankly to her right. She is faced by “Anna in Uniform,” — a young woman with a traumatized expression staring to the left. She is next to “Loved Ones” — a young girl, topless with pre-pubescent breasts. Her body faces us, but her head turns away looking into the distance. This jovial grouping is punctuated by “The Neighbor” —  a middle-aged man grimacing angrily as he stares back at the group, a bloody wound on his forehead. Everyone is avoiding meeting each other’s eyes, as well as ours. This is a portrait of intimacy of the most terrifying sort. Whatever psychodrama has happened here feels like the stuff of the morning tabloids.

Install shot: “School Days” (2019) Lime wood, enamel paint. 10 x 9.) and “Little Table” (2018) Jelutong wood, enamel and oil paint. 20 7/8 x 8 5/8 x 17 5/16 (all images courtesy Jack Shainman gallery)

 

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An Exhibition About a Book That Rejuvenated an Indigenous Culture

The show tells a success story not often heard in the world of Indigenous art and culture, chronicling how the Boas/Hunt book has acted as a guide for contemporary Kwakiutl peoples.

Settee back, unknown Kwakwaka’wakw maker, collected by George Hunt in 1898–99, wood, pigment, metal (all images by the author)

As a young anthropology student, full of piss and vinegar, I set out in1980 to write a university thesis addressing what I saw as the field’s wrongheaded approach to the study of material cultural. As a primary resource I drew upon one of the founding documents of the discipline, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, a study of the indigenous people of British Columbia. Originally published in 1897, it was notable for several reasons. Co-authored by German-born Franz Boas and an indigenous collaborator, George Hunt, it was one of the first documents of the field to give prominent credit to an indigenous co-creator. Based on first-person experience, it revolutionized the nascent field of anthropology, insisting that observation and involvement were fundamental to anthropological research. The volume contains a multitude of drawings, music, and stories, presented confidently as an exhaustive encyclopedia of Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous culture.

I, of course, tore it apart. The objects, music, and symbols were presented as removed from their cultural context. The authors focused on the nuts and bolts often without background; materials, color, patterning and symbols were the book’s defining organizational narrative. The authors created a volume that was encyclopedic in its study of the iconography and visual history of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw people, but made little connection between the objects and the living society that produced them. At the time, the lack of connection between objects and their use seemed to me misguided and emblematic of everything wrong with the field of study. However, even I had to admit that the book was impressively detailed and precise, including impeccable drawings of hundreds of objects and detailed musical and performance notation. This was a record of culture that was revolutionary in its observational precision.  One could say that it was almost a blueprint. In fact, more than 120 years later, the work turns out to be prescient indeed, a blueprint that has helped preserve and rebuild Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture today.

Installation shot of The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology with video projection of Franz Boas

The Bard Graduate Center on 86th Street in Manhattan has recently opened an exhibition titled The Story Box. The show tells a success story not often heard in the world of indigenous art and culture. It chronicles how the Boas/Hunt book has acted as a guide for contemporary Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw peoples to recapture, rejuvenate, and rebuild their threatened culture. The exhibition traces the book’s significance to the present day, which it turns out, was far more important than its authors — or this reporter — could ever have imagined.

The Bard Graduate Center, in conjunction with the U’mista Cultural Centre of Alert Bay, Canada has embarked on an incredible multi-year project. They are updating and digitizing the book, adding in hundreds of pages of previously unpublished fieldwork by Boas and Hunt as well as collecting information on the cultural diaspora of objects. There will be a comprehensive record, in one place, of the hundreds of artifacts and objects in worldwide collections.

Drawing on left attributed to Hiłamas/Ned Harris, Kwakwaka’wakw (c.1895), colored pencil, ink, and pencil
on paper, Center drawing: Unknown maker, (c. 1896), ink on paper, commissioned by Franz Boas for reproduction in The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, image on the right is the final version printed in the book

Corrine Hunt, the great-granddaughter of George Hunt, along with members of the  Kwakwaka’wakw community, are in some cases using the Boas/Hunt book as a template to recreate, in a contemporary way, the extraordinary objects lost to time and Western museums. This is a heroic step towards revitalizing Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture and language. Keeping cultural traditions alive and current is vital to keeping indigenous societies alive.

There is a beautiful example of such rejuvenation included in the exhibition. In 2018 to 2019, Corrine Hunt, and Chief David Mungo Knox together carved a Transformation Mask, a central object of the tribe’s ceremonial regalia. In 2019 the mask will be danced with at a Hunt family feast, or “potlatch,” reactivating a long-lost part of their family tradition.

