Alex Callender: All Her Loves and All Her Disappointments
On ViewRubber Factory
September 10–October 31, 2021
Through historically informed works, Alex Callender resituates and reframes colonial images of Black people, especially Black women, asserting possibility and agency and enabling a kind of rebirth and immortality. With her solo exhibition at the Rubber Factory on the Lower East Side, Callender, who was born in New York and lives in Western Massachusetts, investigates and debunks hegemonic imagery. In the nine drawings and one painting on view, she avoids the hierarchies of skin color in colonial painting. Notably, most of Callender’s renderings of figures in this exhibition are in blacks or gray.
The title of the exhibition is also the title of Callender’s half-length portrait of a Durga-esque magical woman with eight powerful arms, All Her Loves and All Her Disappointments (2017). Rendered in black and white, she wears a lightweight ruffled blouse and squints slightly, her gaze alert and intense. Behind her head, some of her hands hold luminescent foliage. She evokes collective energy: her many hands suggest many souls and many labors, much movement, complexity, passion, and precision.
Paintings by 18th-century Italian neoclassical painter Agostino Brunias are among Callender’s sources. Brunias was an employee of a British governor on the island of Dominica, where the British forced Africans into slavery on sugar and coffee plantations. Brunias painted everyone, including the Indigenous and mixed-race populations, but his depictions of life in a plantation economy expunge the brutality of slavery, portraying leisure and market scenes. They reinforce emerging race and class distinctions among colonial Dominicans, showing, for example, darker-skinned Black people serving lighter-skinned Black people dressed in ornate European styles or shopping for fabric.
In her 2017 book, Colouring the Caribbean: Race and the Art of Agostino Brunias, Mia Bagneris traces how Brunias’s paintings codified racial categorization and ideology and, perhaps in retrospect, reveal race as an imperfect determinant of identity. Callender accordingly rendered a group of Black figures that seem to have walked out of a Brunias painting in Estimated Stars and Matter, Midnight Dialogues c. 1765-1964 (2019). Three rows of wigs hover above their heads in the night sky like invitations to visit other lives.
16th-century Europeans thought that the earth had only four continents. Referring perhaps to some of the truths of the slave trade, Callender’s The Four Continents, Revisited (2021) shows a gray, shrouded figure that seems to be drowning or struggling to get free. Over the top of this image float what look like chalkboard calculations for an attack or the movement of murderous and mercantile ships in the inhuman “triangular trade” which transported captured slaves, sugar, tobacco, cotton, textiles, and rum overseas between Africa, the Americas, and Europe.
Callender reminds us that a lot is missing in the historical record. Two silhouetted figures consider each other in Callender’s We Will Have Love Under a Dark Sun (2021). Chains of circles that resemble electrons seem to drift over their faces as articulations of shared thoughts and dreams. Their heads are in profile in front of what could be an open book covered with images of tropical leaves. The leaves make the pages feel alive, as if they could soon surround and cocoon the figures’ heads.
In All the Things We Know About Time We Learned them From You (2021), Callender filled silhouettes of women with images of stars. Similarly, All the Light Begins and Is Borrowed (2021) shows a figure standing in a small, spikey garden, their body full of white lines that, in this case, could be shooting stars. Callender has also installed about 20 books throughout the gallery, anti-colonial titles by expansive, liberatory thinkers like Saidiya Hartman and C. L. R. James. The extraordinary titles suggest profound pathways. Take Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (2019), or Michaeline Crichlow’s Globalization and the Post-Creole Imagination: Notes on Fleeing the Plantation (2009).
Looking at Callender’s work and looking at Brunias through Callender, I hear Langston Hughes. In 1921, Hughes wrote of metaphorically bathing in the river Euphrates, living by the Congo, and working by the Nile. “I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers,” he wrote, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Callender’s figures display a similar poetic knowledge across time and place. They washed their clothes and bathed at the riverside in Dominica. They know the Atlantic Ocean, and they know wickedness, deception, propaganda, cruelty, and multiplicity. They know that their bodies, thoughts, souls, and journeys can be ethereal, fluid, and electric. They’ve gazed at the trees and at the night sky, and, ultimately, they have become infinite themselves, just like the trees and the night sky.