My sister and I recently stumbled into a recurring inside joke. It starts with one of us asking for a favor, to which the other will reply, “As a woman of color, I find it really problematic that you expect that kind of emotional labor from me. I think you need to donate to my Patreon account.”
This isn’t to deride Patreon or deny that emotional labor is both expected and exhausting for women and people of color. Rather, it's an example of a phenomenon: As our external reality grows more terrifying, our efforts to rectify it reach a fever pitch while simultaneously seeming not to address the problem at all. There are so many people who want to change the world and so many who feel powerless to change anything.
There’s no doubt ArtCenter/South Florida’s latest show, “Parallels and Peripheries,” is timely, circling most of our cultural anxieties. It’s composed of work from eight female artists, most of whom are marginalized by more than just their gender. Their art — ranging from sculpture and painting to performance video and photography — addresses that marginalization and the various cultural narratives that create them.
“For me, it stems from... looking at the notion of power structures, the notions of the center and periphery, the mainstream and the marginalized,” says Larry Ossei-Mensah, cofounder of Artnoir and senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. He was invited to curate the show over the summer. “I’m first-generation Ghanaian-American; I grew up in the Bronx... Most things in my life that are culturally rich come from these [marginalized] spaces.”
The richness of the work in “Parallels and Peripheries” emerges from the layers of identities, traditions, and assumptions each artist brings to her practice. Saya Woolfalk, for example, explores hybridity through race, gender, and cultural practices in her film-projection installation. Joiri Minaya pulls from music, art, and even home decor to question representations of Caribbean women. Lizania Cruz transforms notions of news through story workshops with black immigrants and their descendants, creating zines from them that replace magazines and papers on a newsstand. This work isn’t simply about how society treats those who are ignored. It's about how personal narratives disrupt the repetition of that alienation.
“I think we’re all riding that line within the work,” says Susan Lee Chung, a Miami-based artist whose sculptures will be exhibited. “It requires a lot of us to tap into accessing why things are the way they are, how things came to be, how do you really take apart something that’s still almost incapable of breaking? Any kind of force that you may apply to it, you can start to sort of break away from what’s developed.”
In terms of her own work, Chung says, “It’s never been so conscious with wanting it to be central or centered... Always being on the outside gives strength to a voice. We recognize that it’s not this dominant discourse.”
Jamilah Sabur, another Miami artist in the show, might equate this strength to the geological bodies in her work, addressing the notion of borders, territories, and identity. The rhombus that recurs in her most recent work not only functions as a reflection of mountains and ridges, but also is rooted in her memories of her childhood home, which had rhombus latticework above the front door.
“I’ve always thought of the rhombus shape as a kind of portal,” Sabur says. “So it’s kind of physical, this sense of thinking about myself in the context of the show. There’s just a desire to open up this conversation on memory and how memory is rooted in space, in place, and how we carry that memory in spaces.”
The phrase “the personal is political” might sound tired now, but for Sabur, it’s a literal practice in her work. Re-conceptualizing space serves not only as a memory exercise but also as a means of formulating new philosophies and possibilities.
“We have to get to this place of decolonizing thought and decolonizing the standard,” Sabur explains. “How do we reorient our sense of place and territory — the futility of borders and what we consider territory?”
The work in “Parallels and Peripheries” is beautiful, subtle, rich, and sometimes difficult. A viewer might be inspired to try to draw a singular answer from all of these stories of marginalization. Does centering those at the periphery really bring about some utopia? If we gather enough voices together that are different from our own, will there finally be justice?
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“I’m more interested in offering the question and then allowing the ensemble of works to maybe answer the question. That really enlivens the whole experience,” Ossei-Mensah answers. “It’s been a show that, although we have an established framework, there are a lot of things that are continually revealing themselves.”
In a way, showing up and expecting the answers is a lot like donating to your favorite charity (or Patreon account) and going on with your day, or celebrating “women of color” without acknowledging the discrete, varied, and important histories that underlie those words. It’s performative, a salve for the injustices paraded in front of us every day. What “Parallels and Peripheries” offers, really, is an opportunity to engage the margins, the pushed-aside, and the forgotten — to ask yourself how and why you forget someone’s humanity. Together, these artists ask you to have a conversation — a discourse that clarifies what is dominant in society and what made it that way.
As Ossei-Mensah puts it, it’s “dealing with the humanity of how we approach each other.” And that seems more necessary now than ever.
"Parallels and Peripheries." Through December 16 at ArtCenter/South Florida, 924 Lincoln Rd., Second Floor, Miami Beach; 305-674-8278; artcentersf.org. Admission is free.