Art

A Smithsonian Pop-up Show Finds Common Ground in Our Eclectic Stories

Tracy Keza with Studio Revolt, "Hijabs and Hoodies" (2016). All photos by the author for Hyperallergic except where noted
Tracy Keza with Studio Revolt, “Hijabs and Hoodies” (2016) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

WASHINGTON, DC — I had a moment of hesitation when walking into the CrossLines exhibition, particularly when I saw the subtitle, “A Culture Lab on Intersectionality,” and the blurb that further claimed that “40+ artists and scholars explore race, gender, class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and disability.” What, no hetero-patriarchy? Given these indications I thought the exhibition might end up being a tedious slog through artwork conscripted into illustrating liberation theology confected with ad hoc continental philosophy, homeopathic self-cures, and indigenous spiritual practices adapted to 21st-century needs. It wasn’t that at all. It was an exhibition that wanted to give back to each visitor a sense of having a place in the complexity that is being American and part of its tortuous and conflicted history. There was a great deal of storytelling using performance, documentary recordings of both audio and visual accounts, writing and (performed) reading, sculpture and audience participation.

Anida Yoeu Ali with Studio Revolt, "The Red Chador: Threshold" (2016)
Anida Yoeu Ali with Studio Revolt, “The Red Chador: Threshold” (2016)

I was drawn to the work that showed sharp contrasts, such as the performance with a woman in a glistening red chador standing on a raised platform among a virtual forest of American flags; it was called “The Red Chador” (2016). The work compels me to think about how alien and strange this person appears to me despite the homology between the color she is wearing and the color in the flags. I know the reason. It’s because she is hidden by her clothing, and all the signs that would normally give me useful information about another human being: her health, ethnicity, age, and perhaps emotional state. This situation of unfamiliarity and lack of information is an ideal breeding ground for projection of one’s fears onto another. In this case it may seem perfectly reasonable to assume that one’s seeming allegiance to a religion will negate one’s allegiance to a nation. But then, a moment of breakthrough, as I watched the woman underneath the cloak beckon to another woman with her two small children. The performer, Anida Yoeu Ali, motioned for them to climb the steps and approach her. Then, in response to one child’s gesture, she lifted the cloth over her face and stuck out her tongue. The whole family laughed.

Frank Chi, "Letters from Camp" (2016) (film still)
Frank Chi, “Letters from Camp” (2016) (film still)

I was also surprised and charmed by the “Kitchen Remedies” performance and installation by the People’s Kitchen Collective. The space set up like a cross between an apothecary, kitchen, and classroom with a table that held small notes for visitors to record their experience with homemade remedies, copies of which would go into a zine the collective publishes, while a second copy was affixed to a wall. The work according to one member of the collective, Jocelyn Jackson, is about finding commonality in taking the stance of self-determination about healing, and also about healing communities as a whole. I thought the apothecary vials and jars on the shelves would all be specialist herbs and roots, but there was 7-up, whiskey, cloves, cod liver oil, sage, and licorice tea, in addition to things like bitterroot, sage, and Ghee. I also got to taste some raw honey that was infused with ginger and it honestly made me feel better immediately after eating it.

Exhibition overview. Photo by Hana Maruyama, courtesy of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center
Exhibition overview (photo by Hana Maruyama, courtesy of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center)

The pop-up exhibition did not use art to make a case for theory, but instead used the theory of intersectionality as a point of aesthetic departure, to demonstrate that in our clothing, our foods, our poetry, and songs there’s a way in which our small, individual struggles repeat. Our great and compelling and even everyday experiences are part of the weft and warp of the social fabric, so we are not nearly as singular and individuated as we are sometimes led to believe.

CrossLines took place at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building in Washington DC over the May 28–29 weekend.

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