The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2022

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JUL-AUG 2022 Issue

everything slackens in a wreck

Andrea Chung, <em>House of the Historians</em>, 2022. Sugarcane bark and leaves, sweetgrass, excelsior and floral twine, dimensions variable. Courtesy Ford Foundation Gallery. Photo: Sebastian Bach.
Andrea Chung, House of the Historians, 2022. Sugarcane bark and leaves, sweetgrass, excelsior and floral twine, dimensions variable. Courtesy Ford Foundation Gallery. Photo: Sebastian Bach.
On View
Ford Foundation Gallery
June 1 – August 20, 2022
New York

Just one year after opening within the space of the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice, the Ford Foundation Gallery shuttered its doors in March of 2020 as the coronavirus forced world-wide lockdowns. Marking its return after a two-year hiatus is everything slackens in a wreck, a group show curated by Trinidadian scholar and artist Andile Gosine that features an intergenerational dialogue between artists Margaret Chen, Wendy Nanan, Kelly Sinnapah Mary, and Andrea Chung. The four women share heritage in that their Asian ancestors were brought to work in the Americas after the abolition of slavery. The exhibition title, taken from a poem by Mauritian author Khal Torabully, evokes the destructive aftermath of colonialism, as well as its creative growth. Reflecting on the complex consequences of indentureship, the show explores how these four artists respond to their shared diasporic heritage.  

While each artist brings her personal stories to the show, their shared histories and experiences come through in common themes and materials, in particular organic materials. Suspended from the gallery ceiling is House of the Historians (2022), a sculpture in the form of a giant bird’s nest by Chung. Made on site out of sugarcane scraps, Chung was inspired by weaver birds she saw in Mauritius that build communities of nests in former cane fields. The artist used sugarcane from Trinidad, a nod to her mother’s heritage, which often features in her work.

Writing in the exhibition catalog, Chung compares the shape of her nest sculpture with the story of immigration. A member of the younger generation at age forty-four along with Sinnapah Mary, forty-two, Chung saw her family build their lives in the US, a country her grandfather thought he was bound for when he left China only to find himself in Jamaica. All links to his family severed, he was forced to create a new life. Made from castoffs of the sugar industry, Chung’s nest takes something laden with gruesome history and creates a home, just as her grandfather and indentured migrants built homes out of situations that were painful.

Margaret Chen, <em>Cross-section of Labyrinth</em>, 1993. Acrylic, shells, wood on plywood, carved wood, 14 1/2 x 240 x 246 inches. Courtesy Ford Foundation Gallery. Photo: Sebastian Bach.
Margaret Chen, Cross-section of Labyrinth, 1993. Acrylic, shells, wood on plywood, carved wood, 14 1/2 x 240 x 246 inches. Courtesy Ford Foundation Gallery. Photo: Sebastian Bach.

Also made of repurposed, organic materials is Cross-Section of Labyrinth (1993), a 20-foot-wide sculpture by Chinese Jamaican artist Chen, seventy-one, that takes the form of a leaf spread across the gallery floor. Made of wood from the scraps of the artist’s family furniture business, the work tells a personal story of Chen’s family and the rich heritage of carpentry. At the center of the leaf is a series of circles that form a spiral. Four petals surround the maze-like spiral, each one representing the four directions (north, south, east, west). 

The sculpture is covered in shells collected from mangroves. Speaking about her work at the exhibition opening, Chen reflected on her sculpture as a vessel for the shells and explained how looking at each shell recalls memories of watching people eat the contents, slurping whatever seafood they once held and casting the rest aside. Her shells are rough, broken, and mismatched, as if the whole piece was once underwater, a nod to the passage her ancestors took to reach Jamaica. 

Chen’s work is layered with history. Wood scraps and shells, once serving different purposes in their previous roles, are given a second life. The history of the work itself is continually evolving as it is displayed. Inevitably, the shells fall off and are replaced, and the acrylic paint is retouched over time. The work also tells a broader environmental story of the relationship between man and nature with the former consuming and discarding the latter. 

Shells also appear in a set of papier-mâché, pod-shaped sculptures hanging along the wall. Painted in different hues of pink, purple, blue, and gold, the pods are by Indo-Trinidadian artist Nanan, sixty seven, and made from fallen palm branches. Whereas Chen underscored the organic quality of shells and chose a range of shapes and colors to create a natural appearance, Nanan selected pristine shells that she meticulously arranges on each work.

A film by Gosine shows how the artist creates her pods. The camera pans over waves crashing and shells waiting to be collected as Nanan shares memories of visiting Manzanilla’s beaches with her mother, making art from a young age—the only one in her family to do so—and being teased in grade school for her Indian heritage, racism she continued to experience later in life. “You learned how to survive,” she says in the film. “You just had to turn inward and get on with your work. You learned how to make a space for yourself.” Nanan’s shells are arranged inside of and bursting from the pods’ slightly parted lips. Her sculptures resemble both natural and human elements and can be seen as plant pods or representations of female anatomy. 

Kelly Sinnapah, <em>Mary, Notebook of No Return: Memories</em>, 2022. Acrylic on canvas, triptych: 99 x 77 1/2 inches each. Courtesy Ford Foundation Gallery. Photo: Sebastian Bach.
Kelly Sinnapah, Mary, Notebook of No Return: Memories, 2022. Acrylic on canvas, triptych: 99 x 77 1/2 inches each. Courtesy Ford Foundation Gallery. Photo: Sebastian Bach.

A similar blending of nature and the human body appears in the large-scale, figurative paintings by Indo-Guadeloupean Kelly Sinnapah Mary, the only artist contributing two-dimensional works to the show. In a monumental triptych, each panel measuring over eight feet tall and six feet wide, she has painted a young woman with curly, dark hair. Set in a dense field of green snake plants, the woman wears a white wedding dress and a gold necklace and earrings as she looks out into the distance with bloodshot eyes. Her dark skin is covered with green plants and palm trees. On her neck and chest are a small house and an ominous scene of a lion confronting a child. Sinnapah Mary’s entire body of work is titled Notebook of No Return, with additional information following a colon, Memories (2022) in the case of the triptych. Her oeuvre title is a play on the seminal work of Aimé Césaire, the Martinican author credited as a founder of the Négritude literary theory that promoted Black consciousness and African culture.

Supporting the exhibition are several noteworthy features and design elements. Just outside the gallery space is a blue, beaded exhibition banner by Antiguan artist Amber Williams-King. Welcoming visitors along with the banner is a soundscape produced by Gosine and the New York-based organization Jahajee Sisters. The score, which flows through the Foundation’s indoor garden, features twenty-five women in the organization who respond in sounds to the questions: What brings you joy? What brings you comfort? Inside the gallery is a thoughtfully chosen selection of books for visitors to browse, as well as a take-home bibliography for further reading.

The exhibition presents a relatively small sample of the four artists’ work, however, the show felt as far from small as possible. Each work could be the subject of a review. Visually captivating and culturally, historically, and emotionally complex, all four artists address complicated shared histories. The exhibition is a powerful reminder of the possibility for beauty to come from darkness and pain, as well as the endless creative capacity of the human spirit.


Annabel Keenan

Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer specializing in contemporary art and sustainability. Her work has been published in The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, and Artillery Magazine, among others.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2022

All Issues