REVIEW – “Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test” at Red Bull Arts Detroit

Akeem Smith’s No Gyal Can Test exhibition at Red Bull Arts Detroit transgresses disciplinary classifications and the expectancy for a singular ethnographic history of dancehall, which is readily accessible to a globalized audience eager to exploit its cultural legacy.

In Jamaica, upper-class families grill their home to deter robberies of their houses. Smith utilizes these grills to protect the archival dancehall photographic and film footage behind, which ranges the two decades between the 80s and 2000s. Protruding from the flat walls of the building’s underground tombs, these decorative homes symbolize the artist’s attitude toward a global viewership that commodifies the hypervisible women of the movement. The voyeurim of the gallery visitor questions the assumed invitation to peer through cast iron metal shields. What is offered and what is withheld? On the other hand, their installation can also be perceived in relation to wealthy Jamaicans’ refusal to accept the cultural and political revolution of dancehall as a national signifier. Viewers are meant to question their position within, or outside of, the household in order to better understand what is deserving of safeguarding.

In these and other wall works, photographs and videos are intentionally obscured, offering a limited visual scope to the memories they document. Queens Street, an assembled building with an exposed interior,  encases a single-channel video that plays abstracted and slowed-down footage of a dance. Because there is a gap between the welded metal doorway attached to the front of the house and the leftmost edge of the adjacent window, viewers are situated awkwardly outside this personal space peering indoors. The portrait included in Black Queen, a minimal and rectangular wall work made with salvaged, black building remnants, is hidden from view behind an top section of latticework. The woman’s face is almost entirely encased in its shadow.

Curated by Maxwell Wolf and Kenta Murakami, this unique expression of love culminates the preceding twelve years of archival work and outreach to honor the legacy of the dancehall community Smith grew up around in Kingston, Jamaica. Born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in the Waterhouse District in Kingston before returning to Crown Heights, Smith is the godson of Paula Ouch, the founder of the Ouch fashion house, an all women’s team that shaped the visual loudness of the era. Several of their garments on view are draped on mannequins sculpted by collaborative artist Jessi Reaves that commemorate the women of his youth and particularly Sandra Lee, the central fashion and hair stylist. Jewelry by Brando, his grandmother’s former partner, is juxtaposed alongside these original pieces. The interwoven nature of his life is further solidified through his grandma, who raised him alongside his mom, and co-owned La Roose club in Portmore, a coastal city that borders Kingston. Materials – corrugated zinc, tarp, repurposed wood, and breeze – from the building’s facade, as well as other disused social spaces, make up the main components of Smith’s deeply-personal installations.

While Smith’s process implements specific protocols to procure and ethically compensate Jamaicans who provided him with the exhibition material, the extension of these guidelines within the gallery are ultimately left to the discretion of the visitor. What is implicated through the exhibition’s free admission and allowance of photography that facilitates a capturing of images among visitors?

Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test is on view at Red Bull Arts Detroit in Eastern Market every Friday – Sunday from 12 pm – 7 pm until July 30. Reservations are required. Appointments to see the Soursop offsite installation at Woods Cathedral in Detroit can also be made using the same webpage: https://ngct.redbullarts.com

 

Artist Information:

Akeem Smith – Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/akeemouch/

PREVIEW – Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test at Red Bull Arts Detroit

Installation View of Akeem Smith: No Gyal Can Test at Red Bull Arts New York 2020. Photo by Daro Lasagni. All artwork courtesy the artist and Red Bull Arts

Red Bull Arts Detroit is hosting the second iteration of Akeem Smith’s traveling exhibition, No Gyal Can Test. This show, which premiered on April 16 and runs until July 30, explores the dancehall community in Kingston, Jamaica. Through collaborative sonic-sculptures that four-dimensionally collage ephemera – photographs, videos, garments and jewelery, along with architectural materials sourced from musical congregation sites now existing through public memory – Smith transports a display of togetherness resonant today in the ever-evolving and globalized community. Because Detroit’s cityscape reveals prevalent musical archives encoded within architectural fragments of former music and dance spots, I’m excited to see and hear how Smith’s exhibition is intimately recontextualized within a local arts space.

REVIEW: Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism

Although it might be tempting, or even the norm, for arts institutions to uphold the veils that American and European art so often hold just for the sake of fitting aesthetics, the Unsettling Histories exhibit at the University of Michigan Museum of Art does just the opposite. Assistant curator Ozi Uduma has put together a remarkable collection of works that spark discussion- who is shaping the narrative, and what messages are they explicitly or subconsciously trying to portray?

When I first entered the gallery space, the exhibit seemed fairly conventional, with portraits lining the walls and several works occupying the floor space. The real impact of the exhibit stems from the descriptions alongside each work, each deliberately including the harsh realities faced by marginalized communities at the time, and forcing the viewer to reconsider the way they take in the work.

One such example is the oil painting Mount Hood from The Dalles by John Mix Stanley. From afar, I saw a simple idyllic landscape scene, which turned out to be not so innocent after all. The caption acknowledged how the stereotypes used in many of Stanley’s paintings played a role in encouraging removal of Indigenous communities to promote Western expansion. I remember feeling taken aback after reading the description and surprised that the painting could do so much harm, which just goes to show how effective the exhibit was in revealing the darker side of such works and the ways in which narratives can be exploited for harm.

