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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Real Art Ways' "Rockstone and Bootheel" exhibit showcases richness of contemporary West Indian art scene

Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Rockstone and Bootheel: Contemporary West Indian Art
Through March 14, 2010.

Rockstone & Bootheel, the show of contemporary West Indian art on display at Real Art Ways is a glorious, overwhelming labor of love. Real Art Ways Director of Visual Arts Kristina Newman-Scott, who co-curated the show with Yona Backer, is originally from Jamaica. The exhibition features the work of almost 40 artists from the West Indies—the English-speaking Caribbean islands—and the diaspora. More than half the artists are being shown in the United States for the first time. Real Art Ways is a fitting venue for the show as Hartford has the third largest West Indian population in the United States (after New York city and Miami).

There is no overarching theme but there is an organizing principle: the mashup. Newman-Scott says the use of the mashup aesthetic for the exhibit appropriately reflects life on the islands. Culture in its various manifestations—visual arts, music—is woven into the fabric of daily existence.

This curatorial decision makes for a challenging viewing experience. Videos run on continuous loops, offering a nonstop soundtrack of background noise not always conducive to concentration. (A Rasta man's declamation's in Jayson Keeling's wall-projected video "Listen Without Prejudice" makes particularly insistent claims on one's attention.) I had walked through the show at the opening and returned for an extended view last November. Even then, having the gallery to myself for an hour or more, felt insufficient. To do justice to this exhibit necessitated a return visit the beginning of this month.

That's largely due to the fact that this is a show fully within the mainstream of contemporary art. Which is to say that the emphasis as much on the play of ideas as it is on the display of visual creations. Rockstone & Bootheel—the title is derived from a Jamaican "dub metal" track and alludes to taking a journey—can certainly be appreciated on a surface level; there is a lot of well-made art here. Among the media on display are sculpture, paintings, photography, installations, video (the latter being a notably time-based medium).

But just as important are the animating constructs and what they say about contemporary West Indian identity. These works explore the fraught racial history of the British West Indies, class, gender and sexuality issues and the problem of rampant violence and crime.

A work like Sonya Clark's "Iterations" is an example of how meaning must and can be teased out of these pieces. "Iterations" is a floor installation made up of hundreds of black plastic combs. Fastened together, the combs fan out from the wall like the spreading branches of a tree or its roots, the tool evoking the object worked upon. It inspires a plethora of associations: linguistic, cultural, visual. On the cultural level, the installation brings to mind the nature of hair as a cultural signifier, both because it uses combs but also because it looks in some ways like an upside-down Afro hairstyle. By suggesting the notion of "roots," it layers further meanings: hair roots, the roots of trees, the notion of heritage and the reggae gloss on "roots" as signifying authenticity.

Mounted on the wall next to "Iterations" is Nadine Robinson's "Laquita," a sculpture made of synthetic hair fiber, mbf board and hairpins. "Laquita" was inspired by Robinson's memories from her youth of a girl with fantastic hair—Laquita—but also of a memorable block party. As with Clark's "Iterations," the piece highlights the importance of hair and hairstyle in the culture. But, according to curator Newman-Scott, it also references the ornate facade of a building Robinson recalls from the block party. It is an intricate weaving, a landscape of braids and interconnection. That interconnection has a symbolic dimension. It speaks to the way people are "woven" into places, culture, time.

Hair also plays a role in the prints by Joscelyn Gardner, a white artist from Barbados. Her series of hand-colored stone lithographs on frosted mylar succeed as disciplined drawings. But they are also a powerful example of an aesthetic in which tradition, culture and nature are enlisted in a reproach to the oppression of slavery. Each print consists of three elements: a representation of an intricate African braided hairstyle, symbolic of proud femininity; a type of metal slave collar used to demean and punish women who resisted the control of their bodies; and native plants that were used as abortafacients to deny the slaveholder another generation.

In the depictions of the hairstyles and the slave collars, the viewer sees the human creative impulse in both its Eros and Thanatos forms. The inclusion of the abortafacient plant completes the image. Symbolic of the way slavery perverts human relationships, the plants represent a perversion of the human relationship to nature—seeking solace in nature's capacity to prevent life rather than enrich life.

Two works in one gallery evoke different migrations in different media. Barbadian artist Annalee Davis' 30-minute video "On the Map" is a documentary on "intra-regional migration." It depicts the struggles of migrants within the region in an era of ideological "free trade." In reality, "free trade" is a regime in which capital moves freely across borders—disempowering and impoverishing masses of people—while bureaucratic, legal and cultural barriers to human movement remain strong. An analogy could be made to the slave trade that forcibly relocated Africans to the Caribbean under the auspices of that era's reigning economic system. Slave traders were "free" to move humans (capital) across borders while the enslaved had no rights at all.

If the African experience in the West Indies began in the oppressive rupture of slavery and the Middle Passage, Christina Leslie's portraits of family and friends ("EveryTING Irie") represent a different type of passage, freely chosen emigration to Canada. Leslie interviewed her subjects about their struggles and successes in Canada. Their recollections, in patois, are quoted as text at the bottom of each image. The 20x24 color prints are styled like old reggae or ska LP covers, the portraits of proud black faces situated within the pan-Africanist tints of red, green, gold and black.

The ubiquity of these tints might be the one formal aspect running through the exhibit. They recur in Lawrence Graham-Brown's "Ras-Pan-Afro-Homo Sapien," a mixed media mannequin displayed in the center of the main gallery. Like many of the works in the show, this piece deals with the charged issues of gender and sexuality. An openly gay Jamaican artist residing in the U.S., Graham-Brown confronts the island's notoriously homophobic culture with a mashup that co-opts and subverts its iconography.

