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Maxine Henryson, Zoila Andrea Coc-Chang (鄭慧蘭), Keli Safia Maksud at A.I.R.

Exhibition view, Maxine Henryson, Frequently the woods are pink, 2023, A.I.R. Gallery, Brooklyn, NY. Photography: Sebastian Bach. Courtesy of the artist and A.I.R. Gallery.

Maxine Henryson, Zoila Andrea Coc-Chang (鄭慧蘭), Keli Safia Maksud 

A.I.R Gallery 

By YOHANNA M ROA, July 2023

New York A.I.R. Gallery opened three solo exhibitions in June 2023, Maxine Henryson ‘s “Frequently the Woods are Pink,” “Never Settling Into the Stability of Objects” by Zoila Andrea Coc-Chang (鄭慧蘭), and “Old Blues New Bruises” by Keli Safia Maksud. The three taking together offer an intergenerational dialogue in which the artists recognize the complex intersection of their personal histories, presenting three bodies of works in which the politics of everyday life pressure relationships with the body, memory, and identity limits of nationality, race, or culture, interconnecting daily life with the socio-structural.

Maxine Henryson is an American artist based in New York City, she has lived in a culturally mixed family. She takes the exhibition title from Emily Dickinson's 1858 “Frequently the Woods are Pink” early sonnet. Dickinson invested much of her isolation time in her Homestead garden - in Massachusetts, mainly growing scented flowers. From age nine, she studied botany, assembling a collection of pressed plants in a leather-bound sixty-six-page herbarium containing 424 specimens that she classified and labeled using the Linnaean system. During the recent period of isolation due to COVID, Henryson's world focused on her garden and its surrounding woods, which led her to memories of her childhood in Massachusetts. In both Dickinson's poem and Maxine's exhibition, one can see the changes in nature relating to a cycle of the Earth's rotation; both approaches can be considered documents where their bodies are perceived as a physical experience of the world, bringing forth material memories of their towns. The exhibition is made up of 19 photographic works, with titles such as: "Echinacea, Strength," "Hydrangea, "Grace/beauty," including the Leporeros: "Pink Tulips" and To Be a Flower is a Profound Responsibility," it is feasible to consider them as a personalized-taxonomic exercise from her experience, which we can link back to Dickinson's book of pressed plants where one can observe the writer's experience of her garden. 

We can easily find a panoramic perception of the artist's journeys by locating ourselves right in the center of the gallery space while making a 360-degree turn. However, her work goes beyond the detailed observation of the changes in nature. She has frequently used ‘blur’ to capture cultural atmospheres in her previous projects; however, this tool fulfills a different function in this exhibition, representing a new change in the artist’s broad trajectory. Blur works as a possibility of building a liminal space, where the relationship between nature, photography, and the artist's body is presented as unstable and constantly changing. She draws us into her memories through the use of physical perception. These are daily captures of the politics of the world's experience through the body and that prosthesis or extension called the camera.

The isolation of both these creators has different origins and relationships palpable within the social context as experienced in the United States; however, in her show, Henryson reminds us that historically, even in confinement, women have produced knowledge, developed work methodologies and forms of communication, which require to be recognized if we are to understand these socio-historical contexts.

faa (flor) de la tierra I, 2022, Organza, nylon string, corn leaves, plastic, glitter, floral wire and nails into the wall, 42 x 42 in, Photographer: Sebastián Pérez.

Zoila Andrea Coc-Chang has grown up in a cultural environment in which different forms of knowledge constitute intimacy, her mother is of Chinese origin, while her father is Guatemalan; In this way, within her family, the fabric of diverse cultural roots is part of the daily life. Her work enunciates a series of complexities that emerge between the micro-private and the macro-social due to the experience of living in that cultural intersection in the United States. Her solo show, “Never Settling Into the Stability of Objects,” comprises a body of work consisting of sculptural weavings and paintings. Throughout the past few years, she has collected food scraps and ephemera from Latin America and Asia, such as grocery wrappers, corn husks, and avocado seeds from family, friends, potlucks, and restaurants. Locally, from Guatemala City to Hialeah, to New Haven, and places in between).

The cultural roots that converge in Coc-Chang can be considered geographically and culturally distant. However, because of that intersection, she can experience that food is more than a commodity; food follows geographical and cultural trajectories. In this way, the products become a standpoint to understand and experience the complexity of her personal reality in connection with global macrostructures. On the one hand, she recognizes the economies of care in domestic spaces, where feeding is directly linked to the forms of production and distribution of food. She often asks restaurants to give her the seeds of the food she consumes. Her mother taught her how to obtain dyes, such as from avocado seeds. This intentional collection of packaging and "waste" becomes an act of resistance and a memory exercise when she incorporates them into the fabrics. The artist consciously recognizes that behind the packaging of a product or a seed, there is a whole social context, usually made invisible, but that she has been able to experience daily. In her family trips to Central America, she has seen the value of knowledge in the communities that have survived the war or in the resistance of groups of fishermen in Shanhai, who are pushed outside the urban perimeters in favor of capitalistic economic growth. 

