An arrow embedded in the wall of the gallery. A cascade of disembodied hands, hanging from vines. Walls plastered with the arresting racial imagery of yesteryear. True to its name, Artspace’s latest exhibit, “In Plain Sight/Site,” drags history out into the open for us to see, and it’s not designed to make you feel comfortable.
Curated by cultural anthropologist and essayist Niama Safia Sandy, “In Plain Sight/Site” — which runs through March 2 in Artspace’s main gallery on the corner of Orange and Crown — sees 10 artists exploring New Haven’s and New England’s past and role in helping create America. These artists dig beneath the country’s simple creation myths to get at the much more fraught and complicated history beneath them, involving the displacement and killing of Native Americans and the system of trans-Atlantic trade that can’t be separated from slavery. As Sandy said, “you don’t get to pick what parts you get to tell. It all happened, whether you like it or not.”
Of course, the artists in the exhibit do have to pick which parts of the history to focus on in the practice of their art, and a very surface-level critique of the exhibit could accuse it of being simply political. And yeah, sure: If the creation of the American myth was a political act, and the myth is often used for political ends, then yes, tearing down that myth is political also. But that kind of argument bypasses the depth of the exhibit, as the artists explore not only the region’s history, but their own places within it, and the ways that their own personal histories tangle with the greater whole.
Adama Delphine Fawundu’s In the Face of History, in the first part of the gallery you see as you walk in, sets the tone. Fawundu, a former high school English teacher, over the years amassed a number of primary documents that, in their very existence, show that the past is far more complicated than any of us might like to admit. There’s the casually stomach-flipping racism in the popular culture of yesteryear; few things can shock a modern viewer like a flyer for a minstrel show. Another flyer invites us to see the “magnificent painting of the massacre on board the schooner Amistad,” showing that even then someone was interested in making a buck off whatever they could. Interspersed with those are the front pages of African-American newspapers, including New Haven’s own Black Coalition Weekly, which ran in the 1970s. Fawundu has screened herself into these images, facing away from us, confronting the record of history as that record confronts us. It adds up to a powerful challenge, a reminder that the past is far too potent for us to put it away and let ourselves off the hook. Can a defense of slavery in the 19th century be fully excused as a product of its time when that time also included abolitionists? Was everyone really OK with minstrel shows then? And that form of entertainment is still part of the DNA of our culture now. What do we do with that?
Nate Lerner’s photography suggests that one thing we can’t do is ignore it. Lerner trained his lens on Wethersfield, which he perceived as reveling in its historic character while, as he wrote in his artistic statement, “disavow[ing] its connection to the true roots/routes of its success” — by first giving a raw deal to the native Wangunk for the land, and then getting involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade by doing lucrative business with the American South and the Caribbean. His moody, evocative images of the town suggest that trying to forget about the past is both futile and dangerous. At any point, it could rise up and overwhelm you, leaving you no place to stand. As a New England native himself, from Boston, Lerner’s examination of Wethersfield is also an examination of his own place in that history.
Jocelyn Amstrong Braxton, meanwhile, is an artist who identified as white but learned several years ago that her father’s side of her family descended from Africans enslaved on James Madison’s plantation in Orange, Va. She turned her artistic practice to examining how it came to be that subsequent generations “passed” as white — how her family’s identity changed, what it meant to lose that part of her family’s history, and what it means now to try to regain it.
Perhaps most effective among her pieces was Our Hands in Your Hands, a sculpture depicting Braxton’s family tree. Each hand represents an ancestor. The colors of the hands show how the family on one side gradually moved from identifying as black to identifying as white. The imagery of leaves paling on the vine is poignant enough in itself, suggesting a loss of vigor, a loss of energy.
There are also hints of violence. Could the hands be not simply disembodied, but severed? This viewer saw them immediately as having been forcibly removed, suggesting not only the violence done to Braxton’s own enslaved ancestors, but to enslaved workers throughout the slave trade. The image of the severed hand also hearkened back to the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo to workers who were essentially enslaved — and particularly the famous, disturbing 1904 photograph of a rubber worker sitting on a porch, gazing at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, who was killed as punishment, along with the man’s wife, after the man failed to make his daily harvesting quota. (Cutting off the hands of workers became shockingly widespread in a regime under which millions died.) Similar mutilations occurred in great numbers during Sierra Leone’s civil war in the late 1990s. Braxton’s piece reminded me immediately of the images from these atrocities, which sharpened her account own personal journey. There was the importance for the living to do right by the dead by being truthful about the past.
Painter Tajh Rust, meanwhile, took as his subject a series of six West African masks that appear as part of the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery. The masks were “intially made as ritual and spiritual performance objects,” Rust writes in an accompanying artist statement. But “another dimension of the power of these masks that has been lost is that they were most probably sculpted based on the faces of real people.” In his paintings, Rust imbues the masks with the flesh tones and other characteristics of living humans. If the subjects were turned into masks, and the masks were themselves removed from their original society and placed in a museum as art objects, Rust is both restoring some of the masks’ humanity. Though his art, Rust — himself of Jamaican heritage — hopes to “refigur[e] the masks as personally resonant rather than a mere curiosity,” cognizant that his own ancestors may have had similar masks as part of their spiritual practice.
Fellow artist Maya Vivas renders human organs in black clay, endowing them with sweeping curves like the folds of cloth in classical sculpture. She’s doing a similar thing, both applying an aesthetic while calling attention to the very human origins of the subjects of her art. Vivas seeks to “call to mind ideas of dissection, taxidermy, the commodification of the black body and its cultures.” On one level, her sculptures are pieces of elegance. On another level, they recall the most gruesome slasher movies.
Which brings us to that arrow embedded in the wall, and the others suspended in midair in the middle of the gallery, as if caught in mid-flight.
James Montford is an artist of both native Pequot and African-American descent and his work dives deep into what he calls “the Black Holocaust” — both the deaths of millions of Native Americans after contact with European colonizers and the “horrors and indignations of the Middle Passage, slavery and of Jim Crow.” that African-descended peoples have suffered. The fury in his work is apparent everywhere, from a stack of blankets to remind us of the way smallpox ravaged the Native American population to a written-out creation myth that reads like a ride through the darkest part of America’s soul.
Montford’s target arrows are intended as an explicit threat. “I was found on the White House lawn,” reads the tag on one. The one buried in the wall is labeled “freedom arrow.” Darkly funny and literally sharply pointed, the arrows, like the rest of the works in “In Plain Sight/Site,” hit their marks. Regardless of who we are, we may leave the Artspace gallery with a keen sense of a mandate to notice and be more aware of and responsible for our collective and personal histories, and to be more honest with each other and ourselves.
“In Plain Sight/Site” runs at Artspace, 50 Orange St., through March 2. Admission is free. Visit Artspace’s website for hours and more information.