Here We Are: Young, Black, and Indigenous Women in the Art World
On ViewSnug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden
August 20 – December 31, 2022
This exhibition of works by five women of color (Jodi Dareal, Arrianna “Arri” Santiago, Jaclyn Burke, Ifeatuanya “Ify” Chiejina, and Debbie Roxx) spans the range of emotions from anger and pride to expressive concepts such as glorification, humor and wit, to simple, decorative beauty. Curated by Shawnakay Salmon, the show addresses the pressing need to free women artists of color from the expectations and demands of the largely white male art world. Protest and social practice are necessary, but artists have to be allowed to produce work that follows whatever trajectories they choose, and Here We Are at the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art presents an expansive view of the differing paths for artistic expression these artists are following.
The artists in the show each embrace multiple personas, which may be indicative of the expectations placed on them as the country emerges from an administration that trafficked in calculated race and class divisiveness, and recent Supreme Court decisions upholding that political line. Jodi Dareal embraces roles as satirist and commemorator as her series of figures dealing with heavy subjects such as rape and injustice recall the characters in the classic “Richie Rich” comics. In Female Jim Crow (2018) a Black woman in tattered clothes and a straw hat is suckling a blond, white baby dressed in a suit. Around the pair, green SMS text message bubbles blare platitudes pompously dismissing the complaints of the oppressed such as, “Individual instances of racism & sexism doesn’t automatically prove systematic oppression.” Dareal’s use of social signifiers—the Boss Baby imagery, the sexualized Black woman with a breast exposed through a suggestively unbuttoned jacket, the text balloons and the endless stream of excuses for political inaction—all comment on the indifference with which we receive these references, in a social media culture where even the most divisive comments are repeated so often they seem ubiquitous.
Jaclyn Burke’s La Mujer de las Flores (2022) presents a somber portrait of a woman in a pink-red hue whose features are highlighted in white. Her eyes are half-closed in an expression of weariness or suspicion. Pink flowers creep up behind her and a pictograph of a flying bird is overhead. This is the artist’s interpretation of an iconic image of a strong and reserved, yet exhausted, womanhood. Here Burke’s portrait acts as a symbol, a stand-in for all women, but it’s possibly a specific portrait of an unnamed individual as well. The use of red in the flesh and flowers is a pun on the racist depiction of Indigenous people, but here red becomes both righteous and feminine anger, and part of nature. Another painting by Burke, Self Portrait (2017) depicts her looking down on the viewer, making the artist appear slightly larger-than-life, her incisive gaze highlighted by painted tribal patterns (or tattoos) spanning her cheekbones.
In the second room of the gallery, Arrianna Santiago’s works on paper have been enlarged in a series of matt-gloss prints. Her large-scale work Protestors (2022) channels the best sensibilities of political cartoonists such as Seth Tobocman or Art Speigelman. The women carry a sign that reads, “Overcoming the Challenges by Latinos during the Pandemic,” and the brooding discontent of the marchers is cleverly amplified by their wide, open, bright white eyes and their looming, energized heads of hair that fill the space between the figures, which both connects them and injects a shifting abstract form that’s impossible to pin down.
Debbie Roxx pushes the use of cartooning into the digital realm of emoticons. Untitled (eye)(2022) is a simple circular panel of blue with a large eye at center, and the work’s position makes it seem to watch all in the gallery. It has the ritual seriousness of the Eye of Horus, both surveilling and protecting the viewer, but the artist has chosen to replace the pupil with a smiley-face emoji. This gesture does not necessarily lighten the mood. Instead, it summons a more bleak sensibility in the figure to whom the eye belongs.
Ify Chiejina weaves together portraits and patterns, finding intersections between the florets and roundels of Igbo cloth and the eyes and hair of her subjects. The paintings exist across a spectrum that is sometimes pure pattern making with undulating bands of intricately painted reproductions of Igbo fabric to precisely painted and delicate portraits of people. Eyes Solemnly Swear (Self-Portrait) (2020) features the artist holding an oversized, thickly painted hand to her heart while her much more sensitively rendered face with closed eyes seems to ponder the weight of this oath. The breadth of Here We Are offers a rich and multi-layered presentation of five artists who refuse to be boxed in by the expectations of society or the art world. The exhibition thoughtfully presents a group of young artists who are responsive to what the public needs from visual culture right now—personal connection, insight into contemporary events, occasional wit, and an engaging use of both traditional styles of satire—cartooning and illustration, and innovative aesthetics based on personal experience, and a profound use of cultural backgrounds.