It’s Elemental: Reclaiming and Redefining Space


It’s Elemental: Reclaiming and Redefining Space

By Lusi Lukova February 27, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

February 1 marked a celebration of shifting times: the shedding of January for a smoother transition into spring, and the blossoming of an arts space dedicated to solidarity and expression. The inaugural art exhibition of Ori Gallery, Elements of Reclamation, launches the vision of co-creators Maya Vivas and Leila Haile for an artistic space that recontextualizes and elevates the artistic narrative of trans and queer creatives of color. Maya Vivas is an artist and graphic designer; their ceramics have been displayed in an array of Portland galleries. Leila Haile is a community organizer, tattoo artist, and dancer proudly supporting and celebrating the queer and trans communities in Portland for the last decade. Together they birthed Ori with the generous aid of friends, neighbors, and community members. Their opening was bustling with bodies and positive energy.

The importance of this space is not to be taken lightly. An arts gallery with retail space up front, Ori presents as an amalgamation of creative work and a medium for mobilization through the arts. It is rare to see a space that so fully actualizes its promise. Ori is a Yoruba word that translates to “head” and refers to one’s spiritual intuition and destiny. Ori also refers to the meditative facial-decorative practice associated with Yoruba tradition that is practiced by the co-directors and is the impetus for the name of the gallery. Vivas and Haile tell me that when one achieves a balanced character, then one obtains alignment with one’s Ori, or divine self. Ori gives one the power to conceive change. They say, “It is considered a creative, artistic energy and speaks to the deeply ingrained African reverence for creativity and the arts. When we practice Ori, we are reminding ourselves of the sacred nature of our work, its connection to the liberation of our people and the dismantling of oppressive systems utilizing our creative energy.” Ori Gallery escapes the othering effect that some clean and white-walled spaces in Portland seem to endorse and instead creates a locale in which people of color can see themselves represented.

Maya Vivas. Surface Tension no. 2, 2018 (installation view); black clay and gold luster. Surface Tension no. 1, 2018; porcelain and gold luster.

Co-curated by local poet and artist Samiya Bashir, Elements of Reclamation features work by five local Black artists: Melanie Stevens, Lisa Jarrett, Intisar Abioto, sidony o’neal, and Ori’s own Maya Vivas. Combining facets of sculpture, installation, text, and illustration, the convergence of these powerhouse individuals creates an energetic and potent force field for queer and femme voices. The exhibition begins with Melanie Stevens’s If You’re Watching This, It’s Too Late (2017), a large chiffon and silk print installation, over ten feet, that spans the entirety of Ori. If You’re Watching This, It’s Too Late provides a sort of second entry into the space; viewers first admire the way it hangs tantalizingly close, like a portal, as they walk underneath. Then they have to make a decision as to whether they continue their visit to the left or right of the work, given that the hanging splits the room in two.

The meme-esque intaglio etchings that Stevens has chosen to print on the tapestry range from an image of Michelle Obama with Donald Trump, with accompanying text reading “when you need receipts… … so you can return America,” to images of Black community leaders in varying degrees of emotion accompanied by “MOOD.” Gallery goers are not encouraged, but also not discouraged, from interacting with the work—touching it, having to duck around it, or just accidentally making contact because the room is so packed. The tactile nature of this hanging could also read like a protective blanket that envelops everyone admiring it. If You’re Watching This, It’s Too Late is a powerful social commentary that effectively weaves together humor, action, and the reality of “when you want to combat structural racism…but you also need to make rent”—another of the meme-inspired taglines included in the work. The inclusion of these mimetic phrases speaks to our current mode of cultural propagation, in which pithy phrases tend to convey ideas more concisely and more acutely. The reality of this quote speaks to action-oriented practice by confronting viewers with a type of unsettling humor, portraying a very real question of how to prioritize one’s responsibilities and self-care while finding the time and capacity to combat daily systemic oppression. Considering the added pressure of presenting artistically, the creation of critical artworks oftentimes flies in the face of economic security for artists. Stevens here has found a way to gracefully confront this inherent contradiction. 

Melanie Stevens. If You’re Watching This, It’s Too Late, 2017 (installation view); intaglio etching on chiffon/screen, silk print on cotton.

To the right of the hanging, we see two works by Lisa Jarrett beautifully juxtaposed with the ceramics of Maya Vivas. Vivas’s amorphous shapes are easily more organic than anthropomorphic, resembling something edible, like a decadent meringue kiss. The two wild shapes morph endlessly with each curve and fold. Surface Tension no. 2 (2018) is slightly larger than Surface Tension no. 1 (2018), which is crafted out of porcelain. No. 2 is made of black clay, with a speck of gold luster at the very tip. The two shapes hold tension between their forms: small and large, black and white, placed in the foreground as opposed to the background. However, it is not a tension that cannot be usurped; the sculptures are able to overcome this strain and exist at peace, one next to the other, and mimic one another’s static energy.

