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In African and African diasporic folklore, the Trickster is a figure that possesses many bodies. It rides a spider in West African legends as Anansi; disguises as a rabbit in Black American vernacular tradition, and appears as the spirit Papa Legba in Haitian Vodou. In these manifestations and elsewhere, the Trickster deploys its body as a vessel, often beguiling its opponents with its innocuous size and charming disposition. This Longing Vessel, a group exhibition curated by Legacy Russell with Yelena Keller and Josephine Graf, conjures these spiritual histories among the works of the 2019-2020 Studio Museum in Harlem Artists-in-Residence. For artists E. Jane, Naudline Pierre, and Elliot Reed, their bodies are at once containers and mediums — conduits to transmit dreams and fabricate alternate worlds.
With the Studio Museum in Harlem temporarily closed for construction, This Longing Vessel is installed at MoMA PS1, where it occupies three galleries, each its own porous cavern of desires. In the middle gallery, interdisciplinary artist and musician E. Jane, also known as electronic pop artist MHYSA, discloses the aspirations of a diva in the making. In their single-channel video “MHYSA – NEVAEH LIVE (Behind the scenes)” (2020), Jane mimes the gestures and poses of Black women pop music legends with studied precision. They sway their hips and whip their hair as they clutch a microphone and glide across a brightly lit rehearsal space, inserting their alter ego in a celebrated lineage of Black femme stardom.
Naudline Pierre’s whimsical paintings also call upon a womanist tradition. Drenched in electric hues, Pierre’s paintings present Black femme nude bodies embracing, defending, and fondling each other amid mystical landscapes. The artist renders these figures with the opulence found in Western religious painting: floating with feathered wings, they watch from above like guardian angels. Dense crowns of hair tumble regally, recalling sheets of gold, and protecting their power. Using her own body as prototype, Pierre masquerades as protector and provider in tender scenes of queer affection.
Meanwhile, performance artist Elliot Reed uses his body to process the carnivorous desires of others. “Supernumerary” (2020), bores through gallery walls painted the color of Reed’s skin tone — a work itself titled “Hue” (2020) — via five 32-inch monitors. We watch the artist direct a live string quartet as he reads his essay, “In An Attempt To,” which narrates his investigation of the murders committed by Ed Buck, an affluent white man known to drug young Black gay men to the point of unconsciousness and stage fantasy scenes in his apartment with their bodies. Reed often interrupts his reading with guttural howling and gurgling, while the quartet interprets these tormentous outcries. In concert, the discord is an embodied response, exposing histories of hunger and lust for Black flesh.
This judicious attention to queerness and desire takes center stage in This Longing Vessel. Throughout, Jane, Pierre, and Reed, collectively yearn for the not yet here, while the curators invite us to join them in dreaming, documenting approaches to somatic resistance for today and tomorrow.
This Longing Vessel: Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2019–20 continues through March 14 at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens). The exhibition was curated by Legacy Russell, with Yelena Keller and Josephine Graf.