Birmingham

Third Space: Shifting Conversations About Contemporary Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art

As university presidents, corporate CEOs, and political leaders on the left and right toss the terms “multiculturalism” and “postcolonial” around in speeches and promotional materials, I am reminded that these buzzwords of the new transnational order have resisted domestication and dilution through the sharp, thoughtful, uncomplacent writing of Homi K. Bhabha.[1] Bhabha’s recognition that cultures must be understood as complex intersections of multiple places, historical temporalities, and subject positions—narratives marked by ferocious forms of intolerance, geographical evacuations, conquests, and ethical conundrums—has impacted the realm of cultural production in tremendous ways. Curated by Wassan Al-Khudhairi for her home institution, the Birmingham Museum of Art, Third Space: Shifting Conversations About Contemporary Art powerfully mobilizes many of Bhabha’s ideas, specifically his concept of a “third space,” or a space that “challenges our sense of historical identity of culture as a homogenizing, unifying force, authenticated by the originary past, kept alive in the national tradition of the People.”[2] Through deep encounters with the rapidly expanding and shifting coordinates of global contemporary art, Third Space animates the rich relations and unique specificities at work in the contemporary aesthetic production of the Global and American South. Pushing viewers to think within as well as beyond the limits of national borders, the exhibition shapes a powerful narrative of internationally shared forms of marginality.

José Bedia. Mpangui jimagua (Twin Brothers), 2000; acrylic and conté on canvas with objects; 122 x 355 x 188 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and the Birmingham Museum of Art.

José Bedia. Mpangui Jimagua (Twin Brothers), 2000; acrylic and conté on canvas with objects; 122 x 355 x 188 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Entering the newly renovated Jemison Galleries, the viewer is drawn to Cuban-born artist José Bedia’s multimedia installation Mpangui Jimagua (Twin Brothers) (2000), which immediately places ideas of crossings, migration, multiplicity, and exile at the center of the presentation. The son of a sailor, Bedia has lived outside of his home country since 1991. Here he paints a doubled silhouette that stretches off the wall and is pulled into space by the small boat attached to the assemblage. Dynamic and suggestive, the work emphasizes the movement of human capital across bodies of water as an ambiguous journey for those seeking new opportunities and financial security, or those fleeing as refugees or exiles. It is this idea of migration and the terrible contexts bound up in the histories of diasporic communities across the world that continues to appear in the exhibition, articulating culture as something mobile, durational, and thus continually in flux.

Nick Cave. Soundsuit, 2009; fabric with applique crochet and buttons, knitted yarn, metal armature, mannequin. Courtesy of the Artist, the Jack Shainman Gallery, and the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Nick Cave. Soundsuit, 2009; fabric with applique crochet and buttons, knitted yarn, metal armature, mannequin. Courtesy of the Artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, and Birmingham Museum of Art.

Nick Cave’s wearable, sculptural Soundsuit (2009) centers the second room of the exhibition, and places weight on the ways in which identity (particularly the categories of gender, class, and race) often appears in-between outward performativities and invisible concealments. These beautiful suits of armor are resplendent with jewel-toned appliqués of meticulously embroidered “throw-away” materials resonant of West African ritual costumes, as well as more “American” translations of these practices, such as by the Black Carnival Mardi Gras Indians. The suits signify as forms of bodily beautification and protection from outside force—from physical harm, judgment, or gaze. However, Soundsuit is also a garment of sensory and physical restriction; blinded by the cylindrical headdress and physically constricted down to the feet, Cave articulates identity, embodiment, and self-fashioning as forms of empowerment and entrapment simultaneously. This contradiction of freedom and constriction in regard to subjectivity mobilizes Bhabha’s sense of cultural hybridity toward more personal, lived articulations of self-identification and representation of the marginal body.

Merritt Johnson. Crow Booming the One Big Water, Gulls Flying Away, 2010; oil and alkyd on panel; 36 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Merritt Johnson. Crow Booming the One Big Water, Gulls Flying Away, 2010; oil and alkyd on panel; 36 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Birmingham Museum of Art.

While each work in this exhibition could inspire book-length treatises on its significance to this incredibly rich show, I was left deeply moved by Crow Booming the One Big Water, Gulls Flying Away (2010) by the multidisciplinary artist Merritt Johnson. Descendant of the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) and Blackfoot indigenous North American tribes, Johnson signals the seasonal migration of gulls across the ocean, mapping their aerial flight plans across destructive explosions of oil rigs in the Gulf. By attending to the murderous violence of indigenous peoples, animals, and the environment by the European colonizer, Johnson’s hard-edged, fragmented forms of bold, brilliant color operate as clashes between the human and nonhuman world. While the realm of nature offers up beautiful reminders of the ways in which animals and living cycles transcend the manmade borders, systems, and classifications imposed upon them, Johnson forces a recognition that these very beings are often destroyed by them nonetheless. Pushing Bhabha’s concept of a “third space” into a dialectic between human and nonhuman, this exhibition asks urgent and provocative questions of our current cultural climate—where it is going, where it has come from, and most importantly, what is/will be lost.

Third Space: Shifting Conversations About Contemporary Art is on view at the Birmingham Museum of Art through January 6, 2019.

 


[1] I extend my deepest thanks to the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Hugh Kaul Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Wassan Al-Khudhairi, and Sarah Tiambeng, Public Relations Account Executive for Third Space, for all of their help and support in the research and writing of this article.

[2] See Homi K. Bhabha’s text, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge Press, 1994), 55.

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