Here We Are: Visual Resistance and Reclaiming Narratives @Open Society

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing small separate installations of the work of 9 photographers/collectives, variously framed and displayed on the main and lower floors of the Open Society Foundations offices, and the connecting stairwell.

The following artists/photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works, and their dates (as available), as background:

  • Xyza Cruz Bacani: 21 black and white photographs, 2014-2017
  • Endia Beal: 8 color photographs, 2015, 2016, 1 video, 3 minutes, 2014
  • Rahima Gambo: 16 framed black and white and color photographs, 5 vinyl reproductions, 2015-2017
  • Eric Gyamfi: 6 black and white photographs, 9 smaller black and white images framed on a shelf, 1 video, 1 comment wall
  • Stephanie Mercedes: 1 black and white photograph, 1 installation of lockets, 2017
  • Reentry Think Tank: 1 installation including stencil portraits, audio recordings, and short films, 2016-2017
  • Ruddy Roye: 12 color photographs printed on vinyl, 2014-2017
  • Dread Scott: 1 two-channel video, 7:16 duration, 2010, 1 color photograph, 2014
  • Daniella Zalcman: 13 black and white photographs, 3 books

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The artists in this latest iteration of the ongoing “Moving Walls” series, sponsored by the Open Society Documentary Photography Project, were chosen because they “engage with art and documentary practice as forms of resistance,” in the words of curator Yukio Yamagata.

All of them view their art as fundamentally political and themselves as participating in a dialogue about social change begun in the 1960s and reanimated in this decade around issues that include (but are by no means limited to) sexual identity, the widening chasm between rich and poor, discrimination based on skin color, ethnic background or gender, the precarious status of immigrants, the legacy of colonialism, and the omnipresence of capitalism.

“We have always been here,” the nine individuals and one collective write in a group statement, “but our stories have been held back, silenced, distorted, obscured, misrepresented, coopted, or ignored.”

Despite the fiery and grandiose rhetoric in the texts behind their work, however, the photographs on the walls tend to be more even-tempered and idiosyncratic, with each artist trying to address in his or her own way specific concerns. These range from the invisibility of migrant workers, to gay life in Africa, to prison incarceration (and attempts to remove its stigmas), to the imagined mental lives of the veiled women rescued from Boko Haram. The techniques employed are likewise across a spectrum, from traditional black-and-white documentary, to collage, to performance, to conceptual interventions and historical appropriation.

Endia Beal’s The Performance Review in the lobby is the first group of pictures that visitors encounter. (They were exhibited at AIPAD, as well.) Large formal portraits of well-dressed, dignified young North Carolina women, standing or seated in front of a pull-down background of a generic office corridor, they are volunteers in a audio-visual project by Beal that delves into the anxieties (and racism) experienced by many African-American women in the corporate workplace. Their fears of not measuring up, and of being unsure what criteria their bosses (usually white men) might be using to judge them, are summed up in the double-edged question posed by Beal: “Am I What You’re Looking For.” Her related piece,“9 to 5,” braids snippets from interviews with these women into a single narrative in which they share feelings of alienation and belittlement. By photographing her subjects in a style that mimics the boardroom portrait, she has peeled back the bland façade of business culture to expose instability and discontent behind the sheetrock. This is a group of women who are at once proud, insecure, and defiant.

Xyca Cruz Bacani is an old school black-and-white photojournalist. The 21 black-and-white prints from her series Modern Slavery (2014-2017) focus on the everyday lives of migrant workers, legal or undocumented, in cities around the world. Whether cleaning corner offices in Manhattan, doing laundry for a family in Panama, Florida, at home with their babies in Hong Kong, or marching in protest parades (and risking arrest and deportation), these are pictures in which Bacani (born in 1987 in the Philippines) quite consciously wants to “challenge the stigma and stereotype of ‘helpless’ victims” by presenting these women as grotesquely exploited but also agents of their own fate.

In his series Just Like Us, Eric Gyampi photographs gay men and women in Ghana as if they were are not separate from straight society but rather indistinguishable from it. With an emphasis on the pleasures of friendship and fashion, and a generally upbeat mood—male and female couples laughing and joking—these are benign pictures that should alarm no one. As he expands his circle of inquiry into more secret and exclusive corners of Ghanaian gay society, Gyampi may want to present difference as well. As it stands now, the series is almost willfully inoffensive, like the early days of gay cinema when directors were afraid to show men kissing men. Such scenes of carnality are still risky on American network television and perhaps in Ghana, too; they shouldn’t be for documentary photographers.

