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Based on its name, it would be natural to think that “Afrostraction,” last week’s show in the Adams House Art Space, was some sort of combination of “Afro” and “abstraction.” But, did abstract art dominates the show? Did the show attempt to draw a connection between “Afro-ness” and “Abstraction?” Despite the show’s title, the answer to both questions was a clear “no.”
The word “Afrostraction” did however, serve as an interesting lens through which to view the assorted media that were assembled in the Art Space through this past Sunday. Only one of the works shown, an untitled painting by Samantha G. Alston ’05, could conceivably be classified as abstract.
If abstraction was not the theme that tied together the show’s diverse elements, were the works on display somehow connected by their “Afro-ness”? To be certain, the featured artists are all members of the black community, but their subject matter and style could be considered more than exclusively “Afro.” Some of the works allowed that possibility, but not all of them. So why force the connection?
More than any other aspect, the featured artwork was connected to the show’s title by its provocativeness. The vibrant color photographs of Thenjiwe Nkosi ’04 was a case in point. “Just plain African Americans” was the most interesting image in Nkosi’s series, which was shot at various black hair salons and barbershops.
Tinsel and Christmas lights adorn the wall of the barbershop in the shot. Five of the six seats in the shop are empty. In the occupied chair, a young black woman in knee-high boots sits beneath a blower, halfway through the glossy magazine in her hand. A stand across the room holds two racks of periodicals, the top one stuffed with similar fashion publications and the lower one with worn hair magazines like Braids.
Dozens of videotapes sit on shelves below an ancient Sharp television. The image on the screen leaps out of the photo: “Judge Judy” is captured mid-sentence, an American flag hanging behind her.
Nkosi’s decision to call this photograph “Just plain African Americans” is interesting, given that the only figures depicted are a lone black woman and a white television personality. Is Judge Judy somehow “African American”? Are the “plain African Americans” the non-existent inhabitants of the deserted chairs? Is the woman with the magazine somehow supposed to represent her entire race? Like the title of the exhibit, much of this piece’s power is in its ambiguity and the questions it poses for the viewer.
The sculptural arrangements of Kendra Barron ’03 also required a great deal of thought, though her titles act more to elucidate than to inspire questions. Her medium is dolls—small, featureless bodies sewn from fabric ranging in color from dark brown to silver to light gray. Given the “Afro” title, the silhouetted figures may be intended to evoke voodoo and bocio dolls, which serve in part to protect their creator from the tortures portrayed.
Two of Barron’s works are arranged on the floor of the gallery. “Weight,” attached to the wall, is by far the most impressive of the three.
Four lanky, identical dolls have been hung in a row with their bodies arrayed in various positions. The right-most figure bends at the neck, almost scrunching its shoulders. The next falls at the torso as if hanging its head (and entire upper body) in despair. The third crumbles under an invisible burden on its shoulders. The left-most doll’s arms reach to just above its feet. That final position is almost fetal—or fatalistic.
It is the multiple interpretations of this display that makes “Weight” work in concert with the other pieces in the exhibition, despite the fact that its title would seem to suggest a much more straightforward message.
Even the work of Rachel St. Hilaire, the professional artist at the center of a show otherwise comprised of student art, engages in a similar sort of dialogue with its viewers.
Her ceramic piece “Serving Platter” depicts two black women dressed in a style evocative of the Caribbean. One appears to be diligently pursuing some domestic task while the other watches over her shoulder. The piece seems to show two women in the service of someone else. At the same time, however, it is also a functional dish that could be used to serve a real dinner. The title thus bears itself out in a moralistic hypothetical: What if a maid had to serve dinner on this serving platter?
This very involvement of the viewer in establishing a context for the works points to another interpretation of the exhibit’s title. What if it signified not “Afro-(Ab)Straction” but “(Di)Straction”?
The categorization of these works as “Afro”, though obviously applicable, distracts the viewer from their intriguing content.
By forcing viewers to establish superficial links between the works, the exhibit detracts from the viewer’s aesthetic pleasure in the pure beauty of this art.
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