Installation of contemporary Transformation mask with contemporary video by Corrine Hunt and Chief David Mungo Knox (2018–19) cedar, pigment, string, hardware, (courtesy of Hunt family)

The exhibition is didactic and for those with the interest to read and watch, it is truly a revelatory experience. Using clear and well-written wall text and both archival and contemporary video, the show portrays the deep and abiding influence this one volume of field research has had on real people’s lives. The show contains some beautiful objects, but I wished for more. One doesn’t feel the full impact of the range and depth of Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw artistry from the objects in this show. On one hand, I long for the passion one feels when we see objects that are transcendent. On the other, the story presented in the exhibition is deeply moving and one leaves the show with genuine and well-founded hope for the future.

Original drawing of a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw mask (attributed to Albert Grünwedel) with notes by Franz Boas; paper, ink, watercolor

Referring to his book as a “box,” in a letter written to the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw chiefs in 1897 Franz Boas wrote:

It is good that you should have a box in which your laws and stories are kept. My friend George Hunt, will show you a box in which some of your stories will be kept. It is a book I have written on what I saw and heard when I was with you two years ago. It is a good book, for in it are your laws and your stories. Now they will not be forgotten.”

The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology continues at the Bard Graduate Center (18 West 86th Street, the Upper West Side, Manhattan) through July 7. It was curated by Aaron Glass and features designs by Corrine Hunt.

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A Treasure Trove of Oddities and Timely Exhibitions at Oxford’s Ethnography Museum

September 14, 2018 in Hyperallergic

Originally defined as an academic museum of Anthropology and World Archeology, the Pitt Rivers Museum has morphed into something much more extensive and meaningful.

The Pitt Rivers Museum (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

OXFORD, UK — The Pitt Rivers Museum, located at Oxford University, is one of the world’s great museums — one you’ve probably never heard of. Originally defined as an academic museum of Anthropology and World Archeology, it has morphed into something much more extensive and meaningful. Pitt Rivers is a museum of “stuff”: the amazing things that people make, globally, from antiquity to today. It houses over half a million items, many of them displayed in inventive and original ways. It will blow your mind.

Founded in 1884 by the immodestly named Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, with an initial gift of approximately 30,000 objects, the museum has continued to grow; to this day it is actively acquiring items from around the world. In addition, it houses extensive collections of photographs, sound recordings, manuscripts and film, which are accessible by appointment. The sheer volume of its holdings is extraordinary. It has been central to the development of the field of Anthropology and the study of Material Culture.

Cases of various objects

Pitt Rivers was a relatively enlightened Victorian collector. Though problematic in a contemporary context, he saw the collection and display of objects from non-Western cultures as a way to understand the “evolution” of society. Following in the footsteps of Darwin, this was a flawed, but timely attempt to apply the startling new theories of biological evolution to other parts of human development.

Enemy skull

For me, Pitt Rivers is a stunning and archaic monument to the history of collecting, a kind of museum about museums. Plus, the objects are jaw-droppingly fabulous. Materials, craftsmanship and passion combine to present some of the most stirring objects you’ll ever see anywhere. For example, the building’s atrium is dominated by a 383-foot-tall totem pole made by a Haida carver from British Columbia. Acquired in 1901, this monumental, spiritual sculpture rises from the floor of the museum opposite a full-sized sailing vessel, suspended from the cathedral ceiling. The scale and depth of the collection are unsurpassed among ethnographic museums.

Most ethnographic museums struggle, both with their place in contemporary curatorial practice and with the simple fact that their collections are often largely the result of wanton colonialism. How does such an institution make peace with its history? The contemporary curators of the Pitt Rivers Museum have sought to address these issues in several ways.

Sunil Shah, “Untitled” from the Family Stories (2012) (© Sunil Shah)

Resisting several ill-advised efforts to modernize the building and collections Pitt Rivers has added a separate, but attached building housing several new galleries devoted to changing exhibitions (as well as conservation labs, classrooms and archives). The original soaring three-level Victorian museum remains intact. The major move into the modern era occurred in 2016 when the museum  installed lighting. When I first visited seven years ago the building was almost entirely dark; visitors received flashlights to view the exhibits! While some of the mystery and thrill of discovery are somewhat tempered, the glories of the museum are definitely easier to see.

This summer the museum is hosting three exhibitions, each deeply moving in its own way. The space above the Haida totem pole now features huge black and white contemporary photographs of displaced Syrians living in Turkey in 2017. Entitled Syrians Unknown (through September 30), the photographs are accompanied by extensive details of the sitter’s life and displacement history in English and Arabic. Printed on Foamex by artist John Wreford, the faces of the displaced stare impassively at the vast museum below. It is monumental in many ways.

