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In the most rudimentary sense, the South is merely a geographic region, one that over 150 years ago actually drew a dividing line in the sand. Today, it is also often defined as a frame of mind—one with many iterations. A site of residual post-colonial issues, a battleground of the Civil Rights Movement, and a place with a troubled history, the South is also a proud culture with a deeply rooted heritage.
It is important in discussing the American South to address its history, social dynamics, stigmas, and tradition. People both boast about and recoil from these associations. Many artists—whether originally from the South or transplants working there—have sought to challenge stereotypes, to readdress its history, and to celebrate the strong wills and great minds that are pushing it toward a brighter future. In recent years, a handful of curators have wrestled with the South’s complex identity in shows that bring together diverse artists with diverse perspectives on the South. None though have taken the approach of “Third Space” at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), which connects the trials, culture, and history of the American South to the broader context of a shared Global South.
“Third Space” was curated by Wassan Al-Khudhairi, the modern and contemporary curator who joined the BMA team in 2014. Mostly drawn from the BMA’s collection and supplemented by loans from local private collections, the show features over 100 works of art by Southern, American, and international artists, both academically trained and self-taught, emerging and established. Among the big names are Kerry James Marshall, Ebony G. Patterson, Thornton Dial, William Christenberry, Nick Cave, Cindy Sherman, Gordon Parks, José Bedia, and Mickalene Thomas.
While not all of the “Third Space” artists are from the American South, all have worked in, made work about, or lived in areas that have had similar challenges. Al-Khudhairi describes these communities collectively as “The Global South,” defined as “an imagined space that ties together cultures by their common experiences and that is filled with the voices of people who are often unheard.” Some of the works have a more obvious connection to the American South, like Rise of the Delta, by Whitfield Lovell, who uses Conté crayon on wood to render realistic and dignified portraits of African Americans between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Some works are not far removed from the South thematically. Ebony G. Patterson’s textile Among the Weeds, Plants, and Peacock Feathers shimmers in sequins and floral patterns of pinks and greens that screen from immediate view the body of a black man. The work alludes to gender ideals and constructs of masculinity in Jamaica’s dancehall music culture, as well as numerous murders of dancehall artists.
The name of the exhibition, “Third Space,” is a term defined by Harvard philosopher Homi K. Bhabha as a space that challenges our sense of cultural identity as homogenous, emphasizing that each individual is a hybrid of their unique set of conditions. The newly renovated upper wing of the BMA was both metaphorically and physically a “Third Space,” bringing together cultures, identities, and histories in the American and Global South.
Exhibitions that examine ideas surrounding the South have been on the rise, and not only in the South. In the past two years, there have been more than a half dozen. A few notable shows were “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South” at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2014), “It Can Howl” at Atlanta Contemporary (2016), “The Things We Carry: Contemporary Art in the South” at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston (2016), and “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art” at the Speed Museum in Louisville and the Nasher Museum at Duke University (2016-17).
Many of these exhibitions try to loosely define the American South, often invoking William Faulkner’s description of the region as an “emotional idea,” and address things like the need to reconcile the region’s troubled history. The spate of exhibitions trying to harness and define the region’s rugged aesthetic and multifaceted spirit is a sign of increased interest in the creative expression of the region — one that still manages to have a flavor all its own — and the complexity behind its identity. The greater art world seems to have finally recognized the value of the South’s experience — both the negative and positive lessons it can teach us. The relevance of these conversations likely stems from the fact that many artists (and individuals) who live or work outside the region are just as affected by the socio-cultural-political realities often attributed to the South.
THE GLOBAL SOUTH
“Third Space” takes this conversation a step further by making the American South’s global relevance its premise. Works from the American South complement works from the Global South, which in turn augment and affirm certain themes of the American South. It threads together communities: young and established, prosperous and wanting, the internationally cosmopolitan and rural American. And it does so in a seamless manner; the layout of the exhibition does not divide. In fact, many of the works seem to be engaged in conversation, as if they were made in response to each other. Patterson’s textile hangs next to an equally colorful Soundsuit by Nick Cave, and a nearby portrait by Mickalene Thomas that is embellished with beads and sequins.
