New YorkThe New Museum / RAGGA NYC
May 3 – June 25, 2017
In Édouard Glissant’s book Poetics of Relation, first published in 1990, he considers the idea of opacity as something that can nurture relations between “all the threatened and delicious things.” In contrast to articulated transparency, opacity creates space for complex, diverse and non-fixed existence.¹ It is in this spirit that the exhibition on the fifth floor of the New Museum takes its title. All the threatened and delicious things joining one another puts Glissant’s concept of opacity into practice through the works of artists from the RAGGA collective. Each engaging in distinctive practices, the artists included in this exhibition are presented in a manner that protects both collectivity and difference.
The first encounter in the exhibition is with the work of Tau Lewis. A sculptural bust portrait called Georgia marble marks slave burial sites across America in plaster and cement with heavy chained hair is positioned with her back to two cacti from Lewis’s “poorly potted plants” series. Made from the dust generated during the production of Georgia, the cacti grow out of cinder blocks, their spines made of delicate milk thistle and dandelion. The weight of the cement counters this foliage both in vulnerability and mobility—prominent themes of tension in Lewis’s contemplation of the diasporic condition. The cacti in particular gesture to this as plants that have been removed from their native environments and continue to flourish, while the cinder blocks both allude to temporary residence and negating the need for museum structures of display.
Through a hand-dyed, tassled room divider, The Rootworker’s Table by Renée Stout is teeming with spiritual potency. A mix of hand-blown and found glass bottles house natural elixirs used in root medicine shops, at once reference and reconfigure West African, Caribbean, and American mystical practices and Western modernism. In a poetic curatorial play on the spiritual remedies that Stout explores, Carolyn Lazard and Bleue Liverpool’s Chaos-Monde cuts into the floor of the museum and creates an astrological map beneath an opaque piece of Plexiglas. Made of natural materials such as leaves, sand, and dried sugarcane, these forms recreate the arrangement of the stars on January 1, 1804—the date of the Haitian Revolution—and October 27, 1979—the day St. Vincent and Grenadines gained independence. The simultaneous physical penetration of this work into the museum structure and its resistance to transparent visibility makes it one of the most poignant articulations of Glissant’s theories.
Glissant’s writing conceptually threads its way through the exhibition not only through the idea of opacity and the “relational poetics” of Caribbean culture as an organism of local historical and contemporary elements, but also in the common interests between himself and the artists presented. Christopher Udemezue’s photographs, for example, depict staged scenes of Queen Nanny the Jamaican leader of the Maroons. A group of escaped slaves who created their own refugee communities and raided plantations, the Maroons’ consistent resistance against colonial structure and action is reflected in these spiritually opulent color photographs. Glissant was very interested in the changing representation of the Maroons over time, and thought of them as Negators-those who refuse the values of colonialism.² Paul Anthony Smith’s “Grey Area” series of silkscreens collage photographs of his acquaintances in Jamaica collapse time and memory into constellations of interrelated lives and impressions, further obscured through the monochromatic printmaking technique. In both the “Grey Area” and picotage works—a laborious technique in which the artist stipples the paper surface—Smith explores the protective aspects of opacity in the visible sense.
Ambiently throughout the exhibition, Maya Monès’s captivating sound piece Ciencias Sociales fills the space with recordings of conversations she had with her mother mixed with her playing conga drums. The two women have a series of discussions that pivot around their African heritage and Dominican location. The dynamics of this transcultural dialogue fill the space audibly and conceptually, the emphasis on language crystalized in the appended reading room. In many ways this piece connects the dialogues of the exhibiting artists, and its presence throughout the space echoes the collectivity of RAGGA and the potential of Glissant’s opacity.
- Édouard Glissant. Poetics of Relation (University of Michigan Press, 1997).
- Celia Britton. Édouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory: Strategies of Language and Resistance, (University of Virginia Press, 1999), 60.