A second modern gallery is hosting a small but powerful exhibition of photographs entitled Kwibuka Rwanda (through September 28)This exhibition documents some of the 243 roadside monuments made by local residents to commemorate the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which five hundred thousand to a million Rwandan people were killed. The works portray the spontaneous expressions of members of a society, seeking to remember the violent past and memorialize those who perished. Kwibuka Rwanda gives potent voice to the makers and caretakers of these monuments.

Sunil Shah: Uganda Stories (detail)

In the third temporary exhibition, Sunil Shah: Uganda Stories (through September 23)the artist explores his family’s roots as part of the Asian Diaspora in Uganda. When Idi Amin expelled 80,000 Asians in 1971, Shah’s family members became exiles from a country they had lived in for generations. Through vintage photographs and eloquent narrative fragments Shah recreates their journey and lives as displaced persons. Poetic and elegant, his work marries image and word, creating a visual narrative of memory and loss.

These days the museum’s collection grows primarily through donations. New acquisitions include Ghanaian carved coffins, First Nations moccasins embroidered with a Nike motif, and a plethora of East Indian advertising materials. Founded as an educational institution bound by its historic time and place, the Pitt Rivers Museum is a vibrant example of how a museum can morph and grow in the present, even as it delights in its quirky past.

Sunil Shah, “Untitled” from the Family Stories (2012) (© Sunil Shah)

The Pitt Rivers Museum is located at the Oxford University Museum Natural History (South Parks Road, Oxford, United Kingdom).

 

 

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Artists and Scientists Concoct Immersive Projects at the Wellcome

Published July 3 in Hyperallergic

The Wellcome Collection in London introduces four mixed-media installations in an immersive, collaborative show between artists and scientists.

Maria McKinney, Sire series, C-print, 147 X 220 cm. (all photos courtesy of the author for Hyperallergic)

LONDON — The Wellcome Collection in London has long been known for some of the most innovative and daring exhibitions imaginable. The museum is dedicated to the confluence of art and science, specifically to health and medicine. Sounds like a dry mission statement, but the creative curators of the museum have taken this vision to new and unexpected places.

Founded in 1936, the Wellcome Trust, under whose umbrella the museum sits, is financially and politically independent, enabling it to tackle controversial subjects without limits. In 2011, I saw an exhibition they mounted entitled Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life that dealt with the world’s relationship with “filth,” aka: shit. It was brilliant in its scope and curatorial rigor.

The current exhibition, entitled Somewhere in Between, partners four visual artists with four scientists, each approaching a current issue in health or science. The exhibition features four very disparate subjects with which each artist has had personal experience. These subjects were matched with scientific experts in the respective fields. It is an ambitious undertaking with mixed results. There is no common thread between the four constructs, which may be part of the problem.

Maria McKinney, installation view of Sire at the Wellcome Collection

Sire, by artist Maria McKinney and scientists Michael Doherty and David MacHugh, is about the genetic engineering of bulls at an Irish stud farm. The bulls are genetically modified to emphasize the characteristics that will make these animals more efficient breeding machines. Ability to withstand climate change, increase in muscle mass, and lack of horns are desirable for future breeding stock. The artist has documented these bulls each wearing an intricate sculpture woven from insemination straws. She’s used traditional local corn weaving techniques to produce these futuristic fluorescent objects that the placid bulls each sport on their backs. Printed very large and in lush colors, the photos are oddly funny — big bulls meet DIY artisanal weaving. Several of these objects are exhibited as free-standing sculptures. They are very attractive. There is a passivity to the work that belies the undertone of the project. The back-story, presented in both text and audio to the public, bestows a much more ominous meaning upon the work, a story of genetic engineering taken to the extreme.

Maria McKinney, Sire series, C-print, 147 X 220 cm

The second of the four pairings sets out to examine the newly discovered neurological phenomenon of “mirror- touch synesthesia.” Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the senses are blended. That is, you may associate letters or numbers with colors, or words and sounds with spatial locations on a consistent basis. This has been widely studied and documented. “Mirror-touch synesthesia” appears to take the notion one step further. To quote the exhibition catalogue, “A person with mirror-touch feels other people’s sensations of touch, both painful and pleasurable. When they observe touch, they sense it in their own body, as if experiencing it themselves.”

Daria Martin, At the Threshold (2014–15), 16-mm. film, 17.5 min.

