By MACK CARLISLE
The four artists in the Foreigners exhibition at Nationale gallery explore the duality of life as a foreigner: of belonging to more than one culture, of finding sense and the personal in the complex and ever-shifting American culture. There is no singular American experience. Since colonization, the United States has been a landing pad for people seeking something new, as well as those brought forcibly through the slave trade. And yet it is only recently that the artworld has begun to show notable interest in the diversity of its makers, evidenced by statistics on the race and gender of artists represented in galleries, art fairs, and museums, or in the segregation of museums.
The decisions gallerists and curators make about who will be shown and who is deserving of the public eye are slowly changing, but they are changing, and I would like to believe that the white male monopoly on the art world is crumbling. In this moment, when simply existing and demanding to be seen can be a political action, these four artists convey the sense that although origin is not a singularly defining feature, it impacts the overall experience of life, and as such is carried and displayed in every step.
Nationale, 3360 SE Division St.
On view through November 13, 2016
Modou Dieng, Bukola Koiki, Victor Maldonado, and Angelica Millán
There are few symbols of political place more widely understood than flags. Modou Dieng has painted a European flag in black, white, and gold—the original blue and yellow scarcely evident beneath the surface. The obscuring of specific areas creates a new flag, one with black and white stars, and a subtle window-like grid. The title “Goodbye Blue Sky…” refers to the blue of the flag, which represents the sky by design.
Dieng is from Senegal, a former French colony. In this modification (or taking over) of the European flag, there is a sense of redacting and rewriting colonialist history. When considered in combination with his other piece in the show—a pair of boxing gloves titled “After Thoughts”—the juxtaposition of flag and fists offers a sense of fighting back against European colonization. There is a power struggle between the signifier of a union of nations and an individual. The black boxing gloves bear splotches of gold paint, matching the gold paint on the flag, as if the flag has been struck. The gloves with their severed hands bandaged at the wrists, suggest those victimized by the violence of colonialism. Because Dieng’s work often employs cultural iconography, there is also a possible nod to Mohammed Ali, who was widely idolized through much of Africa.
Bukola Koiki’s work explores adornment and the aesthetics of cultural identity in attire. In “I Claim That Which Was Never Mine,” a round cloud of white and indigo literally folds in on itself, like a soft knot, as it retains the curves and gesture of a traditional Nigerian gele, or headwrap. It is at once an expression of culture and a protective headpiece, in the shell-like form and billowing appearance. Sitting alone on a shelf without a wearer, viewers can project themselves into the work, imagining the warmth and protection on their own heads. The use of a non-traditional material suggests a hybrid of culture: on one hand, the traditional gele form; on the other hand, the wrinkled surface of Tyvek. The stability and longevity of tradition is matched with material developed as a protective barrier to withstand the elements.
The piece retains the physical memory of every fold, and in them the folds of memory, ritual, and tradition. Adjacent to the gele, a video on the wall shows Koiki struggling to put on the headtie. The video loops as she goes through the motions in this juggling of cultures. In an interview with Art21, Koiki says of the video: “It plays on a loop: Iʼm forever trying to master the gele; Iʼm forever trying to find my place; Iʼm forever trying to get the perfect style, the perfect technique; Iʼm forever trying to be the Nigerian girl I think Iʼm supposed to be.”
Koiki looks directly into the camera, watching the viewer as they watch the performance of this painstaking, ornate tradition of adornment. The piece feels particularly poignant in the face of politics surrounding headwraps, scarves, and hair styles specific to people of color and Muslims in the United States and abroad.
In Victor Maldonado’s art practice, the masks worn by the luchadores of Mexican wrestling appear in many forms as a pervasive symbol of an ethnic stereotype. The flattening of form and a thick impasto of paint places an emphasis on the surface, and suggests the flattening of individuality and personality that occurs through stereotyping. This is further reinforced by the use of solid areas of flat matte ink in his “Lucha” monoprints. The gaze of the mask is significant in Maldonado’s work, and varies depending on the medium he employs. In both the print and the flattened mask paintings at Nationale, seen in profile, the mask looks away from the viewer, placing the viewer in the position of voyeur.
When Maldonado performs in the masks, taking on the persona of “MadMex,” sometimes he stares into the distance, and sometimes he looks directly at the viewer or camera creating a reciprocal gaze. In his photography series, “Maskcam,” which is not on display at the Foreigners show, but also employs the gaze of the lucha mask, Maldonado shoots through the holes of the mask, the mask becomes a lens through which to view the world. The viewer is seeing life through the “eyes” of MadMex, simultaneously getting a sense of his individual experience, as well as an opportunity to directly have that experience—they not only see what he sees, they see as he sees.
At the same time, the lucha mask serves to mask out part of the scene beyond. It at once provides a new experience and limits what that experience can hold. It is both protective and distancing, and there is an inherent sense of the performance of identity in the wearing of a costume.
Angelica Millán explores identity and the exploitative flower industry in her home country of Colombia. Her “Espinas” series is studded with rose thorns on rose-printed fabric. The thorns at once speak of roses, beauty, pain, and danger, as well as the undesired, the removed, the discarded—and the outsider. In the latter sense, there is a possible nod to punk-studded attire. The fabric in the works are described by Millán as “burnt,” “buried,” and “unearthed.” Burned perhaps by exploitation, or by adverse experiences as a foreigner.
There is a duality within this series: the rose is presented both as actual rose thorns, once alive, and as the image of roses, printed prolifically across the textile substrate of the work. The image or idea of a rose versus the actuality and experience of a rose easily parallels the ideas and stereotypes of foreigners versus the experience of the individual. This idea is coupled with a sense of surface versus interior, as Millán reveals inner layers through tearing and burning away outer layers. These small areas of reveal act like windows into the personal and private, resulting in a subtle intimacy. For example, the bright blue in “Espinas V,” is revealed only in select areas beneath the off-white primary fabric, which dominates the piece. Surface is also bleached in areas, creating a literal whitewashing. We can read this combination of disparate materials and contrasting colors as the difficulty of straddling two cultures.
Foreigners holds relevance within the sphere of our current political rhetoric. This exhibition hangs, as we stand at the brink of the possible election of a President and running mate who have both publicly espoused racist and sexist sentiments, as well as proposed policies that would have massive negative impacts on immigrants. But despite the vitriolic attacks, as in every generation of this country’s history, it is understood that “foreigners” have made America and foreigners make America great. The four Nationale artists communicate first hand experiences of what it means to be a foreigner, and the show celebrates diversity in art in this era of identity.
All of us wear the mark of our own origin and experience. But those who exist within foreign structures and expectations understand the complexity of the masks worn to successfully traverse the day-to-day. And from this complexity and the experience of integrating multiple cultures, foreigners fold, wrap, paint and reflect much of the diversity that ties this country into the unique and irreplaceable bundle that it is.
Modou Dieng, born in Saint-Louis, Senegal, is the curator and founder of Worksound International. Bukola Koiki, born in Lagos, Nigeria, is a recent graduate of the MFA in Applied Craft and Design offered jointly by the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts. Victor Maldonado, born in Changuitiro, Michoacán, Mexico, is a faculty member and inclusion specialist at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Angelica Millán, born in Bogotá, Colombia, is a second year student in the MFA in Visual Studies program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art.