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TUCSON, Ariz. — Underrepresentation of marginalized and minority communities in society is nothing new; neither is it in the art world. In Every Word Said: History Lessons from Athens and Tucson, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson (MoCA), Nicole Miller, an African American, Los Angeles-based artist, inspects the landscapes of marginalized communities through the lens of socioeconomic status, race, and gender.
Oral history is a significant aspect of Miller’s artistic practice. Her video work, part narrative and part documentary, toes the line of the two genres to create work that is evocative and interrogative. In her show at MoCA, Miller produced a six-channel video installation taking up the entire southeast wing of the museum. Walking into the exhibition, you are met with audio — a soundtrack of classical music — before you are introduced to the projections. The placid music creates an odd tension with the images of boarded-up schools on Tucson’s east side, illustrating what basically boils down to a broken socioeconomic and educational system.
Deeper into the gallery spaces, you are met with the other channels of the piece, which feature unguided interviews with students from these minority-majority schools. Interviewees include a young African American girl in her junior year of high school, recounting the life of her brother, who was shot by gang members in south Los Angeles, telling of heartache and how the trial forced her to relive her brother’s murder over and over. Or a young man, who recently transitioned into being a woman, who shares the traumas that being transgendered has caused them, or a young Latina who recounts losing her father in a car crash and the psychological trauma and systematic denial that it plagued her with. The emotion expressed here is one of sadness, of some sort of collective guilt. The viewer is implicated in the work as a silent observer, as someone, at least in my own experience, who is not participating in a solution toward equitable opportunities for these young people who are often siloed by society.
The work is impactful, presenting in a surprisingly effective didactic form the stories of those we tend to leave behind. On the one hand, the work is confessional, allowing participants to unload that which they bear on their souls; on the other, it acts as a courtroom, allowing the viewer to in some way pass judgement on who is guilty here — who is responsible or at least in some way culpable for the conditions that result in poverty, lack of education, inequality in the work force, and racial discrimination. Rather than offer solutions, however, the work leaves us to piece together the stories, often leaving us angry or confused.
In a sense, Miller’s use of classical music is a way of communicating that these are not new stories or solely current ones. They are, in some ways, classic, in so much that societies throughout time have pushed and marginalized those they’ve found undesirable. However, Miller forces the viewer’s hand as she confronts us head-on with powerful testimonies from her subjects, who recapitulate their tales of woe to a contemporary art audience that is left trying to situate itself in a liminal space that does not affirm or deny meaning.
Nicole Miller’s Every Word Said: History Lessons from Athens and Tucson continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson (265 South Church Avenue Tucson, Ariz.) through May 29.