Daria Martin has chosen to explore this phenomenon in two related 16-mm films: Sensorium Tests and At the Threshold. The former seeks to recreate the first tests that led to the discovery of this condition. The latter investigates the fictional relationship between a mother and son who share the condition. For Martin’s own reasons, she shot the second film as a 1950s-style melodrama. The films are being shown in two separate rooms that share a common entryway. I watched both of them twice and was unable to connect with the films, the subject matter, or the narrative, if there was one. The exhaustive text that accompanies this and all four of the projects is what finally gave me a hint as to what I was watching. Michael Banissy, the scientist with whom she collaborated, presents his work in an accompanying paper. It made me long for the writing of Oliver Sacks, who wrote extensively on these types of neurological oddities in a most erudite but accessible voice.

Daria Martin, Sensorium Tests (2012), 16-mm. film, 10 min.

For me, the installation’s extensive written annotations lead to a larger question about this kind of didactic museum exhibition. Can the art stand without the text?  What happens when you have a visual art project that necessitates lengthy text to convey meaning to the viewer? While text can give additional insight into the work, the politics, or the artist’s intent, I prefer to be walloped by what I see. Having to then turn to the written explanation sucks the magical experience of looking at art right out of the room for me.

John Walter, Alien Sex Club, large paintings, acrylic on un-stretched canvas, various dimensions

Luckily, the final two projects in this exhibition stand more securely on their own as powerful visual statements. Alien Sex Club is a labyrinth of rooms and corridors, seeking to mimic the architecture of gay cruising spaces (according to the artist’s description). This multimedia, at times almost psychedelic, installation explores a sub-culture of gay sex behavior post-HIV anti-viral treatments. This project was done in tandem with a primary infectious diseases researcher and a team of sexual health professionals from many parts of the UK. This installation is as excessive as the first two artistic pairings are spare. Videos, sex toys, viewing booths, drawing, wallpaper — this is a dizzying array of ideas, colors, and objects.

John Walter, Alien Sex Club, drawing from Big Book, mixed media, 120 x 150 cm.

John Walter has created a vibrant universe of “post-HIV” gay life from an admittedly personal point of view. In his work, text is used as a dictionary for explaining some of the imagery of the Alien Sex Club, rather than as an explanatory crutch. The artist envisions a kind of parallel universe to ours, populated with “bugs”(the virus) and the rigid geometry of the retro virus pills, as well as icons like Keith Haring and Alistair Crowley.

John Walter, Alien Sex Club, drawing from Big Book, mixed media, 120 x 150 cm.

The installation in its entirety is a giddy romp; I found the most affecting pieces to be a series of mixed-media drawings in a piece entitled “Big Book” that acts as an instructive and informative “Bible” of the Alien Sex Club. The drawings are beautiful, wry, and sometimes sad. They pack an emotional punch that isn’t present in any of the other pieces.

Martina Amati, Under (2015), 3-channel video projection, 5-channel audio, color, 11 mins., looped

The final installation in this quartet is quite literally breathtaking. Martina Amati is a free diver. That is, she free dives deep into the Red Sea without an air supply. She has trained her body to withstand the physiological and psychological pressures of doing something that is life-threatening and arguably insane. Her immersive installation of three wall-sized projections is entitled Under. They explore the three ways that free diving is measured — time, distance, and depth. The artist appears in each of the videos, which are shot and projected in such a way that you feel you are in the water with her. She sinks deep into the sea. She dances seemingly in elegant slow motion around a guide rope. The moving images are mesmerizing and incredibly beautiful. Meanwhile, my mind is racing: “Oh my god, how is she that deeply under the sea without any air?” The beauty of the videos belies the danger of the act. It is literally death-defying art. Two films are shown simultaneously in one room, the third on its own. There are accompanying still photographs from the videos exhibited on their own.

Martina Amati, Under (2015), 3-channel video projection, 5-channel audio, color, 11 mins., looped

Amati’s collaboration with scientist Kevin Fong was clearly one that really clicked. Each has written a succinct and poetic essay about their experience of working together. In this case, the art works completely independent of the text. The text becomes an additional poetic device to discuss both the mysteries of what the human body is capable of and the poetry of collaboration.

Though a bit of a mixed bag, the Wellcome Collection doesn’t disappoint in its eagerness to embrace new artistic possibilities at the growing intersection of art and science. In this era of blockbuster, crowd-pleasing mega-shows it is a delight to experience a cultural institution that is willing to challenge its audience.

Martina Amati, stills from Under (2018), C-prints, framed

Somewhere in Between is on display at the Wellcome Collection (183 Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London) through August 27.

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