Sabella D’Souza in ‘~my motherland is a mouthful~’

Visual Arts Review

Quota. at SOIL Gallery Challenges the White Gaze

Curators of the show use gallery admission as a lesson in privilege and race.

For the opening of Quota., an exhibition at the artist-run gallery space SOIL, the entry line stayed long all evening. This wasn’t too odd given it was First Thursday. Yet, throughout the duration of Quota.’s opening, SOIL remained nearly empty while the queue to enter swelled steadily. Why the wait?

According to the show statement, curators Satpreet Kahlon, Anisa Jackson, and Mel Carter wanted to invite artists to contribute artwork they’d make “if they felt none of the external and internal pressures that they normally face.” Because the premise is loose and the theme could be read as “no theme,” the works in Quota. span widely in media, styles, and messages. Tacoma-based artist Asia Tail, for example, presents four oil paintings in creamy gray tones of precise graphic renditions of snakes and apples, while Tacoma artist Christopher Paul Jordan’s piece Don’t Want None (Triptych) is an assemblage of Latex, bungee cables, and Styrofoam corroded from aerosol spray paint. Observing the works briefly, you may have trouble deducing common threads.

Lingering longer, you may connect examinations of race and origin countries among some artists’ work. Anissa Amalia’s installation So, You Want to be an American Citizen? mimics a Department of Homeland Security immigration office, reflecting her own frustrating navigation of this country’s immigration system. The bureaucratic simulation is complete with astonishingly realistic duplications of governmental documents with slightly tweaked, more holistic questions—perhaps Amalia’s wish for a more humane process. ~my motherland is a mouthful~, one of Sabella D’Souza’s videos, is a recording of a session on Periscope, Twitter’s live-streaming app. The artist performs for the growing amount of strangers who join her session, primping herself and adjusting her jewelry and garment, customized with the phrase “my motherland is a mouthful” printed on the fabric. Throughout the video she remains unresponsive to the viewers, who interact by sending steady floods of plump heart emoticons and comments, from benignly pestersome (“you’re beautiful”) to reprehensibly vile (“is Osama at your party?”) Here is D’Souza coolly reminding us that some bodies enable a deluge of violations, on the regular.

All the artists in Quota. are non-white. This, plus the absence of any mention of it in the show’s description, was the curators’ intent. “We didn’t want it to be pigeonholed as a ‘People of Color show,’ ” Carter shares. Artists themselves, the curators know first-hand that exhibition invitations by curators can turn out to be tokenizing—the interest is less in your work than in the diversity you’ll bring. Not to mention that artists of color are often invoked to educate the public about race, and while many are driven to explore these issues, the expectation on all artists of color to do so maintains white audiences as a central focus. To move away from these trappings, the curators removed all expectations.

I find the diversity in Quota. refreshing. It’s more than a United Colors of Benetton diversity where every census box is checked; instead, it’s a multitude of voices and interests. Within the show are overtly political pieces, those that focus on material practices, and those that subtly but decidedly decenter whiteness or Western modes of relation. mario lemafa’s what you won’t do for love, for instance, consists of photographs from a trip walking across the country sustained by gifts and other exchanges. Among the photographs is one of a hand-carved wooden cane, which lemafa tells me is a gift from Tuscarore natives who stopped their car while seeing lemafa walk. Another is of a ribbon lei lemafa formed for a friend. lemafa’s work is grounded in small acts of decolonization such as gift exchanges, in contrast to the prevailing market economy, that aided survival on this strenuous trip.

Back to the puzzling queue on opening night: All attendants were given a questionnaire, which, among other questions, asked them to identify their race. Those who identified as white were sent to wait, while self-identified people of color were let into the gallery immediately. You can imagine this was controversial. Some complied while others expressed anger. Some objected to what they deemed racial discrimination, but the curators would not confirm that the separation of the crowd was based on race. Kahlon shares that “I wanted it to recreate the feeling of uncertainty, where people of color wonder if we were denied something because of our skin, or something else.” Another intention, according to Jackson, was to “imagine a room absent of the white gaze and actually creating that space.” Jackson adds that “whenever you want to focus on the comfort of people of color, you’re accused of being anti-white. To me, it was more about those inside.” As commentary on quotas and the white gaze, the line and the range of reactions it ensued were as interesting as the works themselves. Quota., SOIL, 112 Third Ave. S., soilart.org. Noon–5 p.m. Thurs.–Sun. Ends July 30.

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