Monday, July 5, 2021

Historical Amnesia - Group Show at BronxArtSpace (February 2018)

BronxArtSpace is an invaluable resource in New York City which provides opportunities for curated group shows and performances that allow artists the space to experiment and do work outside of commercial considerations. The most recent show, Historical Amnesia, was curated by Gabriel de Guzman, who brings together five amazing artists around the theme of forgotten histories and “…the lasting effects of colonialism, exoticism and intolerance on today’s culture.”

When Islam arrived in the Philippines in the 1300s, through traders and missionaries from Malaysia and Indonesia, it began to supplant a type of polytheism, magical ritual and shamanism of the indigenous population. In the late 1500s Miguel L√≥pez de Legazpi arrived from Spain expressly to “save” the Filipinos from both paganism and Islam and a type of religious war lasted into the 1800s. Spain finally gained ascendency and many Filipinos converted to Catholicism, until the US took control of the Philippines and US missionaries attempted to introduce various forms of Protestantism. So Philippine history and culture have been continually altered by warring dominant cultures as this chain of islands served as a battle ground between countries and religious ideologies. What is left of indigenous Filipino thought, religion or culture? How has the character of the Filipino people been developed or affected by the abuses to which they have been subjected throughout history? Can the Philippines finally chart a course toward autonomy, self-development and unique identity?

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You are probably not going to get these answers through National Geographic or other glossy magazines, which tend to sell the exoticism of the Philippines to the potential American tourist. Sara Jimenez has, therefore, in response to the tendency to overlook the tragedy of Philippine history and current social problems for the delightful pleasures the country might offer to wealthy foreigners, created a type of exotic creature called the Antipode for this exhibit. This is a long, willowy creature composed entirely of nature images from National Geographic articles about the Philippines. Of course, an “antipode” is the direct opposite position of another place on the planet earth and figuratively the antipode for the Philippines rests at the heart of white, European culture. This sculpture was apparently inspired by some strange sea creatures which have recently washed up in the Philippines, allegedly spawning legends and articles in National Geographic. The Antipode defies categorization and seems to point to terrible omens for the future. It represents, perhaps, exoticism as “historical amnesia” - a pleasant cover-up for what the major powers have done to these islands and both a creation of and a curiosity for the West. The Antipode represents the Philippines as part of a cabinet of curiosities for its former colonizers and current tourists.

Joiri Minaya also takes the theme of exoticism as a starting point for her work. Of Dominican descent, on her website she mentions a type of gaze that is thrust upon her due to her race/ethnicity which “others” her. “I turn it upon itself, mainly by seeming to fulfill its expectations, but instead sabotaging them, thus regaining power and agency. Inter-disciplinarily, I explore the performativity of tropical identity as product: the performance of labor, decoration, beauty, leisure, service.” Documentation of a performance series she engaged in at Wave Hill, a garden and arts center in the Bronx, is presented in the show. Women dress in floral outfits to either blend in or stand out from the flora at Wave Hill. Women are literally equated to or contrasted with the exotic foliage as an example of the restrictive effects of objectifying and commodifying women from non-dominant cultures. Recall Gauguin and how the liberatingly exotic was exemplified by the naked female natives and their jungle surroundings. She also seems to satirize the concept of the allegorization of women, in general, based on the woman’s ability to provide sexual pleasure to men and to spawn offspring. Throughout history the “fertility” of women has been equated to the fertility of the land and throughout western literature a woman has often been presented as the spiritual fulfilment of the wandering, searching male. The capacity of a woman to provide sexual fulfilment and offspring allowed her to become symbolic of the fulfilment of spiritual desire (represented by the male sex drive). So the vagina becomes the basis of much of what art, religion and literature has extracted from women for use in very linear and bizarre allegories of spiritual development. As the restrictive outfits in Minaya’s performance impose limits to the freedom and movement of the women wearing them, this allegorization of women and the equating of women to the non-human and exotic is a type of imposed and restrictive history.

jc lenochan, a veteran teacher and professor, looks at race in his works, which are done on black boards as a reference to what normally passes for knowledge and insight in American schools. One large (very humorous) work, depicted on a blackboard, evoking Duchamp and Picabia, is of a “deracing” machine: a giant construction in which a person can climb an escalator and descend through a cleansing mechanism to have his/her race removed. The implication seems to be that race is a deliberate construction meant to create a power imbalance between societies and classes. In another work we see a giant version of the artist himself with various members of other ethnic/racial groups brushing him, sardonically trying to get his “whiteness” to rub off on them. This seems a take off on the idea of dominant culture whiteness rubbing off on others in the cultural assimilation process. In reality, in regard to white folks assimilating folks of color educationally and culturally, there is research which indicates that white teachers often undervalue and fail students of color due, in part, to the inability for whiteness to rub off on folks who do not want to absorb whiteness as a part of their education. lenochan also addresses the theme of boxing in some of his latest work as it relates to issues of race and social class mobility.

Kris Grey is represented in this show through a videotape of their performance Homage. (By way of explanation, to be ‘queer’ means to defy a binary gender stereotype and so Grey uses the possessive pronoun ‘their’ instead of ‘his/her’ in describing their performance.) As is pointed out in the show booklet, “Grey’s work provokes a discussion of transgender politics by revealing the body as a site of vulnerability and trauma.” In this performance Grey inserted 10 three-inch needles under scars left under their pectoral line. The needles force the scars to become more visually prominent. From parts of the performance I observed, Grey inserts the pins with relative aplomb, despite the blood which flows from the wounds, as we see members of the audience wincing. Actually, watching the audience feel emotional pain, and feeling discomfort and pain myself, based on what Grey was experiencing, was the most meaningful part of the performance for me. Grey finds a way to connect with folks and to engender a fellow-feeling through his experience, and thus make personal history meaningful to others, based on the transitioning process for genderqueer people.

Finally, Jade Yumang presents a number of soft sculptures based on a specific issue of Drum – the first magazine in US history to show full frontal male nudity (December, 1965) and an innovative periodical in LGBT history. This was a more in-your-face and unapologetic non-hetero magazine that caught fire around the country until it was quashed by the US government. It seemed to model itself, somewhat, on Playboy, as it contained naked photos as well as thought-provoking articles. Its founder, Clark Polak, in fact, once stated that he was not shooting to become the MLK Jr. of the gay world, but instead the Hugh Hefner, perhaps realizing that private “vice” often becomes public “virtue” anyway. The issue Yumang references is from May, 1966 (volume 6, issue 1, 1966), which was seized by the post office as pornographic (Polak was, ultimately, indicted by the federal government). Yumang takes pictures and text from the issue, prints them on fabric and cuts and sews them into “abstract, queer forms.” Yumang informed me he is referencing memory quilts normally meant to remember or celebrate a relative. Each piece refers to a page from that historically significant issue. Yumang scanned pages and transferred them onto fabric, quilted them, and then made this into sculptures with materials from the era. Yumang explained that “…fabric is a form of second skin and historicizes a particular period via style/fashion. Quilting is also a way to protect or envelop someone (duvets) or something (moving blankets).” The show runs until March 24.

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