Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Choose Your Future: Afrofuturism Comes to Park City

“Rock” by Cauleen Smith

The Kimball Art Center may have been liberated by its new location at the back of the Yard — a warren of working-class haunts across the street from Park City’s cemetery — full of 19th-century miners and bar-keeps. A case in point is the current show, When Evening Has Passed and Tomorrow Comes, now through June 13th. On entering the gallery, what meets the eye is “Rock,” a ten foot-tall banner, its bright blue and orange text promising “We will Rock you.” Underneath, an upraised fist brandishes a stone. Thus the promise made by Queen reaches back to the activist music of the ’60s. The implicit choice: 30,000 people of every shape, size, and color rocking out together, or those excluded from the party tempted to remedy their mistreatment by throwing stones.

Text and image alike are stretched across a transparent fabric, meant to be carried aloft on a crossed pole, fringe across the bottom dancing with those who carry it and march with it, delivering in a glance both a collective, social message and a compound art lesson appropriate for this hour in history. An audience that can tell the difference between grass roots and astro-turf, that sees how “All lives matter” is the negation — not the completion— of “Black lives matter” does not trust mass-produced, slick appeals, but values the qualities that experience provides: especially the authenticity such well made, but also hand crafted signs convey.

Like all four of the artists here, Cauleen Smith has even more hyphens in her art process than in her identity. This Black, feminist art professor began as a filmmaker, but saw in time how to work back from the image on screen to a host of earlier techniques. Desire to present and encounter settings and subjects in person led her to installation; costumes led to textiles, dress as statement of identity, and the importance of modes of self-presentation, at the root of which lies drawing. One of the most important things school can do for students is to introduce them — initiate them — into the actual experience of their areas of concern, and in 40 independent films, one of the things Smith often does is just that. Her students learn by acting out the futures they wish to live in.

“Sinners Keep On Trying” by Cauleen Smith

Smith is a self-confessed optimist and an adherent of Afrofuturism, which is a cultural movement that began with Black science-fiction, harnessing the explosive energy of theAfrican diaspora to awaken an audience denied self-recognition by mass media that nod to, and exploit, essential Black creative contributions while finding endless ways to deny their creators’ moral rights to them. She pulls together people and their own skills, not so much raising individual consciousness as assembling a community that will possess a critical mass. She knows that important changes don’t occur gradually, by themselves, but happen suddenly at the boundaries, the place where ice becomes water all at once. There is no in-between state here: one moment, one person struggles with emotional turmoil and cognitive dissonance; then that individual changes into another, different human being.

 

To that end, Cauleen Smith’s artworks are never just pretty pictures. For instance, “Chip’s Block,” four drawings of paperback science-fiction novels, invites the viewer to become a reader, specifically to find out about Samuel “Chip” Delany, a well-known writer in the 1960s whose readers, including the writer of this review, probably had no idea he was Black — or African American, as it was called then. The black hand that proffers the books, whether meant to represent Delany introducing them to Smith or Smith passing them along to us, manifests the way cultural awareness can spread in a society that at best rarely supports, or at worst suppresses knowledge that endows its members with a sense of their potential. “Sinners Keep On Trying,” a pair of fanciful, sculptural incense burners, do similar yeoman work on behalf of two Rap musicians: Rick James and O.D.B. (or Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the nom de guerre of Russell Tyrone Jones, one of the founding members of Wu-Tang Clan), both dead prematurely but whose names and work are kept alive by their fans and fellow artists, who are often the same. Most art intends to recall what was seen; Science Fiction and its offshoot, Afrofuturism, are just two media that strive to remember what never came to pass, but should have.

Nicola Lòpez, “Apparition,” published by LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, Columbia University

While Nicola Lòpez doesn’t initially appear as optimistic as Cauleen Smith, she shares Smith’s taste for ambiguity. For example, there’s room to question what precise role the land plays in her collographs. Like collages, but done on a printing press, these “Apparitions” materialize specters of uncertain significance on landscapes that she often calls “barren,” but which might just be the New Mexico scenery on which she  was raised and builds the future she sees in her mind. The fabulous skeletal structures she inserts in these scenes recall Tatlin’s Tower, the image of a monument to Socialist, working-class revolution that was never built, but which continues to inspire visionaries all over the world. They also call to mind the wire models that form an intermediate step in Computer Generated Imagery, or CGI, so essential in the production of motion pictures today. They might be steps on the way to the future that will emerge from comparatively empty landscapes surrounding us. Or they could add up to something far darker. Either way, the sheer skill with which she inserts these wonderfully elaborate crystalline lattices into the photographic spaces they end up inhabiting deserves a close-up look.

