Nosing into the decorative white-painted wooden walls and peering inside Puerto Rican artist Eric Rivera Barbeito's piece titled 'Gracias,' a small house structure with a metal roof near the gallery's entrance, I feel a slight breeze against my knees coming from the AC unit that's blasting in this otherwise empty, doorless structure built on stilts. Though it's not usually polite or relevant for a reviewer to point out the prices of art objects in a show, Rivera Barbeito's prices here are built into his concept: If you want to own this particular piece you're going to have to pony up $70 billion, "a.k.a. the cost of being complacent." That $70 billion is the amount of Puerto Rico's debt.
Rivera Barbeito and seven other artists make up the group show "Out/Side & In/Between," on view at School 33 Art Center through Oct. 28. Much of the literature about the show, which was curated by Washington, D.C.-based curator Jarvis DuBois, describes it as one ostensibly "about" being an immigrant and what it means to belong somewhere—the artists featured here (or their parents) were born in Cuba, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, and South Korea. These stories are always relevant, but particularly so here in the United States where white supremacist, anti-immigrant rhetoric seems to grow louder daily.
From a factual standpoint, it's interesting that a Puerto Rican artist is included in this show of immigrant artists—he's obviously a citizen of the U.S. But apparently half of the U.S. doesn't even know that Puerto Rico is part of this country. Many have been noting the government's response (or rather its extremely delayed response, which is basically a non-response) to the humanitarian crisis Puerto Rico faces after Hurricane Maria's devastation. Leaders beg for help, while people suffer without power, running water, basic survival supplies, or shelter; a president that Puerto Rican citizens were not allowed to cast a ballot for or against victim-blames the people and their leaders, starving them of federal aid and further dehumanizing and othering them. These sentiments are horrific and they are not new, but the way the current administration stokes racism, fear, and hatred can make one wonder just what a "nationality" is for, or what "citizen" is supposed to mean, and in both profound and small ways "Out/Side & In/Between" picks apart those notions too.
Around the corner from Rivera Barbeito's work, in a little nook, are Ric Garcia's painting and two prints that take familiar brands (particularly popular within Latinx homes, but distributed and available all over the U.S.: Goya, Hatuey) and riff on Warhol's soup cans and obsession with the banal. In color and composition, though, these feel more in line with revolutionary posters or propaganda—the Virgin Mary winks in front of a can of Goya black bean soup, a little boy trumpets behind her, they all appear against a background of concentric blue and red circles. "Listos para comer" (ready to eat), the soup can humorously declares; another one in Garcia's print titled 'Goya Patriots' assures its consumer: "listos para servir" (ready to serve).
Nearby, Nigerian artist OLUSEYE's wall-climbing installation takes a similar tack, using the label and logo of Dangote, a huge manufacturing conglomerate in Nigeria that sells salt, sugar, cement, noodles, and more. Model-like headshots of young black boys cover the tall wall, blending into the various Dangote labels, and from all of that emerge three small-ish portraits of black boys. Made with charcoal, pastel, acrylic, and wax, their faces are overlaid and bisected with pops of red, green, and orange in geometric shapes and lines—which the artist says reference Yoruban mythology and geometry—with the words "DANGER" and "LABOR" and "SUGAR" and "DANGOTE" branding their faces, which stare back at you despite almost being swallowed up entirely by what surrounds them. A huge, almost-person-sized bag of Dangote refined sugar sits in the corner, spilling its chunky, bleached granules onto the floor.
Yuni Kim Lang finds a way to link generations of women through her dreamlike photographic and fiber pieces, extrapolating on the gache, a traditional large wig worn by high society Korean women. In her piece 'Woven Identity I,' an older woman, a younger woman, and a young girl lie serene, their hair all joined together into one land-like or continent-like mass of black, tangled, knotted hair. In another framed photo, the artist sits on her knees facing the camera, holding a young girl on her lap, both with their eyes closed. They're sitting on top of another mass of hair, which this time looks like a dark field of mums or anemones, and above them on the wall hangs the actual hair piece included in her photos; here it runs from left to right on the long wall, kind of like a timeline, its various-sized knots and braids bunching in the middle and suggesting an unfinished story of labor, tension, connection, and coalesced difference.
