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"People of Color. People of Clay." at Baltimore Clayworks folds memory, history, and identity into the earth

For thousands of years people all over the world have used materials sourced from the earth to record and grapple with cultural histories, memories, and identities in the form of masterful ceramics, tiles, and tools. Baltimore Clayworks' latest exhibition, "People of Color. People of Clay.," features a vast collection of works by 30 contemporary artists who continue this human tradition, folding their own stories into the earth.

"We had to get inside the head of each of these people, and take all these heads and make some cohesive sense out of it all," said Leslie King-Hammond, who co-curated the show with Lowery Stokes Sims. 

The show, which, as its title suggests, focuses on artists of color, spans four rooms and several corridors in Baltimore Clayworks' gallery. The walls and corners of each room are packed with work that often digresses from more functional clay work, and varies from the figurative to the conceptual and abstract. Sonye PauKune's mixed-media figurative piece 'Lilith Flying Free from the Garden' takes on origin myths about the fabled first woman in the world. Nathan Murray's 'The Threat' presents a ceramic head of a hooded African-American girl. Ceramic fragments and found objects, such as seashells, bones, herbs, and other tiny, unidentifiable articles fill individual bags in Rachel Eng's 'Collection I.'

When you enter the exhibit, an overwhelmingly beautiful cluster of clay follicles sprout out toward you from the gallery wall. In this piece, 'Roots embraced – Baltimore 2007 – 2017,' by Akiko Jackson, the clay is worked in such a way that it assumes a fiber-like quality, or like thick strands of hair braided into long chords. It's invasive and unexpectedly animated. On the adjacent walls, E.M. Ray's ornate square tiles are sewn together and decorated in cowry shells and Asante Akua'ba fertility figures to replicate celebratory Ghanaian textiles. Both Jackson's and Ray's pieces manipulate clay to reflect myth and ceremonial traditions in Ghana and in the Americas—Ray's with a more direct translation of tradition, Jackson's with a more exploratory approach.

Drawing these clay traditions into a distinctly contemporary milieu, Jiha Moon paints cross-cultural myths and pop culture references onto porcelain vessels 'Lady Tal WTF Bowl,' 'Red Yolo Cloud Cup,' and 'Bok Peach 1.' In 'Lady Tal WTF Bowl,' several Angry Birds-esque peach figures float on smoky vapors, while a hairy werewolf stretches an arm into the haze. Documenting the relevance of a popular game app on clay affirms the historical significance of the ephemera of our time, as trivial as it may seem to us now.

Nearby, Mariana Bacquero's 'Three Vessels' piece is comparatively stoic, but up close it becomes somber and reflective. Each vessel is embossed with excerpts from letters written by members of Bacquero's family. Laser-etched glass portraits of the family members sit like funerary placards beside the vessels.

Mercedes Ortiz's 'Dia,' 'de los,' and 'Muertos,' installed on the opposite side of the corridor, showcase a lighter, slightly more whimsical memorial. Three stylized, Jurassic skeletal craniums are adorned with Dia de los Muertos embellishments. Ortiz's ceramic skulls are displayed on white pedestals that are devoid of the exuberant color and culture the holiday invokes. As a sculptural triptych, the pieces are disconnected from both the prehistoric relics and the Mexican holiday they reference. The result stirs questions about cultural appropriation, commoditization of tradition, and the familial, cellular, and cultural artifacts that remain.  

Another room focuses on intimate interiors and gender roles that are foisted upon women, and rituals of women. In Lourdes Jiménez's 'chingale hasta que ya no puedas remar' ('never give up' and 'do your best no matter what'),' a challenging mixed-media assemblage, organic forms cluster and swell like a heart or a mass of tumorous growths out of the imagined corporeal body of a modified apron hung flat against the gallery wall. The work evokes the frustrations and courage of women who feel confined by or challenge their assigned roles. "The expectation that masculinity and male norms are the sole determining factor have been a serious deterrent to women moving into more central and essential roles in the arts," King-Hammond offered, "and the only way we can deal with that is to open it up."

It seems that "People of Color. People of Clay." is an attempt by Baltimore Clayworks to "open up" their spaces to more diverse and divergent artists. King-Hammond was clear about her curatorial role and the power of art to disrupt traditions that historically omit or isolate POC contributions. "We cannot deny the power of what colonialism did to a majority culture that gave people permission to deny and dismiss [people of color]," said King-Hammond. "This is how we deal with this. This is our voice."

"People of Color. People of Clay." is up at Baltimore Clayworks through July 1. For more info, visit baltimoreclayworks.org

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