“Family: Visions of a Shared Humanity”: A Powerful Exhibition for Unsettled Times

Video still, Garrett Bradley, America, 2019, multi-channel video installation; 35mm film transferred to HD video (black and white, 5.1 sound), fabric. © Garrett Bradley. Image courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.
Video still, John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016, single-channel HD video, colour, 5.1 surround sound; Pérez Art Museum Miami, purchased with funds provided by PAMM’s Collectors Council. © Smoking Dogs Films. Image courtesy of the artist, Smoking Dogs Films, and Lisson Gallery.
Video still, Isaac Julien, Western Union: small boats (The leopard), 2007, 16mm film transferred to digital video, colour, 5.1 surround sound; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Lawrence Hinchliffe Bequest Fund 2018. © Isaac Julien. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.
Installation view, Arthur Jafa, Love is the message, the message is death, 2016, at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2018–19; single-channel digital video, colour, sound; Pérez Art Museum Miami, purchased with funds provided by PAMM’s Collectors Council. © Arthur Jafa. Photo by Oriol Tarridas. Image courtesy of the artist and Pérez Art Museum Miami.
Video still, Theaster Gates, Breathing, 2010, single-channel digital video, colour, sound; Pérez Art Museum Miami, gift of Deborah and Larry Hoffman. © Theaster Gates. Photo by Chris Strong. Image courtesy of the artist.
Video still, Carrie Mae Weems, May days long forgotten, 2002, DVD video, colour, sound; Pérez Art Museum Miami, purchased with funds given in memory of Denise Andrews. © Carrie Mae Weems. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

“Family: Visions of a Shared Humanity”—guest curated by Franklin Sirmans, Director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami—showcases a powerful survey of works from nine internationally renowned artists to explore the interconnectedness of humanity amidst ongoing global concerns.

TEXT: Chloé Wolifson
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Tucked away in a corner of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) is a powerful exhibition for these current unsettled times. “Family: Visions of a Shared Humanity” has been guest-curated for the AGNSW by Franklin Sirmans, Director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami and includes video works by nine artists from North America and the UK, each of African or Afro-Caribbean descent. The exhibition is presented as a response to events of the past two years, marked in particular by the spate of killings of Black people and by the Black Lives Matter movement, from Sirmans’ own perspective as an African American and those of these artists of the African diaspora: John Akomfrah (Ghana/UK, b. 1957), Garrett Bradley (USA, b. 1986), Stan Douglas (Canada, b. 1960), Theaster Gates (USA, b. 1973), Arthur Jafa (USA, b. 1960), Kahlil Joseph (USA, b. 1981), Isaac Julien (UK, b. 1969), Steve McQueen (UK, b. 1969) and Carrie Mae Weems (USA, b. 1953).

 

Video still, Garrett Bradley, America, 2019, multi-channel video installation; 35mm film transferred to HD video (black and white, 5.1 sound), fabric. © Garrett Bradley. Image courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.

 

An exhibition comprised entirely of video artworks is a challenging proposition from an exhibition design perspective, but it’s also a clever response to the pandemic-related challenges that museums and galleries have faced regarding the stymied global movement of artists, artworks and art workers. While it could be possible to interpret this as a sort of halfway measure between online and physical presentations of art, “Family” instead embodies and highlights important qualities of both. Being physically present in a space with these works and their protagonists at a scale beyond the screens in our homes or our hands of course encourages closer and longer attention, reverence even. At the same time the medium of video, as Sirmans notes in his introduction to the exhibition where he speaks directly to visitors from a video screen in “portrait mode”, is familiar and direct yet nuanced and complex, and its qualities are symbolic of the times we find ourselves in.

