Through Subversion and Joyful Skewering, Artists ‘Reorient’ Stereotypes

Dylan "Dila" Energi from House of Energi performs at the opening reception of 'Reorienting the Imaginaries' at SOMArts. (Photo by Aneesah Dryver)

How do stereotypes form? Researchers at the University of Aberdeen suggest in a 2014 paper that stereotypes are the result of how we process and share information. Unpacking the article for Pacific Standard, writer Tom Jacobs summarizes the findings as our need to categorize information in order to navigate an uncertain world.

All too often, nuance and specificity are lost to quick categorization, replaced by extreme generalizations about entire groups of people. As that imperfect information is shared socially, individual beliefs become wide-scale cultural biases deployed against populations that do not fit the social "norm," (i.e. white, male, straight and gender conforming).

Reorienting the Imaginaries, the first exhibition in SOMArts' 2018-19 Curatorial Residency calendar, marshals work by 14 artists who reckon with cultural stereotypes. These artists, organized by curators Robin Birdd, Anh Bui, Shirin Makaremi, Renae Moua and Lena Sok, are driven to understand stereotypes' harmful influence on self-perception, and in doing so, respectfully demand that audiences acknowledge their role in perpetuating that harm.

The show presents both "old" and "new" media as vehicles for unpacking stereotype. In this context, "old" media is found in the craft work of artists Christopher Martin and Shirin Towfiq. Both artists work with cotton, a ubiquitous material that bears fond and innocent associations for many, but whose history and revolutionary potential are often underestimated.

Christopher Martin, 'American Flag,' 2018.
Christopher Martin, 'American Flag,' 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)

Lofted high above the gallery floor, two of Martin's three banners—American Flag and Confederate Flag—subvert two familiar and violently contested symbols. In place of colorful stripes, Martin substitutes lengths of rope, an unmistakable reference to the material used to lynch thousands of Black Americans.

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The third banner, Blood Cotton, conveys in no uncertain terms the mortal wage paid by enslaved Africans who were transported to the United States to pick and process the powerhouse commodity on Southern plantations. Across his multidisciplinary practice, Martin deconstructs recognizable graphic symbols through the lens of personal experience, striving to understand how patriotism, consumerism and racism combine to influence one's identity.

Currently pursuing an MFA at Stanford University, Resist Stitch founder Shirin Towfiq invites participants to modify T-shirts by attaching banners at the seams. When worn, the constructions form a sartorial human chain that is not easy to break (especially effective when worn during protests). At SOMArts, Towfiq's tees gracefully span the floor-to-ceiling distance, collectively demanding for accountability from those who work to criminalize difference.

Shirin Towfiq, Detail of installation of 'Resist Stitch,' 2018.
Shirin Towfiq, Detail of installation of 'Resist Stitch,' 2018. (Photo by Aneesah Dryver)

Martin and Towfiq's projects confidently take their place in the long history of crafting as a revolutionary act. Whether displayed as a flag, or a modified T-shirt, quilts of remembrance or crocheted pink hats, craft works cast an unforgiving light on stereotypes, and broadcast the cleverly subversive ways we can work to defeat them.

At the other end of the media spectrum, Sofía CórdovaAnum Awan, and Nina Reyes Rosenberg joyfully skewer Western assumptions about religion and cultural performativity through contemporary media formats—digital design and film.

La vedette de america (Tu boquita with contrapposto) features the Puerto Rican-born Córdova lip-syncing Iris Chacón's song "Tu boquita" and dancing in an eight-minute loop. Over time, the audio quality degrades along with the artist's stamina, demonstrating the grinding exhaustion of performing one's identity according to Western demands.

A digital interaction designer by day, Awan's Digital Sufi Shrine presents scenes of dhamaal, an ecstatic ritualized dance performed primarily by male devotees in Pakistani Sufi shrines. This immersive audio-visual experience and the looped scenes of dancers may be unfamiliar to Bay Area audiences, but it's not difficult to recognize the universal satisfaction of movement driven by pounding drum beats. The blissful smiles that stretch across the sweaty faces of exhausted participants register and celebrate a space of personal and mystical peace.

Installation view of Anum Awan's 'Digital Sufi Shrine,' 2017-2018.
Installation view of Anum Awan's 'Digital Sufi Shrine,' 2017-2018. (Photo by Aneesah Dryver)

Awan's installation also honors unheralded Pakistani women such as Asma Jahangir for their quietly revolutionary acts. The candle-lit altar includes framed photographs and QR codes that visitors are encouraged to access for further information about each honoree. Though a subtle step toward acknowledgement in a male dominated culture, Awan operates confidently in the virtual realm to contradict the sexism and misogyny attributed to Islam.

New York-based filmmaker Nina Reyes Rosenberg updates photographer Cindy Sherman's singular Untitled Film Stills by addressing the lazy, uncritical cinematic tropes applied to women. Reyes Rosenberg's Untitled Film Scenes features actress Maya Erskine in scenarios drawn from Sherman's 40-year-old series—the unstable femme fatale, the sexy librarian, the bored housewife—and brings those images into dialogue with the ugly stereotypes used to marginalize Asian women.

Lip-syncing "Love is a One-Way Street" throughout, Erskine is filmed in one scene wearing a geisha's kimono and makeup. The guise is often deployed as a catchall representation Asian women, suggesting subservience and an eager need to please. Rosenberg's short film points to how Asian women are fetishized for their beauty and unthreatening femininity, a stereotype created to perfectly complement Western masculinity.

Opening reception visitors in front of Scott Ortega-Nanos' 'Pasyon: a Heuristic Pedagogy,' 2018.
Opening reception visitors in front of Scott Ortega-Nanos' 'Pasyon: a Heuristic Pedagogy,' 2018. (Photo by Aneesah Dryver)

Reorienting the Imaginaries rounds out with photography, video, painting, sculpture and site-specific installations, including Scott Ortega-Nanos' Pasyon: a Heuristic Pedagogy. Facing this altar-fronted tower of political and spiritual books, audiences are invited to read the titles and unlock the cognitive and physical padlocks that delimit our understanding of the myriad issues raised in the exhibition.

While all comers are welcome, Ortega-Nanos' project may best serve those of us who identify as allies. It is on us to do the work, to reorient our understanding of what marginalized populations face, rather than expecting them to teach us. Only then will we pass from the imaginary into reality.

'Reorienting the Imaginaries' is on view at SOMArts Cultural Center through Jan. 24, 2019. Details here.

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