For Abigail DeVille, whose projects use salvaged materials to address issues often obscured in American history, the opportunity was to create something big. At the center of her multi-part installation in “Brand New Heavies,” an exhibition with three artists at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, is a 20-foot-high metal and chicken wire structure that was inspired by the dome of the US Capitol.
For Xaviera Simmons, whose practice includes photography, performance and sculpture, the exhibition was an opportunity to try out a new medium, ceramics. She built a 15-foot building out of clay balls that were fired in high heat. Two video works can be seen in it, one didactic and one sensual.
And for Rosa-Johan Uddoh, a young London performance and video artist, the exhibition marks an American debut – the first time she has presented her ironic investigations of British society across the pond. One work is shown on a large screen in a cinema-like setting with lush curtains and carpeting, the other on several small monitors at the entrance.
Brand New Heavies – some will remember the funky acid jazz band that inspired the title – don’t shy away from putting artists first. The curators are the artist Mickalene Thomas and the collector Racquel Chevremont, life and creative partners under the name Deux Femmes Noires.
But the exhibition is also a demonstration of the method.
“Our curatorial practice is as follows: These are artists we want to work with. Let’s let them do things that they otherwise couldn’t,” said Thomas. The curators asked the artists to use the space of the former factory space and the 40-foot-high ceilings and supported them with a manufacturing team and resources.
The guess is that giving artists a wide-open creative assignment can be very effective, with the freedom to do the work they think is most urgent and the space and resources to get through it, a time of crisis like that effectively shedding light on how any tightly crafted work would curatorial argument – and possibly more.
“It’s from the moment,” said Thomas. “It’s something you’ve never seen before.” A few weeks ago, the curators and artists – minus Uddoh, who was at home in London because of the pandemic – offered a look at how the show was made. One area had been converted into a ceramic studio with three ovens, in which a team of potters worked meditatively. Painters set up Uddoh’s projection room, and frames were set up for Simmons and DeVilles creations.
“I’ve been wanting to put up the Capitol dome for a minute,” DeVille said. The finished structure, which she calls “The Observatory,” has screens attached to it showing images of what she called “Contested Places in American History”. (She initially envisioned periscope-like viewing devices wedged in chicken wire, but obscuring this approach to pandemic hygiene.) A dark disk hangs over the dome, indicating distant galaxies or a black hole.
DeVille said he was concerned about how American public architecture projects a great narrative that suppresses conflicting evidence – from the building of the Capitol by enslaved black workers, among others, to today’s state-sanctioned violence.
“In the founding of the United States, there is a love affair with classical structures through which our potential greatness can be projected,” DeVille said. Your dome idea crystallized after Donald Trump’s election, with his call to restore lost American fame. “We always try to position ourselves back,” she said, “and somehow miss the point.”
Your capitol is home to various stories. For example, the screen shows period maps of the freshwater pond area in Manhattan, where free black residents lived until most of it became Irish Five Points. “I think of places where people put down roots, but it has always changed since they were displaced,” she said.
Other recordings were made during her travels, particularly along the Carolina and Georgia coasts. Once, she recalled, saw her standing by the side of the road collecting junk and saw a sign that indicated she was on the Combahee River – where Harriet Tubman was leading a Union raid that freed 700 enslaved people . She included her video of the location in this work.
DeVille’s installation includes a second, ziggurat-like structure made up of 370 trash cans filled with old bottles and other bins, with mannequin legs protruding from them. The metal cans were salvaged from a former Baltimore Social Security Office, she explained – a federal building with a much more useful function.
The area is rounded off by perforated tarpaulins that cover the windows of the cave-like exhibition hall and filter the light. silhouetted legs emerge at the base. Long sticks lean against a wall, each with a row of red feathers on its base – inspired by MAGA hats and freedom bars. The overall effect is a kind of people’s panorama, prosaic and mysterious at the same time.
DeVille expects visitors to associate her piece with the January 6th Uprising of the Capitol, even though she conceived it beforehand. Indeed, there was no shortage of historical allusions available: “Throw an arrow at the map anywhere in the US and you will hit a can of worms.”
Simmon’s installation contains around 800 ocher spheres in a structure with an arched entrance. The artist’s résumé is considerable and varied, including most recently pieces of steel with embedded text in Socrates Sculpture Park and a work on a highway billboard in the current Desert X Biennale in California. She took a new leap at Pioneer Works.
“I’m still interested in formal processes,” said Simmons. “It’s about doing the work and opening a new chapter or channel in my practice.”
There was touch in her mind. Working in clay, she said, has a certain tactile integrity and roots in all cultures. “It is an earthen wish on my part,” she added, “to see and feel this kind of material, the oldest kind of material.”
Inside there are monitors one behind the other. One shows slides of text distilling history and current events – a story about Thelonious Monk, a commentary on how political movements are fragmented, a reminder of the Jackson, Miss, water crisis. And so on. The other plays a montage of sensual images that have been singled out and blurred by the erotic.
“Body to body,” said Simmons. “I want you to be turned on.” She titled the work: “Even in the variations, the sharing of joys helps us to get involved.”
She suggests that active citizenship be active in both areas at the same time – analytical and libidinal. When the pandemic resulted in a lack of touch, the year’s social justice protests were thwarted with catharsis modeled by young people whose elders had much to learn.
“These young people want to feel who they want to feel with,” she said. “They want to sleep together” – she used the simpler term – “I sleep with you and you, sure, then I’ll be on the street, then I’ll be created. This is an abolitionist framework. “
The present moment, Simmons said, was full of potential – a lull in which seeds of a better way are sprouting. “I think we are at a nice fulcrum, especially for artists or thinkers who need to dedicate themselves to the imagination. I think we come to this repair moment. “
Uddoh is now the youngest performer on the show, based on the British experience, which she inspects with scientific insight and lively humor. As a 2018 graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art, she received early career awards in the UK, but has not yet shown in the US.
When she got the invitation, she thought it was a joke. But the curators had discovered them. “There was something about her,” said Chevremont. “I thought she needed the money and resources behind her to really move the work forward.”
On the big screen, Uddoh presents “Black Poirot” – a 20-minute film in which found footage is mixed with a text narration in which she speculates that Agatha Christie’s truth might as well be Hercule Poirot, with his ambiguous status in British society was black – and if so, he might have devised a radically different method of investigation, informed by Frantz Fanon, Edouard Glissant, and other theorists of race and empire.
In her work “Performing Whitness”, which is shown on smaller screens, she lives in the character of Moira Stuart – the first female news presenter for the Black BBC, who was hired after the Brixton Riots of 1981 and is an integral part of the artist’s childhood . “Here was a black woman to be trusted,” said Uddoh. “She’s smart, she wears suits and all that, she’s the mouthpiece of the state broadcaster.”
At her own age, Uddoh said – she studied architecture at Cambridge; Work in a London company; Then she went to art school and got into galleries and museums – she was intrigued by what women like Stuart did and the cost. “With my experience of navigating white institutions, I began to see it as an incredible accomplishment.”
If conditions allow, Uddoh hopes to stop by and add a live component before the show ends on June 20th. Thomas and Chevremont have already said that their work offers a different diasporic perspective than the possibly overly insular American talks.
Compared to exhibitions with heavy themes, “Brand New Heavies” offers another opportunity to approach the current era of cascading trauma and hopefully promise a renewal.
The curators suggested that the thought that the discoveries that artists make along the way also inspire new ideas in the viewer to be open and trusting.
“When artists get the platform and have an idea, something magical happens,” said Thomas. “That is the heaviness. This is brand new. “