Four long intaglio/relief collagraph prints, titled 'Release,' by Maryland-based artist Niloufar Kazemzadeh are each pinned only at the top two corners, so they breathe and billow noiselessly against the gallery wall. A large, dense, dark cloud of smoke or a rather dramatic set of cottony clouds fills each scroll of paper, all etched with poetry written in Farsi, a script that curls and flows, billows too. A second-generation Iranian immigrant, Kazemzadeh notes in her statement that "the concept of endurance and repetition becomes dominant" in her work, referring to the laboriousness of her process, employing the words of Iranian poets to help her tell her story. This use of language poses limits for different viewers in terms of understanding and translation—but even so, in these (as well as another set of prints titled 'Frequency I' in another part of the gallery), she lets you breathe with it.
Kazemzadeh's pieces and Kim Lang's are, from a visual perspective, moments of pause and calm for this show. Back in the main gallery space, the pairing and placement of paintings by Ali Seradge (a self-described Iranian-Oklahoman) and Sobia Ahmad (born and raised in Pakistan but moved to the U.S. as a teen) next to each other, and the visceral way both artists handle paint, brings to mind trauma and horrors of war, among other things.
Seradge's toxic-colorful, grotesque, Bacon-esque portraits reference Middle Eastern mythology—like 'Div Akvan,' named after a demon found in the ancient epic Persian poem the "Shahnameh," who in Seradge's painting is represented kind of like a nightmarish children's book character. The vaguely head-and-shoulders-shaped shock of yellow (adorned with a pattern of pink, blue, brown, and orange brushstrokes) has what appears to be another darker, smaller portrait bust inside his face and a mess of a screaming, toothy mouth. In 'God is Fake Drones are Real,' two figures emerge from a dark, polka-dot pool, one with a head shaped like half a dozen slices of Wonder Bread, both of them staring listlessly or frozen in lifeless dread up toward an empty, gray sky.
Nearby, Ahmad's two slippery, crowded black and white mixed media paintings use found images, a keffiyeh, and gestural sweeps of paint to create crowded compositions. It's almost musical, particularly in her piece 'The Muslim' where the keffiyeh is pasted onto this canvas and it's shredded and unraveling. The brushstrokes Ahmad uses mirror this, criss-crossing and bleeding into each other, while a photo of a large crowd, their backs to a camera overhead, weaves in and out of view. Though her work here is largely abstract, it's hard not to try and let your eyes blur and see the general shapes in these large paintings as portraits in a sense too. That connection might also come with Ahmad's repeated use of the headscarf or the keffiyeh, two articles of clothing whose meanings, uses, and values (whose perceived goodness or badness, whose complexity) depends on who's talking about them—think misguided white feminists who want to ban the hijab because they see it as oppressive to Muslim women, compared to, well, an actual Muslim woman who wears it because it's simply part of her faith's practices and culture.
Across the gallery, Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi's series 'I am silent for I have seen nothing' examines the arbitrariness of borders. Each piece contains two small, framed, square canvases that almost look like photos of Earth taken from space; pools of paint create milky and iridescent or dark, galactic, or oceanic (at times earthy and bloody) color fields. In each set, the left painting contains straight and jagged lines like territorial borders drawn on a map—borders that are real in that they are politicized, contested, fought over, propagandized, and so on, but as activists/immigrants and refugees continually remind us, especially these days with more and more threats on immigration in this country, people should be able to migrate freely.
"Out/Side & In/Between" is up at School 33 Art Center through Oct. 28. There will be an artist talk on Oct. 28 from 2-4 p.m. For more info visit school33.org.