by Hannah Salzer
On February 7, an intergenerational communing took place under the roof of the Village of Arts and Humanities. The gathering marked the end of the exhibit, Material Memory, a community collaboration with Nigerian visiting artist Olanrewaju Tejuoso. Using objects found on the streets around the Village of Arts and Humanities, Tejuoso and collaborating artists produced an assemblage of sculptural and textile works. Over a series of sewing workshops, community members gathered to discuss the materiality of memory and loss in connection with the discarded objects. The resulting exhibit meditates on memory and loss, and in many ways, is a group memorial to grieve for loss in the community.
The exhibit was made possible by SPACES, an artist in residency program at the Village of Arts and Humanities. By way of art, the exhibit issues a call-to-community action, as stated by its mission statement: “Memorial is everywhere and it can live through anything. It enables us to treasure what once was, whether it be a person, place, or event. Though we’re often taught to let go, memorials help us to stay connected.” One participant named Nick, quoted on the SPACES blog, explains “[Being a neighborhood artist] is different than other jobs. It’s about communication. A lot of people out there don’t have that. You come in to the studio, tie some knots, you hang with us, you have your people now. We tell each other stories that we don’t tell other people.”
Tejuoso’s practice involves collecting discarded objects and binding them together using techniques inspired by utilitarian practices in Nigeria. One of these Nigerian objects is the “osuka,” a piece of cloth woven into a donut shape worn on top of women’s heads as a supportive device for carrying heavy jugs. Osukas made of a range of colored and patterned materials lined the walls of the gallery. Unlike most artworks displayed in galleries, the Osukas carried traces of their utilitarian purpose: exhibit-goers were invited to pick up the rings, hold them, and even take one home if it spoke to them.
Tejuoso’s work blurs the boundaries between indoors and outdoors; environmental crisis which seeps through cracks in the city streets permeates Material Memory. Casualities (mixed media, 2016) transforms burlap sacks into sagging bodies hung from the wall and splays fabric wrapped sticks on gutted burlaps sacks on the floor. Its a scene which calls to mind a marketplace where a poor vendor sells his wares. There’s also a suggestion of something more sinister. The dirty burlaps gesture to a landscape of decay and rot. The composition of contorted twigs, piled on the burlap like a bed of still snakes, lie as causalities of environmental decay and poverty.
Characteristic of the work is a certain messiness, a refusal to be easily contained. For example, Dry Snow (found tarp, shredded paper, chair, 2016) threatens to take over the entire back room of the gallery. A grey field of shredded paper spills across the floor from a backdrop of white tarp. Planted in the middle is a bright orange chair. It’s an uncertain scene, evoking a snow which is bountiful but dry and grey, perhaps even toxic. There is also playfulness in the formlessness of the shreds. During the reception, the curiously inviting chair drew visitors into the pile. A few children waded in and played as if in a plastic ball pit. Like stubborn snow dragged into the house, bits of the white paper stuck to people’s shoes were tracked into the gallery and scattered throughout.
The closing reception convened with a reading from “Remember the Future” writing workshop, facilitated by Healing Hurt People. Inspired by afrofuturism, the participants wrote works envisioning the future for themselves and their community. Standing against a curtain woven from threads of every color on the rainbow, the writers shared their works with the audience. The final performer read a poem, entitled “Look at Me,” besides a sculpture he contributed to the exhibit of the same name. Framed by an aperture of shinning blank CDs, five robotic figures stand: three of adult stature and two the size of children in the foreground. The figures are composed of found objects of increasing transparency, signaling a clearer future for the artist and his family, the artist explained. His poem rearticulated this theme: “Oh how now my eyes are opened the raindrops that fall on me, free me from all traumas and sets me up to take them on again and press on to my new striving in life.”
Like the vibrant textiles, the tone of the performance was bright and the audience listened with warmth and supportive energy. It would be a mistake, however, to paint an overly romantic picture of the scene: the warmness was offset by gold and silver bullet cases strewn on the floor like confetti–a chilling reminder of past and present violence and the work that needs to be done to make a more livable future.