In the center of the main market square of Cayenne, French Guiana, there stands a lone bronze statue. “To Victor Schoelcher, the grateful Guiana” reads the French inscription on the stone plinth, commemorating the politician who was instrumental in abolishing slavery throughout the French colonies. Commissioned in 1986 from academician Louis-Ernest Barrias (for ideological context, see his full-breasted “Nature Unveiling Herself to Science,” an Enlightenment wet-dream in sculpture form), today the bronze sculpture reads as a glaring study in imbalanced power relations. Assuming the role of patrician citizen, frock-coated Schoelcher takes a loin-clothed, unidentified slave by the shoulder with one arm; his other extends into the air, loftily gesturing the way to freedom. The chain from the slave’s unlocked shackle hangs over the plinth.
Barrias’s sculpture forms the subject of Mathieu K. Abonnenc’s series of photogravure prints Forever Weak and Ungrateful (2015), which opens the modest but worthwhile presentation of work by Abonnenc and Ektor Garcia currently on view at Sargent’s Daughters. This is the first New York exhibition for Paris-based Abonnenc, which seems belated, given the attention his cohesive body of work has been steadily accruing outside the United States. This show is also a first for the younger Garcia, a current Columbia MFA candidate, following his participation in last year’s inaugural presentation at West Harlem project space The Can.
Sargent’s Daughters’ rationale for exhibiting these artists together stems from the thematic affinities in their work: Abonnenc scrutinizes colonial histories and the lingering stains left behind; Garcia’s work concerns the fraught relationship between Mexico and the United States, filtered through the subjective lens of his own upbringing in both countries.
The combination makes for a compelling if slightly uneven pairing. Abonnenc handles his comprehensively researched material with surgical precision, exercising careful control over what he presents to the viewer. This selective approach is strongly in evidence in Forever Weak and Ungrateful, which distills Barrias’s monumental bronze into tightly cropped details, five of which are on view here. With the full picture obscured, the interaction between slave and politician becomes highly ambiguous: seen from behind, Schoelcher appears to be gazing at his interlocutor from beneath lasciviously heavy lids; a close-up on the slave’s chest, hands clasped over heart in a pantomime gesture of gratitude, is made strange by the appearance of Schoelcher’s disembodied hand lying heavily on the slave’s shoulder. Aptly, in the gallery’s sequential hanging of the prints, the explanatory image of the removed shackle is kept until last.
Turning Barrias’s sculpture into a filmstrip, the print series anticipates Abonnenc’s short film projected in the gallery’s rear, “Secteur IX A” (2015), which opens with a cropped detail of a sculpture of Hercules outside the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Like the prints, the film reflects on-point authorial control. Using footage from the artist’s longer feature Secteur IX B (also 2015; not on show here), the film ostensibly follows a young anthropologist (played by Betty Tchomanga) working on a collection of objects brought back from the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition (1931–33), of which Abonnenc’s grandfather — an entomologist and collector of objects from Gabon and French Guiana — was a contemporary. You would be hard-pressed to piece that together from the 8-minute short, though, since Abonnenc firmly insists on a defiant narrative opacity, for which he is indebted to postcolonial theorist Édouard Glissant. Various off-center and abstracted shots of a Bamana boli mock the measuring tapes that are held up to the camera; undoing time, a photograph of Dogon masks on display at the Musée du quai Branly is followed by a photograph of the masks back in situ, worn by Dogon men; in another shot, beetles that might have once been collected by the artist’s grandfather swarm inside an archival box.
Seen alongside this crisp montage of footage, Garcia’s four sculptural assemblages appear a little less subtle, though they are intriguing in their own right. Made to a human scale using materials like lumber, steel, and brick, their various forms resemble grave markers and shop mannequins, respectively. Garcia has selected his sculptural additions to these minimal structures judiciously, with each alluding to an aspect of Mexico’s fettered relationship with the United States while amping up a seductive mix of textures. Clamped in a Craftsman bench vise, a crocheted doily evokes foreign demand for a “peasant” aesthetic; nearby, a Huarache sandal hangs from a hook dejectedly, as if aware that it now lends its name to a Nike sneaker.
Given that this charged exchange of polemics unfolds on East Broadway, it’s interesting that one of the exhibit’s most powerful moments comes from an instance of narrative refusal, or insistence on interiority. The montage of footage that makes up “Secteur IX A” closes with an image of a foreshortened Tchomanga lying asleep, barefoot on a stretch of sand — presumably a beach, though the camera doesn’t pull back to confirm or deny this. A striking and androgynous Ozymandias in reverse, she wakes up from her reverie, organizes her languid limbs, and without a word, walks off-camera.
Mathieu K. Abonnenc and Ektor Garcia continues at Sargent’s Daughters (179 East Broadway) through February 21.