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Faith-Based Initiative: "Neo HooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith"

The Menil hosts one of the most compelling shows Houston has seen in a long time

There are certain plants, such as the Jiak tree, bear grass and the Tulepa Africa, that grow back stronger than ever after the most devastating fire. The artists in "Neo HooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," like those hardy, fire-resistant plants, prove that no matter how much the colonizers tried to eradicate the language, traditions and cultures of the New World, they in no way accomplished their mission. Organized by Franklin Sirmans, Menil curator of modern and contemporary art, and produced in a partnership between the Menil and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, this exhibition is one of the most compelling Houston has seen in a long time.

Sirmans took inspiration for the title from the poems and writings of Ishmael Reed. He says the show is "an attempt to address a lost spirituality in the Americas...outside of Christianity and organized religion...and influenced by the hemisphere's particular political and social history [including] colonization, oppression, slavery and the resulting diverse populations which unite and separate us from the rest of the world." The artists in "Neo HooDoo" come from across the Americas, and much of their work is rooted in both African and indigenous practices, and also inspired by European culture. There is so much outstanding work in this show that it was hard to choose what to write about.

Cuban-born María Magdalena Campos-Pons's beautiful triptych When I am not here/ Estoy Allá (1997) is laden with symbolic imagery from both worlds. It consists of three large-scale Polaroids displayed vertically, all with tones of rich indigo blue. The top photograph shows a piece of black-and-blue-checked gingham stitched with a black-ribbon outline of a house. The second photo is of the artist in a short-sleeved white-and-blue gingham dress trimmed with white rickrack; her hair is dyed blue and parted into several neat horizontal and vertical lines, each sectioned off into a small ponytail. Set against a blue background, she stands looking down at six ship-shaped bowls held in her arms. The lower photograph is of a white cloth with seven blue ribbons placed horizontally across it, one tacked down by four white pins.

Storm at Sea emits an almost inexplicable energy.
Courtesy of The Menil Collection
Storm at Sea emits an almost inexplicable energy.

The color of Campos-Pons's work, a particular blue derived from the indigo plant, is significant. Prior to colonization, indigo grew along the coast of Africa and was used by many on the continent to dye cloth. The Saharan Tuareg people were known as the "Blue Men" because the dye rubbed off their clothes onto their skin, and Yoruba women produced an indigo blue cloth in honor of Iya Mapo, the god of their craft. Europeans also used the dye, importing it from India, although for a period it was banned for its association with "savage" cultures. Desire for the blue stuff increased significantly during the indigo craze of the 17th century, and with demand, the price became greatly inflated. Europeans turned to the West Indies, where African slaves, familiar with the harvesting of indigo and the manufacture of its dye, proved to be more cost-efficient.

The gingham Campos-Pons wears in the photo is a reference to the practice of trading slaves for bolts of indigo cloth and the weaving of gingham by female slaves to make clothes. Other symbolism includes the bowls shaped like boats, representing both slave ships and the decimated Caribes, which are known for their carved boats. The white cloth with seven blue ribbons could allude to dish towels used by house slaves, the white Yoruba woman wear during spiritual rituals, or the seven stages in a Yoruba woman's life. Campos-Pons's photographs, which are both serene and empowering, reclaim that which has been stolen and corrupted by the colonizing powers, making it her own.

In Storm at Sea (2007), New Jersey-born Radcliffe Bailey has created an installation that emits an almost inexplicable energy. A statue of an African goddess stands in the corner of the gallery, a few inches from the wall, holding a large horseshoe shape up to her head. Although she faces out toward a tempestuous sea created out of hundreds of dislodged piano keys, the area immediately surrounding her seems preternaturally calm. Riding the crest of these waves — waves that carry from Africa's shores to ours the whole pantheon of American music — is a miniature black vessel that looks like both a slave and pirate ship. The tiny clipper seems ominous and foreboding, an augur of the rape and plunder that was to come. And yet the little wooden statue, only slightly taller than the ship, is the more powerful contender of the two; in its role of goddess, it seems to emanate a force much more immutable that any act of man.

Jimmie Durham, a Wolf Clan Cherokee from Arkansas now living in Berlin, tempers what is otherwise a very serious show with his sense of humor. A Street-Level Treatise on Money and Work (2005) consists of 53 pieces of paper Durham found on streets around the world, including ship manifests; a warning notice for rat poison; a Spanish picture history of the family that includes cavemen, Aztecs, and a modern family living in a shiny house; Japanese and American funny money; a map of Europe; beautifully handwritten stockroom ledgers and postcards; a wadded-up receipt and price tag; a piece of a cardboard box with a pictogram illustration for "no knives"; and, my favorite, a flier that says "Hungry? Sick? Begging For A Break? Sweet? Fresh? Would You Do Anything? We Suck Young Blood. We Want Sweet Meats. We Want Young Blood." The flyer at one time had detachable phone numbers, but people had taken all of them. All I can say is good for us, the culturally and spiritually depraved freaks of civilization, for these are the kind of relics we will leave behind.

Oppression of other peoples is not a thing of the past, as observed by Regina José Galindo, a video artist and activist from Ciudad de Guatemala with three videos on display. In Confession (2007), her head is repeatedly held underwater for long periods of time by a big burly man (contrary to the catalogue, this is not waterboarding, which involves laying a person on their back with her head inclined). The site of this video is a basement in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, rumored to be a refueling point for American rendition flights. There's also 150,000 Voltos (2007), in which she is Tasered by a man until she falls down, and Liempza Social (2006), in which the naked Galindo is sprayed with a high pressure hose until she is knocked down, cold and obviously in pain.

When I first tried viewing these, I thought, "What a masochistic nut job," and I wasn't alone. People were getting really upset by these videos, although, show them the same thing on TV, and they wouldn't think twice. Someone had written "This is disgusting" in the Menil's guest book, and a man walking out of the video stall said, "This makes me sick!" But because I am always willing to hear another viewpoint, I asked an artist who knows about these things what she thought of Galindo's work. Her perspective was that by watching Galindo, a small-statured woman, being near-drowned, Tasered and hosed, the viewer would become more aware of the thousands of real individuals facing government-imposed torture everyday. Keeping this in mind, I watched the videos again, but after awhile I became too aware that, unlike the helpless and often innocent victims at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, Galindo could ask her afflicter to stop at any time. Despite these criticisms, her intentions are worthy — she's trying to raise awareness about something we all have become too far removed from. And overall, "Neo HooDoo," is such a great show, it would be a sin not to see it.

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