Review | In Plain Sight/Site
Review | In Plain Sight/Site
Curated by Niama Safia Sandy
Artspace, 50 Orange Street, New Haven, CT
Through March 2, 2019
Months ago, New YorkCity-based anthropologist and curator Niama Safia Sandy saw a Metro-North train car called “The Nutmegger.” Nutmeg is native to present-day Indonesia, halfway around the world from New England, but during the 17th century, ships departed often from the region. In 1637, the first known ship of this nature—tellingly named “Desire”  —took Native Americans to the West Indies to be sold as slaves. The ship then returned to Salem, Massachusetts with newly enslaved West Africans. Too easily people, especially those with privilege, insist that the events of the past have no impact on their present lives. Yet the evidence of our nation’s shameful history is everywhere, even in a state’s seemingly quaint sobriquet.
Uncovering these narratives is the subject of the current exhibition at Artspace, New Haven. Curated by Sandy, In Plain Sight/Site includes ten artists from around the country whose works implicate New Englanders in the longstanding oppression of non-white people. Sandy’s essay, “Ripple Effects,” that accompanies the exhibition opens boldly with an admission of stolen land: “I want to acknowledge that Artspace sits on the traditional territory of the Quinnipiac people.” From there, she recounts how the ambitions of several wealthy nations converged to redistribute power to their benefit. The works in the show trace how this imbalance radiates to the present. “We have to actively bear witness to prevent this history from repeating,” explained Sandy during the press preview last week.
This history comes into focus in Adama Delphine Fawundu’s room-sized installation, In the Face of History, a collection of newspaper articles, musical scores, maps, painting reproductions, and other ephemera from the 17th century to the late-20th century. Two large walls are covered with reproductions of these artifacts. On each copy, Fawundu has screen-printed a silhouette of the back of her head, placing herself as a literal witness to this dizzying panorama. The expansive size of Fawundu’s installation stresses the totality of an acknowledged narrative. As much as we know this history, white people like myself often fail to recognize the scope.
In the adjacent room, Nate Lerner’s black-and-white photography documents historic Wethersfield, about thirty miles north of New Haven. As “the oldest town in Connecticut,” the proud people of Wethersfield propagate a claim that erases the original settlers of this land, the Wangunk sachem Sowheage. Wethersfield benefitted financially from the transatlantic slave trade and about six of the town’s warehouse buildings from the 17th century are still standing. Shot on film, Lerner’s series called Devil Town strives to undermine the town’s wrongful pride. Lerner’s brooding images probe the town’s factual involvement with slavery as well as the brutal conflicts that killed and expelled the region’s indigenous peoples.
James Ari Montford’s works point even more directly to conflict. Montford has deep roots in Connecticut as a descendant of Pequot and African-Americans in the area. In the same room as Lerner’s Devil Town series, an arrow pierces the wall with a small label that reads: “Freedom Arrow.” Another room within the gallery contains a row of arrows mounted horizontally on the wall as if released by a bow. The labels on the arrows relate to the displacement of indigenous peoples: “Looking for Jefferson,” “I was made by a savage,” “I was found on the White House lawn.” Montford, a self-identified Black Indian, believes that everyone, regardless of racial identity, should understand more of our past, particularly the ways that many have suffered at the hands of those wielding power.
Like Montford, artist Jocelyn Armstrong Braxton’s personal genealogy informs her work and her story has also complicated her understanding of race and identity. Braxton, who had identified as white, learned she descends from enslaved Africans on James Madison’s plantation, Montpelier. Her clay sculpture, Means of Production (2018), shows a woman giving birth with several small children crowding around the bottom of her dress. The woman’s head lurches back in pain and her hand clutches her lower belly. Her legs are sprawled and a small fetus with a red, open mouth is visible from underneath her dress. The people surrounding this woman during birth appear to be an ancestral presence, echoing Sandy’s belief that our ancestors—their lives, dreams, and struggles—stay with us.
Other artists in the show are as visceral and challenging as Braxton. Deborah Jack’s videos, a/salting and Untitled (Sea #2) introduce the hypnotic sounds of waves crashing. The deeper meaning of this soundtrack, Sandy noted, is the fact that we don’t have any of these histories without our oceans, over which enslaved peoples and goods traveled for centuries.
In her High Cotton series, Kimberly Becoat assembles cotton, muslin, ink, and gold leaf on burned burlap to create stunning, physical works that highlight labor. One work in the series contains cowrie shells, which were used as a form of currency in Western Africa. By the late 1800s, rum had replaced these delicate shells as a form of currency in West Africa. Slave ships arriving from New England often brought alcohol, which was used to purchase slaves .
Portland-based Maya Vivas has several clay sculptures that represent organs. Vivas’s clay is full of manganese, which creates its rich, black color. “While harmless when fired, prolonged exposure to this black manganese dust in its raw form can lead to poisoning,” said Vivas in her artist statement. Here, the material itself connects to the ways that racist ideologies slowly poison everyone exposed to them.
More conceptually minded are the sculptural installations of Tariku Shiferaw and the paintings of Tajh Rust. Rust’s paintings are based on a half dozen West African Masks that are included in the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection. Shiferaw’s Weary (Solange) and Who Dat Boy (Tyler, the Creator) explore the relationship between black culture and the art market.
Coleman Collins’s two-channel video installation feels conceptual and close at the same time. Distancing, determining (2018) shows footage of families and people from around the world. Often one side of the installation will show the coordinates of the location so viewers can travel along as Collins takes us Los Angeles, California, Calais, France, and Badagry, Nigeria. In the background, Collins sings, “I love you and all I want you to do is just hold me, hold me, hold me.” The lyrics allude to “the hold,” a theory by the scholar of Black Diaspora studies, Dr. Christina Sharpe.
In Plain Sight/Site is about recognizing this hold—digging into the deeper narratives that ground this place. A reading room with a selection of books, both nonfiction and fiction, aims to elucidate and enrich the show’s context. But Sandy clearly states that while these histories are tantamount to our understanding of place and our current time, she has a greater agenda: “I am not directly concerned with these transatlantic slave and other trade routes,” she wrote, “but more so with the ideations and environmental futures made in their wake—the ripple effects through time that affect the daily lives of people descended from those displaced by these movements.”
Everything that has happened influences the present in a constellation of ways we can never fully untangle. As a white woman walking through the show, I wondered about how I have I benefitted from these racist systems of dividing power and resources. As a New Englander, how invested are we in these histories?
In her 2016 book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being , Dr. Sharpe examines how the history of enslavement appears in the present through the literary analogy of the wake. She recounts the deaths of several family members, proof of the continued threat of violence for Black people that extends from slavery. She asks:
In the midst of so much death and the fact of Black life as proximate to death, how do we attend to physical, social, and figurative death and also to the largeness that is Black life, Black life insisted from death? I want to suggest that that might look something like wake work. (page 17)
With the sound of the ocean underscoring In Plain Sight/Site, Sandy draws from this idea of the wake throughout the show. These collected histories have been intentionally purged—a convenient amnesia to absolve the guilt of white New England—but together with these artists, Sandy understands that we can do the work.
In Plain Sight/Site continues through March 2, 2019.