Ruddy Roye is among the oldest artists here. Born in Jamaica in 1969, he has photographed homelessness and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, using social media as his main platform. He has a devoted Instagram fan base of some 250,000 followers for his street photographs around New York, especially Brooklyn. It’s a shame therefore that his large color prints, displayed borderless as a grid in the Open Society office stairwell, are so awkwardly installed. The most complicated and moving photograph in the entire show is his portrait of a young African-American man who has stopped to inspect an impromptu sidewalk memorial to a slain neighbor. Wearing a hipster hat and white untied white Converse sneakers, he grips in his right arm a framed portrait of Malcolm X, pieces of sky and tree reflected in its glass. While life continues in the background along parallel tracks—in the yard of an apartment complex, people are going about their daily business—this man is pausing to read the scattered tokens of remembrance that strangers and friends have left behind to honor the dead. (Jeff Wall would be thrilled to choreograph a scene so alive with incident and meaning.) If this sample is any indication, Roye is more than ready to have his work more permanently recognized in a large-format book.

The most elaborately conceptual pieces here tend to be the least successful. A case in point is Luz del Diá: Copyrighting the Light of Day by the Argentine-American artist Stephanie Mercedes. Based on the belief that a proposed 2015 bill by the Argentinian Congress, extending copyright on photographs from 20 years to 70 years after production, would threaten the photographic record of the country’s “Dirty War” (1976-83), she has scanned images from these years, and altered them, to create a new archive “saved by the law, and safe from the law.” Her artful protest is an impractical solution to this threat. If genuinely worried about preserving the integrity of these images so that future historians will have access to this period, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to make them less legible by turning them back into negatives and drawing X’s across the prints. (The urgency of her project may even be moot: wouldn’t a bill that was introduced in 2015 be decided one way or the other by now?)

Daniella Zalcman is an American whose double exposure montages here deal with the forced reeducation of Indian children by the Canadian government. Residential schools, which existed from the 1870s to the 1990s, were designed to separate children from their parents and their ancestry, inculcating them instead with the values of mainstream Anglo-Canadian culture. To simulate the psychic indoctrination, Zalcman has superimposed images of these places on the faces of survivors, a pictorial solution that seems too elegant and arty, making whatever wounds left on these indigenous people merely superficial.

The examples here from Reentry Think Tank have the opposite problem. This Philadelphia collective, founded in 2016 by artists Courtney Bowles and Mark Strandquist, is designed to help some of the 70 million people with criminal records deal with life post-adjudication or -incarceration. The photographs seen here are the result of collaborations and tend to be message-laden, didactic, inspirational, uplifting, therapeutic—posters without messy subtext or emotional layering.

Here We Are is a fair representation of this moment in contemporary art, when earnest political responses to the troubled state of the world  are deemed to be not only legitimate but essential for every cognizant citizen. Over the last two years, exhibitions in almost every New York museum—the Whitney Biennial, ICP’s Perpetual Revolution: the Image and Social Change, the Met’s Talking Pictures, the New Museum’s Triennial—have presented recent work that expresses frustration, bewilderment or rage over perceived indifference to various crises (climate change, the wars in Africa and the Middle East, racism) and the threat to legal norms by the Trump presidency. The percentage of immature to mature artists in Ms. Yamagata’s selection is perhaps higher than in the more established surveys. But she has uncovered at least two photographers (Beal, Roye) who deserve to be better known. Social issues are spurring millennials and their elders to combine art with activism, and curators feel a responsibility to respond. Like it or not, this is where we are.

Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are of course no posted prices, and given the broad selection of artists included, we will forego our usual discussion of gallery representation and secondary market histories.

Read more about: Daniella Zalcman, Dread Scott, Endia Beal, Eric Gyamfi, Radcliffe (Ruddy) Roye, Rahima Gambo, Reentry Think Tank, Stephanie Mercedes, Xyza Cruz Bacani, Open Society Foundations

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