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Notes about Contributors

Emily Beaulieu is a second-year master’s student in art history at Tufts University. She specializes in Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, with a particular interest in Caravaggio and art theory of the seventeenth century. Recently, Beaulieu has expanded her area of study to non-European art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Morgan J. Brittain is a PhD student in American studies at William & Mary. He received his MA in art history from the University of Iowa in 2020. His research takes an ecocritical approach to historic and contemporary landscape traditions. His work has also been supported by a Newberry Library Consortium Grant and the Gilcrease Museum’s Helmerich Center for American Research.

Diane Dias De Fazio is a first-year Master of Arts candidate in art history at Kent State University. Her research and practice centers on artist’s books, alternative/underground press, and work by women and BIPOC printers in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. She holds masters’ degrees from Columbia University and Pratt Institute.

Drew Etienne is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa where he has been employing painting, printmaking, and sculptural modes of working. The goal of his art is to shift the viewer’s focus away from the anthropocentric toward the micro- and macroscopic to aid in understanding scales of space and time that are not innately understood, as well as the effect of human behavior on ecosystems past, present, and future.

Jillianne Laceste is a PhD candidate in the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University. Her research addresses cross-cultural connections of the early modern world with a particular focus on Italy and the Americas. Her dissertation examines the visual culture of Christopher Columbus and transatlantic exploration in seventeenth-century Genoa.

Phillippa Pitts is a PhD candidate and Horowitz Foundation Fellow for American Art at Boston University. Her research explores the ways in which visual rhetorics around expansion, immigration, and Indigeneity shape American culture from the long nineteenth century to the present. Pitts’s work has been generously supported by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the Kress Foundation, the Center for American Art, and the University of Michigan. 

Eric Rivera Barbeito is a Puerto Rican-born artist. His multimedia practice interrogates Puerto Rico’s status as a United States colony. Rivera Barbeito received his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and resides in Baltimore, Maryland.

Stephen Rosser is a doctoral research student at Birkbeck, University of London. His master’s degree included a dissertation on “new architectural Tories,” a group of late-twentieth century British architectural writers identified with the political right.

Gabrielle Tillenburg (she/her) is a MA/PhD student studying modern and contemporary Caribbean and diasporic art at the University of Maryland. Her interests include artist activism in independence movements, interpretations of time in photographic media, and contemporary use of craft materials. From 2015 to 2020 she served as the exhibitions coordinator at Strathmore.

Marina Wells is a PhD candidate in the American & New England Studies Program at Boston University. She holds a BA from Colby College in art history and literature, and has held positions at various institutions including in the Health Humanities at BU and at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art

The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH

November 1, 2020–March 14, 2021

by Diane Dias De Fazio

Figure 1. Installation view of Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art, 2020. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH. Photo by the author, 2020.

Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art connected canonical works from western and central Africa to works from contemporary artists active in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Mozambique, whose use of repurposed materials echoes practices of the past.1 As its title implied, the exhibition introduced dual themes, one that considered the “second careers” of artworks—as both museum objects and foundational inspiration to succeeding generations of artists—and one that demonstrated how contemporary artists give salvaged materials new “lives” as art. The exhibition posed the questions: What will the “second careers” of twenty-first-century African artworks be, and what conversations will they inspire after entering museum collections?

Figure 2. Zohra Opoku (b. Germany, 1976). Nana Opoku Gyabbah II, Chidomhene of Asato/Akan (2018). Screen-print on textile and wool. 217 x 142 cm. Courtesy the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Chicago. Photo by the author, 2020.

Planned and executed by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi (now the Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York), Second Careers examined nine historical African artworks from the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum, alongside the art of six contemporary practitioners representing different generations: El Anatsui, Tahir Carl Karmali, Gonçalo Mabunda, Nnenna Okore, Zohra Opoku, and Elias Sime. The ambitious exhibition was further distilled through three “lenses”—memory, materiality, and transformation—which Nzewi attempted to universally apply to all the works in Second Careers.

Considering this conceptual framing, and the spatially challenging Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery in which Second Careers was displayed, the exhibition carried substantial thematic and visual demands, with intermittent levels of success.2 Large-scale works by Anatsui, Okore, and Sime dominated two walls. Babanki, Baule, Chokwe, Kuba, Malinke, Songye, and Yoruba cultures were represented through compelling masks, figures, and garments, but offered up without much context to each other (geographically or thematically) and with weak interconnection to the contemporary pieces. Zohra Opoku’s Nana Opoku Gyabbah II, Chidomhene of Asato/Akan was arguably the sole piece capable of being viewed through all three “lenses”: the artist recalled “traditional concepts of the past” through repeated screen-printed symbols and images of her late father in his kente-cloth wrapper (memory lens), chose “materials . . . imbued with meaning” in terms of Ghanaian industry and identity (materiality lens), and transformed her signature medium—textile—in an innovative way, as a personal tribute to her ancestors (transformation lens) (fig. 2).

Figure 3. Tahir Carl Karmali (b. Kenya, 1987). Untitled (Jua Kali Series) (2014). Archival pigment print. 45.7 x 30.5 cm. Image © Tahir Carl Karmali, courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The same could not be said for all exhibition items, which, cumulatively, created an adverse effect and undermined the premise of the show. The majority of the contemporary works in Second Careers evidenced no direct inspiration from the historical items. The exhibition excelled in its arguments for the “second careers” of museum objects: Most of the historical items were created for and used in spiritual and ceremonial contexts, but, bereft of their intended purposes, play an established role as beautiful artworks. The exhibition was not particularly strengthened by the Ndeemba mask, and the Kuba prestige belt evidenced great craftsmanship, but these and other smaller historical works felt squeezed into the space.

Tahir Carl Karmali’s Jua Kali photo-composite portraits depict Nairobians as cyber-steampunk deities, created to “look as if one adorned themselves with found objects, which somehow work together to make them superhuman”3 (fig. 3). Here again, the connection with historical objects was flimsy: Curatorial perspective viewed the portraits as linear descendants of items like the nearby Songye power figure,4 but Karmali’s own artist’s statement emphasized that his series was “inspired by the informal sector [referred to by the term ‘jua kali,’ Kiswahili for ‘fierce sun’] that breathes character into Nairobi’s economy,” and aimed to change perceptions of Jua Kali workers.

Figure 4. Malinke artist, Mali, West Africa. Hunter’s shirt (donson dlokiw) (late 1800s–early 1900s). Cloth, leather, shells, animal claws, horns. Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, ex coll. William S. Arnett, 1994.004.111. Photo by the author, 2020

 

Figure 5. Elias Sime (b. Ethiopia, 1968). Tightrope: Non-Essential Speed (2017). Reclaimed electronic components and wire on panel. 183.8 x 402.6 cm. Image © Elias Sime, courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York. Photo by the author, 2020.

Was the Malinke hunter’s shirt, with its leather pouches filled with Islamic scripts, inspiration to Elias Sime’s Tightrope: Non-Essential Speed (figs. 4, 5)? In gallery labels, Nzewi suggested that Sime’s small plastic telephone wire connectors “recall[ed]” the shirt’s leather pouches, but in the catalogue, the curator acknowledged such a suggestion “may seem a stretch.”5 And, indeed, it did seem a stretch, and the acknowledgement only a hollow justification for a comparison that added little to the visitor’s understanding of either object. Sime’s masterful collage of accumulated electronic materials did not need this linkage to stand on its own: Repurposed materials created an arresting artwork, one that also served as a meditation on environmental waste and the aftereffects of colonialism.

There are two additional instances in which the “tributaries” of the exhibition’s subtitle meet. First, Gonçalo Mabunda’s Harmony Chair (2009), comprised of “decommissioned” weapons and ammunition, is a metaphoric plea for peace; paired with the Babanki prestige chair (1800s), a wooden seat crafted and sold for European export, museumgoers were handed a sobering thought: Where does the “seat” of power lie, in culturally (in)appropriate symbols, or in disarmament and accord (figs. 6, 7)? Then, two large showstopping works together exemplified the multifaceted connections between historical objects and contemporary works. The literal centerpiece of Second Careers, a Yoruba egúngún masquerade dance costume (1920–1948), is a crafted assemblage of polychromatic layers of reused fabric and aluminum (fig. 8). Nearby, Anatsui’s Earth Growing Roots (2007), a shimmering curtain of woven yellow, red, and silver bottle caps, directly echoes the egúngún in repurposed materials, scale, and visual flamboyance (fig. 9). Anatsui has said he “looked at classical or traditional African art and [had] seen how the freedom to work with various materials is possible.” The egúngún, crafted out of three-hundred local and imported textiles, has had a strong “second career” of numerous exhibitions (and inspired unknown generations of artists), but the multicolored costume has also enjoyed the benefit of recent scholarship, which revealed more of the item’s “biography.” Hopefully, future exhibitions—particularly of historical African objects, but for contemporary works, as well—will be emboldened to highlight “the many things an object embodies and the multiple stories it holds.”6

Figure 8. Yorùbá artist, Lekewọgbẹ compound, Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́, Ọ̀yọ́ State, Nigeria. Egúngún masquerade dance costume (paka egúngún) (c. 1920–48). Cotton, wool, wood, silk, synthetic textiles (including viscose rayon and acetate), indigo, aluminum. Approx. 139.7 x 15.2 x 160 cm. Brooklyn Museum, gift of Sam Hilu, 1998.125. Image courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The CMA opened in 1916 and its current incarnation, spatially reimagined by Rafael Viñoly Architects in 2009–14, joins old and new with a spacious light-filled atrium, where special exhibition galleries face the classically inspired original structure. This juxtaposition befits an exhibition like Second Careers, which consciously reckoned with the cultural history of institutional African art connoisseurship and proffered a vision of future museum collections in which institutions can re-evaluate their historical items and present contemporary works in the same spaces as canonical objects. This pivot, increasingly popular in museums, signals a new way of encouraging the public to understand art: on a global timeline that simultaneously looks backward and forward with a critical eye. Whether institutions that take this approach—the CMA and Museum of Modern Art are but two examples—continue in this vein, remains to be seen.

Figure 9. El Anatsui (b. Ghana, 1944). Earth Growing Roots (2007). Aluminum and copper wire. 236.2 x 401.3 cm. Collection of Nancy and Dave Gill. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery. Photo by the author, 2020.

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Diane Dias De Fazio

Diane Dias De Fazio is a first-year Master of Arts candidate in art history at Kent State University. Her research and practice centers on artist’s books, alternative/underground press, and work by women and BIPOC printers in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. She holds masters’ degrees from Columbia University and Pratt Institute.

