The earth leaked red ochre
April 14 – June 12, 2022
“The earth leaked red ochre” is a quote from the artist Cecilia Vicuña, and in the hands of curator Re’al Christian, this phrase becomes a tool for extracting and discerning traditional, Indigenous, and local narratives about the land that have been buried or become entangled with those of colonial presences and oppressors. Some of the artists featured in this exhibition, like Sara Jimenez, choose to literally extract the stories of the land, allowing the “red” of the earth to naturally oxidize in steel basins as in Shore and Shore (2) (both 2016), or chipping away at plaster tablets (Ossuary I, II, and III, all 2016) in which are embedded images: photographs of the Philippines taken by American intruders which, under the artist’s ingenious artificial geologic process, achieve a degree of restoration and exposure. Other artists are directly personal, such as Levani (Levan Mindiashvili) and Simon Benjamin, creating work that either relates to their own lived experiences or those of their subjects, to the fraught history of the land on which they live or from which they originate. Inhabiting the middle ground are artists Lara Atallah and Corinne Jones, who pull from both approaches—utilizing abstract or conceptual processes but also detailing a distinct story—in the case of Atallah, one that moves parallel to her own family’s path through the Middle East, in a series of five manipulated and untitled polaroids from 2016 and 2017.
Atallah’s photographs, such as Untitled (Beirut #3), from 34.5531° N, 18.0480° E (2017), are of the various shores of the Mediterranean and signify the point of departure for countless refugees from conflict in the region, who have been forced to climb into dangerous, often makeshift boats, and frequently never reach their destination. While the polaroids have been treated to have a washed out and discolored quality, giving them that pleasant nostalgic feel, they also have been prematurely exposed and thus have fingerprints and surface disruptions that were caused by interference with the still-wet surface. These deformations are markers and scars, indicators that the warm nostalgia we feel towards old photos is often tinged with tragedy. In this case, the scars arise from the disruptions of colonialism. Similarly playing with disruptions of the surface (a common theme in the exhibition) is Levani’s Patterns of My Consciousness No. 2 (Georgian Alphabet) (2021), a fleshy hanging sheet inscribed with a child’s alphabet primer. The letters are printed onto the latex faux flesh used by Levani, a reference to childhood lessons that built the artist’s identity. Levani’s series of installations in this exhibition each characterize different lessons learned on the Black Sea: didactic ones, like the alphabet, and far more complicated emotionally formative ones, as we see in the neon piece What Color is the Black Sea? (2021) which alludes to childhood memories of the eponymous body of water.
Corinne Jones’s Islands of the Lost Sea (2022) is a collection of moving blankets, placed on the inside corner of the second gallery—neatly folded and piled at different levels. It has a careful but migratory quality, as if possessed by a person or persons that were meticulous but also no stranger to both a nomadic life in flux and the need to move in a hurry. The installation references an ongoing project called “The Lost Sea” hinging on the Craighead Caverns in Tennessee, an underground body of water transformed into a tourist trap by the white European settlers who stole the land from its Indigenous inhabitants. While the origin story of Islands of the Lost Sea is difficult to discern initially, this is a key aspect of the show: the erasing of original histories. Jones’s seemingly innocent blankets, used as seating for performances in the space, are also laced with a much darker meaning, recalling the smallpox infected blankets given to First Nations communities in North America by colonizers.
So many of Re’al Christian’s larger points are encompassed by Simon Benjamin’s Errantry (2021) an artful three-channel documentary of a conversation with Tommy Wong, a Jamaican fisherman, whom we watch working on his boat, catching fish. We hear Wong’s words as he reels in his catch on two large flat-screens, talking to an invisible and silent interlocutor. We watch the fisherman mostly from the back, or from below, at his feet, or looking into the boat at the fish he draws from the ocean. The text of his conversation appears on a third screen and it emphasizes Wong’s distinct Jamaican phrasing, highlighting the similarities and differences from American and British English: an implicit understanding that colonialism and the slave trade is the root cause of Wong’s very presence in Jamaica. While Wong embodies this reality, he speaks candidly and laconically of the changes that a truly worldwide colonialism and capitalism have wrought, describing the consequences of climate change for his home, meteorological effects that he has witnessed and which have concretely affected his livelihood. Placed at the back wall of the inner room of the exhibition, The earth leaked red ochre comes to rest on the wisdom of a fisherman. While this may seem a cliché, it is embedded in a larger framework of material that spans the spectrum from personal to metaphorical. It is a deft curatorial touch to show us that the most poignantly contemporary truths can emerge from one of the oldest narrative typologies.