by Beláxis Buil
The exhibition Bad Rep(utation) (for Reputation- and currently on view at Florida International University/ MBUS) is a component of my ongoing research on constructions of racial and gendered stereotypes from an American perspective, and how these have erroneously stigmatized individuals and communities. Each sartorial work in the exhibition, whether it is a curatorial gesture or photograph, sculpture, fiber or video, examines fashion that merges traditional or cultural attire, subtle gender-bending styles and street wear with an underground rebellious look. In other works, the artists analyze skin as the most critical part of our physical adornment. In so doing, the works ask viewers to question their own roles in the consolidation of these stereotypes, as well as begin to think about how they might be dismantled. By critically questioning themselves and/or their identities in society, viewers can cultivate a tool to empower themselves and pave a way towards social change: one that defies the rules of social norms and begins to combat the act of racialization against anyone who appears as ‘other’ as well as close the gaps of perceived differences.
The artist and individual in each work collaborated to extract the best possible representation of him/herself for the viewer. And here, representation is meant to invoke the individual as a multi-dimensional, borderless, intersectional agent that foregoes the rigid structures or binaries systemized by Western ideologies. The American poet, essayist and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, pointed out that societies need to ‘resist’ the actions of an ‘unjust state’.1 His argument to resist the ‘actions of an unjust state’ is to civilly disobey by refuting injustice by nonaction and nonviolence. Art historian and critic, Dr Alpesh Kantilal Patel, draws on the writings of fellow art historian, Jill Bennet, to state that social experiences that reject systemized or conventional Western ideologies, should create ‘experiences... which bring together art, psychology and the social rather than being concerned with the judgement and highly fraught notions of beauty’.2
Fashion, whether the individual uses it to display cultural or gendered preferences, offers one the opportunity to protest judgements or ‘highly fraught notions of beauty’ by adorning one’s body with tattoos; decorating one’s hair with jewels, braids or even bouffants; and piercing one’s body. In large numbers, such modes can instantiate broadscale social change. Nonetheless, with or without conscious effort, the individuals who use fashion to identify themselves, or test the politics of identity, empower their bodies as a source of true agency to represent who they are and thereby potentially create a wave of civil disobedience that might dismantle stereotypes.
These individuals (artists) are ‘rebellious’ and seek their own forms of expression. They rise from the space between conformity and rebelliousness to confront identity norms through experimenting with fashion. The way the individual artists or subjects physically adorn themselves in the images or works of art profoundly influence our perception of who they are and where they are from. However, the layers of fabric and adornment add another stratum to our perception when those physical traits or ways of dressing stretch our expectations and further challenge viewers.
In Algiers, we see a massive movement to redefine the post-colonial or Orientalist portrayal of an exotic land filled with ‘strangely dressed’ individuals. The younger generation resists this visual narrative by taking on ambiguous forms of fashion that exist somewhere between traditional garments, adornments and Westernized urban looks heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. The results are brilliantly confounding and fluid, leaving the observer in a constant state of perplexity and awe.
Algerian photographer, Mehdi Hachid, poetically captures other young artists and creatives that reside in Algeria. The photographs are primarily black and white images of men wearing garments that are influenced by the West – in particular its street and skate culture wear – and traditional Algerian/Arab pieces. When Hachid and I spoke about the portraits Bakraine Timelfati (2015) and Sbiha Froide a Paris (2017), he eloquently stated how crucial it is for the Algerian artist to present her/his juxtaposed perceptions of true modernity which draws on the West and their customs from the East. Acknowledging their sense of self from a formal and historical place preserves the distinctions Algerians are proud of and feel should never be erased by the effects of colonization. These individuals have not abandoned their culture or history; rather, they have re-contextualized their identities by carefully reconfiguring a new version of themselves through contemporary fashion. Simultaneously, however, they have kept distinct, traditional adornments that continue to mark their own identity and culture.