Lisa Jarrett’s works carefully cradle the electricity of Vivas’s on either side. Site/Map/Photograph consists of an interactive arrangement of human hair, acrylic, stainless steel, and magnifying lenses in which human hair is pressed to create three individual webs. Each of these may be more closely observed via movable lenses that lie on top. The stark white of the background contrasts with the dark nature of the hair follicle and, much like Stevens’s hanging, tells an intimate narrative. Using her own hair as the primary medium in this work, Jarrett quite literally magnifies the extent of how ingrained the body is in external expression.

Viewers are confronted with this stark personal memoir, a map of Jarrett’s own construction, and presented with the opportunity to see their own autobiographical experiences mapped out as well. Accompanying Site/Map/Photograph (2013) is Dressing (Conditioned #12,549) (2012) to the left, consisting of three glass bottles of olive oil, filled with a variety of elements including water, vinegar, a hair net, and human hair. The number three mirrored here creates a symmetrical correlation, strengthening Jarrett’s presentation. The bottles play off of this notion of “dressing”: oil as dressing for food, and as dressing to tame hair; “conditioned” as in conditioner, and as in an aspect of social conditioning, the means by which one presents an image of oneself. The number in the title perhaps quantifies the tediousness of this repetitive task, this daily conditioning, yet also the detail and care that go into its performance, becoming much like a ritual. In this one item are harnessed facets of an individual strength and identity.

Photographs taken by Intisar Abioto are hung catty-corner to one another—an eye-grabbing photo of a woman wearing a crown, as if presenting for a headshot, finds itself in conversation with two other photographs of women on the opposing wall. The series of photographs is titled Our crown has already been bought and paid for (2016), borrowing author and social critic James Baldwin’s acclaimed quote. The images depict women clad in white, appearing regal and ceremonial. Smiling and rejoicing, sometimes making eye contact with the camera, each woman dons a headpiece with a tassel, with the exception of the aforementioned image of the woman in the crown, who also wears a medal around her neck. Their regalia suggests valor in the face of their Blackness and womanhood.

sidony o’neal’s objects in a glass backpack/hold me and say (2018) is a carefully meditated arrangement of a domino, cake dome, stained glass, shadow, an eyewear case, and an AF1s sneaker. The balancing act of the sneaker laces tied to the handle of the cake dome casts a long shadow that pulls away from the center of the piece. Inside the dome, a blank domino lies inside of an eyeglasses case that rests on top of the blue stained glass. Only the bar connoting division is present on the game piece. The domino is placed perpendicularly to the suspended shoe, thus connecting the different elements to one another via their difference. The encasement and presentation of this piece is fragile, a result of its transparency and delicate form. This work causes viewers to question how one is meant to properly interact with what they are seeing—why has o’neal shown these specific items installed together? Why is a child’s shoe used in lieu of an adult’s, and why is the eyewear case presented sans the glasses it is meant to hold? The assembled sculpture is a metaphorical backpack; where a backpack is meant to hold, be sturdy, and provide a transportative function, this glass version is static and easily breakable. This is a backpack not meant to be unpacked. If any single item were to be shifted, the balance would be disrupted and the shadow broken. Individually, each item is easily recognizable, yet combined in this manner, one notices an overall lack that permeates this work. The dome is missing its cake, the AF1s shoe its pair, the case its glasses, the domino its dots, and the tile the other tiles that together would form a larger, gridded pattern. Much like the second half of the title, this installation leaves room for audience guesswork: “Hold me and say” what?

sidony o’neal. objects in a glass backpack/hold me and say, 2018; domino, cake dome, stained glass, eyewear case, AF1s, shadow; installation view.

o’neal’s work sits next to Jarrett’s final piece in the show, Meditate on the Blank Space Below (2017), which consists of two panels, one uniformly black, and one with text. Visitors reflect on the prompts lettered “A” to “Z” on the text panel, which put forward such poetic suggestions as “How to Navigate the Dis/located Sites of American Blackness” or “If the Map Is a Mirror You Can Trace My Pulse.” In contrast to the solid-black, opaque panel on the right, the reflective nature of the left panel becomes jarring. When directly in front of it, one is able to see their image with shocking clarity, breaching a new level of meaning for this amount of personal reflection.

The exhibition was curated to offer a seamless flow throughout, and provides both intimate time with each individual piece, as well as a larger awareness of how all five artists’ works are harmonious in conversation. An important aspect of the birth of Ori centers on its location. Existing in Portland’s prominent Mississippi District (known for its internal conflict over Portland’s burgeoning hipsterdom and its inherent issues with gentrification), Ori’s focus is to break the homogeneity of a “hip” and primarily white sea of coffee shops, bars, and art spaces that already exist on the street. It will be one of the few Black-owned spaces in what was once a largely African American neighborhood. Vivas and Haile tell me that thus far, folk have been incredibly receptive and welcoming. This challenge to the status quo offers musings on being, presence, culture, and community. In amplifying marginalized voices, Ori is a measure of the act of confronting institutional power from the inside. These elements of reclamation are an exclamation of solidarity and community in the face of frustration. At the core of this show is the concept of what it feels like to navigate the world in a Black femme body—“yes, there is pain, but there also exists the joyous, the absurd, the apathetic, and the intellectual.” Each of these charged elements fuses a narrative of staking a claim in the past, present, and future. 

Elements of Reclamation is on view at Ori Gallery in Portland through March 22, 2018.

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