Brooklyn-based. Los Angeles-based. Tokyo-based. Location serves to indicate cultural ties, identification and legitimacy. But to say that Yamini Nayar, one of the eight artists featured in current YBCA exhibition “Migrating Identities,” is “Brooklyn-based” is both reductive and loaded.
“Migrating Identities” showcases the work of eight transcultural artists who are collectively concerned with the multiple cultural influences on their lives. The artists — Nayar, Michelle Dizon, Ala Ebtekar, Naeem Mohaiemen, Meleko Mokgosi, Wangechi Mutu, Ishmael Randall Weeks and Saya Woolfalk — were born between 1969 and 1981 and represent a cultural stratum of emergent diversity in the United States. The artists move between the United States and other countries, such as India, Bangladesh, Botswana, Japan and the Philippines. Each artist takes a different approach to his or her experience — some highlight the internal divide caused by these multiethnic forces, and others embrace the confluence.
Nayar uses light jet print to merge photographs of mundane resources like wood panels, bubble wrap, cement and gauze, which are torn, bent, placed atop each other and manipulated with paint. Nayar angles these gritty images to evoke an unsettling sense of “what am I looking at?” While this could arguably be an indication of novice artistic gaze, it is also an apt reflection of Nayar’s thematic interest.
The convergence of multiple raw materials — and the subsequent sense of uncertainty it stirs for the viewer — parallels the disorientation of the artist’s own experience with multiple cultural forces. Nayar strips and alters the materials in her pieces and takes the functionality out of architecture. This technique is used to “disrupt its metaphorical connotations” and illustrate the “interior psychological state of splitting” — a result and reflection of disembodied cultural identity.
Like Nayar, the other artists explore personal cultural histories and also address global issues like colonialism, globalization and war. Ebteker examines the intersection of the two places he jointly calls home — Tehran and Berkeley — through a series of images that merge the similarly masculine postures of Iranian wrestling figures and East Bay B-boys. Mohaiemen presents films and images laden with 1970s politics, highlighting the mistranslations of ideologies across cultures.
Born in Peru to American-born parents, Weeks uses recycled materials to explore personal and collective cultural narratives. One of his displayed artworks, titled “I-beam,” is a considerably large collection of books — mostly his father’s and mostly on topics of Cuban revolution and Latin American history — glued together and hung from the ceiling.
Dizon presents “Perpetual Peace,” a video installation that displays various images of globalization in the Philippines. Dizon provides voiceover narration for the video, which is also supplemented with the video of the artist in the act of narrating. Through this, Dizon inserts herself vocally and visually into the narrative, and yet the side-by-side presentation of the videos creates a sense of distanced spectatorship.
The exhibition features artists “guided by their ability to move fluidly between cultures, and drawing from the uniqueness of their individual journeys, these artists reveal the ways in which their identities have been transformed by the confluence of mobility, cultural retention, and personal history.”
“Migrating Identities” is an important and provocative collection, providing a space for conversation about cultural identity, mobility and personal history of contemporary multicultural artists. As the eight artists highlight the fluid mobility across geographic terrains, they demonstrate a less fluid disembodiment of cultural ties and experience.
The detail of an artist’s location is, then, simply an indication of where he or she currently works and lives. As the “Migrating Identities” exhibition stresses, a sense of cultural belonging and history for an individual is not limited or specific to time or space.
Contact Denise Lee at [email protected].