Lyes Karbouai, a well-known street artist in Algiers, draws on the Orientalist portrayals addressed by the notable scholar Edward Said.3 In, Photo of Troopers spotted in Souk El Aasr when looking for Dark Quador, Karbouai humorously manipulates our perspective by turning our attention to the subjects in the photograph who are dressed like mythological characters from the American film Star Wars (1977), which became a global phenomenon. Algerian garments ‘share’ the design concept from Star Wars of clothes are worn in loose layers. Karbourai inserts the well-camouflaged subjects into a stereotypical landscape of an Arab marketplace, as depicted in paintings such as Jean-Léon Geromés’ Snakecharmer (1879/80). By skillfully inserting these ‘appropriately dressed’ figures into the environment, the artist confronts viewers’ preconceived, radicalized assessment of the subject based on his/her clothes and environment.
In Nuria Carrasca’s photograph Astucia Millennial (2018), the artist explores various aspects of Chinese youth culture’s challenges around identity, which are submerged in the contemporary lifestyles of post-colonial Spain. Carrasca appropriates the format of Vogue magazine or fashion photography to bring Chinese culture visibility and recognition, while focusing on how the youth culture relates to Spanish identity. The community has helped diversify the metropolis of Madrid with brilliant expansions in fashion wear and businesses that have contributed to Spain’s recent economic success.
China’s fashion industry has been severely criticized for cross-culturally appropriating just about anything in fashion. However, it is precisely by appropriating fashion that Chinese designers are progressively altering what defines fashion, by reconfiguring their own histories within the landscape of China (and outside), reshaping their identities into a global phenomenon. The subject in Astucia Millennial reiterates that appropriation enables many cultures, including China, to go beyond national borders that would otherwise isolate them from global development and disconnected from each other.
After the terrorist attacks in New York City on 9/11, images of turban-wearing Arabs linked to extremism and fundamentalist religious sects were set ablaze on national news and media. These images were imprinted on our minds as depicting ‘otherness’, a term that specifically targeted Arab culture at the time. Coming into contact with any individual who gave the impression of being or dressed as ‘Arab’ impacted our rationale and elicited an immediate response of fear, shaping our thoughts to simultaneously reject them. This example is one of many in terms of how we discriminate against someone based on a ‘stereotypical’ look. Our look, or our exterior, becomes our identity and the way one chooses to attire is what brands the individual to the gender they identify with or the culture they relate to or come from. How one identifies is not the issue: the issue is when we are marginalized by outside forces as ‘troublesome’, ‘deviant’ or having a ‘bad reputation’. However, as the artists Karbouai and Hachid discussed during our conversations, the value of holding on to traditional attire (in this case Arab) is one of the many ways of preserving a traditionally eminent identity while also exploring different identities that help to liberate other rigid tendencies within their culture.
Curatorial gestures (TM) are manifestations of my thought processes when I begin to investigate a topic for an exhibition. I conduct interviews with artists whose work either focuses on the same issues I research or gently skims the topic.
Throughout the investigations, conversations occur in which I oppose the artist's perspective or illuminate an idea not yet reached by the artist. The contrasting points of view create an opportunity to present intersecting thoughts complicated by personal experiences or beliefs. Each curatorial gesture then supports the artist’s work as a collaboration that results from exploratory conversations, or I create new object-art pieces that expand on my idea or argument within the exhibition space itself. Expanding the conversations between all the works broadens the landscape that permits the viewer to step into the space I explicate, the conceptual geography – a space of experiences and interactions – or to expand on theories that need to be further explained to the viewer through visual language. The difference with the curatorial gestures, however, is that they function as an operating system: smaller units that further break down or process the idea, theme, argument, perspective or add formal aesthetics for the viewer.
For example, during a conversation with Karbourai, I found another work that illustrated another Orientalist setting, and I asked what he would think if the image was to be reproduced as a postcard to pass out during the opening night with the message ‘Fuck you. Get to know me better’ written on the back. The collaborative effort to utilize the artist's work and stamp it with a curatorial afterthought (he consented) is an example of one of the formulas of a curatorial gesture and the function it has in an exhibition.
1. Thoreau, Henry D., Walden or Life In The Woods, New York, Dover Publications, INC., 1995.
2. Patel, Alpesh Kantilal, Productive Failure: Writing queer transnational South Asian art histories, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2017.
3. Said, Edward, on “Orientalism”, Media Education Foundation Transcript, Palestine Diary, mediaed.org, Accessed October 2019.