There is no self-taught artist room; no Jamaican or American or African section; there are no divisions of race, identity or medium. Still though, the curatorial vision makes clear the significance of each artist’s cultural origin and influence. As Al-Khudhairi explained:
“Where an artist is from is always a part of their trajectory. Where people are from is important not because it should act as a divider, but because it plays so much into identity. Once those identities are recognized, issues and perspectives related to those identities can be brought to the table for discussion, or used as a connector to other artists, individuals, cultures, regions, and peoples with similar histories. Identity is such a big part of people’s practice and how they navigate the world, so you can’t ignore it, but it shouldn’t define an artist’s practice.”
In order to reach this balance between an overarching unification and a cultural distinction of identity, the wall labels list each artist’s birthplace, where they currently live and make work, and, if deceased, where they died. No two artists have the same history. Artists hail from Atlanta, Cuba, Morocco, Alabama, New York City, Iraq, Louisiana, Los Angeles, Nigeria, Spain, and more.
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Art-making does not happen in a vacuum, regardless of the effects of globalization, rapid transportation, and the web of technology. While it is important not to pigeonhole or marginalize an artist because of their background, to rid art historical discourse of these details would make for a very flat visual culture. All perspectives are important because they stem from similar experiences. “Third Space” is an iteration of that truth.
Nonetheless, the galleries in the exhibition needed some kind of organizational flow, which is provided in four core themes. Works grouped under “migration, diaspora, and exile” touch on cross-cultural influences brought about by human relocation in response to war, political oppression, immigration, and a search for safety and opportunity. The art historical tropes of “gaze, agency, and representation” — are used to examine the misrepresentation of nationality, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Within that, examples of the misrepresentation of the American South are shown alongside examples of the South’s own complicity in such acts.
“Spirit, nature, and landscape” are also addressed, fitting for a region and culture that is known for its reverence for and dependence on the land. “Third Space” examines the meaning of “a sense of place” and how a changing landscape can shape identity. The wall text also highlights the range of materials used in the artwork in the room, from mud and wood to silk and stone, reminding viewers to also think about how materials are tied to culture, experience, and place. Finally, “traditions, histories, and memory” fleshes out how these things produce a culture, how the Global South shares some of these narratives, how the past can be framework for understanding.
The works in “Third Space” deliver these complex ideas in a seductive and inviting way. A wooden structure by the Rural Studio, an Auburn University design-build program that focuses on architectural models that serve populations in need, was commissioned as a place for visitors to sit, gather, and reflect; the materials will be used in one of the program’s future projects.
The galleries are full of pleasant hums and soft, bluesy chords. The sounds in Jefferson Pinder’s video installation, Sean (Mercy Seat) from the Juke Series ring through the space and the accented voices in Sue Williamson’s Mementoes of District Six whisper from the opposite end. Though many of the works gleam, sparkle, and sing, they don’t shy away from themes laden with complex and heavy concepts.
A number of the works are displayed like memorials and plaques. As Seen on TV by Kerry James Marshall resembles a flowered cross that marks a roadside death; it is hung beside a photograph of the same cross. Glenn Kaino, whose golden, gloved fists in Bridge (section 1) were cast from the arm of Olympic athlete Tommie Smith, one of two champions to make the Black Power salute during the medal ceremony in the 1968 Olympic Games. The golden arms hang suspended in a corner, like the gilded tiers of a bridge. Skylar Fein’s See you in the Upstairs Lounge is both a memorial and a recreation of a wooden sign for a bar of the same name. The lounge, a gay bar at 604 Iberville Street in New Orleans’s French Quarter, burned to the ground in 1973 with 32 people inside — a suspected act of arson that was never solved. The faces of the men, drawn onto the surface of the sign, possess a certain paradoxical levity.
