Monday, March 2, 2009

Museum of the African Diaspora: Decoding Identity

The show – Doing it for my people ends March 8th so there is still time to catch it. I’d say that the works exhibited are more notable for their political intent than their aesthetic effect but there is one stand out piece: Seated Above the Salt or 1st Ladies Presidential Torture Chair, a mixed media piece by Ramekon O’Arwisters (2007). In this assemblage/altered media/found sculpture piece, the first part of O’Arwisters’ title refers to the salt trade. Since time immemorial, salt – was – and still is in many parts of the world - a valuable commodity which is also used as currency. To be seated below the salt was an indication of low social status. In medieval times, the saltcellar, a richly ornamental item, was placed in the middle of the table. If you sat toward the head of the table, you were of high status; those who sat toward the end of the table of lower status. A further play on the title also refers to “salt of the earth” – those who produce the goods and services that keep society moving and salt as an item necessary for human health.

The other part of the title comes from a fable invented by O’Arwisters. In this modern fairy tale, the wife of Andrew Jackson uses the chair to coerce her husband to end the massacre of Native Americans. She is able to get him to abide by her wishes even though she didn’t have the right to vote – possibly by forcing him to sit on the highly uncomfortable chair.

The assemblage consists of three freestanding pieces, lined up in a straight row, a static rather than a tableau vivant. The chair’s surface is encrusted with a plethora of objects - various shells, both caramel whirled white garden snail shells and African trade cowry shells, buttons, pins, tiny items of jewelry, opalescent glass beads, blue and pink jigsaw puzzle pieces, round and oval shaped tiny mirrors, nails, fetish objects and other pieces too obscured by the overlapping layers to be identified. The small mirrors haphazardly placed among the jumbled debris covering the chair, reflect light back from the viewer. There is no one predominant color; each tiny item brings its own color to the back, seat and legs of the chair, resulting in a varicolored, crazy quilt, rock-like and organic appearing surface. The broken elements of the design – the encrusted chair, the nailed boxing gloves, the wine glasses filled with salt – make their points through their implied politics rather than through their artistic appeal but the piece has a power and strength that is unique.

Decoding Identity: I Do It For My People Featuring the works of 20 multicultural artists who challenge cultural and ethnic prejudices.

Image from website

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