Nature or nurture? The simple question comes to mind when considering the curatorial implications that underscore the works in Transient Identity: Figure & Form, on view at the Brentwood Arts Exchange through August 11. Artists Lorenzo Cardim, Victor Ekpuk and Wilfredo Valladares were selected by a group of University of Maryland students to delve deep into that sociological conundrum, and each artist in their own way addresses the complexities that inevitably unfold. The resulting exhibition is rewarding to view both for the interplay of differing visual media on display and for the scholarly concerns raised by the student curators. It turns out the answer is not nearly so cut and dry.
“Shifting, impermanent, temporary [and] fluid,” is how student curators Ateret Sultan-Reisler and Elizabeth Von Buhr describe the conception of identity in their curatorial statement accompanying the exhibition. Written on behalf of the entire curatorial team, the two authors further note that “although one’s inherent nature and origin is stable, outside forces alter us as beings.” Those statements highlight the role that families and culture writ large take in shaping notions of the self. The three artists however point to a more complex interweaving of identities, connoting that phenomenon both internal and external to the self are at play. While all parties agree that overall identity is mutable—changing as a result of place and circumstance—the artists also seem to additionally posit that our internal self-concept (Nature, if you will) both affects and is affected by those outside forces. Each artist focuses on these juxtaposing forces in their own way.
The serenity exhibited by the faces in Wilfredo Valladares’s metal sculptures belies the emotional travails behind each work. The faces appear before us, eyes closed, floating free of the bodies that might have given us additional visual clues as to their identities or past circumstances. Are they men or women? Where are they from? From the artist statement we know they are castings of immigrants to the United States, but their birthplaces and waystations in life are unknown. The only additional clues we have are headdresses that frame their faces, which depict items from their homelands as talismans of their cultural journey. Unmasked (05) for example replaces human hair with ears of corn or maize, suggesting that somehow this crop was central to the character’s earlier life. Similarly, Unmasked inverts the subject’s head inside a cast iron skillet surrounded by rolling pins, implying the kitchen was a fixture in this figure’s past.
Valladares reflects upon the interplay between self-concept and cultural forces overtly with his subject matter and subtly with this choice of material. The visual elements that surround each face highlight the incongruity that exists where cultures and cultural norms collide. These seismic shifts weigh upon the individual, forcing the assimilation of new information to understand one’s place in the world. But the artist does not suppose the individual ego remains unchanged through the process. While the faces themselves appear solid and immutable, during the casting process the materials are porous and malleable. Changes to the elemental composition of the material as it heats, cools, expands and contracts mimic the changing nature of internal consciousness as the ego responds to external stimuli. In this light, the sculptures almost resemble funerary masks. Though perhaps not Valladares’s intent, the observation validates the notion that only at the moment of death does our identity fully solidify.
Where Valladares incorporates individuals across broad cultural spectrums, Victor Ekpuk studies shifting cultural narratives through his Nigerian ancestry; though more personal, the results are universal. His acrylic works displayed here do not attempt to delineate unique individuals. Instead, human forms are suggested via broad outlines and shapes; in Ubok Udom the form is only hinted at with squiggles and contours. Ekpuk prefers color to impart the visual interest, working in tandem with pictogram-style markings that suggest a foreign lexicon at play. Those markings come from the Nsibidi style of communication from his native Nigeria, where symbols rather than letters are used to convey concepts. Mickey on Broadway in particular demonstrates the interplay of body and outside cultures by placing the symbols outside the body on a white background.
The artist’s acrylic paintings Ubok Udom and Conversations speak chiefly about the world around us and how cultural spheres of influence impact the concept of identity. Here it is particularly interesting to consider (as Epkuk certainly has) the co-mingling of language systems that impart communication through different visual cues; transitioning from a world of symbols to a world of letters implies a profound change to the way in which one understands the world them. But does this reorientation to the world necessarily imply a fundamental change to one’s inherent, inner nature? Mickey on Broadway, Epkuk’s largest and most dynamic piece in the show, indicates this is a distinct possibility. Five sequential panels display five incarnations of the self in an African-pop culture mashup that makes a distinctive nod to the work of the late Keith Haring. Epkuk replaces Haring’s emotionally-driven emblems with the Nsibidi symbology to highlight modes of communication. But it is the figures themselves, floating within a simmering sea of language, that suggest an additional, subsequent change to the ego. Each torso is rendered in different colors, and while four heads recall the most American of mice, torso number two features an African mask. The head swap is subtle in the larger stew of color but profound nonetheless for it suggests that this type of migration between languages and cultures fundamentally transforms the ego’s relationship to both physical body and the cultural landscape that body inhabits.
Lorenzo Cardim’s artistic contribution provides a case-study to examine how the transience of self-identity plays out in real life. While the three works do not necessarily visually invoke his own personality, they are in some ways the most personal works in the exhibition. The Brazilian-born Cardim focuses on the life of fellow Brazilian Dandara dos Santos, a transgender woman brutally murdered because of her outward appearance. The mutilation of her physical body was followed by the defamation of her spirit by a news media that sensationalized her outward appearance and misidentified her gender. While Cardim cannot undo the physical torment, he seeks to honor in his own way the spirit that dwelt within.
É Mulher Guerreira Coberta de Flores (Warrior Woman Covered in Flowers) and Mulher de Ouro Mesmo (She’s Really Golden) each contain pictorial representations of dos Santos, the former featuring her likeness and the latter representing her in gold leaf. The collaged works incorporate flowers, suggesting forms of adornment and beauty but also intimating the transience of life. Gold leaf and purple-hued muslin lend her a lustrous air – if not quite royalty than at least regal in spirit. The works obliquely represent that spirit, creating an alternative narrative to a society that viewed her as an anathema. While these two compositions are visually upstaged by the bright colors and solid materials used by Epkuk and Valledares, the artist’s third piece Carruagem de Pinho (Pine Carriage) pulls attention to it through scale and decoration. The sculpture takes the form of an oversized wheelbarrow, its humble origins accented by the simple, unpainted wooden exterior left to the elements. Inside a richly varnished interior is graced with purple and gold filigree; a capital D for diva makes more than one appearance. While it is left unclear if viewers should interpret the cart as a direct stand in for dos Santos’s body, the combining of a plain, outer shell with a rich interior certainly suggests that the inner psyche can differentiate itself from the bounds of its physical existence. Of the three artists, it is perhaps Cardim who most closely implies the notion that the ego is more stable than the culture that surrounds us. Dos Santos lived a life that followed her own north star, despite the shifting cultural terrain that placed roadblocks in her path.
It becomes apparent that the simply focusing on the idea of nature versus nurture instills a binary that is limiting to the conception of the human spirit. While the curatorial team notes that identity is mutable, working on a feedback loop constantly influenced by the ego and cultural forces, the artists take this concept one step further, implying the ego itself may be subject to re-visioning over time. The result suggests a certain state of flux – not constant but certainly unfolding over a lifetime. Identity formation is not an either/or proposition but the result of a rich confluence of thought, action and design. The resulting dustup should be welcomed – not avoided; to the artists’ eyes it is downright magical.
Transient Identity: Figure & Form is on view through August 11, 2018 at the Brentwood Arts Exchange in Brentwood, MD. For more information, visit the gallery’s website here.
Banner image: Mickey on Broadway, Victor Epkuk. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.