A mannequin torso is outfitted in a tunic—painted in the Garveyite colors of red, black and green—of the militant style popular in reggae dancehall culture. Effecting a militant synthesis, Graham-Brown bedecked the tunic with buttons depicting icons of Black Power in both its political and cultural manifestations (Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Bob Marley, presidential campaign pins for Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama) along with gay signifiers—Diana Ross, Boy George. A button reading "I [Heart] Boys" sits just above a pin reading "Free At Last" with an image of Nelson Mandela. The "Jackson for President" button is something of a two-fer, with its rainbow and "Follow the Rainbow" exhortation, evoking both Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and contemporary gay culture's embrace of the rainbow.

Artists O'Neil Lawrence and Jayson Keeling appear to address sexuality issues in more oblique ways. Keeling's short video "Jesus speak of me as I am" pairs slowed-down footage of Rasta men walking through the ghetto with Lou Reed singing "Jesus" with the Velvet Underground. Slowed-down, the Rastas' purposeful walk reads more like a sashay, imbuing the macho strides with a suggestion of femininity.

In O'Neil Lawrence's large color photographs nude black men stand on the shore, their backs symbolically turned on a culture that rejects gay people. That's one reading, an essentialist interpretation in which nude men=homoeroticism. (Lawrence, according to Newman-Scott, does not identify himself as a gay man.) Another reading might be that the men are looking back toward Africa. Their nakedness, in this take, could represent a disrobing of imposed European culture, symbolized by a discarded bolt of white cloth in one of the pictures.

Several artists, including Simone Leigh, Jamie Lee Loy and Renee Cox, address women's place in West Indies society. Cox's photographs depict the artist as an upper middle class black housewife, struggling to keep it together within the constraints of class and gender roles. Leigh's installation features a metal "Cage" enclosing a kiln-like setup, "Yellow Stack," and a number of basins, "Containers," filled with ceramic and metal replicas of West Indian produce like plantains. There are shapes evoking gourds, breasts. Several of the latter objects have boot sole imprints. The installation invokes the dualities of oppression and abundance, nurturing and violence.

Domestic violence is also the subtext of Jamie Lee Loy's "The Roach," a wall sculpture. The large fat cockroach climbing the wall is composed of live flower petals stuck to the wall with silk pins. It represents the anguish and violence inherent in some domestic settings, the roach symbolic of the invasion of a supposed safe place. Flowers are often used as a bribe or apology in the wake of an act of domestic violence, their beauty hijacked to an agenda of control. Pinned to the wall last November, the petals are decaying. Their beauty fading daily, more and more they symbolize death rather than life.

Ebony G. Patterson's "Endz-Khani & Di Krew I-III," described in the press materials as either part of her "Gangstas for Life" or "Disciplez Series," is an installation that takes up much of the back wall of the main gallery. The work portrays three young men, gangsta wannabes perhaps, in large photos made up of nine panels each. Each young man stands as if on display but with a "don't fuck with me" countenance, trying to project machismo. It is this macho pose that Patterson is out to critique and deconstruct.

Each of the youths has their faces bleached—alluding to the practice in Jamaican dancehall culture of skin bleaching. But Patterson goes further. She has colored their lips to look as though they are wearing lipstick and decorated them with pink and red sequins and glitter. She cut stencils, many in the shape of fish, out of the lower photo panels. "Fish" is Jamaican slang for a gay man. Their heads are surrounded by lace and gold doily halos. At their feet are strewn deep piles of fake flower petals and "pussy bullets" - painted tampon dispensers. I wonder how the subjects of these portraits would react to their fanciful portrayal.

It's hard to do justice to such a sprawling show. Among the other works that intrigued me:

Zak Ové's "A Land So Far," a transfixing video of night scenes during Trinidadian Carnival. Carnival dancers illuminated by blasts of fire from their mouths. Ritualized abandon. Painted faces and bodies. Grotesque masks. Evocative of spirits and spiritual energy, the taming of terror, crashing through to joy.

Makandal Dada's "Birth-rite of restoration." This work portrays a totemic figure fashioned out of nails and animal horns protruding from fabric. It fairly bristles with anger - a porcupine, armored and defensive, warning one not to touch.

The Rickards Brothers' (Peter Dean and Peter John Rickards) short video "Proverbs 24:10," in which footage of a couple of dancers undulating to an outdoor sound system is slowed down. The mournful recording of "All Things Beautiful" by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is substituted for the original soundtrack of pounding dancehall music. The work has a deeply elegiac feel.

Sheena Rose's "Town," a short video of a young woman going about her daily business in Barbados created from a conversation of touched-up photos, line drawings and text.

Adele Todd's "Police an' Tief." Todd's embroidery on linen depicts scenes of police, arrests, victims of violence crying. The folk art simplicity of the harsh subject matter is particularly affecting.

Rockstone & Bootheel is up through March 14, enough time to see it twice. Or more.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Eileen said...

This is such a thoughtful write up on this show. I was really moved by the exhibit and it's very contemporary take on West Indian culture. You saw some things I did not pick up on and think maybe it merits another trip.

This blog is really well done. Thanks for doing it.

10:04 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The mashup argument is a cop out. Neither of the curators have done much curating - they are fashionable, yes, but where are the choices? It looked to me like a high school class project. Curators names on title wall bigger than artists names tells you everything you need to know.

2:23 AM

 

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