Walking into Washington Project for the Arts, one is directed immediately to the works on view. Without much space to navigate, the viewer can be attracted to the pieces in no time at all. These works are provocative, yet require a bit of patience. They are displayed in a setting that is more akin to an artist’s studio than a white cube gallery, and viewers must sit with the works to let the seemingly haphazard quality of display wash over them, and begin to access the actual content.
The exhibition, CONTRABAND, is composed of works from five artists. Four of these artists are Latin American, and one is Nigerian. Stated as “an exhibition that confronts cultural imperialism by reflecting on the impact that ‘developed’ countries have on the rest of the world through media and commerce”, the exhibition was curated to raise questions about the relationship between those who create culture outside of privileged spaces, and those in the privileged spaces that then consume this culture. All of the artists on view share a commonality in that they were all born outside of those places considered privileged Western geographies. A mammoth topic, this kicks off a discourse that requires many perspectives.
One of the first works that attracts attention is by an artist Rodrigo Carazas Portal. A large green tarp is placed overtop wooden planks, whose structures are partially hidden, with just their bases revealed. The work dominates the corner space where it is installed, and one pink paint smear is readily apparent on the right side of the tarp. Arranged as three peaks, the tarp takes on the shape of mountains. The title of the piece, Machu Picchu, confirms the form of the piece. Walking closer one can notice the gold rings along the edge of the tarp, and the light placed directly above generates an expansive range of hue to the green of the tarp. Despite the seeming banality of the tarp, the surprisingly exhaustive range of greens revealed, and the works use of three peaks to insinuate mountains, everything immediately recalls the impressive view of the great Peruvian citadel. Portal expertly trims down his piece to the very bare minimum needed to still ignite our visual associations with a popular site, a site greatly consumed by tourism. What’s more, Machu Picchu does not even have three peaks as Portal suggests, yet the viewers reading of the work as Machu Picchu does not suffer from this. An everyday tarp, a green-ish color, and an inaccurate number of peaks still tell our minds eye (before reading the title) that we are looking at what seems to be Machu Picchu.
There is then the piece by Nigerian artist chukwumaa, Flawless Waterfall 21 (Central Communications Version). An intentionally-placed series of twenty one cell phones are organized in a line, about two thirds of which are hung on the gallery wall, the other third hung on a wooden panel constructed at about a forty-five degree angle from the wall. All of the cell phones are hung with near identical bungee cords. Just one of the phones, the first one on the wooden panel, is different. It is smaller than the others. Otherwise, the remaining phones are exact duplicates of one another. The phones emit music, what seems to be hip-hop or rap. To decipher the noise, one must physically get closer, and even then it is unclear which of the phones are playing the music, which of them is silent. Despite the cacophony of sound, the display of the works – so neat and linear – elevates these simplistic cell phones to a level of preciousness, as objects that merit study like specimens in a shadow display box. These cell phones are repeated down the wall creating a sense of perfection that is an unlikely sentiment for an item intended to be mass produced, and bought at cheap rates. The interjection of one slightly smaller phone jolts the viewer out of this perfection, reminding them again about the practical object-ness of those things on view, and their banality. chukwumaa expertly plays with our reading and reaction to ordinariness.
Turning around there is the work by artist Jimena Chávez Delion, Transferencia. It is a public road sign that has been de-contextualized, painted over, and totally manipulated to obscure any of its original meaning as a sign alerting drivers to a crossing. Instead, the viewer now sees only a chopped oval shape, the letter “X”, and a white disk that reveals parts of two black letters. The sign is now purely decorative, imparting no knowledge to its viewer. With a simple coverage of yellow paint in select strategic places, a public sign that directs the actions of over thousands of people a day can be easily stripped of its purpose, rendered to a status serving only the aesthetic. Delion suggests the ease with which a meaning can be obscured.
In total, the exhibition present seven works, all of whose artists come from the Latinx diaspora. Themes of image association, near-perfection, banality, and miscommunication dominate the exhibition and successfully evoke questions about the power of image appropriation. Yet, do the parameters of the works on view adequately support the exhibitions curatorial scope, which seeks to expose the impact those born outside of Western privilege are making to the rest of the world? The rest of the world is a lot of people. And outside of Western privilege–surely more than those from Latin America and Nigeria have had to confront what is means to not have this privilege.
The works do point to themes that perhaps are the chorus of all those who live outside of Western privilege yet have had their culture consumed with no reward by the West: why is our culture consumed, and how much does this consumption destroy it? How come those “with” get to enjoy the fruits of the labor of those “without”? But, perhaps there is also more to be said that cannot so easily conform to these broad questions.
The core of the Washington Project for the Arts is transforming its model from “artist-centered” to “artist-driven.” As their website states, “projects will be conceived and realized increasingly ‘by artists, for artists’”. This is a powerful transformation. In taking the responsibility to realize curatorial projects, artists must not forget that their voices are personal, and gain strength when they are focused, and contextualized. The casual display of the works for CONTRABAND suggests that there is value to presenting works in a “workshop” setting as it allows the viewer to understand the pieces not as perfect finished works, but as those things that are intended to ignite thought and self-learning on the topic at hand. However, the specificity of curatorial scope must be a kind of end product, decided upon after much workshopping has already been complete. This kind of proactive research will ultimately push the needle on understanding and perhaps even change, avoiding hyperbolic frameworks that yield over-generalizations, and diminish the power of the works themselves.
CONTRABAND now on view through February 16, 2018 at the Washington Project for the Arts located at 2124 8th St NW, Washington, DC 20001.