Thu / Jul 31
11:50pm

Museum

About the Exhibition

How and where do we live and work today? How do we perceive both ourselves  and others in a rapidly changing, intricately connected global community? This selection of recent acquisitions features paintings, sculpture, photography, and video works by artists from South Africa, China, Hungary, the U.S, and other countries, which explore the evolution of space, place, and identity within cultural and historical conditions both unique and universal.

Converging Territories is the title of one of Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi’s large-scale photographs of burqa-clad figures set within domestic interiors, nearly every surface of their clothing, bodies, and surroundings covered with Islamic script. “In photographing women inscribed with henna,” says the artist, “I emphasize their decorative role, but subvert the silence of confinement. These women speak visually to the house and to each other.” Referencing both Western Orientalist art, Arab social and cultural traditions, as well as her own personal experience, Essaydi—who now lives in New York City—confronts layers of convergence, “as a woman caught somewhere between past and present, as well as between East and West, and also as an artist, exploring the language from which to ‘speak’ from this uncertain space.”

Past and present, East and West, reality and illusion converge in dream-like images by Chinese photographers Quentin Shih and Chen Jiagang. Commissioned by the French fashion house Christian Dior, Shih’s Stranger in Glass Box presents a Western-style model encased as an object, both inside and outside, caught between reality and fantasy. The group portrait in Shih’s Shanghai Dreamers alludes to the art, politics, and commerce of China’s past and future: the orderly rows of figures are clad in plastic clothing, posed within a vast space—“the new world stage,” says the artist. The lone figure in Chen Jiagang’s Cold Forest is also uncertain of her role, her surroundings. Best known for photographing decaying industrial sites in rapidly developing Chinese cities, here the artist deploys his protagonist amidst a wintry rural hinterland, unfamiliar to those seeking an urban foothold in China’s new economy.

The challenges of living and laboring in burgeoning urban centers are explored in works by the Chinese-born Gao Brothers and performance artist Zhang Huan, as well as by Hungarian artist Levente Herman and by Serge Alain Nitegeka, born in Burundi and now living in South Africa. Based in Beijing, the Gao Brothers are political activists who have come under scrutiny by the Chinese government for making artworks protesting the power of the state and the lack of freedom of expression. Sense of Space, Waiting features the brothers and a group of anonymous models, crammed naked into cubicles, their cramped bodies recalling contemporary living and working conditions, and alluding to the social, psychological, and physical constrictions the Gao Brothers regularly confront. A poetic futility informs Zhang Huan’s performances, Nine Holes and To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond. Huan, who left his rural home to pursue an education in Beijing, has gained international recognition for demanding performance art connecting contemporary notions of identity with nature, history, politics, and labor. Here, performers connect intimately with the landscape, and engage in an ephemeral labor—adding enough bodies to a fish pond to raise the water level by one meter—that alludes to the time and effort needed to enact meaningful change.

Levente Herman’s grey-hued paintings of Secondhand automobiles in Hungary illustrate the simultaneous abandonment and salvation of objects, both utilitarian and artistic, in rapidly changing societies. The wages of change remain high: while South Africa is no longer an apartheid state, Michael Subotzky’s photographs document the recent surge in the prison population, and the physical and psychological conditions of crowded incarceration. Serge Alain Nitegeka salvages shipping crates to use as canvases, upon which he paints—with charcoal, coffee, and other everyday materials—portraits of those struggling for survival today. Nitegeka has spent much of his life escaping civil strife in Burundi, Rwanda, and Kenya. Based in South Africa today, his multi-media artworks directly address the plight of the refugee, while asserting his subjects’ innate dignity.

Like the Gao Brother’s photograph, Nitegeka’s images of bodies confined within shipping crates reference the persistence of human trafficking—people sent as slaves or indentured labor to today’s industrial centers. Wilmer Wilson IV exhumes and expands upon the history of the American slave trade in his performances and photographs: Self Portrait as Henry Box Brown shows the artist covered in US postage stamps, ready to ship himself to freedom in homage to a 19th-century African American who escaped slavery by this very method. “I VOTED” stamps cover Wilson’s features in Self-Portrait as a Model Citizen; the figure is silenced, anonymous, his voice, his power in 21st-century American democracy still unproven.