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Footnotes

1. Unless otherwise noted, quotations in this review come from exhibition label text.

2. The gallery was designed for exhibitions of one item, and linked to the adjacent interactive Gallery One. Under COVID-19 protocols, Gallery One was closed indefinitely, and maximum occupancy in the Focus Gallery was eight people.

3. Tahir Carl Karmali, “Jua Kali,” accessed April 2020, http://tahirk.com/jua-kali/.

4. The pairing appears as the cover image for the Second Careers catalogue.

5. Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art (Cleveland, OH: Yale University Press, 2019), 46–7.

6. Nzewi, Second Careers, 27.

Rebuilding the City of London in the Age of Deregulated Markets: A Study of Architectural Discourse

by Stephen Rosser

Figure 1. Richard Rogers Partnership. Lloyd’s of London (completed 1986). Photo by the author, 2021.

“Only the Great Fire of London and the Blitz had brought swifter and more comprehensive change to the City’s appearance than Big Bang.”1 That assertion, in a history of 1980s Britain, encapsulates the twin themes at the center of the research project on which I am currently working. The first theme is the deregulation of London’s financial markets which was implemented on a single day—October 27, 1986—and labelled “Big Bang.” This event involved a fundamental change in the operation of Britain’s financial services industry, which in turn transformed the overall character and culture of the City of London and secured its position as one of the world’s three principal financial centers.2 Though not a direct government initiative, Big Bang coincided with the peak years of the Thatcher administration and was seen as reflecting Thatcherite neoliberal deregulatory ideology.

The second theme is the radical reshaping of the City’s built environment, which began in the Big Bang era and involved a succession of large, innovative, and often controversial building projects designed by some of the most prominent architects of the day. That process, which continued into the new millennium and produced the cluster of high-rise office towers which dominate the present-day City skyline, can fairly be regarded as one of the principal episodes in the recent history of British architecture. 

My research explores the discussion and debate by contemporary commentators as well as later historians on the City of London’s architectural development, with its radically new and controversial buildings, in the closing decades of the twentieth century against the background of the newly deregulated, globalized markets of the City.

The research base of the project comprises a wide spectrum of literature relating to the City’s built environment in the period concerned. It encompasses not only material emanating from specialist and academic sources, such as commentary in architectural journals and works of architectural and urban historians, but also the content of wider public debate, most importantly as reflected in the contemporary mainstream news media (including broadcast content).  

I organize the research around case studies centered on four major development projects: a proposed Ludwig Mies van der Rohe office tower in the heart of the City, and, following that scheme’s rejection, the James Stirling-designed building eventually erected on the site; a new headquarters for Lloyd’s of London in a “high-tech” design by Richard Rogers (fig. 1); the redevelopment of Paternoster Square, a prominent site adjacent to St Paul’s Cathedral; and Broadgate, a major development on the City’s northern fringe combining offices with a wide range of amenities and public space (fig. 2).

All four projects have been extensively discussed and argued over both at the time and in retrospect. For example, the new Lloyd’s building made an immediate impact by virtue of its unconventional form and dramatic outline. Given these qualities, and the near concurrence of its opening with the date of Big Bang, Lloyd’s quickly became the architectural project most closely identified with the “new” City of the 1980s (despite the fact that it had been conceived in the previous decade). That connection was quickly taken up by commentators (especially those on the left) as an image for the entire era of Thatcherite politics.3

Figure 2. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Exchange House, Broadgate (completed 1990). Photo by the author, 2021.

Yet it was another of the case studies illustrated here—Broadgate—that seems to emerge most clearly from the discourse as the architectural expression of the Big Bang City. The development was widely noted as one that not only offered a new type of office environment required by deregulated markets and electronic trading, but also provided, in its spaces and amenities, a stage set for Big Bang-era culture and lifestyle. Broadgate was seen to encapsulate, too, the rapid Americanization of the 1980s City, involving as it did high-speed construction techniques developed in the United States and the leading American architectural practice of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

The key questions I am seeking to answer are: How did commentary and debate on contemporary British architecture and urbanism, of which the City of London was becoming a leading showcase, interact with the discourse on global finance? How far were the City’s new buildings and spaces read as in dialogue with the deregulated City? Conversely, was there any suggestion of the opposite effect, i.e., were the buildings seen as influencing the contemporary City, for example in terms of its style of working, attitudes, or overall culture? And given Big Bang’s alignment with Thatcherite deregulatory policies, what part, if any, did the contemporary political environment play in reception of the City’s new developments?

At this stage in my research, I am minded to argue that the City’s late-twentieth century built environment has from the outset been interpreted in some degree as the material expression of deregulated markets, global capital flows, and Thatcherite politics. These connections have been seen as evident in the new type of office buildings involved, the spaces and amenities associated with them, and, in at least some cases, the design values they embodied. Yet, I hypothesize, the discourses surrounding these buildings range well beyond the subjects of contemporary finance and politics to encompass subjects as varied as the City’s history and its role as a focus of national identity, urban form, the state of the building preservation movement, architectural patronage, and the contemporary property development business. We encounter too (particularly in the Mies/Stirling and Lloyd’s cases) an early manifestation of a phenomenon that would become firmly rooted in post-millennium architectural discourse—the notion of the “iconic” or “signature” building designed by an internationally recognized “celebrity” architect.

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Stephen Rosser

Stephen Rosser is a doctoral research student at Birkbeck, University of London. His master’s degree included a dissertation on “new architectural Tories,” a group of late-twentieth century British architectural writers identified with the political right.

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Footnotes

1. Graham Stewart, Bang!: A History of Britain in the 1980s (London: Atlantic Books, 2013), 395.

2. The City of London is a small area (the “Square Mile”) which is both the historic center of the capital and its financial and business district. “The City” also serves as a long-established shorthand for Britain’s financial services industry.

3. See for example Peter Conrad, “Thatcher’s Monuments: Cardboard City,” Observer Magazine, April 23, 1989, 36–8; Stewart, Bang!, 266; Florian Cord, “Capital/Rebel City: London 2012 and the Struggle for Hegemony,” in London Post-2010 in British Literature and Culture, ed. Oliver van Knebel Doeberitz and Ralf Schneider (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2017), 39–56.

Editors’ Introduction

by Phillippa Pitts

Figure 1. Antoni Jażwiński (1789–1870). Published as “Tableau muet servant aux exercises chronologiques et autres de la Méthode Dite Polonaise inventée par A. Jazwinski” (Paris: Isador Pesron, 1834). Image courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

I have always been fascinated by our species’ inclination to find patterns in randomness. There appears to be an indefatigable human capacity to create order from the chaos of lived experience. Across science, religion, civics, and society, we create rules: rules for living, rules for doing, rules for nature, even rules for systems so enormous that they defy our understanding and so unpredictable that they should suggest anything but order. Nevertheless, we persist.

As scholars of art and visual culture, we have a particular perspective on this kind of behavior. From the visualization of Darwin’s evolutionary trees to Barr’s genealogical maps of modern art, the visual field is not a passive reflection of these orderings: It is an active site of inquiry, argumentation, and knowledge production. Seemingly small choices in color, line, shape, and composition exert outsize influence. They also wield the power to disguise individual choice or creation under a veneer of inevitability or neutral factuality. 

The opening image for this essay is a chronograph, an attempt to diagram or map time in pursuit of a perfect, singular, comprehensive view of history. For centuries, artists and designers have tackled this impossible challenge by drawing on astronomy, numismatics, and innovative cartography for methods by which to compress vast volumes of data into still-legible charts and tables. Denotative text is of limited use. It is connotative visuality which further condenses the information: Flags, shields, and insignia can serve as shorthand for nations and dynasties, while looming storm clouds, bright sunbursts, and invocations of classical architecture add layers of associative meaning.1 This particular chronograph, developed by nineteenth-century Polish designer and educator Antoni Jażwiński, is perhaps the most distilled solution that I have encountered. A mnemonic system, Jażwiński’s Méthode polonaise promises that the complexities of centuries can be refined into colors, lines, squares, and just a few marks (fig. 2). Neatly arranged into a diagram that can be diligently committed to memory, the twists and turns of battles and revolutions are rendered as panes of pure gentle color, quietly plotted as coordinates in a matrix, subsumed back into the orderly progress of history.

Figure 2. Antoni Jażwiński (1789–1870). Detail published in Méthode polonaise: Application à la chronologie et à l’histoire (Paris: Isador Pesron, 1834), 32.

There is a wonderful resonance between Jażwiński’s chronographs and a wide range of artistic production, despite the anachronism of such comparisons. They recall Piet Mondrian’s early checkerboards and Robert Delaunay’s simultaneity. There is something reminiscent of process art here: They evoke the repetitive, cataloguing handwork of Hanne Darboven or Agnes Martin. There appears to be a common calm, comfort, catharsis, or salvation promised by the embrace of rule, order, and logic. 

It is clear that order, chaos, and visuality have long been profoundly intertwined. In this issue of SEQUITUR, we invited perspectives on one aspect of this complex relationship: deregulation. As historians, we know that deregulation can be both an emancipatory act and a form of abandonment. In some instances, the lifting of rules brings liberation, joy, or renewal. It can surface histories, stories, and truths which have been suppressed by social and didactic frameworks. At other times, deregulation only provokes paralysis or exacerbates inequities of power: unleashing laissez-faire ideologies to wreak havoc on peoples, places, and environments. As an art, architecture, and visual-culture journal, we asked authors to tell us about how the activist and the aesthetic, the political and the personal, the art world and the everyday are all inextricably linked. In short, we asked for authors to engage with deregulation in the broadest of senses: examining the manner in which rules like these are constructed, how they are broken, and what happens when they are lifted.

Interestingly, our prompt produced few answers to the questions we posed. Instead, we received only more questions in return. Where our calls for papers usually prompt a flood of proposals for feature essays and completed projects, this spring we primarily received a flurry of suggestions for interviews, exhibition reviews, and spotlights on works in progress. Although the selected essays span continents and centuries, the throughline which brings this issue together is a sense of dialogue, debate, and unfinished conversation. These processes of inquiry and exploration, beautifully presented by nine authors, form the heart of this publication.