 

The entire collection was created in response to a work new to the museum, Flay (James Madison) by Titus Kaphar, which held the central position in the room, rightfully. To me, this work was the most impactful because it directly addressed the hypocrisy of America’s Founding Fathers in their mission to fight for freedom while they simultaneously owned slaves. The portrait of James Madison is cut into strips at the bottom, a reference to his position as a slave owner. Although I knew of the dark history of most of America’s founders, seeing it explicitly conveyed in a visual manner served as a powerful reminder about the truth of America’s history. This exhibition was an intense and compelling experience that I would highly recommend, and I feel like I walked away with a greater appreciation of the power of art and how it has been used to harm others in the past.

REVIEW: The Clements Bookworm: “Framing Identity” Online Exhibit, Empowerment and Resilience in the Black Experience

Like a telescope, the camera takes a lens to both distance and bring closer the image on the other side: something captured which previously went unexplored, an instant in time that is taken and set into memory. In both instruments, what we see is something we’ve created with the help of the setting of the time, the cultural moment, the positions of various actors across a space. Just as a telescope offers a look into the positions of an infinite number of celestial bodies in relation to one other, a camera creates a record of social climate, inequities and labor for justice.

But that’s enough for botched and rambling similes. The Clements Bookworm discussion was a great addition to simply viewing the online exhibit alone. Samantha Hill was invigorated as she spoke on the pieces in the collection, highlighting many Michigan photographers and communities. There wasn’t time to go through each picture in the detail it seemed she wanted to, but her summaries did a great job to show overarching themes and the changing trends of the representation of Black individuals and communities over nearly two centuries. The reversal of negative stereotypes/caricatures in portrayals of Black people is an ongoing, complicated process which the artistic greats of history, like Frederick Douglass, expanded into new media.

As photography became omnipresent, saturating first the print news and eventually dominating the Internet, it grew in accessibility, challenging everyone to really consider their identity, how they’d like to be perceived, where they fit into the rest of society. From the first powerful, dignified portraits of Douglass to today’s glamorous Fenty photoshoots, self-expression and framing of POC has evolved and strengthened with race discourse and culture, continuously inspiring new questions and conversations, driving our society towards equity.

Hill discussed The Colored American Magazine, one of the first periodical publications to celebrate Black art and achievements. I wish she had talked a little longer on this, given the great influence of media representation, especially after the Internet became ubiquitous. She brought it into the present a while later, with examples of former President Obama in magazines.

For me, the media brings up an interesting thought: how does putting one’s representation back into the hands of another change the resulting image? Whitewashing in magazines and Instagram ads is an obvious example, but what about posture, facial expression, two important factors in Douglass’ revolution? The style of dress, the position of the subject in what kind of background? We’ve seen a regression of some kind, or rather a continuation of what had already existed. What would Douglass say to us if he saw how his vision and goals have evolved?

For more online events from the staff at the Clements Library (which I’d definitely recommend attending!), check out their Facebook page, William L. Clements Library. Discussions occur fairly frequently, covering a range of art and history topics. If you’d like to watch the recorded webinar from this exhibit, you can find it here. 

 

PREVIEW: The Clements Bookworm: “Framing Identity” Online Exhibit, Empowerment and Resilience in the Black Experience

Photography, while being a comparatively new art form, has a rich history. Its power to explain and illuminate complicated ideas in a single image is immense, and has led to some of the most impactful art in the world.

This month’s event focuses on Frederick Douglass’ transformative work in photography; how his lectures and images inspired the next generations of creators to bring the Black experience into the art world. Join in on an online viewing and discussion with Clements Library fellow Samantha Hill and graphics curator Clayton Lewis February 19th at 10AM.

Register for the free event here: myumi.ch/gjgzR, or view the virtual exhibit any time.

PREVIEW: Range of Reaction

On Friday, January 29th, Arts in Color will premiere a digital student choreography showcase entitled Range of Reaction.The virtual dance showcase is produced, choreographed, and performed entirely by University of Michigan dance students. Five dynamic choreographers have created short dance films that seek to answer the question “how does the world that we live in right now affect the choices that we make daily?” Range of Reaction showcases thought-provoking art, tackling a variety of topics including colonialism, groupthink, racism, and queer identity.

 

Range of Reaction began as a cathartic discussion of the creative silence COVID-19 has brought to art communities, and transformed into an imagining of what art may look like as our communities heal. Each work was filmed throughout the fall in Ann Arbor, with every party involved strictly following University of Michigan and statewide COVID-19 safety guidelines. This week’s showcase highlights the perseverance of artistic communities, as it offers the premiere of five original works despite the numerous hardships and challenges the pandemic has presented.

 

Range of Reaction will be posted to the Arts in Color Vimeo on Friday, January 29th at 8pm EST and will be available to view free of charge. Supported in part through the School of Music, Theatre & Dance Meta Weiser EXCEL Fund, as well as Arts at Michigan, Range of Reaction is a must-see showcase for those looking for a refreshingly original and thought-provoking performing arts event from the safety of their home.

 

To watch the Range of Reaction Promotional Trailer, visit https://vimeo.com/504178628 . Range of Reaction will be posted to the same channel.