Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Best Wishes 2021

Should mending the sky be our New Year's resolution? The title of the exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art Mending the Sky is timely and poetic. The allegory alludes to an ancient Chinese tale in which the goddess creator of mankind repairs a rip on the sky to stop calamities. Like all fables, it is simple but profound, timeless and universal. Eleven artists participate to the show which combines paintings, fiber art, videos, installations, sculptures and a musical performance.

Although the installation from Beili Liu is most enticing, for my second visit I saw the show in reverse, walking toward a huge tableau from Firelei Báez I had almost missed the first time. Superimposed on an architectural drawing, a strange creature takes over the foreground, arched backward between two tracks from the Illinois Central Railroad. The curves of the body and the headdress made of luxurious palms and tropical flowers contrast with the blend colors and sober lines of the blueprint. A mass of water on the left side (Bonnet Carré  Spillway) spills over the track and fills the vanishing point. The ciguapa, a Dominican mythological figure, seems to push against the flood with her feet. Allegory of nature versus human, the picture also alludes to the Great Migration facilitated by the construction of the railroad. Is the ciguapa also protecting the souls of the enslaved persons buried in the two cemeteries submerged under the spillway? Not only the composition is filled with a rich narrative fed by history, it also relates to the present as a reminder of nature's wrath. 

In the next two weaved pieces, water is looked at as a benevolent element sustaining communities, a sort of gold for the poor. Encontro das Aguas (Meeting of Waters), 2016-2018, from Clarissa Tossin, refers to mighty rivers: Nile, Amazon, Yangtze, Mississippi, evoked by a long blue ribbon meandering on a chevron patterned background, widening at the bottom for the delta. Satellite photographs of the rivers are printed on vinyl, providing the material to weave for this work, a reflection on rivers' local and global impact. On the wall, If you feed a river, 2019, from Diedrick Brackens has biblical undertones, depicting fishes swimming in a stream which connects two half bodies, one appears female on the right, the other male on the left. Adam and Eve? A symbolic scene about water, source of life. In the same room, Burnout in Shredded Heaven, 2018-2019, a "Munchean" closed composition from Heidi Hahn depicts the emotionally charged interaction between two women. Across the room, in A Sense of Memory, 2015, made in wood, metal and glass, Ana Hernandez looks at patterns found on wood and the brain convolutions, to find connections between "rhythms of nature and our thoughts, memories and dreams".

The three channel video installation from Thao Nguyen Phan provides a fifteen minutes interlude. It brings us to a faraway land (Vietnam) in a remote time. Between reality depicted by gruesome films and photographs from the famine (1940-1949), and folktales illustrated by hand-drawn animations, we are told about a story of starvation, resilience and hope. Lost in the dark between the five screens of Un chemin escarpé/ A steep path, 2018, from Jamilah Sabur, I stayed confused by the images of this ambitious work which "draws upon metaphysics, geology, and familial ties to reframe the landscape and history of the Caribbean".   

In the next gallery, at floor level, the convoluted roots of a tree pop out of the wall anchored on a metal support. Strength and fragility, Lore, 2017, from Lorna Williams is about us and where we come from. The third video Braidrage, 2017, from Baseera Khan should be a performance which had to be curtailed during the pandemic. If it looses some of its spontaneity, its physicality still transpires as we watch the artist climb a rock-wall. Grasping casts of her own body, loosing her grip, grunting at times, her slow ascend culminates with the view of a thick braid of human hair falling from the ceiling to the floor. Beyond the hairpieces' trade, the artist denounces the exploitation of women in the third world to feed our consumerism. 

Walking through Beili Liu's After All / Mending The Sky is a great way to start or finish the visit, or both. The light blue clouds weighted by thousands of needles gently swayed by the air flow, gleaming under the skylights, is a poetic interpretation of a Chinese tale about repairing a broken world. 

Natural calamities, human disasters are worldwide and it is fitting that the selected participants come from a cosmopolitan background, yet one can regret that  male artists are underrepresented, perpetuating the idea of females in charge of comforting, mending, healing.

Time to pick up a needle.  

photographs by the author

Beili Liu "After All / Mending The Sky", 2018-ongoing

Lorna Williams "Lore", 2017

Firelei Báez "the trace, whether we are attending to it or not (a space for each other's breathing)", 2019