Emily Beaulieu opens our issue with a feature essay that recovers traces of cultural exchange and Indigenous survivance in New Spain. Taking an extraordinary sixteenth-century featherwork composition as her case study, Beaulieu locates not only Nahua technique but Indigenous patterns of thinking and approaches to spatial visualization within an image of St. Gregory. Beaulieu does not describe one message hidden behind another, but proposes the beginning of a new language reflective of a new set of beliefs, neither Spanish nor Nahua. There’s a productive synergy between this piece and Marina Wells’s discussion of Writing the Future, a recent Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, exhibition profiling twentieth-century New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. As Wells describes, Basquiat is also a part of a movement to produce a new language reflective of a new type of lived experience. Contextualized among his friends and contemporaries, Basquiat’s work is framed as part of an effort by Black creators to reshape and reimagine Black futures in irreverently synergistic, cannibalistic, and liberatory forms. Yet Wells also makes a pointed critique, noting the ways in which the conversation begun by the MFA is incomplete, still struggling to reconcile with systemic racism, police violence, the criminalization of addiction, and the AIDS crisis, despite the institution’s efforts to bring many voices to the table. Diane Dias De Fazio’s review of Second Careers: Tributaries in African Art picks up on these questions of museum practice. The exhibition explores how the gallery context has, and continues to, facilitate the transformation of objects from the African continent: from everyday materials into valuable singular objects, from functional creations to exhibits of fine art. De Fazio’s analysis highlights the exhibition’s forwards-backwards orientation, embodying the curator Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi’s goal of honoring “the many things an object embodies and the multiple stories it holds” in contemporary and historical examples alike. Yet De Fazio’s review does not merely report on the installation: It enters into a dialogue with this ongoing shift in curatorial practice, pointing to the work still to be done in this area.

Continuing this theme, Stephen Rosser’s research spotlight also invites us into a work in progress, drawing our attention to the connections—real and perceived—between the deregulation of global financial markets and the rise of modern architecture. The two, he explains, have physically and conceptually shaped the City of London in contentious and controversial since the financial “Big Bang” of 1986. By mining the accounts of contemporary commentators and city historians, Rosser's project shines a new light on how four well known architectural projects were adopted into public and political imaginaries as both reflective and constitutive of this changing Britain. The themes which Rosser introduces—association, memory, and symbolism—are picked up in Gabrielle Tillenberg’s interview with Puerto Rican-born multimedia artist Eric Rivera Barbeito. In their conversation, Tillenberg draws out how Barbeito’s work responds to the island’s own Big Bang, Hurricane Maria, a cataclysmic event which generated a new reality for the island. Barbeito's work makes present the disastrous human and environmental consequences of neocolonial deregulation in the form of poignant, multivalent objects: a miniature shipping container, a delicate box roofed with tarp, a toy tank flying the Puerto Rican flag. The themes of neocolonial extraction, disaster capitalism, and the nightmare of manifest destiny run amok appear again in Morgan J. Brittain’s conversation with Drew Etienne, a multimedia artist whose found-object installations intervene in the cycle of conquest, extraction, consumption, and disposal. From materials destined for the dumpster, Etienne produces “technofossils” of a degraded post-human landscape. He mixes and distills inks from plants in his Iowa City environs. He seizes forms and images from the Western canon to remake into new compositions that serve both as ominous portents of the future and personal rejections of extractive art-making practices. This consideration of making and materials circles back to the issues raised by each and every author, whether they engaged with sleek steel-and-glass facades or “aerosol expressionism,” sixteenth-century featherwork or found-object assemblages.

The diversity of perspectives found within this publication are mirrored by those described in the last essay of this issue: a summary of this year’s graduate symposium, co-organized by Jillianne Laceste and myself. As is our tradition, SEQUITUR’s spring theme was selected to complement our symposium’s topic: “Crowd Control.” This year’s event met the limitations of a pandemic by leaning into the affordances of the virtual format, welcoming presenters and participants alike from across the globe. A summary of the seven graduate papers presented, as well as the engaging keynote address from Dr. Paul Farber, concludes this issue. 

The themes of “Crowd Control” and “Deregulation” were both inspired by the instability which presently surrounds us all. A slew of unprecedented events prompted a succession of unforeseeable responses. Novel constraints tightened their grips, while familiar rules disappeared without a trace. Resistance to lethal injustices, new and old, reached a searing fever pitch. Long-held patterns have been swept away, leaving us in the midst of a new world disorder. From within this chaos, it was reassuring to see examples of emancipatory thinking, past and present. It was a comfort to hear from artists and scholars at work on new solutions. It was a joy to be in dialogue with peers: distanced, but by no means divided.

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Phillippa Pitts

Phillippa Pitts is a PhD candidate and Horowitz Foundation Fellow for American Art at Boston University. Her research explores the ways in which visual rhetorics around expansion, immigration, and Indigeneity have shaped American culture from the long nineteenth century to the present. Phillippa’s work has been generously supported by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the Kress Foundation, the Center for American Art, and the University of Michigan.

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Footnotes

1. For more, see Daniel Rosenberg and Antony Grafton, Cartographies of Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), particularly chapters 4 and 6, “A New Chart of History,” and “A Tinkerer’s Art.”

New Landscapes: A Conversation with Drew Etienne

by Morgan J. Brittain

The multimedia work of Drew Etienne calls upon and reconstructs the Euro-American artistic traditions of portraiture, tondi, and landscape painting in order to confront corporate-caused environmental degradation and climate change. Etienne’s “new landscapes,” some of which were featured in his solo show The Technosphere at the University of Iowa in spring 2020, transport viewers to an imagined, temporally distant earth on which human existence can no longer flourish and is, in fact, long absent.1 In place of life are only extractive machines, succeeding the tools of today’s increasingly deregulated capitalist industries. The Collector (2020) is there to gather the residues of human activity: plastics and other petrochemicals transformed by geological processes into new kinds of stone (fig. 4). Depicted in Etienne’s painting New Lithosphere (2020), a conscious appropriation of Thomas Moran’s Cliffs of the Upper Colorado, Wyoming Territory (1882), and given three-dimensional form in his Anthrostrata (2020), these composites are evocative of a real geological phenomenon called the plastiglomerate: fragments of natural sediments and plastic molded into stone through time and pressure (figs. 1, 6).2

Etienne translates ideas of resource gathering into “a collaboration with the environment” through his artistic process—a process involving the collection and transformation of discarded, found, and foraged materials into artwork. Having used repurposed media in The Technosphere, Etienne’s most recent work incorporates inks made from naturally occurring reactions and plants (figs. 2, 3, 8). This reflexive mode of making resists the instincts of a deregulated corporate capitalism to conquer, extract, consume, and dispose. Whereas portraiture and landscape painting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were deployed in justifying white-settler claims to Indigenous lands and US expansionism, Etienne’s signature “twist[s]” on these traditional formats oppose such colonial functions. In this interview, Etienne and I discuss The Technosphere, developments in his process, his turn to using natural materials, and his current work.

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Figure 1: Anthrostrata (2020). Salvaged extruded polystyrene foam, expanded polystyrene foam, cardboard, tempered hardboard, and upholstery foam. Figure 2: Specimen 001200920, n.(sancorshel) (2020). Graphite with inks made from foraged pokeberries, goldenrod, walnut, acorns, chalk, charcoal, oak galls, salvaged steel, and copper on paper. 26 x 22 in. Figure 3: Untitled (2021). Inks made from foraged goldenrod and salvaged copper on salvaged wood. Diameter 7 in. Figure 4: The Collector (2020). Salvaged extruded polystyrene foam, expanded polystyrene foam, cardboard. 36 x 60 x 96 in. Figure 5: Portrait of the Collector Mk (2020). Repurposed cardboard, paper. 23 3/4 × 27 1/2 in. Figure 6: New Lithosphere (2020). Oil and acrylic on canvas and repurposed wood. 60 x 84 in. Figure 7: The Technosphere, (2020). Oil and acrylic on canvas and repurposed wood. Diameter 48 in. Figure 8: Untitled (2021). Inks made from foraged goldenrod, walnut, and salvaged copper on salvaged wood. Diameter 5 3/4 in. Figure 9: Hetch Hetchy (2019). Six-layer serigraph. Edition of eighteen, self-printed. 18 3/4 x 13 3/4 in. All images courtesy the artist.

Interview Transcript:

Morgan J. Brittain: I hope you could start by talking about your use of materials, both about your thinking behind it and how the kinds of materials you’re using has evolved, as well as the processes you use to gather materials and then ultimately transform them into artwork. There are really a number of things at play here; you have those Anthrostrata sculptures from The Technosphere show in spring 2020, and those graphite and ink Specimens (2020) from an even more recent series, which seemed to evoke the real contemporary phenomenon of plastiglomerates. There’s also both The Collector sculpture and portrait from The Technosphere show with a claw-like form that’s so evocative of extractive industry but also of the human hand in the act of gathering or foraging. So could you discuss your process, particularly how you collect and use materials, the tensions between this process and industry, and how you think about your responsibilities as an artist?

Drew Etienne: I’ve actually been collecting materials for longer than I knew what I wanted to do with them. I think it started with just taking a look at what kind of waste I was creating, whether it’s just saving packaging materials from things that I would order online. It had been in the back of my mind for a long time. I took this class with Isabel Barbuzza at the University of Iowa called Art at the Edge of the Landfill, and I took it because I kept almost hoarding these materials and getting materials from other artists at the school and things like that, just constantly collecting materials. But I didn’t really know what to do with them. I didn’t have a lot of experience with sculptural stuff, and this was a sculptural class that I’m referring to.

That was a big turning point for me. Because of that class I heard about Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene documentary and that was also a big influence in this kind of turning point where I started to get ideas about how I could utilize these materials and make use of the waste that I was making but also things that I would collect around the art building.3 Once I got an idea of the show The Technosphere then I started collecting things more in earnest, literally just going to dumpsters. I would always check the dumpsters by the art building [. . .]. I would go to other places [. . .], if I saw someone doing demolition somewhere I would check the dumpsters.

More recently for the show that I’m doing right now [. . .], last summer, they were demolishing some mobile homes near where I live, and there’s all this pink insulation foam. And I just asked [the demolition worker], “Is this stuff going to get thrown away?” He’s like, “Yeah.” I was like, “I will take all of it.” So it’s just been a matter of dealing with storing it and things like that, but that whole thing started with the show that I did in the spring called The Technosphere. You mentioned the Anthrostrata. I’m actually not sure if I completely remember the flashpoint for that but I do remember taking some of those materials home over Christmas break and just working with them in my parent’s garage, cutting things up and seeing what I could make, and I got this idea of these small sculptures that can serve as miniature landscapes of the future but also can appear on a smaller scale. You mentioned plastiglomerates; it’s that same kind of idea, or like a technofossil: this geological specimen from this future world where the physicality of the landscape has changed so much because of what we’ve done to it. That was a big moment. The funny thing about those Anthrostrata for me is I was working on them, and I worked on them by myself for a while over winter break, and I had no idea whether they were something that other people would think are really cool or whether it was the silliest thing that I’ve ever done. I was really in a mode of playing with these materials and just following my gut, and thankfully people responded really well to them. I think one of the things that I found really satisfying with those by the end was that they were calling to this kind of future of post-human or post-life world that I was depicting in The Technosphere through the subject matter of the landscape, but also very directly through the materiality [. . .], making these sculptures out of the same sorts of things that are ending up in the strata of the Earth and in these plastiglomerates, like you say.

