The title of this exhibition pays homage to the 1997 book of the same name by Caribbean philosopher Édouard Glissant (1928-2011). Co-curators Tobias Ostrander and Tumelo Mosaka mobilized Glissant’s ideas about identity—that it is constructed in relation to multiple contexts—to tie together the tightly curated show. Each of the six artists contributed several works that explore migration and identity through reference to the land and water rather than through personal narrative.
“Poetics of Relation” opened with Durban-based Ledelle Moe’s Congregration (2006/15), a sprawling wall installation of sculptural heads constructed of a mixture of concrete and sand from cities the artist has visited. The heads were anchored to the wall by steel rods and functioned like pins on a map that only alludes to place. The heads fall short of being portraits, functioning instead as half-remembered memories of people the artist has encountered.
Hurvin Anderson’s oil-on-canvas paintings likewise explore memory, but through reference to the legacies of colonialism that haunt urban spaces in Jamaica, to which he is genealogically linked but in which he has never lived. In Country Club: Chicken Wire (2008), a tennis court painted in a bright palette is seen through the titular fence to surface lingering issues of class and exclusion. The dynamics of class also underlie the 1996 installation Mar Caribe by Tony Capellán (from Santo Domingo), whose work often involves accumulations of found objects. Blue and green flip-flop sandals salvaged from local riverbanks covered a section of the floor. As a group, the colorful footwear evoke the tranquil sea, but the harmony of the piece is disrupted by the presence of barbed wire, which has replaced the Y-shaped straps of the sandals and signals the hardships of life in the Dominican Republic.
Yto Barrada critiques Morocco’s use of the palm tree as an institutional symbol of tourism and pleasure in her installation Twin Palm Island (2011). Two kitschy faux palm trees, cut out of sheet metal and replete with colored lightbulbs, are placed on red children’s wagons in an ironic reference to the blithe transportation of trees from the south to the north of Morocco as part of the country’s official cultural makeover. Born in Paris, the artist was raised in Tangier and currently lives in that city and New York.
Photographer and filmmaker Zarina Bhimji, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2007 for her photographs of Uganda (where she was born), presented two films. The newest one, Jangbar (2015), features evocative moving images of churches, landscapes and colonial-era railways in Kenya and Tanzania. Bhimji’s father, who migrated to Uganda from India, was part of the economy (he made ghee) supporting the many South Asian migrants building the railway. The montage of images in this 30-minute film amounts to an impressionistic rather than narrative history of East Africa and British colonialism. The soundtrack, with mechanical noises and largely abstracted Swahili language, enables this effect.
Among the works by the New York-based Xaviera Simmons was the 16-by-61-foot text painting In the Lushness of (2015), made of acrylic on wood planks. Words in Haitian Creole, English and Spanish, each hand-painted in white, pack the black ground. Culled from a diverse range of sources—including poems, journalism and film—the words reference the sea, moon, land and borders. Standing in front of the expansive work and reading the lines of text feels a bit like riding the rhythmic highs and lows of a choppy wave.
While the exhibition was particularly timely given the current migration crisis, the works are less political than poetic in their open-ended explorations. They resonate with Glissant’s more porous notion of identity, while allowing audiences multiple points of entry.