Alternate Perceptions of the Diasporic Experiences – Art and Cake

Fatemeh Burnes “Wonderland”

Displacement, Disconnection & Disruption: Alternate Perceptions of the Diasporic Experiences
By Betty Ann Brown

We are living in dystopia, in a world that is dominated by technology and disconnect, alienation, loneliness, and dysfunction. Steven Wilson

            “Dis Connection”–the exhibition finely curated by Elana Kundell for the Studio Channel Islands Art Center in Camarillo, April 1 to May 27, 2023–features eight artists who grapple with geographic displacements and historical disruptions. Artists Marthe Aponte, Nurit Avesar, Arezoo Bharthania, Fatemeh Burnes, Maria Adela Diaz, Janet Neuwalder, Sigrid Orlet and Alicia Piller have created work based on their personal and social roots from France, Germany, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, and Japan, as well as the American Midwest. These artists paint, sculpt, and perform. They use paper, canvas, clay, and collage, but their predominant way of working is with mixed media. Mixture is particularly important here, since the combination of diverse materials functions as a metaphor for the (often forced) merger of geographic and historical cultural traditions embodied in the artists themselves. The deployment of mixed media allows the artists to regard the complex layers of sometimes conflicting perceptions about refugees and immigration. In the exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles critic Peter Frank writes, “Art–the invention of alternate perception(s)–may be the only comprehensive way of regarding, even addressing, today’s migration and its agonies.”    

            Marthe Aponte was born and raised in France, then spent decades in Venezuela before coming to the United States to end up as a professor in Lancaster, CA. She weaves the multiple threads of her personal experiences into images wrought in the traditional French art of picoté (i.e., piercing the surface with needles to create tiny holes), augmented by embroidery and appliquéd beads. For the “Dis Connection” exhibition, Aponte produced four large circular compositions that are backlit so light emerges through the holes. Created during the COVID epidemic, her black discs function as symbolic shields to serve as psychic protection from the toxic environment. A fifth Aponte piece, from 2016, presents a ritual doorway to secret realms. (Perhaps esoteric territories away from pollution and climate change and worldwide pandemics…?) Aponte works within an honored family lineage of textile workers: Her mother embroidered, her mother-in-law crocheted, and her aunt sewed. She combines her French roots with inspiration from folk art traditions of Latin America, Australian aborigines, and many regions of Africa. Her compositions are often bilaterally symmetrical, with flourishing floral and geometrical designs animating their otherwise flat surfaces. Aponte’s works are both charming and mysterious. They delight the eye even as they challenge our perceptions. (Remember Frank’s words about art inventing alternate perceptions.)

Marthe Aponte “Shield 1”

            Like many of the other artists in “Dis Connection,” Nurit Avesar is an immigrant. Born and raised in Israel, she came to Los Angeles in her 20s. In 2010, she completed an MA at California State University, Northridge. Her work is based on an arduous process that echoes the ruptures and erasures of the immigrant experience. She covers canvases with layers of paint and mixed media collage, then scrapes and peels away the top surfaces to reveal fragments of colored layers underneath. The technical term for such work is “decollage,” a word coined by the European Nouveau Realisme (New Realism) artists in the 1950s.  “Decollage” describes an “inverted collage procedure” based on subtraction (as opposed to addition, as in collage.) Rather than using existing layers of street posters like Jacques Villegle, for example, Avesar builds the layers herself, repeatedly extracting parts of the various pigmented “skins.” Her surfaces become metaphors for the psychological distress caused by social disconnection. Poetic and visually seductive, the surfaces remind viewers that wounds can be opportunities for growth and healing, even joy. Some viewers might think of the Japanese practice of kintsugi, repairing broken pottery with gold. Or they might think of the line from Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem”: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Avesar transforms the traumatic “cracks” of the immigration process to allow the light of beauty to come in.