You also mentioned the claw-like form. I don’t think that I’ve actually thought about it in relation to the foraging or the gathering, but I like that idea. You do mention that it’s evocative of the extractive industry, and that’s interesting, too. When I was designing those I was actually using a program called SketchUp, which is just a really easy way to design things—design three-dimensional forms. I was just trying out these different forms, and, going on instinct, I would know when I found the right form. I didn’t totally know right away why it felt right until looking at it a little bit later and seeing how much in some of those forms there was a common thread of this grabbing motion, extractive thing, this action of taking. That was the main idea behind that. But I do like how that ties in with the foraging; it’s the same act, it’s just a different philosophy behind it. The foraging that I’ve been doing lately as far as the salvaged materials and also materials that I’ve been using to make inks [. . .], that has to do with more of a collaboration with the environment versus a conquering of the environment, which is where the extractive industry, and colonialism and capitalism in general, tends to take things.

My responsibilities as an artist [. . .], I think that one artist, doing their best to think about the sustainability of their own practice, is obviously not going to change everything or be the flashpoint that turns everything around, but I am hopeful that the behavioral changes that I’ve made in my practice are something that can influence people outwardly. I know that that can happen because I’ve made changes in my own life, even outside of my art practice, as a human. I’ve been influenced from other people or things that I’ve heard from other people or seen other people do, so I think that using any amount of a platform that I might have as an artist, and showing these kinds of ways of thinking about how you can improve the sustainability of your behaviors, is important. I think it’s important in creating as large of a voting bloc that understands how important this stuff is because that’s the only way that we can change the behaviors of the people who are really doing the worst work or are having the worst impact: the large corporations who are taking advantage of whatever lack of regulation there is in our capitalist system to exploit other people and gain their capital.

Last fall I started researching more about how to create my own inks. Originally I was trying to create inks to use with the Japanese woodblock printmaking techniques, and I’m still working on that, but in the process I learned a lot about just what kinds of things can be used to make ink. I made some inks that I used in some drawings in this small show that I did last fall called Evidential Existence.4 I had a lot of success in creating things that were really usable but also new materials that I had to collaborate with because they wanted to do their own thing. It was a really rich process of exploration, both in the actual foraging for the materials, experimenting with the creation, and then experimenting with actually implementing them, so it was really productive. 

I learned about a lot of natural materials that you can use [. . .], so things that are really abundant and things that have been used for a long time. Black walnut is really abundant here in Iowa City; goldenrod, which is a weed that grows everywhere [. . .], it’s like on the side of every road; pokeweed, which gives a really strong pink and purple tone. And again, it’s just a weed and you’re basically just harvesting the berries and smashing them up. That’s one where you want to be careful if you do it at home because it is toxic; you don’t want to ingest those. I’ve also recently started harvesting rust off of metal, steel that gets left over, that I pick up maybe from the printmaking department. They use it in their etching. And also, copper, I was able to make copper oxide just with vinegar and salt and copper and a little bit of waiting.

The interesting thing is, I’ve most recently been using those in these small tondi or tondos that are portraits of future worlds or other worlds. But, anyway, I’m using these inks together and they’re creating these reactions that I never would have had otherwise. They’re reacting to each other and creating these almost miniature landscapes in a way.

I guess the reason that I started getting into that was, I think, honestly, it was a little bit of one-person protest, or an attempt at circumventing capitalism in a small way [. . .], like a little protest, thinking about how resourceful I could be finding and creating this stuff myself instead of buying whatever materials that are reliant on mining or exploiting the landscape in some other country, and then shipping the materials and then going through whatever industrial processes are necessary to convert the materials and then shipping them again to my house. I was thinking about what I could do to have a much smaller footprint and that became me just walking around Iowa City and collecting these things and not really needing to do too much as far as what was necessary to convert them into something usable. 

Along the way—and this was something that was noted by one of my professors at the University of Iowa—I ended up in a much slower mode of working in a good way [. . .] and I think this is also something that came about from the pandemic. I think a lot of people have been recently rethinking how important productivity is and thinking about productivity and how it relates to our feelings of self-worth. I ended up in this much slower mode of just [. . .], I get to go outside and go on a walk and get out of the house and search for these materials, and it’s something that felt very healthy physically and mentally. It was very rewarding to be able to find these things and turn them into something that I could actually use myself. It’s so crazy that that’s something that’s so foreign in my life and other people’s lives right now [. . .], this idea of going out and finding something and making something out of it, as opposed to just ordering it on Amazon or whatever, because that’s how, obviously, how much our way of life has shifted post-industrialization and in this capitalist system. It’s just interesting [. . .], it’s not something that’s foreign to humanity, but it’s certainly foreign to how we’ve been living in Western society for a while, so that’s an interesting change.

MB: The theme of this issue of SEQUITUR, as you know, is “Deregulation.” That theme is, of course, at play in these worlds you create in which petrochemical corporations have gone so unregulated that not only can human life not survive but ecosystems are too disrupted for plant and animal life to continue. That’s true in the ways you adapt Thomas Moran’s Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory for your painting New Lithosphere. In that Moran painting, as in so many landscape paintings of the nineteenth century, the figures representing Indigenous people, presumably meant to be Shoshone people based on the geography, are relegated to one small area of the canvas while landforms are the vast majority of the composition. As you know, one of the ways I’ve interpreted your work is as “new landscapes.” In reality though, that’s an oversimplification because you’re really in conversation with multiple Euro-American and European traditions, including portraiture and, through the title work of The Technosphere show and very recent work, tondi as well. But in each case you divert from the subject matter and often the media that would be traditional. In essence, you shirk what the de facto regulations of the genres have been. I hope you can talk about that, and I’m wondering what kind of work you see this is doing, whether it’s decolonial or something else.

DE: I do see a relation to this idea of decoloniality in the sense that one of the main philosophies in my work is always shedding this idea, which I think is a very Western idea, of humans conquering and controlling the environment. I think that’s one of the most harmful ideas that we’ve stuck with over the years. We certainly haven’t gotten over it. You know, obviously European colonists came to take resources they needed for building ships or whatever. The whole ethos was going elsewhere to conquer “the other,” whether that’s other people, territories, lands, and other conscious beings [. . .], meaning other animals as well. I think that’s one of the through lines in my work is that I want humans to be able to [. . .]. This is not new either [. . .], these sorts of ideas have been talked about since at least the sixties and seventies, the ideas that we are a part of a larger ecosystem and we are not the lords of the Earth. We should view ourselves as the stewards of the Earth. I think a lot of that comes from this confidence of, “humans are so much smarter than other animals” or whatever; we do have a very complex intelligence, and we do have the ability to imagine alternate futures which maybe other animals can’t do. I think we also have an inherent responsibility to view ourselves as stewards of the Earth, but I think we really need to shed the idea of conquering—that’s the central thing with colonialism, capitalism, extraction, industrialization. It’s all about using whatever for human benefit as opposed to trying to live in conjunction with the natural processes of our environment.

You mentioned the new landscapes and Moran’s Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River. That painting was like a flashpoint for me, for whatever reason, when I was looking at it. One of the things that I have done in multiple ways now is using a convention, as you mentioned, like the sort of traditional methods or genres and mediums and adding a twist to them to talk about something that’s going on now, or getting people to rethink our history and think about the future. So, I think that my painting New Lithosphere and how it relates to that painting by Thomas Moran is using that format of the romantic painting or the sublime and envisioning an alternate future.

I haven’t really talked about the “loomers” in this conversation, but they are these entities that I imagine in this far distant future, far distant post-life future that are in this scenario because, wherever they come from—I think it’s interpretable, whether they’re something that has to do with AI or whatever that comes out of Earth or whether it’s visitors from elsewhere, it’s not really necessarily that important—I think that they serve as these kind of future specters of the effect of capitalism, necrocapitalism, the idea of creating a debt of death that you can never repay. It’s hit a pinnacle, everyone has gone, and all the history of humanity, all of the waste has over time, and through pressure and time, created this new landscape which maybe has new resources. When I was originally envisioning that show and thinking about the kind of correlations to colonialism, the idea of this sort of grabbing hand and the idea of these entities coming in to take resources [. . .]. I was thinking, there was more of a parallel there. It’s a reflection of the same kind of story of colonialism, but really it’s just the continuation of the same story, right? It’s colonialism, capitalism, paving the way for these specters of the future to have these new resources that they can collect.

As far as using conventional formats and putting that sort of twist on it [. . .], I did that with a couple of the paintings in The Technosphere. I’ve done that before with some WPA-style posters that I’ve made. They’re highlighting [. . .], they’re using the exact same iconic format, but they’re highlighting landscapes that have been altered or ruined by human industry. I think that is a really effective way to get people’s attention, but then also to get them thinking about why we pick the certain places that we pick to protect and why we pick the certain places we pick to destroy or extract resources.

The tondi that I’m working on right now are [. . .], I think you also mentioned [. . .], like portraiture a little bit. There is some history of portraiture in the tondi, I think. I also had a couple pieces in The Technosphere show that were called like Portrait of the Excavator (2020), Portrait of the Surveyor (2020), and The Collector (2020), which are these “loomers.” At the time I was thinking, it’s kind of like seeing the portrait of the colonial settler, the white male colonial settler, in front of his land, his house, his property. But with the tondi, they really are serving as portraits. And this again has to do with the work that I’m doing right now for my show. They’re kind of tragic portraits of either [. . .] and this is again something that’s a little bit interpretable [. . .], other worlds or exo-civilizations who have gone through a similar process of not being able to survive the behaviors that they’re doing as a civilization, or also just alternate futures of possible futures of the Earth. 

I don’t know. There’s something [. . .], I keep going back to that as well [. . .], there’s something for me about just tweaking those formats a little bit. I think it’s a way of getting people’s attention and just getting to think a little bit differently about these things that I’m bringing up as far as the really important contemporary issues that we’re facing.

MB: I think the tondi are so interesting because one of the things I was taught about tondi in the Italian Renaissance is that it’s very much linked to birth, so this round format comes out of food trays that were given to new mothers as they were recovering. And also it was commonly associated with Mary and Christ, that sort of religious imagery [. . .], but this idea of birth and your use of that format as being this rebirth of Earth as something new but also at the same time the death of Earth as we’ve known it.

DE: Right. I really like that read. I think that’s another really important thing that’s been a through line of my graduate work. There have been many, many faces of Earth over the 4.7 billion years it’s been around. Whether it was cyanobacteria covering the Earth, dinosaurs being the dominant species, it’s gone through a lot of changes and it can go through a lot more changes. I do like that association with the tondi and rebirth. I always like hearing your interpretations. There are a lot of different phases in the process of doing something [. . .] because I’m following my gut and then starting to understand why it needed to be that way later versus having a very specific idea that I want to talk about, and then just figuring out how to go about expressing that through visual means. But, either way, it’s inevitable that someone will see something that I didn’t and view it in a different way. I think it’s always really enriching to think about that.
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Morgan J. Brittain

Morgan J. Brittain is a PhD student in American studies at William & Mary. He received his MA in art history from the University of Iowa in 2020. His research takes an ecocritical approach to historic and contemporary landscape traditions. His work has also been supported by a Newberry Library Consortium Grant and the Gilcrease Museum’s Helmerich Center for American Research.

Drew Etienne

Drew Etienne is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa where he has been employing painting, printmaking, and sculptural modes of working. The goal of his art is to shift the viewer’s focus away from the anthropocentric toward the micro- and macroscopic to aid in understanding scales of space and time that are not innately understood, as well as the effect of human behavior on ecosystems past, present, and future.
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Footnotes

[1] Maxwell Hearn, “New Landscapes,” in Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013), 73–137. Hearn uses “New Landscapes” to describe the reinterpretation of Chinese landscape painting traditions by contemporary Chinese artists.

[2] See Amanda Boetzkes, Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019).

[3] Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018) is a documentary film by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier that follows a group of scientists who are examining the devastating effects of human domination on planetary ecology, particularly since the mid-twentieth century.

[4] Evidential Existence was held in fall 2020 on the Second Floor Gallery of the  University of Iowa’s Visual Arts Building.

Crowd Control: The Mary L. Cornille (GRS’87) Graduate Symposium in the History of Art & Architecture

by Jillianne Laceste and Phillippa Pitts

This year’s symposium centered on the timely theme of “Crowd Control.” The disastrous personal and public health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the closing of both minds and borders, and the lives lost to hate and white supremacy all heightened our awareness of two things: the power of the people and the strength of the bureaucratic and political systems which envelop them. Meditating on crowd control today immediately raises questions about agency, authority, and influence. From the creation of a temporary green space in front of Lincoln Center to the forcible removals of controversial monuments around the globe, the events of this year threw into sharp relief the wide array of structures that seek to order, pacify, neutralize, inspire, repress, or control collective humanity. The seven graduate student papers selected to present at this year’s virtual symposium added important context to this conversation by illuminating the deep roots of both injustice and impetus for change.

For two reasons, the 2021 symposium itself was unique within the thirty-seven years of the event’s tenure. First, the program was held entirely on Zoom, a choice made for practical public-health reasons, but which unleashed transformative potential. Freed from the constraints of travel time and expenses, we welcomed presenters and attendees from across the globe, a change which enriched the event in myriad ways. Second, this year was marked by a significant gift. In late 2020, an exceptionally generous alumna, Mary Cornille, endowed our graduate symposium in perpetuity, guaranteeing that this convening of emerging scholars will remain a fixture in our department and our field. Cornille, who graduated two years before the first BU art-history symposium, attended this spring’s event via Zoom and we hope to welcome her to many future symposia in person. In thanks, our symposium has been renamed in her honor as the Mary L. Cornille (GRS’87) Graduate Symposium in the History of Art & Architecture. Despite the transition to an online format, neither the caliber of presentation nor the quality of intellectual exchange at this year’s event dimmed. To provide some reprieve from Zoom fatigue, the program was spread over two days, with graduate-student panels on the afternoon of Friday, April 23, and the morning of Saturday, April 24, anchored by a Friday evening keynote by Dr. Paul Farber of Monument Lab.

The first panel, entitled “Pushing the Past,” was hosted by PhD student Colleen Foran. Drawn from a range of contexts and methods, the three papers collectively challenged the ways in which we engage with history, query our practices of interpretation, and examine the construction of knowledge. Corey Loftus (MA candidate, Tufts University) opened the first panel. Her paper examined the moral, political, and social complexities of Theresa Margolis’s Sutura, a blood-soaked textile scored by repeated stitched lines, hand-embroidered by Venezuelan men in a slow, silent performance. Juxtaposed in both Loftus’s talk and the artist’s installation with photographic records of the humanitarian crisis which has driven more than one-million Venezuelans from their homes, this work of art is more than a statement. It functions as corporeal evidence of violence. Connections between displacement, display, and humanity were also interrogated in the second presentation, a paper on Joseon folk dolls by Lina Shinhwa Koo (MA student, University of London SOAS). These miniature figures, produced for a Japanese export market, extended the dehumanization of the subjugated Korean people: weaponizing local culture to reinforce the colonial dichotomy of the “advanced” and the “backward,” while miniaturizing and homogenizing the country’s population into benign doll form. The last paper of the day, delivered by Aidan Flynn (SMArchS candidate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), took us to a third continent and a third historical moment. Using Domenico Cresti’s Bathers at San Niccolò (1600) as a productive point of departure, Flynn suggested a framework through which to explore queer subjects in the early modern world, in a manner that carefully balances efficacy and anachronism, scholarly rigor and personal positionality. In doing so, Flynn explored fear, love, desire, and punishment in Renaissance Florence, physically mapping these abstract ideas onto the built environment in a manner which illuminated new and productive lines of inquiry and understanding.

Lina Shinhwa Koo presents her paper, "Visual Politics and Human Agency: Humanization of Korean Culture and Dehumanization of Korean People in Joseon Folk Dolls."

After a brief recess, we reconvened to hear from Dr. Paul Farber, Director and Co-Founder of Monument Lab, a public art and history studio based in Philadelphia. Monument Lab defines monuments broadly as “statements of power and presence in public.” Such a phrasing includes the most conventional of examples: statues, in bronze and marbles, on pedestals, in city squares. But it also encompasses other ways in which people imprint their stories in public space: through art, music, dance, projection, paint, and protest. This framework also encourages us to approach monuments as “agreed-upon fictions” and question their permanence: to recognize that they require maintenance, preservation, and upkeep. Even the most still of statues is evidence of an ongoing relationship, between people and across time. In his energetic talk, which creatively combined methods from civics, history, urban studies, and design thinking, Farber spun together reflections on the local and the global, on passion and professional development, and knowledge “not as a one-sided gesture but a collaborative process.”

Dr. Paul Farber presents his keynote address, "Power and Participation in Public Art."

The next morning’s panel, “Patterned Behavior,” continued the conversation, picking up a number of threads from the previous day. Moderated by PhD candidate Rachel Kase, this discussion ranged from the domestic to the carceral, with papers that addressed the ways in which art and architecture enforce, experiment with, and disrupt activity on a mass scale. In doing so, the presenters highlighted both the repressive and resistant potential of crowd control. Kelli Fisher (MA candidate, Syracuse University) kicked off the discussion by drawing our attention to the understudied American Negro exhibition at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. As Fisher demonstrated, this Black-curated presentation of Black success operated in productive subversive tension with the overwhelming narrative of “racial progress,” which was overtly manifested in painful ethnographic exhibits, but also reinforced in every element of the fair’s design: from color palettes to the racialized spatiality of the fair’s layout. The next presenter, Ian Tan (PhD candidate, University of Hong Kong), picked up this theme of race, space, and control in his analysis of nineteenth-century quarantine stations in Hong Kong and Singapore. Tan drew our attention to the complexities of every element of these facilities’ construction: how exposed steel beams both professed modernity and proffered practicality in the form of fire-proof and easily disinfected surfaces; how the medical systems both protected and punished waves of emigrants across the Indian and Pacific Oceans; how these spaces were both curative and carceral. The last was certainly a theme expanded upon by Sarah Churchill (PhD candidate, Drew University). Churchill’s talk was punctuated by unflinching photographs of life in the Divis flats, a Belfast slum-clearance project inspired by Corbusian utopianism but which became a humanitarian crisis. Weaving together photography, architectural theory, and local history, Churchill not only conveyed the danger and deplorable conditions of life in this “city in the sky,” she highlighted the resistant power of the residents who refused to surrender their lives or dignity without a fight. The last paper of the morning, by Katy Knortz (PhD candidate, Princeton University), took a lighter note while maintaining the theme of interdisciplinarity which had punctuated each of the presenter’s talks. Knortz proposed a holistic scholarly approach, drawing from archaeological, art historical, and literary sources to retrieve that which has been lost from the historical record. She modeled her approach by examining women's spaces in Greek domestic architecture of the Classical Period, noting the connections between gender and control.

Panelist Ian Tan presents his paper, “Standardising Mobility and Instrumentalising Control: A Global Understanding of Quarantine Stations in Singapore and Hong Kong during the Late Nineteenth Century,”

Altogether, these papers interrogated the myriad forms that crowd control has taken across continents and over the course of centuries. The presenters posed important questions, tested new methodological frameworks, drew our attention to marginalized histories and peoples, and sparked dialogue amongst themselves and the audience. We hope that this symposium was not the end of these fruitful conversations, but the beginning.

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Jillianne Laceste

Jillianne Laceste is a PhD candidate in the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University. Her research addresses cross-cultural connections of the early modern world with a particular focus on Italy and the Americas. Her dissertation examines the visual culture of Christopher Columbus and transatlantic exploration in seventeenth-century Genoa.

Phillippa Pitts

Phillippa Pitts is a PhD candidate and Horowitz Foundation Fellow for American Art at Boston University. Her research explores the ways in which visual rhetorics around expansion, immigration, and Indigeneity have shaped American culture from the long nineteenth century to the present. Pitts’s work has been generously supported by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the Kress Foundation, the Center for American Art, and the University of Michigan.

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Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

October 18, 2020–July 25, 2021

by Marina Wells

Figure 1.  A-One (1964–2001) and Jenny Holzer (b. 1950, United States). Flashlight Text: Survival (1983–84). Spray paint on canvas. Image © 1983 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, courtesy Sprüth Magers.

The sounds of Billie Holiday, Beastie Boys, and The Clash bumped pleasantly in the background of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston’s exhibition Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation, curated by Liz Munsell and Greg Tate. Though the exhibit centered on canonical artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988), the galleries also led visitors through the lives of lesser-known artists from various disciplines in the 1980s. The eight-gallery exhibition offered an atmosphere of collaboration, reflecting the era’s transformative projects of breaking down barriers, between New York’s streets and its white-walled galleries, between groups of people, and between the fine art, design, fashion, and music that they produced. 

A Brooklyn-born, Black artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, Basquiat became a pioneer in bringing graffiti and its allied arts into the mainstream. Despite being the canonized face of the so-called Hip-Hop Generation, Basquiat was hardly alone; the MFA’s Gund Gallery showcased works by his contemporaries, friends, and collaborators A-One, ERO, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Keith Haring, Kool Koor, LA2, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Rammellzee, and Toxic, as well as other writers, filmmakers, and musicians with whom visitors may not have been familiar. They expanded the aesthetic world in which we imagine Basquiat living, while creating worlds of their own, including Rammellzee’s sharp Afrofuturism, Futura’s dance-like compositions, Lady Pink’s architectural spaces, and A-One’s self-proclaimed “aerosol expressionism.” On one wall played Blondie’s video for “Rapture” (1981), which features Basquiat DJing, graffiti artists at work, and Debbie Harry rhyming a verse in the first televised rap video. In a nearby display were pamphlets for legendary exhibitions that featured members of the post-graffiti art movement alongside such notables as David Byrne, Jenny Holzer, and Robert Mapplethorpe. 

The galleries were like a party: They were textured, winding, music-filled, and even lit in places with black lights. Besides paintings, visitors encountered unexpected artifacts: a refrigerator, notebooks, clothing, turntables, ceramic plates, Corinthian columns, bejeweled watches, and one monstrous and wearable sculpture. The show satisfied a longing many of us share after an isolated year, as it brought diverse groups of people together, including figures both past and present.  

Visitors were also met with interpretations from the museum’s Table of Voices program, where the curators’ discourse was complemented by poetry and prose from members of the Boston-area artist and activist communities. These interpretations offered further creative insight, while also contributing to the MFA’s efforts toward increased representation, diversity, and inclusion.

Writing the Future, of course, alluded in part to the unique ways post-graffiti artists invigorated their work with written language. From the roots of chunky tags like those of The Fabulous Five, Basquiat and others grew to use text liberally, on walls, on the page, and on canvas. They employed the art of text to layer meaning, cement trademarks, and write poetry. Collaborations with Holzer exemplified this relationship: Flashlight Text: Survival (1983–84) by Holzer and A-One reads, among a potpourri of spray-painted marks, “When someone beats you with a flashlight you make light shine in all directions,” (fig. 1). 

Figure 2. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988). Six Crimee (1982). Acrylic and oil paintstick on Masonite. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

 

Writing the Future also gestured at the fact that New York in the 1980s was a site of myriad systemic issues. Basquiat’s Six Crimee (1982) depicts six heads with halos hovering above each one, perhaps an abstract reminder of Black innocence, racial profiling, and police violence (fig. 2). Like Six Crimee, the exhibition dignified Black figures and figures of color—even coronated them—but refused to explicitly express rage about contemporary circumstances. While the show highlighted Black and Latinx artists, it struggled to address the racism experienced by Basquiat and others in the predominantly white art world, and fell short of tackling pressing social issues, including police violence, drug addiction, or the AIDS crisis, which were contemporary with all of the artwork present. Yet, it thoroughly captured the excitement and possibility of change, something we should perhaps also aspire to celebrate in the present moment. 

Figure 3. Installation view of “Ascension” gallery in Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 

In thematic galleries about “Portraiture,” “Music,” and “Bodies,” the most profound stops were “Futurisms” and “Ascension,” galleries that highlighted the ways Black creators completely reshaped and reimagined Black futures. This was both figurative and literal: Beside the exit doors sat a mirrored pyramidal urn Rammellzee made for his own ashes, exhibited according to his request to be on view with his own work. The mirrors asked viewers to self-reflect and ask what remains they will leave behind, what the future is that they have written. Nearby, Rammellzee’s wearable performance suit Gash-o-Lear (1989) offered an example of otherworldly embodiment, of physically tearing down and reconstructing the limitations that seemingly guide our lives (fig. 3). Rammellzee, Basquiat, and others imparted a sense of moving beyond the current world as it stands, of finding liberation in making their mark. They suggested we can find hope in the titular act of Writing the Future, as dark and daunting as that process may be.

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Marina Wells

Marina Wells is a PhD candidate in the American & New England Studies Program at Boston University. She holds a BA from Colby College in art history and literature, and has held positions at various institutions including in the Health Humanities at BU and at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

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Mass of Saint Gregory: Artistic Disobedience in Early Modern Mesoamerica

by Emily Beaulieu

Figure 1. Artist unknown. Mass of Saint Gregory (1539). Feathers on wood with touches of paint. 26 1/4 x 22 in. Musée des Amériques – Auch, France, n° inv. 86.1.1. Image © Musée des Amériques – Auch.

As the earliest surviving Christian featherwork of postcolonial New Spain, Mass of Saint Gregory offers an unparalleled site through which to examine an early moment of cultural exchange between the Aztec Empire and Spanish colonialists (fig. 1). Mass of Saint Gregory was made in 1539 for Pope Paul III under the direction of Franciscan missionary Fray Pedro de Gante and Mexica noble Don Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin.[1] The unique context of the featherwork’s production has invited scholarly debate over the nature of the cultural exchange between the work’s Indigenous artists and European patrons.[2] Scholars such as Alessandra Russo and Gerhard Wolf have questioned the validity of qualifying it as a true instance of “cultural hybridity.”[3] Instead, these scholars, among others, understand Mass of Saint Gregory as a work of Catholic propaganda touting a successful colonization—and Christianization—of the Nahua peoples against the reality of a failing conversion mission in Central America.[4] A product of “coercion” and a “fictive image” meant to reassure the pope, Mass of Saint Gregory—for many scholars—can bear no trace of a Nahua cultural identity.[5]  

However, there is reason to believe that these absolutist conclusions obscure the complexity fundamental to moments of cross-cultural interaction, even ones born out of oppression and forced integration. Whether it was intended or not, Mass of Saint Gregory contributes to and is the product of a new, third culture that is neither purely Nahua nor purely Spanish. By inviting the active participation of Indigenous feather artists towards the creation of this piece, de Gante inadvertently opened the door for a more reciprocal moment of cultural exchange. The work’s Nahua artists hid an act of artistic disobedience behind the veil of compliance by integrating Nahua pictorial language within Christian iconography.

This paper argues that in the peculiar composition and iconography employed in the depiction of the instruments of the Passion—the Arma Christi—there is evidence for Nahua artistic disobedience in Mass of Saint Gregory. Upon close inspection of the featherwork, the arrangement of the Arma Christi deeply contrasts with the rendering on which the work was most likely based, a print by Israhel van Meckenem of the same subject (fig. 2).[6]

Figure 2. Israhel van Meckenem (1445–1503). Mass of Saint Gregory (c. 1490–1500). Engraving. 18 5/16 x 11 9/16 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Rosenwald Collection, 1954.12.91. Image via public domain.

The composition of the Arma Christi found in De Gante’s Mass of Saint Gregory is, in fact, uncharacteristic of any European depiction of the subject and bears closer resemblance to the visual language traditional to the Nahua peoples. For this reason, I argue that the Arma Christi made in New Spain reveal a profoundly Indigenous interpretation of Christian symbols born of the Nahua visual culture. Such an act of Nahua artistic assertion represents further evidence to support the claim that early colonial Mesoamerican art contains moments of cultural resistance enacted by the Indigenous populations in the face of colonization and forced conversion.

For the Europeans, the symbols of the Arma Christi were used as mnemonic devices to aid the devotee in recalling important Christian tenets. This kind of mnemonic device closely aligns with the Nahua pictorial language employed in works of art made in the Aztec Empire.[7] Pictorial symbols used by Nahua artists took the place of the written word. Nahua symbols could be understood as abstract concepts, as the attributes to an object, or the sound of a word.[8] In this way, the practical function of the Arma Christi and Nahua pictographs were in essence the same. As Claire Farago argues, Spanish missionaries were well aware of this similarity and actively deployed the Arma Christi in cultural content produced for the purpose of conversion.[9] However, evidence from Mass of Saint Gregory suggests that the Nahua peoples utilized their pictorial linguistic tradition to assert their own cultural self-expression through such colonial artistic productions. 

The assertion of Nahua identity in Mass of Saint Gregory is perhaps found most clearly in the treatment of the inner circle of the Arma Christi. In this inner subset, three of the four symbols relate directly to Judas’s betrayal of Christ: Judas with a bag of coins hanging around his neck, a hand holding another bag of coins, and finally a row of golden coins. These three symbols of Judas’s betrayal are all placed immediately surrounding the central figure of Christ. This pronounced emphasis on the figure of Judas in the Arma Christi is, indeed, extremely unusual. Though Van Meckenem includes similar symbols referencing Judas’s betrayal of Christ around the cross, they are not endowed with the same importance, either in size or centrality. Moreover, European depictions typically limit the symbols of Judas to one or two in number and tend to spread them throughout the entire composition. The fourth symbol of the inner Arma Christi would appear to reference the mockery of Christ by soldiers and onlookers.    

The unique arrangement of these symbols can be explained by the Nahua pictographic tradition. In representations of Nahua pictographs, different symbols are arranged in space by their relation to one another.[10] The multiplication of the symbols of Judas—arranged around the figure of Christ—can now be understood as a Nahua-inspired method invoked to emphasize this apostle’s betrayal as the fateful event that would set in motion the crucifixion. The framing effect of the three symbols is further heightened by the inclusion of other instruments of the Passion: the spear to Christ’s right, the sponge filled with vinegar to his left, and, of course, the cross. Together, these instruments effectively frame the symbols of Judas and the figure of Christ.

