Blanca de La Torre, Jovana Stokic, Amy Rosenblum-Martín, Sozita Goudouna and Yohanna M. Roa
C.J. Chueca, Jelena Tomasevic, Gesiye, Colette Justine and Yohanna M. Roa
By ERIN L. MCCUTCHEON November 7, 2023
The artworld has arguably benefitted from increased attention to and adoption of decolonial and feminist theories in scholarly, artistic, and curatorial practice in recent years. Many have identified this moment as a “decolonial turn,” evidenced in the availability of a number of exhibitions that highlight contentious and silenced histories and explore the roots of enduring oppressive structures, such as patriarchy, in colonial pasts. The broader acceptance of this "turn" in curatorial practice, however, risks reducing the critical disruptions urged by decolonial feminist theory and practice to worn-out clichés. WhiteBox’s latest exhibition la trenza – the braid, project by Yohanna M. Roa, offers a welcome antidote to this moment of danger by both posing and answering the question: what might a decolonial feminist exhibition look like, not just in terms of its content, but as a holistic framework for curatorial praxis?
The act of curating, undertaken in its traditional form, is itself emblematic of colonial structures of knowledge and power. Within this framework, curators serve as authority figures whose role is to bring a selection of artworks together under a particular theme and illuminate their connections for the viewer. Despite this visibility of the curator’s hand in an exhibition, the actions they undertake to bring the show to life will typically be hidden from sight. Curating involves a series of negotiations between artists, objects, staff, and spaces in ways that unavoidably interweave the personal, political, and professional positionalities of all involved. These invisibilized and silenced processes pose a threat to the presumed objective neutrality, and colonial structures of knowledge, that permeate the white cube.
la trenza – the braid relishes in these silenced processes and the decolonial contaminations they produce in the gallery space. With this exhibition, Yohanna M. Roa upends traditional, hierarchical approaches and maps out an alternative curatorial pathway others might be able to explore and build upon. Roa’s approach to mapping is rooted in a corporeal understanding of the dual impact of coloniality on land and bodies through the symbolism of the braid. Hair braiding practices during the era of enslavement, though largely understudied, have been connected to histories of resistance. Across the Americas, and in other parts of the world, hair braiding was used to relay messages, map escape routes, and carry seeds planted to help sustain communities. Here the braid offers an alternative to the violence of Cartesian models in ways that center women’s embodied histories and interwoven knowledges.
What follows is a decolonial practice built directly from Roa’s transdisciplinary experience as an artist, curator, art historian, and feminist that encourages us to imagine otherwise, to think outside of pre-established curatorial forms, traditions, and practices. The exhibition operates from a decolonial feminist position that emphasizes transparency, horizontality, and collaboration in all aspects of its execution. The show was formulated through Roa’s direct engagement with eight artists and curators and evolved from their ongoing written and artistic exchanges. Each invitation to participate involved sending an artwork and text to a curator, who would then respond with another work and text. It began with Roa sending her textile intervention, Curtain (2018), and an accompanying text to the curator Blanca de La Torre with the invitation that she share the work with an artist, and that the two propose an artwork and text to add to the exhibition. There was no theme, but rather a proposal to consider and explore a new form of dialogic decolonial feminist curatorial and artistic practice together. de La Torre collaborated with the artist Cecilia Chueca, responding with Chueca’s multimedia installation, Mermaids in the Basement, to which de La Torre added a contextualizing text for the exhibition. This new pairing was sent to another curator-artist team for response, and so on, until there were four total collaborations alongside Roa.
This working methodology was essential to destabilizing Roa’s positionality as the ultimate authority within the space of the exhibition. While the show evolved from her initial invitation, the process allowed her to step away from a traditional role in object selection, opening space for the free interchange of ideas and works that expanded the narrative into unforeseen and multivocal directions. This process itself also lent a form of resistance to the commodification of the exhibition as a product to instead focus on how meaning can be made, and remade, long before the work arrives in the gallery space.
This is not to say the show is all concept at the expense content. The included works are breathtaking in their complexities and evocations. Viewers will be captivated by Roa’s introductory work, a mixed media textile constructed from woven pages of an art history text featuring Peter Paul Rubens’ nudes. Here Roa enacts decolonial feminist transformations to the meanings of these works established in the books they are ripped from, turning them on their heads, stitching onto their surfaces, combining them into a domestic object that she dyes a vibrant red. This color choice, a reference to the exploitation of the cochineal beetle by colonizers of New Spain, and Roa’s text illuminate the ways colonial violences acted out on women’s bodies and the environment are implicit in the art historical canon.
The lack of an authoritative curatorial narrative extends the invitation for collaboration out to the viewer who may exercise a greater sense of autonomy in locating the connections and responses within the works included in the exhibition. In tugging at these conceptual and artistic threads while viewing the works collectively, I found myself most engaged with their nuanced meditation on the loss and recovery of ancestral knowledges. Cecilia Chueca’s multimedia installation, Mermaids in the Basement, explores this topic in relation to the misinterpretation of sirens in classical mythologies. Using objects, poetry, and sound, Chueca asserts a “hydrofeminist” reclamation of sirens, envisioned as mythical travelers and keepers of knowledge.
Jelena Tomasevic’s Mixed Memories installation, and the curator Jovana Stokic’s accompanying text, expand on the metaphor of watery women, here to contemplate the contemporary commodification of wellness and its disconnection from a variety of ancestral healing practices, a rupture in knowledge and embodied practice born out of colonial histories.
Gesiye’s video Now That I’m a River, also contemplate the connection between purification and water, here tied to sacred Afro-Caribbean histories and knowledges. In contextualizing the work, the curator Amy Rosenblum-Martín, elucidates the ways Gesiye’s work, much like Roa’s, calls attention to the ways women’s bodies have been endangered through colonial processes, but also how the body might be a tool of liberation, rebirth, and transformation.
The last pairing features the work of Colette Justine, curated by Sozita Goudouna, where the artist stages one of her iconic tableau vivant street art performances in New York City during the 1980s. The inclusion of this work infuses a broader historical perspective of feminist performance and the nude into the space that raise interesting questions regarding voyeurism and agency. I spent more time puzzling over the relationship between this work with others in the gallery because it did not have an accompanying text. This refusal was initially frustrating; however, I now understand it as somewhat critical in encouraging the viewer to be more active in drawing connections. Roa further disrupts passive spectatorship in her invitation for viewers to contribute to a collaborative textile mural containing embroidered photos and names of relevant women in their lives. This process of embroidering as both memory-keeping and making draws back to the practice of braiding as a form of decolonial feminist resistance.
The result is an example of an exhibition as a powerful and generative decolonial feminist space. la trenza – the braid succeeds in allowing the political and personal to coalesce, producing new meanings for objects and their histories, not only through their arrangement in the gallery by a curatorial authority, but in how they arrived in that space as already deeply in conversation.
la trenza – the braid runs through November 11, 2023 at WhiteBox, 9 Avenue B., LES. WM
Erin L. McCutcheon is an art historian whose research and writing focus on modern and contemporary Latin American art, feminist artistic practices, and their connections with activist histories. She earned a PhD in Art History and Latin American Studies and a certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies from Tulane University. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Arts of the Americas at the University of Rhode Island and is working on a book project that examines the intersections between art, the women’s movement, and motherhood in post–1968 Mexico City.view all articles from this author