’Alchemy’ at New Langton Arts
Untitled (Mother) is the profile of a modern and classical African American beauty. Like the feathers of a crested bird, her hair springs with vitality, and her red and yellow eye paint add to the physical simpatico she seems to have with the white bird that sits on the shoulder of her white linen jacket. The bright yellow background frees the figure from an associative environment and we concentrate on the proud, knowing wariness of a fearless mother-mother of reinvented ritual, mother of self-invented identity. So begins the viewer’s experience through Alchemy, a deeply conceptualized and brilliantly realized exhibition that explores what it is to have an African heritage in the Americas. In three video projections – Beach, Forest and Altar – and nine large Cibachromes, brothers Thomas Allen Harris and Lyle Ashton Harris interpret the role of spirituality and the continuity of cultural identity across diverse African American cultures in the western hemisphere.
All the Cibachromes are tableaux vivant, thoroughly researched, elaborately staged and commemorated through photography, yet conveying a liveliness and authenticity of feeling beyond documented contrivance. The neutrality of abandoned utilitarian spaces (transformed with bright paint, attendant fetishes, flowers, candles), and real people (playing themselves and playing the roles of ancestors with commitment and without identity conflict) combine to create time- lines and cultural connections in a single frame, through a single aperture. Untitled (Procession) moves from generation to generation as convincingly as a single person might walk from one physically partitioned space to another. One generation does not see the former or the next, but dwells intelligently and creatively between them. Each looks forward to us, the present, and we look at them (and to them) for cultural history, for spirituality, for intelligence about identity.
Other pieces are symbolic and evocative in a different way, mixing real ritual with contemporary metaphor. Untitled (Orisha Study) and Untitled (Blue) also allow the viewer to remain outside the action, but they open understanding and challenge our suppositions through icons. Does the mirror symbolize a search for self identity? Does the inscrutable face express hostility? alienation? Is the gold body paint an assertion of pride? Is the swing a sexual come-on? a pedestal? Does the sand on the floor mean that the Atlantic Ocean was once a wall-a barrier to travel? a protection from kidnap?
The video projections are sensual settings, in which motions in real time serve as parallels to the migration of culture through centuries. In Beach, as a woman wades away from us into the sea we witness her reluctant departure from the African coast. Or is it a nostalgic departure from the American coast? In Forest, big leaves adorn the painted body of a man who dances, trancelike, or basks in the sun. Is the actor communing with other nature really, or just wondering what it must have been like to move through nature in a different time, harboring in his mind and spirits different cosmology?
The images on time walls, the tolling of bells and other sounds that accompany the exhibition, and its superb installation with black walls and red floor fully occupy the mind and admit little that does not reflect on the modern African Diaspora. Alchemy turns collective and individual experiences into an insightful and self- contained anthropology.
Alchemy through March 14 at New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom St. San Francisco.
Casey FitzSimons is a freelance writer who lives in the Bay Area.