RAC x UMR: Announcing a critical review and writing partnership
Rochester Art Center (RAC) is excited to announce a newly created partnership with the University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR). The partnership was initiated as a way to both encourage cross-disciplinary engagement between students at UMR and the exhibitions at Rochester Art Center, and to address a lack of critical review of RAC’s exhibitions by the Rochester community.
As a pilot, Assistant Professor Marcia Nichols invited students enrolled in her Fall 2015 Intro to Literature class to review the exhibition Akosua Adoma Owusu: Existential Crisis, October 2, 2015 – January 3, 2016. Below are reviews from three students, Lauren Anderson, Taran Pickar, and Brenna Rauner, each of whom responded to the following questions:
What are the formal and conceptual qualities of the work? Describe what you are looking at.
What are your initial thoughts and responses? How do they compare and contrast after seeing the entire exhibition?
What do you perceive to be the intentions and motivations of the artist in creating the work? Is this conveyed in the work, and how?
Does your emotional response tell you about the work and its construction and/or purpose?
What are the “big ideas” and themes that support and connect the works together (or not) and how is this achieved?
For our Spring 2016 exhibitions, we’re excited to open the call for reviews up to all UMR students! The deadline for submissions is March 15, 2016. Please submit reviews to Susannah Magers, RAC Curator, Art & Public Engagement, at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to hear what you think!
Looking at Split Ends, I Feel Wonderful, 2012, a 16 mm film transfer to digital video, I sat down on the wooden bench, put on the headphones provided, and tried to get a glimpse of what artist Akosua Adoma Owusu was portraying. Slowly, as I made my way through the exhibition, the objective of the films came into focus. As a whole, Existential Crisis eloquently elicited gloomy anxieties arising from the realization of the many ways in which the white culture I am a part of has distorted the image of beauty. This distortion of beauty was evident throughout the exhibition, and was contributed to by different disconnections. In some ways, Existential Crisis is not fluid because the ideas, images and sounds were often disjointed and seemingly unrelated. But in other ways, these films gracefully weaved together the idea of broken beauty and a plea for change. The audio in the films continually explored the idea of brokenness, by using clashing tones, noises, and rhythms to emphasize the clash between whitewashed definitions of beauty and blackness.
In particular, Drexciya, 2010, powerfully conveys this idea of brokenness. Projected onto a large blank wall in an empty room, focusing on no people, it showed desolate abandoned and broken pools, and dead crabs, whole and in pieces, and decay along the poolside. In contrast, the fluidity of Kwaku Ananse, 2013, invokes feelings of understanding of what Akosua Adoma Owusu views as true beauty. It zooms in on aspects of life, greenery, and beauty within African culture than many Americans might dismiss as broken. Images of beauty and images of things that are perceptually and literally broken are contrasting ideas within these two films, that force the viewer to question the way racial politics and the aftermath of colonialism has distorted perceptions of beauty and worth in both American and African cultures. Indeed, Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Existential Crisis demands that the viewer rethink what beauty is.
When first approaching Akosua Adoma Owusu: Existential Crisis, the exhibition was not at all what I was expecting. Scattered words along the pale walls were visible out the corner of my eye, but my focus was drawn to the moving pictures illuminating the simplistic room, giving it life. The atmosphere evoked tranquility. I believe nothing in the exhibition was set up by utter coincidence, for each detail felt interconnected with all of the others. This is especially evident in the placement of each film or video, and the environment of the rooms they were screened in. The entirety of the experience ended with the telling of one story—not five disjointed or unrelated short films, but one big picture. The story line pulled different emotions to the surface in phases. At first, curiosity crept in, rising steadily; then followed sadness, and then anguish.
This feeling was particularly strong while watching the film Drexciya, 2010. I felt as if I was there, at the abandoned swimming area, the silence of the bareness and the cracks in the pavement were palpable. While the visuals in this film centered on what was once beautiful and was now broken, I couldn’t help but think that Owusu was intentionally connecting the landscape in Drexciya to the experience of African American women, which her exhibition revolves around. The work acknowledges how the society we live in has deconstructed the image of these women, and constructed the image of who they should be. The experience of Drexciya felt surreal.
I truly don’t know what I was expecting when I walked into the Existential Crisis exhibition. I do know that as I was walking out of it, I felt very moved and that without a doubt, the exhibition had a profound impact.
Throughout the exhibition Existential Crisis, artist Akosua Adoma Owusu addresses, “the tensions evolving from the African diaspora and dispersion of cultural tradition.” In her work, Owusu utilizes technology as a way to show her art. In each room there was one to two screens or monitors on which each film was playing. Each film is shown separately, in a different room. Some of these rooms are dark the only light coming from the screen, while others were very light. I found it interesting how there was a room at the beginning of the exhibit in which Owusu summarized each film, introduced herself via another film interview, and also had a paragraph explaining the “warring consciousness.” I think that the paragraph being one of the first things you see right before you enter the exhibition helped the audience make connections between the films and this “warring consciousness” concept.
The two films at the beginning of the exhibition, Split Ends, I Feel Wonderful, 2012, and Me Broni Ba, 2009, showed the importance of hair in African culture. Split Ends, I Feel Wonderful is a film set in the 1970s in which the women featured in it demonstrate the various ways they style their hair. In the end, the film shows a woman proudly walking down the street with her new hairstyle. This film, along with the 1970s style-music, showed how women used their hairdos as a way to express themselves in an oppressive environment. The other film, Me Broni Ba, showed women braiding each other’s hair and also braiding the hair of dolls, but all of the dolls were white dolls. I liked how Owusu used the video to show again the role hair has in culture, and also the complete lack of diversity in dolls. To drive the point home even more, there was a short story at the end of the film in which a girl explains her journey to America, and how fascinated and confused she was with the differences in hair texture and color.
Through experiencing Existential Crisis, I understood more clearly the struggle an African immigrant in the United States might have when dealing with their “warring consciousness,” and to quote from the introductory text in the exhibition’s extended gallery guide, how important it is to find that middle ground between being “African in America and American in Africa.”
This post was paid for by the Rochester Art Center.
(Cover photo: Rochester Art Center)