Curators Nicole Dowd and Allison Nance present RE/ENVISIONING, an ambitious group show at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (CAH) Gallery, with six artists who each question, subvert, and re-tell traditionally accepted narratives. The curators make it clear that they are not aiming to replace one dominant narrative with another, but rather to offer up “a mere six stories in a sea of multitudes of lost or suppressed narratives.” Artists Adele Yiseol Kenworthy, Antonio McAfee, Jessica Valoris, Fargo Nissim Tbakhi, Stephanie Mercedes, and Stephanie J. Williams each have their own distinct perspective, but are united in their aim to introduce nuance and subjectivity into the mix, empowering the voices of their ancestors and community members.
RE/ENVISIONING invites viewers to engage with the artwork as participants, questioning their own narratives. As Adele Yiseol Kenworthy asks in a text associated with her work:
“Do I return to the systems and institutions to find the stories these spaces actively participated in the erasure of them?
Do I need to reconcile the memories I’ve inherited with the memories of the colonizer?”
In Kenworthy’s pieces, images of family members are cut and superimposed onto images of flowers, leaving a stark white space where they once were. Her practice references the tradition of flower arranging in Korea, which faded out of practice during times of political struggle in the 20th century. By combining the traditional practice with her family photographs, Kenworthy works through what it means to belong neither here nor there, caught between the memories of the past with the realities of the present, and her dual identities of Korean and American. Her photographs and botanical arrangements offer insight into a different way of existing – with nature, in nature, through nature. She uses the gallery space as a medium, intervening into the public space by inserting the deeply personal and exploring the possibilities of an in-between.
Also using photographic manipulation, Antonio McAfee’s project appropriates images from W.E.B Du Bois and Thomas Calloway’s “Exhibition of American Negroes” (1900) by digitally and physically manipulating his photographs to expose alternative possibilities for the subjects. Using saturated hues, McAfee superimposes multiples of the same subject to create a 3-D effect. He invites his viewers to don 3-D glasses while looking at the work, which introduces a playful element that stands in contrast to the seriousness of the subjects. In McAfee’s work, the often sterile and objectifying gaze of the photographer is transformed into a playful and curious exploration of what could be.
Like McAfee, Jessica Valoris also aims to present an alternative view of her historical subjects. Valoris’s found poetry pieces are composed of fugitive slave ads that are transformed into love poems dedicated to the people they were written about; she takes what was once a dehumanizing weapon of hate and turns it into a beautiful object of devotion. Housed in small wooden frames, these poems take on the form of shadow boxes, infusing them with feelings of nostalgia, memory, and care. In a way reminiscent of a mother memorializing objects and photos of her child, Valoris takes the same care to preserve the memory of her ancestors.
Valoris’s research practice is centered on black fugitivity. While she is deeply engaged in the historical archive, she makes it clear that she is not a historian. As she mentioned in a recent artist talk, she is “sharing her listening,” and inviting viewers to think about how they participate in history by choosing which voices to listen to. Her Opening series, paintings on panels that suggest doorways, portals, or horizons, are abstract evocations of fugitive slave spaces. Her use of abstraction puts the burden on the viewer to decide their meaning, metaphysically reenacting the historical process within the walls of the gallery space.
While Valoris transforms words of hate into words of love, Stephanie Mercedes similarly performs a transformation with the materials of her work. She shared a line that inspired her throughout the creation of the work: “what if the brass doesn’t want to be a bullet?” Her piece Sonic Fracture presents materials in various states of transmutation and decay. Weapons, musical instruments, and images are transfigured into vaguely recognizable forms that hint at but do not reveal their original use. Reminiscent of Zoe Leonard’s 1990s work Strange Fruit, the objects are scattered on the floor, creating the feeling of a graveyard and provoking a grim fascination with the decayed state of the materials. Unlike Strange Fruit, Mercedes’s works are indelibly frozen in time, solidified in the hardness of melted metals which beautifully betray their violent or utilitarian pasts. Is a bell still a bell if it no longer makes noise? Does a bullet retain its violence if it is recast into something else? Mercedes’s work brings us more questions than answers.
Fargo Tbakhi’s work oscillates between performance, poetry, and activism. By escaping definition, Tbakhi’s work seeks to deconstruct the traditional structures of power by creating a space of creative freedom. Antigone. Velocity. Salt. is a mixed media and performance piece that uses language, in the form of an almost overwhelming number of poems typed on simple 8.5 x 11 paper, to give a voice to those who have been repressed.
Tbakhi focuses on the figure of Antigone, the heroine from the Sophoclean tragedy who is punished by death for giving her brother a proper burial ceremony despite orders from the state that she should not. In her act of defiance, Antigone asserts the human dignity of the deceased body and the cultural right to grieve. Tbakhi uses this narrative to meditate on modern uses of necroviolence in warfare, particularly the harshness of the Israeli state toward the Palestinian people, including not allowing them to view the bodies of their loved ones. The lines of poetry shift between angst, grief, political mantras, and grim humor, capturing the sheer humanity that exists in moments of immense struggle: “If I’m going to bleed I may as well bleed for you”/ “Praying for an op ed powerful enough to bring us home”/ “A corpse is a stained glass window into the living.” Tbakhi’s blood-red fingerprints on the surface of the printed poems leave remnants of his performance, a reminder of the elastic temporality that exists in spaces of grief.
Stephanie J. Williams picks apart hierarchies of taste, questioning what it means for something to be “American,” and how words bequeath power when they become names. Her stop-motion piece, the Lingering Survival of the Unfit, was inspired by her research into the American colonization of and continuing involvement with the Philippines in WWII. As a child, she grew up hearing about the history of the Philippines, which stood in striking opposition to her American education that seemed to completely ignore American influence over her family’s home country. Using video and stop-motion, Williams focuses on how aesthetic and cultural judgements of taste impart value judgements on people. Her subject is the balut, a fertilized duck egg eaten as a delicacy in the Philippines and other southeast Asian countries. As Williams notes in the wall text: “Americans eat ducks. Americans eat duck eggs. But the thing as in-between makes it distasteful.” Her work acts as defiance against categorization: what is wrong with the in-between? Why must we fit into boxes prescribed to us by the political, colonial, or social powers?
The artists in the exhibition exist within multiple narrative frameworks of history and identity. Through their work, they transcend boundaries and explore the realm of the other and its troubled relationship with the status quo. They do not purport to replace one narrative with another as an alternative history, just as concrete as the first claimed to be. Rather, they explore why and how we believe certain things. While some of the work requires an investment in mental and emotional energy, it is well worth it. Deconstructing historical narratives is not something only to be done by politicians, historians, or artists, but also in the mind of every person; RE/ENVISIONING creates an excellent space for doing so.
RE/ENVISIONING, is on view at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities Gallery, through August 18, 2023. The exhibition was made possible by a curatorial grant from DCCAH.
The DCCAH Gallery is located at 200 I St SE. Washington D.C. 20003. Hours: Monday – Friday, 9 – 5:30, 202- 724-5613.
This article was funded in part with a grant from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation