Artspace Exhibit Takes Unblinking Look At History
by BRIAN SLATTERY | Dec 5, 2018 2:03 pm
An arrow embedded in the wall of the gallery. A cascade of disembodied hands, hanging from vines. Walls plastered with the arresting racial imagery of yesteryear. True to its name, Artspace’s latest exhibit, “In Plain Sight/Site,” drags history out into the open for us to see, and it’s not designed to make you feel comfortable.
Curated by cultural anthropologist and essayist Niama Safia Sandy, “In Plain Sight/Site” — which runs through March 2 in Artspace’s main gallery on the corner of Orange and Crown — sees 10 artists exploring New Haven’s and New England’s past and role in helping create America. These artists dig beneath the country’s simple creation myths to get at the much more fraught and complicated history beneath them, involving the displacement and killing of Native Americans and the system of trans-Atlantic trade that can’t be separated from slavery. As Sandy said, “you don’t get to pick what parts you get to tell. It all happened, whether you like it or not.”
Of course, the artists in the exhibit do have to pick which parts of the history to focus on in the practice of their art, and a very surface-level critique of the exhibit could accuse it of being simply political. And yeah, sure: If the creation of the American myth was a political act, and the myth is often used for political ends, then yes, tearing down that myth is political also. But that kind of argument bypasses the depth of the exhibit, as the artists explore not only the region’s history, but their own places within it, and the ways that their own personal histories tangle with the greater whole.
Adama Delphine Fawundu’s In the Face of History, in the first part of the gallery you see as you walk in, sets the tone. Fawundu, a former high school English teacher, over the years amassed a number of primary documents that, in their very existence, show that the past is far more complicated than any of us might like to admit. There’s the casually stomach-flipping racism in the popular culture of yesteryear; few things can shock a modern viewer like a flyer for a minstrel show. Another flyer invites us to see the “magnificent painting of the massacre on board the schooner Amistad,” showing that even then someone was interested in making a buck off whatever they could. Interspersed with those are the front pages of African-American newspapers, including New Haven’s own Black Coalition Weekly, which ran in the 1970s. Fawundu has screened herself into these images, facing away from us, confronting the record of history as that record confronts us. It adds up to a powerful challenge, a reminder that the past is far too potent for us to put it away and let ourselves off the hook. Can a defense of slavery in the 19th century be fully excused as a product of its time when that time also included abolitionists? Was everyone really OK with minstrel shows then? And that form of entertainment is still part of the DNA of our culture now. What do we do with that?