Where’s your head at? That phrase comes to me as I contemplate Shervone Neckles’s exhibition Provenance at Five Myles gallery. The song by Basement Jaxx comes along with it, but that’s not the key thought. Rather, I think of a moment in the early ‘90s when a close friend’s then boyfriend asked me what was happening with my relationship with my father. I related some painful circumstance that had recently occurred, and when I finished he asked me: “So where’s your head at with all of this?” This is a good question. It nudges the respondent to do some emotional and intellectual inventory, to gauge how one is feeling, whether the feelings are clear at all (they may not be), how they are related to the precipitating circumstances, and what these feelings prompt one to do.
One of the first things that Neckles does with her work here is convey where her head is at. The majority of the polyester prints displayed here feature a Black woman’s naked body rendered in silhouette with a two-story house with a gable roof in the place where her head would be (with a small flip of hair in the back). The images suggest that the figure’s head is at her home. The press release tells me that the images represent Neckles’s maternal family home in Grenada, in the West Indies, which “dates back to the turn of the 19th century.” So it’s not just her emotional being we are locating in this show; we are finding out her allegiances, her origin story, the chain of custody for her self — because provenance refers to both the beginning of someone or something’s existence and the record of ownership of a work of art that indicates its authenticity or quality.
Yet, with all this information being clearly conveyed there’s still much that is enigmatic. Why, I want to ask, are the hands of the figure typically reaching upward toward the house’s top story? Is she trying to balance the weight of all that house’s history? Or, is she reaching up to sense the contours and shape of the place, since she is unable to look at the structure that has usurped her head? I conclude the latter, because the women in the Caribbean who I’ve seen on my own home island tend to balance the wares being transported on the tops of their heads by putting their hands up to the sides of their cargo. And a myriad other questions occur to me: Is this a burden? Is it valuable freight? Is the figure fearful of its loss? How long have you been carrying this? How much longer do you have to go? Is this your inheritance, or did you take this up unbidden? Would the house otherwise be forgotten if it didn’t sit atop her shoulders?
Neckles almost makes me forget these questions with her wildly embellished portraits of these figures. They are astounding in their variety and the ingenuity of their adornment. Neckles uses gold foil spun around thread, beading, sequins, fabric, copper plate charms, and sundry other items. In “Provenance 15” (2018) she uses dried tobacco and dried palm leaves, making the figure a kind of variegated brown with swirls of stiff threads all around the figure as if she had sought escape through a tangle of meshed wire and become so entangled in that warren that she took the greater part of it with her. But in “Provenance 4” (2017), she has the central figure centered within the outline of a hoop skirt spun of gold thread sprouting from her belly button with the edges of the skirt left dangling with glass beads. In certain cases it’s the house that’s embellished, as in “Provenance 1” (2017) in which the house has at its bottom a flange of red threads like the fringe on a skirt, along with errant red stitching all over the structure. The methods that Neckles deploys to represent this house and its contents are legion. The figure becomes a motif in an abstract-expressionist scheme, a character in an allegory, an illustration of key points on the human anatomy. This show is worth visiting just to see the permutations she takes this figure through.
Part of the understated provenance of her work is the shared utilization of the the Black woman’s body. There are intimations of Wangechi Mutu, Tschabalala Self, and Kara Walker who have all used representations of the bodies of Black women to attest to their audiences that this body is fey, incalculable, and thus must be seen and can only be intimately understood through the language of myth and poetry. Given this lineage, the house Neckeles’ figure carries with her is not only peopled with kin, but also with guests who have stayed for a considerable time and made a place for themselves at the dinner table.
All the work in this show is beautiful. I can see why Neckles was chosen (along with four other artists) to represent Grenada at the Venice Biennale. But this exhibition doesn’t resolve the questions it provokes in me — which is fine. I don’t need resolution here. It is enough to know that like Neckeles’s figures I won’t be able to divest myself of the house I grew up in. I will have to find ways to keep it balanced on my shoulders.
The exhibition Provenance continues at Five Myles gallery (558 St Johns Place, Crown Heights, Brooklyn) through July 7.
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