Most of the work in “Third Space” speaks of experiences shared across diverse cultures, and the notion of freedom is a strong thread throughout the exhibition. Glenn Ligon’s self-portraits cover an entire wall, drawn in an illustration style akin to antebellum slave ads; his friends and family wrote the text describing his appearance. In Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’s A Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words have been pasted on a canvas, obscured behind black bars of acrylic paint.
The work in “Third Space” demands to be seen and claims the right to control one’s own image, portrayed in the performative video, Black Mask, by emerging artist Wilmer Wilson IV in which he, in measured movements, covers his face in pieces of black felt. This is true too in Hassan Hajjaj’s Brown Eyes, which shows a member of a female motorbike gang in Marrakech looking out at the viewer beneath a veil. Taking the reigns in a similar way, Mickalene Thomas’s self-portrait riffs on Western painting traditions; like an odalisque, she lounges in a revealing pose, bedazzled, black, and bold.
“Third Space” also critiques history. In La historia se muerde la cola (History Bites its Tail) by Esterio Segura, the metaphor requires little decoding. A candy-red statue of Pinocchio is bound and being strangled by the length of his coiled, elongated nose. The Sigh of the True Cross by Mel Chin is a domineering, seven-foot-tall sculpture made of pine, ash, mud, and steel. It resembles a crumbling communist-style sickle and hammer, but bears the emblem of the red cross, symbolizing aid. Cracked and propped up against the wall, it looks antiquated and fragile.
Most captivating is Mpangui jimagua (Twin Brothers) by José Bedia. A centerpiece of the exhibition, Bedia’s installation looms large and black. The silhouette of what could be a boat or a ritualistic mask covers the wall, tethered to a doll-sized canoe that owns the center of the gallery floor. Two men navigate the boat: one Native American and one African American—two races whose histories were forever changed by the crossing of a body of water and who suffered at the hand of a gluttonous expanding nation.
In the same vein of critique of land and the exchange of power is Mementos of District Six. For this work, Williamson collected rubble, steel, soil, and broken possessions from a demolished neighborhood in Cape Town, decimated during South Africa’s bleak apartheid era. She cast these items in resin blocks, which were then used to construct a houselike structure. Audio of evicted residents of different generations tell stories of their now fading and displaced community. Shards of glass, tile, and plastic glowed in warm rose and golden hues, enshrined and preserved as if fossils in amber.
These highly sensitive themes are hard to tackle and discuss, but “Third Space” does not pander or reinforce clichés. “Third Space” achieves what so many art spaces either don’t consider or fall short of: the inclusion of a broader community. When an exhibition emphasizes a region or city, or highlights the shared values and experiences of a community, but then fails to draw members of that group into the discussion, it is robbed of its greatest potential. The BMA has gone the extra mile to provide contextual information. iPads are available (or you can use your own device) to access the exhibition smart guide (in the gallery or at home) to read about the works, see details, follow links, watch videos, and learn more about the artists. The works are humanized in the audio components with the inclusion of actual individuals responding to the works — a local band, a seven-year-old child, art collectors, and more. The BMA is free. No admission, year-round. It doesn’t get more accessible than that.
It is significant that “Third Space” is happening in Alabama, which was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement: the 1961 Freedom Rides, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the march from Selma to Montgomery. The BMA was founded only four years before Rosa Parks stood her ground for her seat on a bus in 1955. Birmingham has “a past that defines its present.” This show took what is known, believed, shared, and harbored about Alabama the South and connects it to a global context.
The show explores how social change in Alabama and the American South can be understood in a global context. When people talk about the South, they often discuss what it used to be, what it ought to be, what it isn’t, what it thinks it is … never mind that the people who live here can never agree on those things. “Third Space” instead opens up the conversation. It proves the Southern experience has ubiquitous relevance. It substantiates and affirms the struggles of the South, the expression of those trials, and the communities that have known them—all by letting the Global South say this experience is shared. This work documented history but will always be all too relevant.
“Third Space” is on view through January 6, 2019, with a rotating selection of works every six months.