Intersectionality at MOCA, North Miami
This post was contributed by David Alexander Bennett.
Intersectionality as a concept emerged in the 60s and 70s as an outgrowth of the feminist movement, which left many dissatisfied with the exclusion of race from its teachings. The movement soon grew to include class, religion, age, caste, nationality, and many other axes of one’s identity. Intersectionality thus became a framework to learn about oppressive structures everywhere, pushing the envelope for social rights advocates to include all facets of society when considering the ways that power seeks to limit and harm those it deems “other.”
Intersectionality envelops everything from the study of colonialism, to women’s rights, to religious freedom, and beyond. Basing an art exhibition on a topic of such breadth is a risky move, as it could easily become a vague mishmash of tropes and formless messaging. However, this is decidedly not the case with Intersectionality, a new group exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami curated by Richard Haden. It’s a mammoth, multi-room project that nonetheless highlights the intricacies of each of its participating artists, many from South Florida. Their pieces coalesce and reinforce the meaning of the whole.
Immediately upon entering the museum, Alex Trimino’s vibrant and faintly mystical installation Totemic Light Patterns vies for attention. Vaguely mystical and compellingly alien, several poles of fluorescent light are decorated with myriad handcrafted touches to create a pleasingly surreal whole. In keeping with the show’s theme, some of the objects decorating the lights have a native islander feeling, hand-knit fabrics and textiles melding together in an array of bright, tropical colors. The shapes morph and fragment, some knotty joints containing sacs of near-reptilian, egg-like forms.
In a similarly radiant vein, Ramekon O’Arwisters’ Have You a Little Fairy in Your Home? manages to engage with little more than a torqued, quilt-like assemblage of textiles affixed to the wall. Again, themes of the handmade come to the fore, as is typical of O’Arwisters’ practice: heavily informed by folk techniques, but imbued with contemporary meaning. Sterling Rook’s Reweaving by Alicia and Rearticulations of La Selva furthers the inquiry into color, this time with painted palm fronds assembled into an ornamental tower in the middle of the museum floor. Both works offer visual interest without much overtness in presenting a message, but sustained introspection reveals a web of subtle ideas about the relationship between folk practice and contemporary modes of production.
A piece with a much more concrete stance is Juana Valdes’ The World Upside-Down and Flat, a piece that deals ostensibly with the slave trade, particularly the ships that cruelly ferried their human cargo across the Atlantic. Several sails are suspended in the middle of the open gallery, imposing yet ethereal. Each is decorated with pictures and poetry related to this dark era of human servitude. The sails are torqued forward by a lone line connected to the piece’s emotional core: a lumpen mass of gold, wrapped almost completely in red ribbon that recalls bloodshed. The piece is an unsettling reminder of the toll on life, and conveys its message with a streamlined minimalism.
Themes of bondage and subjugation continue with the drawings by Viviane Rombaldi Seppey, specifically a poignant piece entitled Loop Stitch. In it, towers of identical knots are supported at the base by pairs of legs, their bound forms recalling a spinal column while simultaneously alluding to shackles. The drawing is a detailed and poetic rumination on ideas of freedom and domination that extend across lines of color, gender, and belief systems.
Contemplation of race relations extends into the modern day with Rituals of Commemoration, a contemporary work by Rosa Nada y Garmendia that deals with the frequent, unjust killings of black citizens by police. Bricks adorned with the names and lifespans of the myriad victims of police brutality are arranged to form the basis of a small room, not unlike a prison cell. Familiar names from the news can be discerned, from Trayvon Martin to Freddie Gray, painting a frustratingly desolate picture of undue racism and a militarized police force. Inside the makeshift walls, a TV recounts the stories of each victim with their picture and a synopsis of their tragedy. Via the sheer volume of the names invoked, the piece represents a clarion call to reflection and, hopefully, resistance in the face of violent, systemic oppression.
Meanwhile, Heather Cassils’ Becoming an Image is a two-part piece consisting of a series of photographs and an empty, darkened room filled with a sound installation. The viewer encounters the sounds first: grunts, panting, and bludgeoning hits reminiscent of a struggle leak into the adjacent rooms. Upon viewing the photos, one can discern that the sound is a recording of the artist beating on a mass of clay. This stands in as a metaphor for larger questions of fitting into society–the emotional and physical battery people must endure to find their place in a world largely unconcerned with, and indeed hostile to, those who do not fit a preconceived mold. In Cassils’ case in particular, the piece concerns the artist’s identity as an individual who does not slot readily into binary gender norms.
Intersectionality is also augmented with a video room displaying a number of short film works. Included in these is Jillian Mayer’s Hot Beach Babe Aims to Please, a piece infused with melancholic humor. In it, a young, beach-going woman in a bikini dives in and out of the waves. Each time she lingers in the exposed air, however, a flock of mouse cursors slowly begin to swarm her shape. Soon, she is a buzzing mass of seeking arrows, trailing her like so many flies until she again submerges herself and forces them to dissipate. The piece is an effectively simple commentary on society’s perception of the female form: we can think of each cursor as a locus of the male gaze, intent on ingesting and subsuming her. The piece invokes ideas of the loss of privacy in the surveillance age, and the ways women are disproportionately violated and sexualized in the digital sphere.
Another video deals with the overlap between femininity and race, Aisha Tandiwe Bell’s Breaking Head. In it, the artist is seen first pushing a roll of silken material up a flight of stone stairs, lining each hard edge with the soft fabric. She then dons a dress adorned with white objects that from a distance resemble shells; close-ups reveal them to be white plaster casts of human faces. The artist ascends the staircase as the dress trails behind, clanging and fracturing along the way. The final shots of the piece reveal the fragments of faces strewn about, like discarded identities cast off by one in the mode of becoming. It is a solemn, quietly harrowing work, all the more compelling for its minimal, sensory-driven approach.
While there are some pieces in the show that may take a sledgehammer approach to identity politics, by and large there is a minimalist vector driving the curation that lets each artist contribute their take with subtlety and nuance. The pieces take many different tacts and angles, never stepping on each other’s toes, and this must be the result of a deft curator’s hand. The show never seems like it fixates on one point for too long, and if certain inclusions risk veering into redundancy or tangentiality, they do so to broaden the scope and approach of the exhibit[.]
Through August 14, 2016
Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami
770 NE 125th St, Miami, FL 33161