Additional symbols alluding to Christ’s torments—betrayal, torture, and crucifixion—emanate outwards from the symbols of Judas. Following the Nahua pictographic tradition, these surrounding symbols are compositionally arranged as outcomes of the inner symbols (i.e., Judas’s betrayal). On the left-hand side of the cross, we have four symbols which allude to the subsequent arrest of Christ, including a helmet worn by the arresting soldier, a lantern, and a sword cutting off the ear of a servant accompanying the soldiers. Finally, the symbol of a tree is included below the sword. I believe this symbol to be a reference to the tree from which Judas hangs himself—an element usually featured in most scenes of the arrest. Below is a whip made of birch tree used to flog Christ. To the right of the cross are three symbols associated with Pontius Pilate, including his image, as well as a symbol of a hand and a basin which reference the moment in which Pontius Pilate washed his hands of the crime of sentencing Christ to death. Below these symbols, the featherwork features a column, whips, and nails which reference the Flagellation and Crucifixion of Christ. A pair of pineapples placed nearby, atop the sepulcher, stands out as a unique inclusion in this religious scene. Scholar Alessandra Russo argues that the addition of the tropical fruit both operates as a symbol for the Americas at large and takes the place of the bread or wafer usually depicted within this Eucharistic subject matter.[11] In this way, the pineapples cleverly allude to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, a central issue to the story of the mass of Saint Gregory.[12]     

A final symbol would seem to reflect the Nahua tradition not only in its spatial relationship within the featherwork but also in its distinctly Nahua mode of representation. In the top left-hand corner of Mass of Saint Gregory is an image of one of Christ’s torturers sticking out his tongue in a mocking gesture. This type of figure carries great similarity with the depiction of the Nahua goddess Tlaltecuhtli (Earth Lord), often portrayed with a knife-like tongue evoking her bloodlust for human sacrifice.[13] Taking inspiration from a stock of Nahua motifs, the Indigenous artists impose their visual and cultural heritage onto a European Christian narrative.              

The arrangement in which a multitude of mnemonic symbols alluding to the Passion of Christ radiate sequentially from the central figure represents evidence that the involved Nahua artists actively incorporated elements of their pictorial tradition into Mass of Saint Gregory. In bringing Indigenous patterns of thinking and methods of spatial visualization, the Nahua artists altered both the depiction of the Western subject matter as well as its traditional meaning. In essence, the work’s Indigenous artists partook in an act of artistic disobedience by asserting not only their visual tradition but also their spiritual perspective. 

In the New Spanish version of the image, the sinner takes center stage alongside the savior. Mass of Saint Gregory, rather than emphasizing Christ’s sacrifice and the miracle of the Eucharist, finds its ultimate expression in Judas’s betrayal: the fateful event that would precipitate the death of Christ. This emphasis on the role of the sinner recalls the purpose of Nahua ritual sacrifice, which operated on the idea that the sacrificial victim was a placeholder for all who had sinned.[14] This idea is visually stressed through the framing of Judas and Christ together in the same space, as if the fates of sinner and savior were tied. The core emphasis placed on Judas’s role is almost entirely foreign to traditional Western approaches to the mass of Saint Gregory, but comes into focus when we examine it through the lens of the Nahua tradition of ritual sacrifice. Thus, this Christian featherwork produces not only a wholly original visual language, but also a new third set of beliefs, belonging to neither Spanish culture nor Nahua tradition but to an integrated yet distinct realm that would come to define the Indigenous customs of colonial Mexico.

Within the Arma Christi of Mass of Saint Gregory, Nahua artists assert their self-expression under the guise of Christian iconography, finding in the process a new voice. Out of the brilliant, iridescent feathers that make up their shape, these mystical symbols indicate the emergence of a “new” Nahua culture. Vibrant and dynamic in the face of colonialism, oppression, and conversion, this burgeoning creation would destroy its ancient gods only to resurrect them under a different name, carrying within them the lifeblood of the Nahua peoples into a new age.    

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Emily Beaulieu

Emily Beaulieu is a second-year master’s student in art history at Tufts University. She specializes in Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, with a particular interest in Caravaggio and art theory of the seventeenth century. Recently, Beaulieu has expanded her area of study to non-European art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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Footnotes

[1] Elena Isabel E. de Gerlero, “Mass of Saint Gregory,” in Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521–1821, eds. Donna Pierce, Rogelio Ruiz Gomar, and Clara Bargellini (Denver, CO: Frederick and Jan Mayer Center for Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial Art, Denver Art Museum, 2004), 96.

[2] A selection of authors involved in the discussion of Mass of Saint Gregory: de Gerlero, “Mass of Saint Gregory,” 95–102; Alessandra Russo, “Recomposing the Image. Presents and Absents in the Mass of Saint Gregory, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, 1539,” in Synergies in Visual Culture: Bildkulturen im Dialog, eds. Manuela De Giorgi, Annette Hoffmann, and Nicola Suthor, (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2013), 465–81; Gerhard Wolf, “Incarnation of Light: Picturing Feathers in Europe/Mexico, ca. 1400–1600,” in Images Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe (1400–1700), eds. Alessandra Russo, Gerhard Wolf, and Diana Fane (Munich: Hirmer, 2015), 78–86; Eduardo de Jesús Douglas, “Indigenous Painting in New Spain, circa 1521–1600: Icon-Script, Manuscripts, Feather Paintings, and Murals,” in Painting in Latin America, 1550–1820: From Conquest to Independence, eds. Luisa Elena Alcalá and Jonathan Brown (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 71–101.

[3] Russo, “Recomposing the Image,” 465–81; Wolf, “Incarnation of Light,” 78–86.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For this interpretation see Douglas, “Indigenous Painting in New Spain,” 71–101; Russo, “Recomposing the Image,” 465–81. For a general discussion of art in colonial Mexico and the issue of cultural hybridity see Tom Cummins, “The Madonna and the Horse. Becoming Colonial in New Spain and Peru,” in Native Artists and Patrons in Colonial Latin America, eds. Emily Good Umberger and Tom Cummins (Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University, 1995), 52–83; Serge Gruzinski, Images at War: Mexico From Columbus to Blade Runner (1492–2019) (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001). For important discussions on cultural hybridity in the context of colonial Mexico more generally see Serge Gruzinski, The Mestizo Mind: The Intellectual Dynamics of Colonization and Globalization, trans. Deke Dusinberre (New York: Routledge, 2012); David Lockhart, “Double Mistaken Identity: Some Nahua Concepts in Postconquest Guise (1985, 1993)” in Of Things of the Indies (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 98–119.

[6] The print on which the work is based is noted in Claire Farago, “Mass of Saint Gregory,” in Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521–1821, eds. Donna Pierce, Rogelio Ruiz Gomar, and Clara Bargellini (Denver, CO: Frederick and Jan Mayer Center for Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial Art, Denver Art Museum, 2004), 100–1.

[7] Farago, “Mass of Saint Gregory,” 100.

[8] Douglas, “Indigenous Painting in New Spain,” 79.

[9] Farago, “Mass of Saint Gregory,” 100.

[10] Douglas, “Indigenous Painting in New Spain,” 78.

[11] Russo, “Recomposing the Image,” 467.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For a description of the goddess Tlaltecuhtli in Nahua art see H.B. Nicholson and Eloise Quiñones Keber, Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1983), 61.

[14] Michel Graulich, “Aztec Human Sacrifice as Expiation,” History of Religions 39, no. 4 (May 2000): 352–71. For more scholarship on the Nahua religion and its belief in ritual sacrifice, see Jacques Soustelle, La pensée cosmologique des anciens Mexicains (Paris: Hermann, 1940); Christian Duverger, La fleur létale: Economie du sacrifice aztèque (Paris: Seuil, 1979); Yólotl Gónzalez Torres, El sacrificio humano entro los mexicas (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1985); Kay Almere Read, Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos (Bloomington and Indianapolis, ID: Indiana University Press, 1998); Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation (Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

In Conversation with Eric Rivera Barbeito

by Gabrielle Tillenburg

 

Puerto Rican-born artist Eric Rivera Barbeito’s multimedia practice interrogates the regulation of Puerto Rico’s status as a colony, and conversely, deregulations harmful to the Puerto Rican people such as governmental policies, those related to environmental crises, and disaster capitalism. This interview discusses his political research and process, highlighting crucial tensions relevant to contemporary discourse on sovereignty, climate change, and decolonization. Rivera Barbeito received his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and resides in Baltimore, Maryland.

Figure 1. Eric Rivera Barbeito (b. Puerto Rico, 1994). Después (2017). Ash, maple, masonite, tarp. 6 1/2 x 5 1/4 x 5 1/4 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Interview Transcript:

Gabrielle Tillenberg: To begin, in your work you examine the relationship between the free-associated state, Puerto Rico, and the United States and the history of this relationship is incredibly complex. The neocolonial impacts of US regulations, and deregulations (in some cases), continue to have long-lasting impacts on the island. Much of this converged and became globally visible after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and your series of objects entitled Temporal (2017–18) addresses this confluence. How have you conceptualized these objects, and considering the possibility for engaging these objects individually outside of their context in terms of their relationship to the series, how has conceptualizing many varying issues affected your artistic process?

Eric Rivera Barbieto: Temporal was mostly intended as a series of recordings of the new reality after the hurricane. I think if you speak to a lot of people who were on the island while Maria was passing through (for example, my parents), everyone gauges time now as pre-Maria and post-Maria. So, I was thinking of these small objects as signifiers of markers of time, of these new understandings of daily life or just small shifts of how people go about their business. Some of them are a little bit easier to pick up in an individual setting. One of the sculptures in that series is called Después (2017) and it’s very plain—you have the blue tarp in a house-like structure, so it’s very easy to get to the idea of a post-Maria landscape with that one (fig. 1).

Figure 2. Eric Rivera Barbeito (b. Puerto Rico, 1994). Vagón (2018). Painted plywood. 4 x 3 1/2 x 18 1/2 in. Image courtesy the artist.

But some of the other ones—there’s a miniature version of a shipping container and that could take a whole set of different meanings, especially now with the whole Suez Canal situation happening (fig 2). It alludes to a lot of different things. When I made it, it was talking about how getting first-aid supplies to the island and the aftermath of the hurricane was a complete mess, and then that situation happened again when Puerto Rico was experiencing the earthquakes in the south of the island. And then, shipping containers are a personal object for me because my parents [. . .] they’ve been in the trucking business for a while, so you always hear these international shipping firm names while you’re riding with my dad in the car. You hear “Hapag-Lloyd,” “Merx,” and “Evergreen.” Some of them stand on their own, some of them are a little bit more hyper-specific, and some can be taken in a different context, but generally they’re made with the intention of alluding to Maria, but the goal is to also speak to the issue of climate change which obviously is one of the big causes for why Maria was as bad as it was. It’s not going to be the last instance of where we see a natural disaster of this calamity. We’re just going to continue to see ever-worsening cataclysms like that happening on a more regular level.