All images courtesy the artist, Jahaira Galvez, Photography and Performance Photography
by Jahaira Galvez
I came to the United States of America at an early age. Too young to know that all those who shared blood with me, with the exception of my parents, were left behind- stuck in the middle of a civil war and a revolution. I never knew family gatherings or sharing of stories besides the ones my mother told me which, I enjoyed frequently in the dark, laying on her bed. That’s how I began to learn about relatives, they were far away. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I got to physically be close to extended family. The first time was hard. When returning to the U.S. I cried for two weeks. I and they, we were far away from each other once again.
It is a consolation when I find myself driving down the roads of farmland near my home or on the way to my children’s school. The lack of stop lights and road signs remind me a bit of my country of origin. I am an American citizen but I am Nicaraguan, a Central American, which for some is not “American” enough. I am very American to many, yet to many others, I am very Nicaraguan. So I find myself attempting to keep my connections knowing that from here on out my children and my children’s children will have a different experience than me. My mother and grandmother’s lineage has forever been altered. I attempt to go back in so many ways. I tell stories, I cook the foods and I pass on domestic traditions. My children are aware that I am different than them and so far they are not ashamed of that. Or, will they ever be? Maybe, as I once was when I was growing up in a place where others did not look as I did or speak as I spoke. I decided for a time, that I would never speak our language. At the age of 8, my mother responded by choosing not to understand English. All I can say is that I still remember the many tears shed in that season of my life, feeling that I was not understood. That feeling subsided, though the feeling of not belonging or fitting “in” has followed me around and waved its unfriendly hand in my face- from time to time. Eventually, I learned my lesson and found myself valuing the gift of being able to speak more than one language.
In the mirror I find myself looking for the slightest semblance of my ancestral origins. I have questioned the peculiarity of my appearance, knowing that some of my make up and mixed heritage, is the person in the reflection I am trying to figure out. Does this person in the mirror bear any resemblance to a long forgotten ancestor? I do not look like my father nor my mother but I do have the eyes that run through my maternal grandmother’s kin.
Considering that I have spent more of my life in the ‘Yunay Estay’ than in Nicaragua, it is as though my heart is tied to that land. My father once told me, ‘She’ would call my name because my umbilical cord was buried there, intertwined within the roots of a tree, next to the ranchito I was born in. I am in the middle of mourning my losses, both personal and collective. It has been a long process. I mourn for the children and parents that have been separated, for those who have lost their lives and those who have been exploited trying to leave behind what they know: not knowing what awaits them on the other side of the wall that separates the United States from countries south of the border. I followed that same route as a young child, unaware of the journey that settled before me. I know, had it not been for the circumstances that pushed us to seek refuge I would have stayed in Nicaragua. I have been told that I should not cry over these things, that it drains my energy- but, what some may not understand is that when I mourn all that we lost, it becomes cleansing and I can breathe again. I breathe in the fresh air of a new space and a new generation. I am revitalized and reminded that I am still alive. I too have survived like so many others and am blessed. Others in the same circumstance have not had the same opportunities.
My work as an artist becomes so much more richer than the well composed photograph or the beautifully hand dyed fiber installation. My performances are more than just a spectacle. My work/s are offerings and thanksgivings for what I have overcome. I will cry if my heart needs to and not apologize for the discomfort that it brings to others. I will wear my loose frizzy hair as an expression of freedom-when I feel the need to remind myself and the world who I am.
About Cuentos Retablados project
In sharing these experiences with fellow artist Carolina Cueva, who is of a Peruvian indigenous descent, it occurred to us to create narrative works that shared our similar, yet individual experiences together. As south and central americans we look to find commonalities and beautiful differences between our cultures and how it manifests from within us, to the work itself. This is how the Cuentos Retablados project came about. We process our uncertainties through dialog. We take folktales and our grandmother’s stories and refashion them to consolidate our ancestral and modern identities. We are creating present-day narratives for the new generation/s hoping that in the process of making fresh connections, old ones can be revitalised, helping to regenerate what dried out to the little bit of land; the clay from which we were fashioned. In doing so, we look to envision the future of a mixed, modern, indigenous, immigrant identity.