Issues of ethnicity and foreignness have always sparked contentious debate in our country, and more than likely always will. Nationale's current show Foreigners brings these heated issues to the forefront via the work of four Portland-based immigrant artists. I would call these artists and their pieces nothing short of impassioned and powerful. In our current highly politicized and tense society, it is refreshing to see how artists are choosing to confront these ever-present and foreboding hurdles, hurdles that impose on their selfhood and their artistic agency.
Modou Dieng, born in Saint-Louis, Senegal, is a multidisciplinary artist; he draws on pop culture as a presence in our society to comment on its permeability in culture and its inherent allegorical functions. With After Thoughts he is carefully recalling Muhammad Ali and all of the strength the famous boxer carries with him and subsequently radiating out. With Goodbye Blue Sky… it is easy, yet problematic, to imbue the work with post-colonial fervor, yet this is not Dieng’s primary intention. Simply the mixed media of the European flag with denim on the back, all a soft shade of blue, means to narrate through his own perspective what it means to be a Generation X African. It is also interesting how he plays with the notion of American ideal and the American Dream; blue skies make way for opportunity, but here he’s waving goodbye to all of that... The gold leaf details on both pieces are subtle, but eye-catching touches.
Victor Maldonado’s work is perhaps the most playful of the works displayed using bright colors and slightly caricature-esque facial shapes. By calling on an iconic and recognizable Mexican symbol, his prints and wooden stencils of luchador masks evoke powerful connotations on the migrant experience. Born in Michoacan, Mexico, but having grown up in the Central San Joaquin Valley, his pieces, such as Lucha Mask II, carefully draw on his heritage to create careful commentary on the political and cultural balance that exists even between such close boundaries as the United States and Mexico. Much like actual luchador fights, these pieces on display are energetic, vibrant, and confronting.
Espinas V, Espinas VI and Espinas II by Angelica Millán are commanding and demand attention from the room separate from the fact that they employ bright, eye-catching designs. The size of Espinas II itself is impressive, especially when seen next to the other two works, yet what is most understated about these works is the delicate manner in which they are riddled with thorns. The fabric Millán uses in Espinas II she herself buried and then unearthed, evokes nuances of “home-grown”, “roots” and “rebirth”. The smaller pieces are torn and burned, and finally, each of her canvases are delicately and arduously littered with thorns in what I can only imagine was a painstaking act of love. Further, themes of femininity and home-making are not lost with these works, bringing their vigor full circle.
The final artist on show is Bukola Koiki, Nigeria born but resident of the US since her youth. Her work narrates what it means to identify as multi-cultural. However, on the opposite spectrum, Koiki is fully aware of the cultural dislocation that often goes alongside such identification. As a result, her work is often toeing that boundary by employing themes of tradition and ritual. An Aggregate of Power, a huge sculptural piece with handmade and hand-dyed and paper beads recalling traditional Nigerian necklaces, is a testament to her heritage and the role it occupies in her personal, inter-cultural discourse. The fact that it is so large-scale and in the context of a gallery space, as opposed to an actual necklace to be worn in Nigeria, changes its reception. Similarly, Tyvek Gele 1 (along with the video: I Claim That Which Was Never Mine) toys with what it means to translate something so personal to one’s identity in terms that are accessible to another background -- the “gele” is a traditional Nigerian headpiece worn by women, but Koiki here has made it out of dyed Tyvek, a highly commercialized Western industrial material dyed with indigo in an attempt to bridge, or at least highlight, that gap.
As an immigrant myself, I was instantly drawn to these works. The notion of "in-betweenness" that all of these artists explore is something that I have always felt. Born in Bulgaria, but having divided my time equally between living there, Spain, and the States, being "grounded" and achieving a state of stability is not something that I can say I've ever achieved. Perhaps for brief moments in time, but much like thriving in one's cultural roots, those moments are fleeting. As a result, I can easily visualize the need these artists must have felt in expounding on a sense/space that is both transitional and simultaneously homely. What they have achieved both individually and collectively here with Foreigners is not to be overlooked and certainly will not be forgotten.