GT: You speak of pre- and post-Maria. Post-Maria. About post-Maria, the former governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló tweeted in 2018: “Puerto Rico is open for business. Our goal is to minimize bureaucracy to promote investment and economic development.”[1] Your piece, Campamento (2018), responds to this proclamation (fig. 3). Can you speak about the work and how your artistic process addresses such a deregulatory position?

Figure 3. Eric Rivera Barbeito (b. Puerto Rico, 1994). Campamento (2018). Acrylic on paper, ash, shock cord. 126 x 102 in. Image courtesy the artist.

ERB: Campamento is a play into how essentially anything under our economic system can be commodified to an extent. If it can be commodified, it will be commodified. It was thinking mostly as how land and tropical spaces are very susceptible to that commodification, and it was using the medium of painting as a vehicle for that. Painting, I would argue, is one of the most commodified mediums of art making.

It was thinking of using painting, and seventy-eight square acrylic paintings, as proxies for each of Puerto Rico’s municipalities. Initially, I was trying to assign a value system to them. Each municipality in Puerto Rico has its shield insignia that’s a holdover from Spanish colonial times. A lot of municipalities will have a castle-crown on it and depending on the amount of castle-crowns, it would signify the importance to the Spanish crown. San Juan, for example, has five towers in its castle-crown. Initially, I wanted to play around with this weird value system and auctioning off these plots of land, through each painting and I also have [a] certificate of authenticity that would go with them and all that stuff. The main idea was to mock this liquidation process and this willingness on the part of the local government to just sell the land so givingly.

Figure 4. Eric Rivera Barbeito (b. Puerto Rico, 1994). Basta (2019). Acrylic on canvas. 16 3/8 x 8 3/8 in. Image courtesy the artist.

It’s all tied into the whole history of being a colony and that land never really being yours and always belonging to someone else or being at the mercy of someone else. It was also a critique of how private interests flock to the island because it’s a tax haven. It’s still part of the US but there [are] a lot of tax incentives given to private interests, so it’s seen as a tax paradise but it’s also matched with [. . .], Puerto Rico is a very beautiful place and it [is] warm weather all throughout the year and it’s always fetishized as a destination from mainland US. Currently you have the instance of “Portopians” which are cryptocurrency technocrats that are flocking to the island with the pretext of rebuilding the island and white-savior complex. It’s like, “Don’t worry, we’re here to improve the island. We’re benevolent, a benevolent force to enhance the island.” It’s a very bizarre thing to see. Campamento is talking about that process of who gets to assign value to a place, who’s in charge of dictating that place, and ultimately who has autonomy over that space. I think with Puerto Rico, time and time again you see that the actual people living there don’t have autonomy over the space that they live in, over their own backyard that they should by right of living, growing there, and being raised their entire lives—that they should have. You see that throughout Puerto Rico’s history where time and time again, an outside force or an outside external legislative body is always dictating what happens in Puerto Rico and, as a result, the courses of the lives of the people there.

GT: We met for the first time at your studio at the beginning of summer 2019. At that time, a private chat which included detestable comments from Rosselló had only just been released, and this included evidence of corruption as well. This sparked the ongoing protests that summer which called for his resignation and he stepped down that August. Did the events that took place that summer affect your work?

ERB: I think to an extent it did. It was amazing to see people getting together and seeing the energy behind the protest. That was pretty amazing and very inspiring, especially when you’re dealing with a systemic problem [. . .]. Rosselló was just one of many.

I did make a painting in response to it (fig 4). This is a momentous moment in Puerto Rico, you ousted a governor, rightfully so—and that had to be celebrated—but I also wanted to refrain from making too much work in response to that because I wasn’t present there and I didn’t feel like I could speak rightfully to the whole process. I was more of a spectator from the outside looking in and I think when you’re not on the street getting tear-gassed like a lot of Puerto Ricans did in Old San Juan, you don’t want to take the reins and make work as if that’s something that you’ve lived through (fig. 5).

But you definitely have to acknowledge it. I think there’s definitely a shift culturally that’s happening, and I think mentally, people are just absolutely exhausted of dealing with the same thing and the switchback from pro-statehood and status-quo party. I think that shift—you’re starting to see it more and more and people are rejecting that binary that’s existed for fifty-plus years. I think that the protests were a big catalyst to that. It really showed a lot of people that this is unacceptable and there’s really no reason we have to continue living with this.

Figure 5. Eric Rivera Barbeito (b. Puerto Rico, 1994). Vista Pública (2019). Acrylic, pencil, charcoal on paper. 11 3/4 x 9 in. Image courtesy the artist.

I think now you’re seeing the results of that a lot more with the past recent elections. There are two other parties, the pro-independence party and then another party that’s a little bit more recent, [which] got a bigger share of the votes in comparison to the current governor, Pierluisi. He only won with a third of the total votes, so it’s a ruling minority right now in Puerto Rico and I think that’s a big signifier of change, culturally and generally—where people are in regard to their attitudes with the way politics have been played [on] the island and getting rid of that standard system of operation in the island.

GT: Back when we met that summer, you recommended Naomi Klein's informative work, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on Disaster Capitalists. The text describes how laissez-faire economic incentives, austerity measures, and climate disasters have created a disaster in its own right. Importantly, she describes how Puerto Ricans are resisting disaster capitalism. Has disaster capitalism continued to be influential in your work?

ERB: Absolutely. Lately, I’ve had a string of research where I’ve been very interested by the idea of manifest destiny—this idea that everything that we see is ours for the taking—and how that concept wasn’t a widely spread idea in the early years of the United States. I think a minority of people (and early on, the young United States) actually supported it, but it was prevalent enough where it’s in the DNA of this country: the way this country manifests itself across the world, and the way it carries out its foreign policy with the neoliberal export of economic practices. Throughout the world you can see that this is our economic ruleset, this is the way you’re going to play, and these are the rules you’re going to play by [. . .]. You could see [an] early instance of this with the Jakarta Incident in Indonesia which I think Naomi Klein goes into in Disaster Capitalism

Figure 3. Eric Rivera Barbeito (b. Puerto Rico, 1994). Tanquesito (M1A1) (2021). Mixed media. 24 x 3 1/2 x 13 1/2 in. Image courtesy the artist.

The idea of manifest destiny is very interesting to me because the US [is] pushing its military presence across the world and through that, it’s preserving its hegemony and power status in the world. But then through the way it does that—the Department of Defense has a massive carbon footprint and running bases across the world is contributing to climate change. It’s this very interesting vicious cycle where they recognize climate change as probably the biggest existential threat that they could possibly face but at the same time they’re actively contributing to it. The way they go about it is very nonsensical. It’s like, “We’re going to preserve our status across the world even if it means dooming us all.”

Tanquesito (2021) is a very direct output of doing those readings and going into that frame of thought (fig. 6). There’s never a lack of funds for weapons but then when it comes to a simple stimulus check, they got to go back and forth and debate it, trim it down, and compromise. It’s amazing to me how that’s accepted here and Tanquesito is a response to that. It kind of looks like a toy. It’s kind of the size of a toy. It’s referencing the general figure of a tank. It’s phallic. It’s a response to the big macho attitude that the US takes. It’s just kind of absurd. It’s a weird little object that’s awkward and takes too much space for what it is because it protrudes out in a couple of directions. It’s hopefully the first of many sculptures that speaks to that obscene amount of spending, the absurd set of priorities that the government in the US has in terms of how it uses taxpayer funds, where it allocates those funds, and how it consistently throughout its history has always favored warfare and not so much providing the actual services that you would expect a government—a functioning government—to provide to its citizens.

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Gabrielle Tillenburg

Gabrielle Tillenberg (she/her) is a MA/PhD student studying modern and contemporary Caribbean and diasporic art at the University of Maryland. Her interests include artist activism in independence movements, interpretations of time in photographic media, and contemporary use of craft materials. From 2015 to 2020 she served as the exhibitions coordinator at Strathmore.

Eric Rivera Barbeito

Eric Rivera Barbeito is a Puerto Rican-born artist. His multimedia practice interrogates Puerto Rico’s status as a United States colony. Rivera Barbeito received his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and resides in Baltimore, Maryland. 

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Footnotes

[1] Ricardo Rosselló, “#PuertoRico is open for business. Our goal is to minimize bureaucracy to promote investment and economic development. #VisionPuertoRico,” Twitter, July 14, 2018, https://twitter.com/ricardorossello/status/1018210691600338951?s=20.

open positions

Deadline: This call for applications has closed. 

SEQUITUR solicits interest from current HAA graduate students to serve two- or one-year appointments on the Editorial Board of its graduate-student journal. Terms of service begin on June 1st, 2021, and end on May 31st of either 2022 or 2023. Editors do not need to reside in Boston, but must be willing to Skype/Zoom into meetings. 

Three positions on the Board are open for the coming year, including a new position: 

  • Three Junior Editor positions, with commitment to a two-year term.
    • Internal annual promotions from Junior Editor to Senior Editor positions are expected.
    • Duties will include content editing all accepted submissions, attending all SEQUITUR Editorial Board meetings, and fulfilling all administrative duties of the journal as required.
  • One Editorial Assistant position, with commitment to a one-year term.
    • This is a new position within SEQUITUR. It has been designed to be filled by a current MA terminus student in the HAA department, who is precluded from committing to a two-year term.
    • Duties will include copyediting all final copy of the biannual journal ahead of publication and attending all SEQUITUR Editorial Board meetings.
    • As this is a new position, we encourage all interested parties to reach out with questions at sequitur@bu.edu

All members of the Editorial Board oversee the production and biannual publication of the journal, including: crafting timely calls for submissions, attending biannual content meetings, generating and adhering to production schedules, maintaining governance standards, and equitably dividing editorial duties and administrative tasks. Members of the Editorial Board must also avoid any possible conflict of interest with their duties and responsibilities as members. 

Candidates should meet the following requirements:

  • They must be currently registered graduate students in HAA at Boston University.
  • Strong preference will be given to those with previous experience in academic writing and editing and/or website development.
  • They must be able and willing to commit to the terms of their appointment (this includes summer).
  • They must be current members of GSHAAA.

To be considered, please submit:

  1. Statement of interest in the position (2 pages max.) which includes: an outline of your relevant skills, including editorial or website experience, as well as confirmation of your GSHAAA status/GSHAAA positions held for the coming AY (if known)
  2. Current CV

Applications should be emailed to sequitur@bu.edu by May 21. Please use the subject heading: CALL FOR EDITORS. Applicants will be notified of decisions in early June.