On ViewBaxter St. Camera Club of New York
August 25 – September 30, 2020
“I’m not the motherland. I’m not a landscape. I’m framing this conversation. I’m not a flower. I’m only here to work,” declares a woman whose monologue acts as the soundtrack to video documentation of performances from 2017 by artist Joiri Minaya. In these succinct phrases, the female narrator demarcates herself from landscape or nature, her speech layered over footage of women in tropical print bodysuits. The woman’s refusal of identities which connect the feminine to the landscape is emblematic of Minaya’s exploration of the female subject, in particular the construction of the tropical woman.
Minaya’s new exhibition, curated by Corrine Y. Gordon, features recent additions to the artist’s ongoing “Containers” series that began in 2015. In striking, large-format digital prints, female models, or the artist herself, pose in custom-made bodysuits created with fabrics featuring bright tropical patterns. These patterns absorb each model’s entire figure with the exception of her eyes, which gaze out directly at the viewer; the pattern acts as a container for the model’s body. Minaya’s bodysuits clash with the surrounding manicured landscapes as in Container #4 (2020). This contrast is amplified in the case of several prints which themselves are mounted onto large blocks of patterned fabric. Container #6 (2020) depicts a feminine figure seated at the beach. Her arms and legs are encased in a wavy turquoise-and-brown pattern while a blue-gray wave washes around the lower half of her body. This photograph hangs in front of cerulean fabric overlaid with repeating icons: islands, pink flowers, palm trees, and volcanos.
Minaya’s “Containers” prompt contemplation of the pattern as a visual and conceptual device. The repeating islands behind Container #6 stand out to the viewer in part because of their contrast with the photographic print. However, as one lingers in front of the work, the islands recede into the background, lost in their interminable repetition. In this way, Minaya’s work reminds us of the ways in which patterns become ways of sorting and categorizing subconsciously, only made visible through contrast or disruption. We might draw parallels between the structure of patterns and that of the stereotypes Minaya challenges in her work. A stereotype acts as a pattern: it is a repeated, reductive mode of cultural understanding. For example, the “tropical,” to people in the global North, could include blooming flowers, palm trees, sandy beaches, and beautiful women. Through stereotypical patterns of understanding, social subjects can be sorted and pigeonholed, often in the service of racial and gender hierarchies. Minaya began the series after searching online for “Dominican women” and finding repetitious images of women in tropical settings.
Minaya’s work points to the persistence of colonial systems of social categorization. Philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff writes on social identity formation, “This public identity is our socially perceived self within the systems of perception and classification and the networks of community in which we live.”1 As an audio clip in the video suggests, you can shed your “native accent,” but there will always be someone to diligently remind you of your foreignness, feminine-ness, or other-ness; one is always subject to social systems of perception and classification. That said, Alcoff picks up her analysis of public identities to insist that they are not the sole determinant of one’s self. She continues, “But there is also a lived subjectivity [who we understand ourselves to be] that is not always perfectly mapped onto our socially perceived self, and that can be experienced and conceptualized differently.” Minaya exploits the rift between lived subjectivity and the socially perceived self; her women experience and mobilize their tropicality differently. They exceed and refuse stereotypical patterns.
This tension between the way society might define the tropical woman and the possibility of resistance is further exemplified in Minaya’s new work. In Tropical Transparencies (2020), four female figures in tropical-patterned halter dresses with work ID badges pose for the camera, their faces and bodies replaced by grey and white pixelated grids. These images make the most direct connection between paid labor as a waitress, the labor of working against a stereotype, and the simultaneous, omnipresent labor of feminine and/or racialized public identities. At the same time, the way that the pixilation disrupts the legibility of the women’s portraits recalls the artist’s interest in Édouard Glissant’s conception of opacity as a mode of refusal.2
The narrator of the video installation concludes her speech by stating, “I’m here to entertain you, but only during my shift.” Minaya seems to suggest that even if her subjects cannot escape colonial matrices of representation, they can assert their own agency within those structures of oppression. At the conclusion of the video, one model removes the mask portion of her body suit, revealing her face, and breathes a sigh of relief, finally at the end of her shift.
- Linda Martin Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2005): 92-93.
- Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997). Referenced by the artist in “Artist Talk: Joiri Minaya,” January 9, 2020, The Blanton Museum of Art, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uTloEUgrTs.