Art

Wearing Camouflage as an Allegory for Otherness and Belonging

Joiri Minaya presents a series of color photographs along with poetically descriptive texts that reflect on the immigrant experience.

Close-up installation view of Historical Amnesia Joiri Minaya’s “Containers” (2017) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

One of the most profound dilemmas that comes into play when one is an immigrant to a place where one is relentlessly, reflexively made the other, hinges on the question of visibility. One on hand, to be rendered invisible is to be made into that abstracted percentage of the minority and thereby not counted, not countenanced, not considered, made inconsequential. On the other hand to be configured in the gaze of the dominant class/gender/race as glaringly and unforgivably different, exceptional, exotic is to also have one’s agency (that is, the ability to enact one’s will on the world) corralled in other ways. Though I have lived in the United States for about 34 years, I have never come close to solving this mess, and the question of what to do, how to remake myself every day to escape being swallowed up by this quandary is a question that clearly plagues other immigrants to this country.

Joiri Minaya, “Containers” (2017) photo still from the performance at Wave Hill, Bronx, NY; archival pigment prints, variable dimensions (image by photographer Emil Rivera and courtesy of the artist)

Joiri Minaya, who describes herself as a Dominican-American artist, has developed performance work that sometimes starkly, sometimes playfully, and always discerningly teases out strategies for maintaining equilibrium in the midst of this quandary. In a small group show, Historical Amnesia, mounted at BronxArtSpace, Minaya presents her piece “Containers” (2017) color photographs along with poetically descriptive texts, all of which are tacked to the wall with T-pins to form a largish documentary storyboard of a performance at Wave Hill cultural center. (Historical Amnesia was curated by Gabriel de Guzman who also presented Minaya’s work at Wave Hill.) The performers, all Dominican women, Eilen Itzel Mena, Cristina Alvarez, Ivonne Tejada, and Paola E. Mateo wear large flora-patterned almost skin-tight bodysuits that cover their entire bodies. Minaya designed the garments and loosely choreographed the performances to allow the women to move in and out of the body suits, interact with visitors, pose, and rest from posing — actions coordinated with an audio track. Seen in these suits the performers are both wild and pliant: photographed sitting on a bench or lying on a garden’s ground, interacting with a group of children, or standing among a copse of topiarian trees. A text headlined “CAMOUFLAGE, OR HOW TO LOSE YOUR ACCENT IN FIVE QUICK STEPS” indicates that despite “Blending in with your surroundings … there will be someone there … diligently pointing out your difference.” Another text points to what happens when the lesson of this question (which inevitably seeks to put or keep one in a certain place) is taken to heart: “A lot of being racialized is about explaining. Where are you from? What kind of fruit? A strange fruit.” Another text pulls away the rug to reveal the trap door under the reader’s feet: “I’m not a flower, I’m only here to work. I’m here to entertain you, but only during my shift.”

Close-up installation view of Historical Amnesia Joiri Minaya’s “Containers” (2017)

Minaya’s photographs and text in this exhibition get at the unique kind of labor one has to perform as an immigrant of color, how cleverly one has to negotiate the perceptions and assumptions of those who do the othering. And it indicates how one day we will be able to gauge when we have achieved that crucial, intertwined change in cultural awareness and socio-cultural status: when an immigrant doesn’t have to do this work anymore.

Installation view of Historical Amnesia at BronxArtspace (image by Tyko Kihlstedt, courtesy BronxArtSpace)

Historical Amnesia continues at BronxArtSpace (305 E 140th Street #1, Mott Haven, the Bronx) through March 24.

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