Sex, Religion and War: Meet Artpace’s latest crop of International Artists-in-Residence 

The mighty N’gone Fall, curator for this go-round of Artpace International Artists-in-Residence, is an art critic, consultant, educator and “cultural engineer” based in Dakar, Senegal and Paris, where she graduated from École Spéciale d’Architecture and worked as editorial director of the seminal contemporary African art magazine Revue Noire from 1994 to 2001. In addition to editing the books An Anthology of African Art: The Twentieth Century (2002) and Anthology of African and Indian Ocean Photography: A century of African photographers (1999), Fall co-curated the African Photography Biennale in Bamako, Mali, in 2001, and the 2002 Dakar Biennale in Senegal.

Fall has self-described as a “former architect” and as “a curator without a space” who now involves herself with projects in public and urban environments. In 2004, she helped to orchestrate Gaw-Lab, an ongoing project in which young Senegalese video artists collaborated with idealistic software designers to workshop short web-based animations, which “aired” alongside live Q&A video chats with prominent web-based video artists from Japan, Spain and France, all shown on “squatted” video screens in public spaces—exploding the borders between countries, genres and access to technology.

Fall states her worldview in her essay “Providing a Space for Freedom: Woman Artists in Africa”: “Colonialism brought in its wake a host of other isms: primitivism … racism, imperialism, totalitarianism, traumatism. Moving beyond the isms is the challenge that the new generation of female artists is taking up.”

Three artists, albeit one of them male, go a long way in demonstrating the scars of these isms, in an unmissable nexus of nationalist ideology, melancholy and fascination. I visited the three artists in their Artpace workspaces to check out their progress and talk about their concepts.

French-born Kader Attia is the son of Algerian and Arab parents. He grew up in the ethnically diverse, politically disenfranchised banlieue (suburbs) north of Paris, and also spent time with family in Algiers, where he absorbed the French colonialist history as it affected his own family.

Attia, a stocky, dark-haired whirlwind of hypnotic talk and energy, is employed in the meticulous dissection of a series of mirrors when I find him in his upstairs studio. These relate, he tells me, to the scars of the body and the body politic, and will hopefully spur a different sort of self-reflection in the viewer.

Ghost (2007), perhaps his most famous work to date, consisted of a grouping of 150 small seated tinfoil figures, representing Muslim women in prayer. Fragile, hollow and hunched, these strange portraits represent religious dogma’s required submission of the self. Attia is preoccupied by the homogenization called for by religious fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish.

Of his time in San Antonio, he said, astonished, “I turn on the TV to flip channels, and there is one, then another, then another—all television shows of preaching.” Attia has also spent time on the road from Santa Fe and Taos Pueblo to San Antonio’s own Franciscan missions, where he was surprised to encounter the domination of Spanish colonial architecture, which, alluringly, often provides a layer of stylistic meaning to natural materials such as the classic colonial style made of earth-based, traditional and fragile adobe. The adobe could mean the natural world or even the native people colonial conquerors saw as human clay.

“I believe that the mind is within the architecture of the body, which is contained within architecture of the structure,” he says. “And the word ‘adobe’ is from the Arabic … [relating to] the Moorish occupation of Spain for hundreds of years, so it’s a circle that never ends, from the mind to the body to outside structures.”

Korean-born Jungeun Lee is an artist based in Frisco, TX, who conceived her ongoing Silenced Suffering: The Comfort Women Project during her graduate study at the University of North Texas. In her cavernous ground-floor space, she has installed skein after skein of cotton string, their combined length 1/1000th the scale of the voyage forced upon one woman from Korea to Indonesia, as one of hundreds of thousands of “comfort women” forced to sexually service the Japanese Army during World War II.

“Korea was occupied by Japanese police, who would kidnap young, unmarried women,” Lee told me. “When I asked my mother and grandmother about this, they said they would hear the rumors; [they mentioned] that because the Army wasn’t capturing married women, many women married or [got] engaged very young,” which often led to another kind of brutality.

In addition to these skeins, Lee has hand-stitched panel after panel of simple cotton fabric, which she purchased then laid on the street, allowing passers-by to walk on it, paralleling the psychic stain left in Korea and other Asian nations forced to endure such “comfort” work.

In Margaret Meehan’s art, the consequence of warfare is from conflicts waged by the United States. Meehan’s based in Dallas, but comes from an Irish-Catholic family based in and around Philadelphia, staunch Union territory. This matters because among the conflicts she examines in her Artpace residency, the Civil War stands as a kind of sorrowing template for an unending cycle of war based on American ideals, both good and bad.

Mind you, Meehan’s work is far from an indictment on the fighting forces themselves; in one aspect of her project, women fallen in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan are memorialized by individual hand-sewn sandbags. Meehan does not directly editorialize about the causes of that war, but the weight of loss is a painful reminder.

Much of her inspiration, she tells me in between sewing, came from books she read about women on both sides of the Civil War going into male drag in order to fight. “Some of these women used male identities during the war, and after, going on to live as men. Others—it just must have been obvious that they were women. There’s no way of knowing what this meant for them … I think now we see the gender roles of the past being cast in stone, but it’s always been more ambiguous [than that], maybe especially in times of war.” Meehan goes on to say that “It’s interesting that the task of memorializing the Civil War was really taken on by women; they organized the ceremonies, the mourning societies and even the cemeteries themselves.”

As a nod to the memorializing images of the Civil War era, Meehan has experimented with the image-making methodologies of the time, including tintypes, garment-making and one show-stopping stunner of a sculptural work I don’t even want to spoil for you. I will say, though, that nowhere in Meehan’s Artpace oeuvre does she suggest that war’s over, even if you want it to be.

International Artists-in-Residence

Free
6-9pm Thu, July 10
Artpace
445 N Main
(210) 212-4900
artpace.org
Through September 14

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