Between History and the Body features artists Elia Alba, Firelei Baez, Nick Cave, Jean Ulrick Désert, Nicolás Dumit Estévez, Brendan Fernandez, Jeffrey Gibson Shaun Leonardo, Ana Mendieta, Paul Anthony Smith, Chengpo Tsering and Saya Woolfalk, who work across a variety of media including sculpture, painting, photography, performance and video. Together, these artists generate dialogue on cultural identity and history through representation of the body as an active force in ritual, both historic and imagined, and as an agent in the production of relics that communicate narratives of the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Several artists in the exhibition work with masking and modes of dress. Elia Alba’s If I were a video features artist Nicolás Dumit Estévez performing in three different photo-transferred suits that depict various pastiche racial identities. Paul Anthony Smith’s photographs of youths in his home city of Kingston, Jamaica are transformed with patterns and shapes, which mask the figure and suggest additional layers of cultural experience. Jean Ulrick Désert’s The Passion is comprised of a series of photographic portraits of figures dressed in football fan costumes—common in Germany and other parts of Europe—but produced all in white, removing the patriotic symbols that normally adorn the outfits. The Passion reveals the tribal qualities of mainstream identification that can be found in sports culture, where otherwise questionable aggression is acceptable. Other artists in the exhibition, such as Shaun Leonardo, call into question which bodies matter. His recent drawings of slain African American men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin are paired with self-portraits that depict the artist as a wrestler in struggle with the invisible man.
Brendan Fernandes and Nicolás Dumit Estévez’s videos Foe and Tongue Training both demonstrate the nuance of voice and pronunciation as signifiers of class and cultural identity. In Estévez’s case, the erotic and comic converge in his tongue training. Fernandes’ Foe documents the artist’s attempt to learn the correct Indian and Canadian English pronunciation of phrases from J.M. Coetzee’s book (also titled Foe).
Saya Woolfalk and Firelei Baez create objects and paintings, respectively, that conflate historical information with futuristic visions of cultural possibilities. Woolfalk’s Sheds are wall-mounted heads from her ongoing story about women, called the Empathics, who discover bones that are believed to be remains of plant-human hybrids. A parallel project called ChimaTEK, is a fictional product line conceived to enable customers to transcend ordinary limits, including those imposed by racism, sexism and ethnocentricity. Baez’s paintings and collages depict the female figure and body parts within reimagined ethnographic design and patterns, calling for a more empowered relationship to our own bodies and history.
Between History and the Body, curated by Artistic Director Sara Reisman, is the second in a series of exhibitions centered on the newly focused mission of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, with an emphasis on art and social justice.