Further, Lòpez’s vision of the future isn’t without a realistic reading of human history, or anxiety for the effects of real human behavior, whether in economic or societal impacts.  Accidents always play a role in a world where control is never absolute and plans can be relied on to go awry. Her “Ideal Structures for a Dubious Future” includes nine intaglio prints literally made by exposing her prepared matrices to explosions (provided by the Los Alamos National Laboratory), the resulting damaged plates then being used to print images with somewhat ominous titles: “Industrial Cluster,” “Globe Sprawl,” and “Slab Complex” among them. But the most complete vision here is the truly enormous cityscape, “Barren Lands Breed Strange Visions,” which measures just under ten feet tall and thirty-four feet long, so that it commands an entire room in the gallery —just the way the city it envisions would dominate any place where it might be built. It looks like the fantastic future worlds so often seen in movies, except that instead of the coherent composition they present, its growth is clearly out of control, just like today’s comparative examples. In fact, in all this vision of the future, it’s possible to see a common element and a natural extension of the world we now inhabit. Helping to convince the eye is the exquisite crafting of the three-dimensional, multi-media reliefs assembled into these forced perspective views.

ruby amanze, “Read Seas Get Cut,” 2019, courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim

While Smith and Lòpez were born in California and New Mexico, ruby onyinyechi amanze was born in Nigeria, grew up in Britain, and since then has lived in Philadelphia and Brooklyn long enough to make her a citizen of three continents. From her encounters with other, more parochial views, she came to prefer cultural hybridity and something she calls “post colonial non-nationalism.” In other words, she believes that cultures are improved when they mix freely, and that former colonial subjects, on becoming independent, would do better to skip the obsolete phase of national statehood and instead become citizens of the world.

Her early and continuing encounters with such indeterminate locations and distances gave amanze — whose Igbo baby name, onyinyechi, calls her “God’s gift” — an artistic gift: a preternatural awareness and feeling for the spaciousness of existence. She seems to see the real world the way a 21st-century physicist might. Like some recent paintings, drawings like “the second time around [cosmic contracts] ” are more usefully seen as three-dimensional objects. They include not only the creatures and objects she draws on them, or transfers, complete with flaws and evidence of the process, to the surface from other sources, but the paper itself, which she may cut and restore or mount or frame in ways that disrupt our acquired assumption that the page contains a single, coherent universe. Within them, paper becomes both an absence and a presence. Within that no-longer dependable space, fundamental events mimic not our physical experience — that they are solid and continuous — but our temporal experience that they are fragmentary and often interrupted, lost in distraction, going in and out of being as they pass through the focus of our awareness. Within the system she explores, it sometimes seems as though any real connection between one thing and another cannot occur, or must follow rules that cannot be discerned or anticipated.

In the objects of Saya Woolfalk, the long-stalled transition from science fiction to speculative fiction is largely completed, and the artworks she fashions become not just the illustrations to, but the embodiment of stories like those by Philip K Dick and Ursula K Le Guin that inspired her. Asking her audiences what kind of world they want to live in enabled her to define utopia as a kind of hybrid existence: one that exceeds her own origin in the genetic and cultural combination of African, European, and Japanese elements. To her original influences, she adds a foregrounding of concern for the environment that takes shape in flexible racial and gender expression, interspecies plant and animal hybrids, and ways to transform human refuse into viable technology. Her works are large, elaborate, and professionally executed in ways we see more often in news from major art centers; and in performances and computer videos she wouldn’t have been able to afford to make, but was able to produce through the often discredited, but remarkably effective choice of collaboration with other artists, she presents the stories of Noplace and the Empathics, increasingly sophisticated fictional alternatives to the worlds that our past and present will otherwise lead us to. Without such visions, she implies we will only generate more and worse of what we have now as our future.

Saya Woolfalk, courtesy of Kimball Art Center

“ChimaCloud Access Point” and “Empathic Cloud Divination room (including the mindfulness activated future possibility generator),” then, cannot be seen at their best if viewers just walk past and look at them the way we are used to looking at paintings in galleries. With their geometric, foil walls and mandala-like presentations of the figures from her stories, which were worn as costumes in earlier video presentations, the pages from the “Encyclopedia of Cloud Divination” become part of an overwhelming visual encounter — which is not accidental. The Empathic Cloud as presented here is meant to give a sense of what it might be like to connect to another form of being: one that like the much more mundane “cloud” that our computers connect us with, would be like stepping out of our past existence and into an entirely new way of being.

Experiencing the alternative possibilities implicit in the question, What kind of future would you choose? may seem too challenging, but it might help if we recall what it was like for the people of the Renaissance — to be suddenly confronted with pictures that opened into an imaginary space lurking within their walls, with the advanced science and art of the Greeks, translated to them through Islamic scholars and sages. The art we lived with for centuries, until it was fully absorbed into our ways of thinking about the world we inhabit, was once as revolutionary as Afrofuturism, and was welcomed as an alternative to the medieval view it replaced. The images that now fill the Kimball Art Center are fragments of something too large to fit onto its walls, but what does fit into its galleries introduces its audience to something exciting: not the post-apocalyptic future we’ve been immersed in by Hollywood, but a future not only worth believing in, but worth contributing to. At a moment in our history when many self-described patriots are fighting to preserve art that is reactionary both in form and content, four women of color in Park City represent an entire generation of artists who choose not to dwell in the past OR the present, but to plan and build their futures.

When Evening Has Passed and Tomorrow Comes, Kimball Art Center, Park City, through June 13.

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