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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — When poet and activist Audre Lorde published her book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, she called it “biomythography,” a blend of memoir, history, and myth. It is this framework that Biomythography: Secret Poetry & Hidden Angers, a group exhibition at the William Rolland Gallery of Fine Art, uses to connect various artists working to transgress traditional narrative, genre, and history.
Zami recounts the author’s coming-of-age by centering on the formative women in her life. It is a story about Lorde’s immigrant mother, high-school classmates, lesbian partners, and other women who lived through a period of segregation and McCarthyism. The lives of these characters, and their struggles, intersect along lines of gender, sexuality, race, and class. The artworks in Secret Poetry & Hidden Angers are similarly interested in the ways different bodies experience history and the institutions that affect it.
In his opening reception performance, artist Thinh Nguyen sat at a desk and pored over an art history book, brushing away words with correction fluid and calling them out with each erasure. The resulting word salad was a meticulous deconstruction of dates, concepts, and objects, through which the title of the performance, “White Out History,” became an allusion to white supremacist histories of art and their gradual undoing.
Dan T. McMullin’s “100 Tikis” (2015) is a series of videos depicting examples of American commodification of Polynesian culture (e.g. tiki bars, merchandise, cartoons). Nearby, a printed screed presents 100 aphoristic notes on cultural appropriation and the exoticization of black and brown bodies. The notes offer a poetic corrective to the West’s violent appropriations and erasures: “Tiki kitsch begins with notions of paradise and ends with pornography … Tiki kitsch is the death of me. Tiki and I died in 1769 … Tiki porn is Margaret Mead writing about adolescent sex in Coming of Age in Samoa as a representative of the Department of the Interior and Hollywood.”
For Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, the anthropological gaze becomes a lens for reimagining history and ethnography. “Traditional Attire of the Asheentee Healing People of Central Kentifrica” (2015) is part of a fictive geography combining the artist’s birthplace of Kentucky and her West African roots. The garment’s accompanying wall text, written in the deadpan manner of a museum display, describes it as having “been worn by healers for the past 2,500 years.” While the mode of presentation brings to mind historically colonial and racist institutions like the Museum of Man, the clothing brings the fictive Kentifrica to life as part of an ongoing project of participatory world-building that accounts for hybrid identities and diasporic cultures.
Digital collage also offers a means of inventing alternate histories in Jessica Wimbley’s “Their ears were listening to God” (2012), a strange patchwork of black female figures, cosmic imagery, and explosive fire evoking creation myths; and in Glynnis Reed’s “No One Else” (2011), wherein the artist is blindfolded and placed within a landscape of forest and graffiti. Does the blindfold allude to her invisibility as a black woman, or does it suggest a personal journey toward seeing the writing on the wall and becoming awakened to both history and the present?
Using the form of a Japanese soap opera, Yoshie Sakai’s “KOKO’s Love: Episode 1” (2014) dramatizes the ways in which patriarchy and gender norms affect the lives of a fictional Japanese American couple, Hiroshi and Keiko. When Keiko gives birth to her daughter Yuki, it upsets Hiroshi’s expectations of a son inheriting his business. Although the hammy acting and low-budget props are intended to be funny, the films have a dark edge. They’re about the generational divide between Yuki and her father, and how a young woman inherits and internalizes his misogyny.
Some of the more affecting works in the show implicate the audience, either through looking or hearing. The audio in Crystal Z. Campbell’s “Witness” (2010) features real-life footage of a police killing. A young black man negotiates with officers, demanding they not unleash their K9 unit. The tense stand-off between the two sides escalates into gunfire. The listener cannot see the killing, but it is apparent that the man is dead. Here, bearing witness feels inadequate to the task of seeking justice, as it’s not for lack of visual or audio evidence that police violence continues unabated.
In Chris Christion’s “The Right of Chastisement: Punish the Body and Correct the Soul” (2014), visitors are invited to get on their knees in an installation resembling a prayer pew and confessional booth. On one side of the pew, a clip from the Jackson Pollock biopic depicts the artist at work on one of his drip paintings; on the other side is some nearly unintelligible footage of a man punishing an adolescent. While equating the mythic status of a white male artist to authoritarian discipline feels heavy-handed, the viewer is nonetheless made to wonder how many of us continue to “bend the knee” to patriarchy in other areas of life.
Not all works succeed under the curatorial concept of biomythography. Juliana Paciulli’s “Go Ask Alice” (2011) references a literary hoax in which a diary was doctored to seem like it was written by a teenage woman in the throes of drug addiction and sexual violence. Her video shows a snake slowly devouring an egg, while audio from the book’s TV movie adaptation plays in the background. An alarmist tale written to scare impressionable teens away from drugs may have something to say about adolescent fears and unreliable narratives, but the installation’s imagery distracts from that reading as well as the exhibition’s premise.
Abdul Mazid’s “Untitled” (2014) and “Flight School” (2014) are prayer rugs emblazoned, respectively, with the Chicago Bulls logo and a refracted image of Michael Jordan in mid-flight for a dunk. Whether a commentary on the global reach of corporate branding or the conflation of organized religion with commodity culture, the analogy here seems too pat and obvious; on the other hand, Rachelle Rojany’s “The Beginning of Religious Feeling” (2013), an installation of mirrors and prismatic film, could benefit from being (figuratively) less opaque with its conceptual conceit.
The writings of Audre Lorde continue to influence artists and activists in their work of centering marginalized voices and put their politics into practice. Although the author may have conceived of biomythography as a personal literary form, Secret Poetry & Hidden Angers makes the argument that it can extend beyond one medium or genre, and include the many identities that make up our conflicted world.
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