Nurit Avesar “Fallout”

            Arezoo Bharthania was born and spent her early life in Iran, but now lives in Los Angeles. Her artworks serve as objective correlatives of her memories, especially of the homes she has “inhabited across geographies” and how domestic spaces “represent a multilayered construction of identity influenced by the interdependent forces that define roles, govern behaviors, and order power relationships.” Her expansive vocabulary of images is arrayed across hanging sheets of fabric, mylar, and vellum. Foliage, wallpaper designs, and upholstery patterns are juxtaposed with larger cityscapes and building details. The printed and photographed depictions are enhanced by paint, yarn, and thread. They hang like translucent tapestries. Elusive, almost ephemeral, they flutter gently as viewers walk past. Bharthania explains, “I make mixed-media work to communicate, mutate, and abstract layers of memory along with elements of the home and the knowledge that both are inextricable from political and social contexts.”

Arezoo Bharthania “LAX/IKA – IKA/LAX”

            Fatemeh Burnes was also born and raised in Iran, where she studied traditional Persian miniature painting and poetry. She came to the United States in 1973 and continued her studies in art and art history, then began teaching and managing the art gallery at Mount San Antonio College. Burnes’ work combines the detailed precision of Persian miniatures with the explosive dynamism of Western expressive abstraction to create densely layered compositions that symbolize both the chaotic amalgamation of today’s multicultural world and the many cultural influences that flow through her personally.  Wonderland (2015) pairs a surreal forest with mechanical fragments that pierce the trees’ blood red branches. Some of the wounded tree limbs are wrapped in white bandages. Others seem to “bleed” translucent rain. While the term “wonderland” usually refers to a delightful fantasy, Burnes’ imagined world is apocalyptic, a portrait of nature under attack. Her image challenges the historic binary of culture vs. nature, urging viewers to consider (yes, here it is again) alternate perceptions. How can we reconsider the old opposition of culture vs. nature (which, under capitalism, is restated as business vs. the environment) so that we understand they are interdependent? So that we remember that business cannot exist without the natural world? So that neither of these cultural categories is valued at the expense of the other?

Fatemeh Burnes “Wonderland”

            Maria Adela Diaz calls herself “an artist in exile who references her personal experiences of displacement and violence, situated within the history of her homeland Guatemala, to reflect on sociopolitical, gender, and climate change issues.” Diaz does this in performances that are documented with photography and video. The artist called her 2020 public intervention performance “Foreign Bodies.” Dressed only in a few stems of seaweed, she performed on the coast of Ventura, lying on the beach. The photograph of her face down on a pile of rocks and sand recalls iconic work by another immigrant from Latin America, Anna Mendieta (1948-1985). Like Mendieta, Diaz merges her body and nature. Of course, Western culture has long linked women and nature but both Diaz and Mendieta challenge that old stereotype with references to the complexity of human and earth images. (Some feminist scholars wonder if the earth was not conceptualized as female, e.g., Mother Earth, men in power might not be as likely to rape her with environmental devastation.) Like the earth “herself,” women are devalued by Western Patriarchy. If they don’t conform to artificial standards of beauty, they are rendered invisible. This is particularly true of women from countries and races deemed “Other” by the dominant culture. As Diaz herself says, “Migrant bodies are read as foreign bodies that are often rejected and discriminated against. We are the bodies that society wants to make invisible–bodies that occupy a space that by origin does not seem to belong to us.”

Maria Adela Diaz “Foreign Bodies”

            Janet Neuwalder uses art–mostly ceramic art in this exhibition–to come to grips with the traumatic lives of her forebears. For “Dis Connection,” she focuses on her several Japanese-American relatives, most impactfully her mother and maternal grand parents, who were incarcerated in the Topaz Internment Camp during World War II.

She created a tabletop model of Topaz out of clay, with the foundations and partial walls resembling an archaeological ruin. (Think Pompeii.) The model is so precise, she can locate the exact building in which her family was housed. The most impressive piece in this series is Shikata Ga Nai/It Cannot Be Helped(2023). Inspired by the ancient shells found in the desert around Topaz, she is in the process of creating one small, bone-like shell to represent every one of the 11,000 people who were interned there in 1942-45. To date, there are only 3,500 (not eleven thousand yet) of the white shell-like forms that the artist scatters across the wall in a scintillating wave of bleached bowl-like bones. Neuwalder has taken one of the darkest moments of American history and transformed it into a gorgeous memorial. Like many of the “Dis Connection” artists, she has converted an experience of traumatic displacement into a riveting aesthetic monument.

