Said out loud, Where Is Here rolls off the tongue softly. When devoid of punctuation, the phrase is neither a question nor a firm statement.
Is “here” a seemingly straightforward location? Is “where,” used most often when lost or uncertain, instead accessible and knowable? What exists between the certainty and mystery both words might contain?
Questions like these spurred Bay Area curators Jacqueline Francis and Kathy Zarur when they began discussing the possibility of an exhibition dedicated to “place” and “space” over six years ago. Where Is Here, on view through April 2 at the Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco, doesn’t promise answers. Like its title, the exhibition is open-ended and exploratory, featuring works by 10 contemporary artists of African descent.
Where Is Here is a truly multidisciplinary showcase, as diverse in media as it is in thematic approaches to the questions posed. It’s rare to find a group exhibition that coheres with such vibrancy.
I spoke with the curators on site at the museum in late December. They described the exhibition’s trajectory as though it were a living thing, one that evolved with each studio visit, changed during the installation process, and productively affected their public programming. Although curating always means more than choosing and arranging artworks in a space, these co-curators extended the exhibition’s reach beyond the walls of the museum.
Curating beyond the walls
The exhibition intentionally includes both local and global artists, reflecting the specificity of the San Francisco Bay Area as well as MoAD's international focus. The artworks include virtual reality, abstract paintings, photographs, prose, and, most unexpectedly, song tracks from Broun Fellinis, a San Francisco jazz group founded in the 1990s.
Where Is Here joins in conversation with a concurrent nearby show, Root Division's Call for Beauty, an exhibition exploring "alternatives to the ugliness" of present-day politics from Black artistic perspectives. Linking the two shows are performances by Broun Fellinis -- Feb. 11 at Root Division and March 2 at MoAD.
Treating the music as performance art, Francis notes, acknowledges that “a performance is about space, and is something unique to a moment.”
The presence and absence of the figure
The exhibition also includes a robust film screening series (including early work from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins) and a literature and arts panel in partnership with the San Francisco State University Poetry Center. Such events, like the performances, bring audience members together, physically and spatially.
In contrast, there’s an absence of the human figure in the artwork of Where Is Here. That’s intentional, something the curators took as a productive challenge. Francis says that she and Zarur wondered, “Could the story, or any stories of place, be told without the human figure? Can we think about the ‘where’ of any location without seeing a figure?" she says. "We were interested in seeing how the works stood on their own.”
To that end, Zarur says, “The body is still here, regardless of its visual absence.” Some of the works explore structures that shelter bodies (Adia Millett’s site-specific installation of blown-apart homes and barns; Olaleken Jeyfious’s architectural structures), whereas others more obliquely reference presence, like Allan deSouza’s video works of unnamed shorelines.
Bay Area artist Asya Abdraman’s sculpture series, In Her Shoes, is an example of how intertwined space, place, and bodily presence can be. The artist collects old shoes from friends and family, which she then decorates with natural materials like moss.
As Zarur says, Abdraman’s objects hold private stories as well as public topics, such as struggles over natural resources and land use. “These shoes may be aesthetically beautiful, but they speak to pain on both collective and individual levels,” Zarur says.
Like many works in Where Is Here, Abdrahman’s sculptures remind us that places are both personal and political. Indeed, that which might seem the most personal -- home -- is, for many, caught up in public struggles over resources, property, and citizenship.
Playing with space
Elsewhere, the exhibition gives some artists incentive to try out new displays. LaVaughn Belle’s paintings of colonial porcelain plates already evoke multiple histories and locales: East Asia, where the blue and white patterns began; European craft, which appropriated the patterns; and St. Croix, where remnants of these plates are often found in shards.
“You find these broken pieces in the earth in St. Croix because people just throw them out when they're done," Francis says. "To get that sense of that St. Croix locale, we created for this exhibition this little bit of potting soil with shards the artist sent us from the Virgin Islands.”
When here isn’t home
When thinking about place and space, the concept of home is never far behind. Home seems like such a personal thing, something one can lays claim to and adheres to. But, of course, this is not necessarily the story everyone gets to have. Zarur’s own experiences exemplify this, as someone from the Bay Area who traveled and lived abroad for many years. When she returned recently, she found the housing prices impossible.
“I couldn’t help but feel like an exile in my own city because I can’t afford it anymore," Zarur says. "[When curating this show,] it was important to reference San Francisco as part of the story. It’s one of the undercurrents. We talked about displacement, who can live where, and thought about what forces determine the answers to those questions.”
Hence, Francis says, the title Where Is Here. “It's not exclusively a question nor is it a declarative statement," she says. "It's supposed to be open, in the way that that phrase is always a negotiation.”
'Where Is Here' is on view at through April 2 at the Museum of African Disapora in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit moadsf.org.