Of the many revelations that have emerged from the long tail of the pandemic, perhaps the least surprising should be the artworld’s reliance on experimental spaces. Some, like Birmingham’s Vinegar, spent 2020 committed to SHAPE, a series of virtual residencies to support creative production. While renowned institutions canceled exhibitions and chronicled losses, experimental spaces did what they’ve always done: they took risks and continued to collaborate with artists to show new works.
Case in point: Brandi Shah’s Sawubona/Sala Kahle at Vinegar Projects.
Sawubona/Sala Kahle—“I see you” and “stay well” in Zulu—is a series of invitations, four digitally driven sound and image experiences that illustrate seemingly autobiographical moments. The Red Truck is a chronicle of loss and longing, illustrated in part by a suite of child-like, but not childish, crayon drawings sitting in a box on a table—made all the more poignant by having been made by one of Shah’s children. While the invitation to leaf through them is irresistible and invited, the experience is not without some sense of guilt, especially as she simultaneously narrates her story of a fire, of lost Jhumpa Lahiri books, of what was there no longer: “when I came back 2 days later/it was gone.”
In Another Solstice, while Shah’s voice chronicles a myth about love, monochromatic images float across a screen. One particularly arresting image is a blossoming flower, its shape familiar enough to discern but but not detailed enough to identify. Yet this notion of both multifaceted and potentially indeterminate identity is evident throughout each of Shah’s works. Her personal identity shifts—physician, artist, mother, storyteller—but viewers find comfort in recognizable icons that resonate enough to create a sense of the familiar. In the words of French critic Roger Caillois, “none of the resemblances in this group of facts is absolutely conclusive.”
We’re familiar with the postmodern trope of opposition, with a thing being itself and another, the “always already.” But despite representations of this duality, Shah’s works lack much of the cynicism and irony that anchors the postmodern to its place in history. Instead, her juxtapositions feel very much like personal questions, explorations, interrogations, visual ribbons of narrative that are constructing her individuality as much as they’re constructing her creative identity. This isn’t necessarily effective throughout. At times, the three-and-a-half-minute Solitary Third Place feels as much like Saturday night family photos—literally, Olan Mills!—as it does a disruptive conjunction between image and word. Still, in its best moments, the work is sublime, as when her protagonist cuts herself out from a piece of paper.
Woman in the Alley, perhaps the most unsettled work, exists twice: once as an animated short and, separately, as a mixed media sculpture by Shah’s collaborator, Celeste Amparo Pfau. A text on the wall echoes on the video. Somehow combination seems to be just that little bit too much, too overwhelming. Throughout the gallery, Shah’s voice remains hypnotic, with words and phrases emerging and receding one against the next. Woman in the Alley shatters the exhibition’s veneer a little as Shah’s virtual voice utters “asphalt,” and “dog shit,” and the innocence imbued in The Red Truck shatters, momentarily. Then, Shah pieces herself—and us —together again, uttering, “If only we grieved.” If only.
At its core, Brandi Shah’s debut exhibition Sawubona/Sala Kahle shares fragments, moments, cinders, and stories where each is a draft in her creative story. I hope you see them. Sala Kahle. Stay well.