Welcome? at Manetti Shrem Museum of Art

9.3 / Review

Welcome? at Manetti Shrem Museum of Art

By Forrest McGarvey March 13, 2018

This essay is funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency.


To “welcome” someone proposes a social contract: an agreement of access in exchange for compliance. Welcome?, an eight-artist group show curated by Susette Min at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California, Davis, is a complicated and vast display exploring one’s relationship to power and space as they navigate the uncompromising contingencies that often come with “being welcome.”

Kameelah Janan Rasheed. How to Suffer Politely (And Other Etiquette), 2016; vinyl posters. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Forrest McGarvey.

The first work encountered in Welcome? is Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s How to Suffer Politely (And Other Etiquette) (2016). Five bright yellow posters are installed on the museum’s exterior, broadcasting themselves like public rules or announcements. One of the posters backhandedly advises, “Tell your struggle with triumphant humor,” obscuring the role the viewer plays as either the speaker of such things or the receiver in need of advice. In forcing the viewer to imagine the situation to which this advice applies, the piece plays to the murky feelings of insecurity sometimes felt as a guest within another’s community, or perhaps their own.

Daniel Joseph Martinez’s work, (America) Adopt a Refugee (2016), questions what else could be exchanged along with a welcome. Using multiple packages of metallic gold Mylar safety blankets, the artist invites viewers to take a blanket (that is, a refugee) with them—the gold acting as a visual metaphor for their self-awarding participation in the process of extending aid, and doubling as a flashy means of communicating their efforts to others. By critiquing the outward display of the noble intentions of those who do the welcoming, these works invert the role of the conscious sympathizer by antagonizing the responsibility that their actions produce.

In Andrea Bowers’s An Act of Radical Hospitality (2008), a multi-channel video installation hosts an intimate record of Elvira Arellano’s battle with U.S. immigration for her and her son. Told through interviews and photographed ephemera, Arellano’s real-life narrative opposes the conceptual “other” from adjacent works in the exhibition, and provokes consideration of how welcome a viewer is, or should be, to engage with the presented topic through art. In particular, this piece leads viewers to question the commodification of such issues by an overwhelmingly privileged gallery- and museum-going public’s tepid engagement: If not to incite change, what does this exhibition provoke in its audience?

Larissa Sansour. Soup Over Bethlehem – Mloukhieh, 2006; video; 10 min.; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Forrest McGarvey.

In Larissa Sansour’s video work, Soup Over Bethlehem Mloukhieh (2006), the artist records her family casually discussing their political frustrations over a shared meal. Using the family dinner table as a common ground, Sansour depicts a safe space for struggling with an overwhelming political climate that no one asked to be a part of, but which all must learn to cope with. Soup Over Bethlehem portrays a more relatable perspective that reaches beyond knowing the politically correct answer, focusing on what it can look like to sit with such uncertainty.

For Sansour’s family, and for many of those who, like the exhibition’s inquiring title suggests, are unsure of the status of their welcome, these issues are more than topics—they are an everyday occurrence. However, the call for action might be a sign of the times rather than a requirement for politically engaged art. The ambiguous stance that Welcome? takes is a frank representation of our own relationship to these instances, whether we are passive onlookers or active protagonists having to navigate tense spaces ourselves. With each work uniquely exploring its own contestation with access and space, Welcome? as a whole challenges us to reevaluate our own positions and perspectives.

Welcome? is on view at Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at University of California, Davis through June 17, 2018.

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