The thing about a group exhibition convened under a promise to “explore the experiences of displacement and dislocation,” based on the conclusion that a “homeland can be fixed and unfixed, a physical place and a psychic space” (from the wall text), is that for those who have been looking at contemporary art for the past few years, these angles of approach are well worn. I visited Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art, to see Un l Fixed Homeland less because of the ideas behind it and more because it features a group of Guyanese artists I didn’t know — artists I thought might offer diverse views of history, memory, perception, and documentation. The homeland is one of those key constructs that acts as a mirror in which we try to see ourselves, but is somewhat fragile; under pressure of interrogation, it can fracture. Wisely, curator Grace Aneiza Ali chose artists who are interested in what it takes to piece themselves back together when this occurs.
Among the best in the show is Keisha Scarville’s exhaustive installation of portraits of her father, Keith. This Passport series (2012–16) contains wonderful black-and-white passport photographs that are 2.25 inches squared, adorned and reconfigured in myriad ways. She’s burned them, collaged them, scratched them out, and painted on them; they have mirrors attached, plastic eyes, hair and teeth, masks and chains, letters and lipstick. The wall text makes the case that, through these gestures, the artist wrestles with ideas of invisibility, erasure, and censorship. What it leaves out is that the series also deals with play. Scarville conveys a wide range of subject positions that the immigrant can take up in a new land of opportunity, where identity, though still tethered to the home culture by ethnicity, sex, language, and other facts, is nevertheless more malleable. In fact, the variety of personas that one can adopt is so great as to be bewildering. As a child born in the US to Guyanese parents, Scarville might feel as I felt, born in the Caribbean and later immigrating to the US: that part of one’s dislocation consists of coming to understand what these possibilities for being are and what they could mean for the self, whether or not one takes advantage of them. It’s a bit like standing in the cereal aisle in a large supermarket, hung up on thinking about not only basic nourishment, but the signification of lifestyle, price, and taste.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the exhibition is the way that memory gets refracted. Frank Bowling’s “Mother’s House with Beware of Dog” (1966) is brilliant in working through this, by infusing a static image with information that not only hints at narrative, but suggests the painter’s own feelings about the story. The black-and-white photographs on which it’s based are benign, documentary images, but Bowling’s painting features a house floating on a black cloud at the edge of a prismatic field. A fiery red color, perhaps a plume of flame, rises up on the left side of the house. This place, though familiar and embedded in familial history, is one of terror. The dog that’s meant to be a guardian is reduced to a few white outlines filled with color, an inanimate placeholder that fails to offer any real protection.
It’s difficult to recall black-and-white landscape photography as arresting and lovely as Michael Lam’s Oniabo series (2013–16), an investigation of Guyana’s coastlines. These images are like memory siphoned through dream: more dramatic, more starkly contrasted than the environment looks in everyday life. Taking in the tattered Jhandi flags reduced almost to rags by the salty sea wind in “Devotion Point” (2013), a photo taken in Bushy Park, Parika, Essequibo, I wonder how people survive in a land where the ocean wears them away day after day. Yet Lam’s view of the place is resolutely idealized — he keeps faith despite the erosion.
Sandra Brewster’s work gets at intriguing questions about memory and representation. She makes gel transfers of black-and-white photographs, the origins of which she has deliberately left opaque: they might belong to her; they might be found images. Brewster places these transfers onto wood, keeping the scratched, stained, and faded aspects of the original images, as though she were looking at her own past through a smeared glass. The girls pictured in her “Guyana Girl 2” (2016) are not her, but they represent her, or the childhood she might have had, had she not grown up in Toronto. The work raises the question of whether a memory can be appropriated, whether another’s experience can stand in for the artist’s own. How long can you stretch metaphor before it breaks?
Guyana celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence this year, so it makes sense to assemble this show now. It’s additionally timely because the issues examined here — of nativism, political and ethnic identity, global travel and its relationship to authenticity — are present in our current collective consciousness. Un l Fixed Homeland works through these concepts using the specifics of Guyana, but it also raises broader questions about migration: “How did you make it here?” “How do you hold onto one place while experiencing another?” Its artists offer up a chorus of answers.
Un l Fixed Homeland at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art (591 Broad Street, Newark, New Jersey) through September 23.