In works such as 05, "Faa (flor) de la Tierra I," 2022, the artist creates a flower-shaped structure using nails on the wall, where she weaves the petals with fibers, corn husks, and wrappers. This is a particularly significant work due to the performative act of weaving and unweaving an actual house, taking it with her, articulating it in different possible ways, and nailing it to the walls. This fabric works as an articulating metaphor of mobile identities reckoned with cultural frameworks that can be built and deconstructed in daily life spaces, carrying the complexity of relationships that a small package or corn seed may imply.

Keli Safia Maksud, Topographies of Sound (detail), 2022, Embroidery on carbon paper, 26 x 39 inches.

Keli Safia Maksud presents the ‘Old Blues New Bruises’ exhibition, an archival activation that includes embroidery on carbon copy paper, sound, and light. Her use of embroidery to make musical notations across the paper produces two-sided documents. On one side, there are scores of various national anthems and, on the other, marks or traces that remind us that in history, bodies and memories are waiting to be called upon or cited; in such ways, the artist rematerializes what is hidden in an archive. The exhibition also includes a multichannel sound installation composed of frequencies captured by an ETHER recorder, which receives all the interference that a traditional radio tries to eliminate to produce a clean signal.

Her work constantly challenges the idea of identity found in regular maps that establish identities showing political-border divisions. Maksud grew up in a hybrid family (according to her), originating partly from Tanzania and Kenya, some Christian, others Muslim. Thus, aspects such as language become essential when establishing identity connections. However, we shouldn’t place Maksud as part of an identity signified by her African roots in which the concept of identity coalesces; when she visits Tanzania, people notice her distinct Swahili accent, and when she arrives in Kenya, her Kiswahili accent does not sound quite Kenyan. Upon arriving in Canada, she also perceives that a wholly different identity structure mediates her daily relationships, a historical framework that somehow tries to place her in a specific box. This adds a relevant twist and turns if we are to understand her work as a decolonial practice. However, she begins by questioning why, in Africa, of all places, do we maintain national anthems that are part of European cultural traditions written in the colonizer's language. While on one side of the paper, the embroidered notes and staves create a particular echo, the rear side creates its own when the carbon paper and the image that appears on it shows us the coalition of identity the artist lives under daily as a person and as well as an artist. Here the sound installation plays a relevant role because Maksud admits the interference, recognizes it, and makes it evident. Isn't that perhaps something we’d need to do when discussing identity, like recognizing such interference and then seeing how it is activated in personal experiences and the stories that constitute historical narrations?.

A.I.R. Gallery offers us three parallel exhibitions that challenge the concepts of identity and the connections between the public and the private; outside of a heteronormative thought, it is possible to recognize that even we, ourselves, can make revolution and produce knowledge in the garden. Those may not be monumental revolutions, but rather revolutions that begin by simply recognizing the geographical and social trajectories of an avocado seed or that of the packaging of a food product, or rather by practicing embroidery, realizing that as we deconstruct heteronormativity, we could be redlining a hidden discourse. So, in a way, while deconstructing those ‘controlled’ discourses, we can also review different perspectives, those of a given ‘organization’ that help constitute histories and identities outside the heteronormative patriarchal structure. WM

Yohanna M Roa

Yohanna M Roa is a visual artist, art historian, and feminist curator. She is in the MA Women and Gender studies program at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Ph.D. in History and Critical Theories of Art program at the Universidad Ibero Americana de México. Master's degree in Visual Arts from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She has given lectures for the SEAC Annual Meeting, The Museum of Contemporary Art of Mexico and the Latin American Public Art Seminar, Brazil-Argentina. She is a permanent contributor to ArtNexus Magazine. Her artistic work has been studied, published and commented by Karen Cordero for the 109 CAA Annual Conference, 2021, in Revaluing Feminine Trajectories and Stitching Alternative Genealogies in the Work of Yohanna Roa, Natalia e la Rosa: Yohanna M Roa, Textile Woman, Casa del Tiempo Magazine, and Creative industries, Innovation and Women's Entrepreneurship in Latin America, published by the Andes University and UNAL in Mexico, 2022. She has developed exhibitions, educational art, and archive projects for including WhiteBox NY, The Tertulia Museum of Modern Art in Colombia, Alameda Art Laboratory Mexico City, and Autonomous University of Nuevo León México. 

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