By DAVID JAGER January 7, 2024
Alchemy gallery pairs up with the Immigrant Artists Biennial founded by Katya Grokhovsky, a multi-site city wide project that focuses exclusively on the work of immigrant artists. Each of the artists comes from countries as diverse as Korea, Iran, Sweden, Haiti, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Centered on the immigrant body, or what they call the ‘magic body’, it addresses displacement in uprooted populations across the globe. Immigrants, already a marginalized tribe, become doubly itinerant upon declaring themselves to be artists. This show addresses what it means to be a double outsider.
Curated by Bianca Abdi-Boragi, Anna Mikaela Ekstrand and Katherine Adams, hybridity is the glue that holds this show together. Co-curator Bianca Abdi-Boragi, of French and Algerian descent, has a keen sense of what it means for an artist to straddle worlds that are incommensurate. The result is astonishingly broad, but never a hodgepodge.
Part of what unifies the show are its stylistic touch points. A magical realism seems to shine through much of the works in the show. It’s possible that surrealism is particularly useful for addressing the immigrant experience, given it keeps one foot planted firmly in the dream world and the other in folklore. Or or perhaps it is simply the very long shadow that continues to be cast by both Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington.
Felipe Baeza, also originally from Mexico, is a good example. He creates ink and acrylic drawings whose figures hover on the edge of alchemical iconography. With their lavender, rose and earth toned hues, they might be figures for a newly imagined deck of Tarot cards or the signs gracing a botanica. Raul De Lara, a Mexican born DACA recipient from Texas, is as quietly extraordinary but relies more on symbolism and eye-popping craftsmanship. His hand carved wooden sculpture of a large White Oak leaf and chain is hand carved from a single tree from New York State.
There are other nature inspired pieces of a more sober and contemporary bent. “Fall”, by the Spanish artist Selva Aparicio consists of a brick of fall leaves that appear book like in their compression. Fixed against a cloth background with twine, they bring to mind early Fluxus or Arte Povera artifacts, redrawing the relationship between nature and common artifacts. The same with Francesco Simeti delicate casting of seaweed into ceramic, “Sea wood”, where a natural material is reimagined as brittle and fragile.
Ala Dehghan, originally from Tehran, returns the show to its magical vein with “Silver Water Sleep”, which places smaller works atop a much larger black and white mural that nearly devours the room. Dehghan specializes in oneiric visual syntax primed for dissociative oddity, her figures are shrouded in auric clouds of pattern, color and mystery. Something spiritual is taking place, but what is it? Not knowing exactly what is going on feels both ominous and exciting, somehow.
The jewel-toned canvases of Mia Enell “Human Mess” seems far more composed than messy, a lovely organic modernism that recalls a previous era. Replete with overlapping areas, they work well with Hayuk’s vivid acrylics on Baltic birch, which work their own dynamic counterpoint of luminous color and form that nonetheless appears to directly echo the natural world. Not exactly paintings of flowers, birds or shrubs, but some odd flowery, shrubby essence. Lilian Shtereteva, from Bulgaria, rounds out the Eastern European cohort of artists with a cloth representation of the Slavic goddess Samovila which revives a certain flavor of central European paganism that is both alluring and foreboding.
The other fabric piece is provided by Koreans Young Yu and Nicholas Oh, members of the collaborative duo AYDO. Together they have taken a traditional Korean Hanbok, and encrusted it with moss, sand, seaweed, pearls and ceramic flowers. The deeply textured and delicate surface is an organic parable of cultural transmission as encrustation. It also points to the perennially conflicted border between North and South Korea. A video performance at the show’s opening had them donning the garment in an ambivalent tribute to the demilitarized zone.
This doesn’t let us forget that the body is a contested territory as well. Joiri Minaya wants us to think about what it means to inhabit a Caribbean body. Her stretchable body suits cover her from head to toe in skintight cocoons printed with colorful jungle patterns and prints. They transform her body into a parody of exoticism even as it threatens to dissolve her like a green screened suited figure into the natural background. She plays with the desire to be seen, to celebrate heritage, and blend into the background. It’s a lot to take in.
A much more sober mapping of the legacy of slavery is undertaken in the ongoing work of assemblage, collage, painting and sculpture, “Bundlehouse”. With this series Nyugen E. Smith reimagines colonial era maps as dotted with makeshift refugee tents, presided over by figures and artifacts of imperialism. Displacement and poverty are included in the cartography. Tariku Shiferaw, from Ethiopia, addresses the same legacy with a woven and deconstructed “X”- all of its implications intact- placed behind a grid of horizontal wood bars. The shows lone sound piece, by Haitian Dominique Durosseau, addresses the problematics of race and displacement through a low confessional reading of her journal entries, windows into the inner psychological workings of diaspora.
Taken as a whole, the show gives us a wide lens look at immigrant artists currently working in New York, as they bring their dreams, traditions and haunted legacies into their body of work. WM
David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in New York City. He contributed to Toronto's NOW magazine for over a decade, and continues to write for numerous other publications. He has also worked as a curator. David received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 2021. He also writes screenplays and rock musicals.view all articles from this author