Janet Neuwalder “Shikata Ga Nai / It cannot be helped,” Image courtesy of Donna Granata

            Sigrid Orlet also refers to historical erasures. As someone who has studied (and written a significant book on) the formation and significance of symbols, the artist is very aware of how the objects and images in her work convey meaning. A second-generation refugee from Germany, Orlet was aware that her native country had demonized some elements of the society (Jews, homosexuals, the differently-abled) while elevating others (white Christian presumably heterosexual Nazis). She understands how power structures privilege some people and devalue others. And how the devalued can be erased, not just physically, but also symbolically. Her “A LIFETIME BURNING IN EVERY MOMENT II” (2021), was built as a sculpture and photographed in an archival pigment print. The root ball of a burned tree is placed, almost precariously, on a wooden plinth covered in gold leaf. The gold leaf recalls the Japanese kintsugi process (mentioned above in reference to Nurit Avesar’s work). And it recalls Byzantine icons painted on gold leaf to indicate their heavenly status as well as church relics housed in gold-plated boxes (reliquaries). It also evokes the longtime European tradition of framing artworks in gold.

We all know the phenomenon of tree rings. When a tree burns from the outside inwards, the flaming destruction eats away at the outside tree rings, thereby “erasing” the time they represent. “A LIFETIME BURNING…” honors the tree like a sacred figure, lamenting the loss of the tree and, by implication, the span of time lost in the destruction of the tree rings. The charred tree serves as a symbol for wounding and erasure, then, but it also points to endurance and survival. The tree has fallen, but its inner rings remain. Just as many immigrants and refugees may have lost both their innocence and their cultural status, but their true essence survives. Especially if they use art to expunge the losses and “invent alternate perceptions.”

Sigrid Orlet, 2021, “A LIFETIME BURNING IN EVERY MOMENT II” (wood, gold leaf)

            Alicia Piller was born and raised in Chicago then came to Southern California to do an MFA program at California Institute of the Arts. She bases her sculptural formats on the agglutinative shapes of cellular biology and fills them with mixed media in dynamic artworks that are based on both process and content. Her Wrought-iron fences. Cultivating divides. (2021) is composed of eccentric fragments of vinyl draped like fabric patches from two hanging points on the wall. The fragments–like tesserae in a new-age mosaic–contain newspaper clippings and photographs of plants native to the St. Louis area, of the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917, and of the Fairground Park Riot of 1949.

            Also included Piller’s Wrought-iron fences are references to the indigenous roots of the St. Louis area: the Mississippian Moundbuilder site of Sugar Loaf Mound constructed between 1000-1450 AD. (The Mississippian peoples traded widely, their copper appearing as far south as the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.) Piller’s Lost generations. Shaping time. (2021) also refers to the native past, as the artist includes a survey map of the 1819 Native Settlement near Cahokia Mound. A World War I era map of the city is appears as well. The fact that Piller takes scattered moments from regional history–rather than trying to erect a fluid temporal flow–reminds us that we have only partial views of the past. And indigenous people are, like diasporic Africans, often erased from the dominant culture’s narrative. Importantly, Piller does this aesthetically, not didactically. And the beauty of her visual “writing” engages viewers, encouraging them to consider, and learn from, alternative narratives.

            Piller’s hometown of Chicago is the urban center closest to St. Louis. The artist, by extension, is exploring her own roots as she excavates those of a neighboring city. As an African American, she knows about the historic causes and horrific results of race riots like those in St. Louis in 1917 and 1949. Looking carefully at each of the artist’s vinyl “pages” allows viewers to “read the book” of racial politics in this area of the American Midwest. Again, this “Dis Connection” artist points us to alternate perceptions.

Alicia Piller “Wrought iron fences. Cultivating divides.”

            The eight “Dis Connection” artists use mixed materials and fractured images to grapple with both their personal experiences and the larger social issues such experiences entail. Immigration, exile, incarceration, and disruption present challenges that are only partially understood by the dominant culture. Our often narrow and almost always patriarchal society responds to immigrants and other “outsiders” by constructing defensive walls of stereotypes. Edward Said investigates the function of such stereotypes in his brilliant 1978 volume Orientalism. These artists respond as well. But instead of scholarly analysis, the “Dis Connection” artists counter stereotypes with art, with alternate perceptions that challenge viewers to think in new and expansive ways. And they reward viewers with the aesthetic pleasures of visual beauty.