Ambrose Rhapsody Murray’s debut solo exhibition in New York at Fridman gallery, Within listening distance of the sea…, is about spiritual connection. Walking through this show is an otherworldly journey starting with “Fairy in a bottle” (2021), a 130-inch-high, vessel-shaped fabric collage that seems like a blue-and-white-tinged talisman that holds ancestral accounts and forgotten memories.
The show retells these bygone narratives with textiles and sequins. These pieces visually represent stories Black femmes hold in our bodies, those whispered tales of collective traditions and personal relationships. Many of the works are sourced from archival photographs of nude Black women and girls taken in the early 1900s, often traded as pornographic postcards. I’ve seen iterations of the pose before — in Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, and just about every female nude in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But Murray challenges these depictions. The artist protects the figures beneath layers of paint and fabric to create new tales about them in an exercise of “critical fabulation,” a process through which Murray captures the essence of the women as spirits who aren’t defined by the male gaze while still acknowledging the impact of colonialism.
As Saidiya Hartman — the scholar who coined the term “critical fabulation” — wrote in “Venus in Two Acts”: “The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them. So, it is tempting to fill in the gaps and to provide closure where there is none.”
“Red Universe”(2021) does just this. It shows a woman lying on her side. She unabashedly looks at us. Her lips are pressed into a fine line, and she is flanked by strange vessels brimming with the heads of Black women. This piece has a hypnotic effect. The composition is round, which makes me feel like I’m being sucked into a vortex that converges with this woman’s womb. Other works in the show — like the exhibition’s titular work — employ similar formal choices, but “Red Universe” feels the most resolved because all its distinct elements work together to pull me into its galactic grip.
When I free myself from the work’s event horizon, I descend into an immersive video installation made in collaboration with the Atlanta-based filmmaker Logan Lynette, dancer Heather Lee, and organizers affiliated with the collective Spirit House Inc. It is a beautiful exploration of spirituality and quotidian rituals like cooking food, preparing spiritual baths, and reciting prayers — all punctuated by sounds of water, murmured conversations, and instruments that wash over me like a cleansing bath. To leave I ascend to the main gallery and walk pass those fabric pieces again, but after viewing the video they seem sharper somehow, like seeing them after leaving Plato’s cave.
“Rituals we do every day, like making food, can be a moment of conjure or prayer,” Murray says. “Putting prayer into your food, putting prayer into your water helps your body. That’s a part of making the food sustaining for you. It’s also coming from a place of gratitude [because] … everything is connected to spirit.”