The series of darkened rooms where the works in “Family” are presented are signposted with black-painted entry panels, distinguishing the exhibition from the rest of the white-walled gallery and guiding viewers from one work to the next. Video art can sometimes be a cause for frustration for gallery-goers. Who among us hasn’t encountered a film-in-video-art’s-clothing, where wandering in halfway through leaves one narratively confused and unlikely to want to sit through the whole cycle. In contrast, “Family” showcases the quality and diversity of contemporary video art with works that draw on and contribute to the history and evolution of the moving image. Several works adeptly employ cinematic techniques while unfolding in non-linear fashion, while others achieve complex sonic and visual feats with realisations that are powerful in their deceptive simplicity.

 

Video still, John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016, single-channel HD video, colour, 5.1 surround sound; Pérez Art Museum Miami, purchased with funds provided by PAMM’s Collectors Council. © Smoking Dogs Films. Image courtesy of the artist, Smoking Dogs Films, and Lisson Gallery.
Video still, Isaac Julien, Western Union: small boats (The leopard), 2007, 16mm film transferred to digital video, colour, 5.1 surround sound; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Lawrence Hinchliffe Bequest Fund 2018. © Isaac Julien. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.
Installation view, Arthur Jafa, Love is the message, the message is death, 2016, at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2018–19; single-channel digital video, colour, sound; Pérez Art Museum Miami, purchased with funds provided by PAMM’s Collectors Council. © Arthur Jafa. Photo by Oriol Tarridas. Image courtesy of the artist and Pérez Art Museum Miami.
Video still, Theaster Gates, Breathing, 2010, single-channel digital video, colour, sound; Pérez Art Museum Miami, gift of Deborah and Larry Hoffman. © Theaster Gates. Photo by Chris Strong. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

The nine works in the show were all made during the last two decades, but “Family” takes viewers on a temporal and aesthetic journey far beyond that. Glimpses of contemporary infrastructure subtly infiltrate 16th century Plymouth in Akomfrah’s Tropikos (2016), a series of tableaux set at the site of the first British slaving excursion’s departure for Africa. The silent gazes of Akomfrah’s protagonists are overlaid with passages read from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the luscious lapping of waves against jewel-toned seaweed clusters. Meanwhile, in Julien’s Western Union: small boats (The leopard) (2007), the Sicilian island of Lampedusa becomes a collision point between baroque excess and the refugee crisis, where writhing bodies are set against gilded curlicues. Jafa’s Love is the message, the message is death (2016) harnesses a startling array of YouTube footage into an homage to the triumphs and tribulations of contemporary Black American life, while the singers in Gates’ Breathing (2010) gradually merge Buddhist and Black Southern gospel techniques. Each work reaches into the past with one arm and the present with the other, pulling the two together for urgent reckoning.

The inherently time-based nature of video art poses a practical challenge to experiencing “Family” in full, but it doesn’t make it a chore—far from it. After well over two hours viewing the works in the exhibition, in the end I found myself hooked by the show’s final note, Joseph’s BLKNWS® (2018–). Recalling the genre of pirate radio, Joseph has re-tuned the ubiquitous 24-hour television news channel to bring viewers pertinent information from a Black perspective. From the writer Wole Soyinka explaining how the Yoruba deity Eshu was distorted into the Hollywood film character Alien, to the story of Aretha Franklin offering to post bail for activist and scholar Angela Davis in 1970, to the news of Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton running for office in Florida, BLKNWS® is simultaneously a fascinating resource and stark reminder of the voices and stories that are missing from mainstream media.

 

Video still, Carrie Mae Weems, May days long forgotten, 2002, DVD video, colour, sound; Pérez Art Museum Miami, purchased with funds given in memory of Denise Andrews. © Carrie Mae Weems. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

 

Showcasing a rich diversity of works within a defined set of parameters, “Family” is powerful in its simultaneous specificity and universality. These nine video works are individually expressive of these artists’ particular aesthetic and conceptual visions, and Sirmans has invited viewers to find the common threads therein, opening up possibilities for “visions for a shared humanity” to emerge. From far away in Miami, via the power of video art, Sirmans has gifted to Sydney audiences this reminder of the shared imperatives of the present moment that we all find ourselves in, no matter where we are.

 

Family: Visions of a Shared Humanity
6 November 2021 — 13 February 2022
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

 

 

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