by David M. Roth
Wounds — whether inflicted by war, religious persecution, poverty, racial prejudice, homelessness, family discord, environmental disasters, homophobia or gender bias — have long propelled the production of art, and will continue to do so as long as pain, suffering and injustice persist. Such injuries lie at the core of Tradition Interrupted, a moving and sometimes astonishing exhibition of 14 artists, half of whom hail from abroad. All, in varying degrees, reformulate and adapt native practices and materials to as a means of affirming identity and questioning what it means to live at a time when fixed notions of almost everything feel like quaint anachronisms.
This wide thematic net, cast by the exhibition’s curator, Carrie Lederer, takes in photography, sculpture, textiles, ceramics and installation, with a timely emphasis on artists from regions across the globe who, for the past couple decades, have expanded the world's notion of what ?constitutes contemporary art. Several, like Dinh Q. Lê (Vietnam), Serge Attukwei Clottey (Ghana) and Ramekon O’Arwisters (San Francisco by way of South Carolina), are familiar to local audiences from recent exhibitions. They are, unsurprisingly, the show's stars. The real surprises come from a handful of “newcomers.”
One of them, Anila Quayyum Agha, a resident of Indianapolis, arrived on these shores 16 years ago from Pakistan. Her specialty: laser-carved light boxes (made of either wood or metal) that emit room-engulfing shadows whose shapes emulate those seen in Islamic architecture and design. While the idea of placing a light bulb inside an enclosure to cast shadows may seem elemental — like an expanded version of the perforated plastic globes that once taught kids astronomy — Agha’s shadow boxes go much further. By projecting onto floors, walls and ceilings magnified versions of motifs typically found in mosques and other monuments, Agha transforms secular spaces into light sculptures through which you can walk. That may not seem like a big deal, but for women in Muslim countries, installations like this stand as a potent reminder of freedoms they cannot exercise, namely, the ability to move freely in public. At the Bedford Gallery no such restrictions apply; anyone can enter Agha’s installation and engage with beauty on the purest of terms — shorn of religious and political baggage.
Shirin Hosseinvand, an Iranian-American artist living in Tehran, employs master mirror cutters to re-create Coke cans, turning the iconic shape and logo into outsized visual mazes whose beveled, glittering surfaces and bright colors (gold, green and silver) call to mind what Andy Warhol and Monir Farmanfarmaian might have come up with had they collaborated. Such
kinships, even if unrealized, remind us that in polyglot America we are everywhere surrounded by cultural and commercial cross-pollination; yet few works of art distill and embody the syncretistic character of that phenomenon so clearly. By melding emblems of the world’s most-recognized multinational brand with those of a sacred tradition, Hosseinvand demonstrates how seemingly antithetical forms can be made to cohere.
Faig Ahmed achieves a similar impact. He doesn’t just alter the look of rugs made in his home country, Azerbaijan; his mutant weavings defy how we are accustomed to seeing textiles “behave.” Hal, a 103-inch tall, wall-mounted wool rug seems to “dissolve” at the point at which it spills onto the floor, coalescing into puddle-like shapes composed of the same colored fabrics seen on the wall-mounted portions. It enacts what seems like an impossible transformation. Speech of Birds, another hanging rug, looks as if it were shredded at the center by birds seeking nesting material. Both works, as Carrie Lederer accurately observes, form “a commanding statement about identity, loss and change.”
Serge Attukwei Clottey, who lives and works in Ghana, has, over the past 17 years, built an international career out of repurposing the yellow plastic jugs used throughout Africa to transport water. He melts them into masks and cuts them into snippets stitched together to form abstract tapestries, establishing formal links to both Cubism (which took its earliest cues from African art), and to vernacular forms seen everywhere in the African diaspora. By choosing this particular type of container, known in Ghana as the “Kufor Gallon,” Clottey makes a powerful connection to colonialism and its aftereffects: Germans introduced a metal version of it which the British later copied (in plastic) after WWII. Today, the fact that millions rely on it to capture and transport water points to a kind of scarcity westerners can barely imagine. By employing it as raw material for his wide-ranging practice, Clottey turns a symbol of dire need into an activist cudgel. It has multiple forms. In addition to making sculpture, he operates a blog representing an imaginary art movement called “Afrogallonism,” consisting of writings and documents of performances that link Africa’s ongoing water crisis to the misdeeds of capitalism.
For Ramekon O’Arwisters, a residency at the San Francisco city dump (aka Recology) proved pivotal. There, he hit upon the idea of wrapping pottery shards in cloth to produce gawky, intensely beautiful sculptural objects that defy category. The idea came to him at a moment of profound personal and professional crisis. Black, queer and a former seminarian, he arrived in San Francisco from South Carolina, alienated, he says, from both his family and the gallerists he encountered. So, facing an impending deadline at Recology for an exhibition for which he felt ill-prepared, the artist turned to what he knew best: quilting, something he learned from his grandmother. Reclaiming that history enabled O’Arwisters to express himself with an authenticity he’d never before experienced. That discovery subsequently became the basis of his art. Today, he regards it as a form of self-healing – “mending” he calls it — and he shares his expertise with others in “crochet jams,” held throughout the Bay Area. These facts I learned about from a video of the artist speaking to gallery docents. At the end of his presentation the audience let out a collective gasp. You may do so, too, after seeing his work.
The most compelling work in Tradition Interrupted comes from Dinh Q. Lê. If you missed his exhibition at the San Jose Art Museum (reviewed in these pages by Patricia Albers) here is an opportunity to catch up. Two large-scale photo-tapestries represent him. One depicts a Khmer Rouge victim; the other a Cambodian epic poem, and they alone are worth the trip to Walnut Creek. He creates these works by slicing apart and weaving together (in the manner of Vietnamese grass mats) images of Vietnam culled from archival sources and Hollywood film stills. The resulting composites hover between painting and photography and appear incoherently “pixelated” until you view them at a distance, at which point faces, figures, architectural forms and other seemingly hidden details come into view as if emerging from a photochemical bath. They embody, as much as any works of art I can think of, the difficulty of piecing together the past and attempting to understand it through the fog of memory, media, politics and “official” history.
For Lê, these efforts have a profound resonance. In 1978 when he was 11, his family fled Vietnam during that country’s invasion of Cambodia. He spent the next 18 years in the U.S. before returning to Vietnam. (He now lives in Ho Chi Min City.) Like many of the artists in Tradition Interrupted, Lê attempts to make sense of a world that bears little resemblance to the one into which he was born.
Not everything in the exhibition fares as well. Some works feel derivative, hermetic and, in one notable instance, just plain frivolous. Overall, hits outnumber misses by a wide margin, making Tradition Interrupted a worthy core sampling of hybridity — a defining characteristic of contemporary art.
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“Tradition Interrupted” @ Bedford Gallery through June 23, 2019. The exhibition also includes works by Camille Eskell, Mounir Fatmi, Ana Gómez, Suzanne Husky, Jaydan Moore, Ronna Neuenschwander, Jason Seife and Steven Young Lee.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.