Historical allusions go back to envision the future in works by Berni Searle, Lynnette Yiadom-Boakye, Walter Oltmann, and Dean Byington.The veiled figure in Searle’s Lament series is Muslim and Christian, African and European, her hands covered in gold leaf, like an icon. The photographs were created in conjunction with SHIMMER, a performance the artist staged in a Belgian church once refurbished by King Leopold II, the brutal colonialist ruler of the African Congo. Like Searle’s multi-cultural figures, the subject of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s 11 am Monday is fictive; the pose and painterliness reflect the influence of Western portraiture from Gainsborough to Sargent to Manet and on, but this very contemporary figure defies cultural stereotypes. Walter Oltmann’s woven wire sculptures subvert negative material connotations (wire is hard, restraining, usually surrounds detention centers) through formal, cultural reference: Shell (Nautilus) takes the shape of one of the earth’s most ancient life forms—one whose symmetrical internal structure the Greeks associated with sacred geometry.

Centuries of history are layered in Dean Byington’s vision of nature and civilization converging in an amphitheatre of archeological treasures surrounded and surmounted by monumental landscapes. Inspired by geology, psychology and cultural and personal history (Byington’s parents both worked on the Manhattan project, testing atomic bombs at Los Alamos), the artist combines drawing, printing, collage, and painting to create highly detailed images of past, present, and future: Omphalos translates from the Greek as “navel,” or the center of the known world.

What ideas and images persist in this era of shifting conditions? The human form, both strong and vulnerable, is rendered at once substantive and ethereal in Imre Elek’s hanging lead and steel torso. Imago Hominis recalls both classical and Christian statuary, but he is anonymous, a global everyman. Female torsos emerge from Nandipha Mntambo’s cowhide and hair sculptures, though their human features are not immediately visible. Ode to the Silence is so titled, explains the artist, because the work “gives form to the loud silences in our lives that seem to be hidden but are actually in plain sight if we choose to see them.” In his five-minute video, Promenade, South African artist Robin Rhode energetically gives eloquent, visual voice to the persistent human drive to create a world, to leave a mark. Fully clothed and never directly facing the audience, Rhode’s ethnicity is undetermined; he occupies converging territories of public and private space, creating both a place and an identity through action that is art.

 

Exhibited works to include:

Chen Jiagang (Chinese)
The Cold Forest, 2008
Chromogenic print

Dean Byington (American)
Omphalos, 2011
Oil on linen

Lalla Essaydi (Moroccan)
Harem Women Writing from Les Femmes du Maroc, 2008
Chromogenic print

Converging Territories #14 from Les Femmes du Maroc, 2004
Chromogenic print

Quentin Shih (Chinese)
Shanghai Dreamers #3, 2010
Chromogenic print

Stranger in Glass Box #9, 2008
Chromogenic print

Zhang Huan (Chinese)
Raise the Water Level, 1997
Chromogenic print

Nine Holes, 1994
Chromogenic print

Gao Brothers (Chinese)
Sense of Space, Waiting, 2000
Color coupler print

Robin Rhode (South African)
Promenade, 2008
Single channel animated video
Running time 5:00

Mikhael Subotzky (South African)
Tsunami Houses, Delft, 2005
Archival pigment print

Lynnette Yiadom-Boakye (English)
11 am Monday, 2011
Oil on canvas

Serge Alain Nitegeka (Burundian)
ID, 2009
Charcoal on crate

Mapping, 2009
Charcoal and coffee on board

Berni Searle (South African)
Lament II, 2011
Pigment on photo paper

Lament III, 2011
Pigment on photo paper

Wilmer Wilson (American)
Self portrait as Model Citizen, 2012
Archival pigment print

Self Portrait as Henry Box Brown, 2012
Archival pigment print

Levante Herman (Hungarian)
Secondhand 1, 2009
Oil on canvas

Secondhand 3, 2009
Oil on canvas

Imre Elek (Hungarian)
Imago Hominis, 2002
Lead, stainless steel

Walter Oltmann (South African)
Shell (Nautilus), 2011
Aluminum wire

Nandipha Mntambo (South African)
Ode to the Silence, 2012
Cowhide, resin, polyester mesh

Ross Gordon (Louisville-based)
Texas to Chile Cowboy Series, 2009
Commissioned by 21c Museum

 

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