Friday, May 24, 2019

Let Me Tell You a Story, 5/23/19 - 6/23/19, at Drawing Rooms

by Peter Delman


Racial identity and gender identity are underlying themes in the exhibition "Let Me Tell You A Story". But to leave it at that would be to miss a great deal. For these artists, identity is a platform from which are launched many journeys of discovery. A pivotal moment or break from tradition is often the key element in their origin stories.

For Abebunmi Gbadebo, the break was a total rejection of traditional art materials because of their association with Whiteness. She says, “My material is human hair from people of the African Diaspora. Our hair is so connected to our culture, politics, and history. It is history, DNA". Ibou Ndoye’s work builds on the tradition of Senegalese glass painting to create his personal folklore. It was when he literally broke the glass he was working on and reassembled the shards that he achieved a new level of energy in his work.

Theda Sandiford’s art is, in a sense, a soap box from which her voice can be clearly heard in a culture where too often she feels that "I am disappeared. My opinion, my ‘hand’, is dismissed outright". Shoshanna Weinberger’s work is rooted in her outsider status as a woman "considered ‘exotic’ in America and ‘not Jamaican-enough’ in Kingston". She channels the Carrie Mae Weems trope of “otherness doing otherness things” to generate jarring images of fragmented female identity. The male gaze that dismantles the bodies of women, and specifically black women, in a macho body shop of the mind, is the subject of Kimberly Becoat’s Urban Hottentot Series.

The Drawing Rooms gallery itself has embarked on a journey to develop a new identity. In the first major curated exhibition in its handsome new space, curator Anne Trauben offers a thoughtful, provocative experience for viewers. A major goal for the gallery is to encourage connections between regional art communities. This exhibition, for example, includes artists Gbadebo and Weinberger, based in Newark, and Becoat, in Brooklyn. Ndoye and Sandiford from Jersey City round out the roster.

The stories these artists tell are often unflinchingly critical of the racial stereotypes and fragmentation of gender identity ubiquitous in our cultural narrative. The exploitation and denigration of the female body represented in Becoat’s work refers to the story of Sara Baartman, who in the early 19th century was paraded around Europe because her supposedly distorted body profile was considered an example of racial barbarity. She was known as the “Hottentot Venus". “Hottentot” itself was a derogatory slang term invented by the Dutch settlers of South Africa.

This demeaning objectification of black women is not limited to the history books. In recent years, cultural icons such as Grace Jones and Venus and Serena Williams have been subjected to demeaning characterizations of their bodies.
Kimberly Becoat, Hottent Harvest, collage

In Becoat’s collages, Tootsie Roll Pops and Bit-O-Honey replace female heads. In Hottent Harvest, some figures grasp small fetish-like figures – one of these shelters under a cantilevered butt bearing the legend “SEE MOON OFFER ON.” All this presumably for the delectations of the only head with eyes to see – a white man with an ironic flower in his mouth – suggestive of a serial killer’s calling card.

Shoshanna Weinberger: Triptych left to right: My Midnight Pink Emerging, Between Atmospheres and Bloodlines, Side Part, ink and collage on paper

Much of Weinberger’s work addresses similarly haunted terrain. In her 2012 solo show What Makes My Hottentot so Hot, and in many of her paintings, she confronts the grotesque and sexualized result of taking the “male gaze” to its darkest logical conclusion. The two works in this show are kinder, gentler meditations on identity – still the pink lips in her triptych are a real “punch in the mouth”.
Theda Sandiford:
Neon Auto Tune – Limited Edition, 

digital collage on metallic photo paper

Lush lips feature, too, in Sandiford’s “Big Mouth” series. The lips are emblematic of her conscious act to embrace the power of her own voice. In Stay Woke, she deploys an arsenal of collage materials to build a whimsical self-portrait. Her two digital collages shimmer with rivulets of color and graphic energy. Neon Auto Tune – Limited Edition puts in mind the view from the bridge of a starship accelerating into hyper-space.

There are also links between Sandiford’s muscular rope sculptures and Gbadebo’s hair sculptures. Both artists work with community members to create these pieces. Gbadebo writes, “My art stores have become local barbershops and people’s homes. Every piece is made by my community. Strangers trust me to give a new purpose to their hair.” Sandiford is displaying her community-made fiber sculptures here for the first time. The hair braiding ritual is also the subject of one of Ndoye’s paintings.

Adebunmi Gbadebo:
Am I Still Dreadful, human hair

Gbadebo’s pieces combine the soft and the powerful like a cloud in a thunderstorm. The rippling form of Am I Still Dreadful, evoking a hair shirt and the golden fleece, commands its space on the wall with nobility. Untitled 15 is like a rope or a chain that can be seen as a reminder of oppression, but oppression overcome by the strength of individual discovery and the positive bonds forged by communities.

Weinberger writes, “The work explores my experience with ‘invisible blackness,’ ‘passing,’ and ‘Double-Consciousness’…anonymous portraits or headshots, alluding to my personal relationship with intersectional-identity, alienation and otherness". In One Pink Sunset Among My Midnight Selfies, the barely discernible images in the black frames may represent the virtually invisible aspects of the artist that are overshadowed by the selfie mask. Or perhaps they conjure the under-told story of the many women struggling in the shadows, unrecognized.

In Ndoye’s monumental paintings, the theme of community is strong and vibrant. Women often play leading roles, and the gestures of the figures are affirming and evoke trust and hope. But there are hints of sorrow too in the many unsmiling faces, and all the figures look away as if distracted by some unseen concern.

Ibou Ndoye:
The Arrival of the Fisherman,
painting on canvas

The Arrival of the Fisherman is the most joyful of the paintings. The background grid is alive with fish. The figures lift their arms in exaltation. A fishing boat is held aloft. The collaged fabric patterns, the vigorous background designs, and the demonstrative gestures of the people describe a moment of peace and plenty.

Currently running in Chelsea is a Robert Longo show that lights the way for making forceful, biting political art. The five artists in this exhibition are on this path, with their strong statements on gender, racial identity, and the restorative power of community.

Let Me Tell You a Story, 5/23/19 - 6/23/19, features works by Adebunmi Ghabedo, Shoshanna Weinberger, Theda Sandiford, Ibou Ndoye and Kimberly Becoat, is curated by Anne Trauben.

Peter Delman is an artist living in Jersey City. Read Peter's bio here and view his artwork here.

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