Ambrose Rhapsody Murray: Within Listening Distance of the Sea…
On ViewFridman Gallery
November 10 – December 19, 2021
Ambrose Rhapsody Murray’s solo exhibition Within Listening Distance of the Sea… at Fridman Gallery features several of the artist’s sewn and painted textiles, as well as a short film made with Logan Lynette and Heather Lee, culminating in an unparalleled depth of experience. Murray’s large-scale works on fabric employ archival photographs of Black women from the early 1900s as source images, many of which circulated the globe as postcards some hundred years ago—now reconfigured to offer a space for ancestral healing, releasing the figures of their ties to a colonial past.
Ask Murray about the title of her exhibition, and they’ll explain they often rely on poets as a naming source. Inspired by Southern wordsmith Nikky Finney, Murray borrowed a line from the writer’s personal bio to title this show. Like Finney, born in South Carolina “within listening distance of the sea,” Murray was born near the water in Jacksonville, Florida. The artist made the majority of theirwork in Miami, theirfamily’s origins span much of the East Coast, and the images from the African continent and the colonial era that have informed theirwork to date—visuals that have traveled across oceans and times—only helped to anchor the artist’s decision. This brings the viewer to theirfavorite piece from the show: Within Listening Distance of the Sea (2021), a 108-by-75-inch piece featuring a digital print on satin, paired with a slip dress, sequins, and various textiles atop a vintage kantha quilt cut into a billowing, cloudy shape, attached to the wall. It is the first piece the artist saw to completion; they consider the others extensions of this initial work.
Murray gently manipulated the archival photograph that laid the foundation for this piece—the original image of her subject, a young Black woman in profile view—until the colors adopted blue tones. From there, the artist added layers based on floral patterns to craft an almost ghostly quality. Theythen had the image printed on fabric and brought the piece to life, adding textiles featuring hidden symbols: a machete, a series of candles, a small dagger. “I thought of that piece as an altar,” Murray explained. In line with the notion that anyone may use altars as memorials—a place where they can leave tools for their ancestors to protect them—they built the work with this concept in mind. The metaphor of the vessel, which Murray employs on a recurring basis, is apparent here as well. Theycites multimedia creator Simone Leigh as a source of inspiration; Leigh’s work also sheds light on the idea that Black women are far too often treated as vessels of knowledge, or containers for trauma. This is apparent in the archival imagery, much of which features women from Africa (with one being from South Asia)—topless women whose photographs, in many cases, were captured by white men and distributed as postcards. “There’s this relationship between the vessel and the body carrying so much,” Murray elaborates. They hope this relationship can evolve—that this metaphorical vessel can become a place of safekeeping for their subjects, a place where women can take back control of their lives and bodies, such that others can no longer take from them.
Texturally speaking, many of Murray’s works leverage the kantha quilt—a hand-stitched quilt composed of recycled sari cloth from India—as a base layer, highlighting the relationship between women's work across global economies impacted by colonialism and slavery. Murray explains that using this type of quilt speaks to the threads that connect women's labor, bodies and cultural power across Africa, India and the Atlantic World; the quilts enliven each piece, strengthening women’s connections across space and time. Two such pieces—the striking Misty Blues I (2021), oil on fabric with hand-dyed silk organza, backed with vintage kantha quilt—feature a Black femme subject making direct eye contact with the viewer. Large heads cut out from the quilt fabric are in full display, significantly more contemporary than the other archival images in the show. Murray claims they view these subjects as guardians of the exhibition, communicating with the public while conveying the weight, color, and texture of female power; the viewer will note the same.
Within Listening Distance of the Sea… represents Murray’s evolution as a young artist. Theirwork has become more deconstructed over the course of the past few years, with less building and layering, and a greater emphasis on creating openings, cutting things apart, and making space seemingly from nowhere. The series reflects Murray’s first time printing images on fabric as well, before adding holes and cutouts to bring each piece to fruition. By doing so, the artist’s subjects can peer through the fabric, or the canvas, if you will, while the viewer can peer into the worlds the artist has intuitively, palpably pieced together.