By PAUL LASTER, March 2021
Inspired by seminomadic tribes that she’s stayed with and studied during years of travel in the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa, Valerie Hird has been turning her visual interpretations of the nomad’s oral narratives, which they generously shared with her, into colorful paintings and works on paper for the past 20 years. Looking back at her life’s journey and cultural experiences and how her perception of the Arab world has evolved, she recently created a fascinating series of shadowboxes and watercolors that she used as sets for her first animated video, which is the centerpiece of What Did Happen to Alice; My Avatar, her 14th solo show at Nohra Haime Gallery in New York.
The 12-minute, hand-drawn animated video, similarly titled What Did Happen to Alice?, is an allegorical story about how radically media has changed in the artist’s lifetime. Created with drawings, collages and watercolors meticulously made by Hird that were scanned and marvelously manipulated into motion by first-time animator Martin de Geus, the video starts with a young, impressionable Alice—Hird’s avatar, but also a reference to Lewis Carroll’s curious character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—as a black and white drawing on paper, which quickly gets saturated from everything she reads and touches.
Surrounded by book covers and pages from The Little Lame Prince and The Lost King of Oz, movie posters for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Lost Horizon and network talking heads like Walter Cronkite and Chet Brinkley, Alice gets led up a spiral staircase by a little bird that pops out of the cover of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Atop the tower stairs, the bird is transformed into a mythical firebird, which Alice mounts and flies off over an imaginatively painted landscape, composed from scanned sections of her watercolors Flight and Source Code. In this new realm, she’s met by nomadic spirits, who fill her with their enchanting histories.
Confronted by cable television (Fox News and CNN) and internet (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) media outlets, the bond between Alice and the nomads is broken. The new media invades the body of the firebird and changes it into a dodo bird and replaces the knowledge Alice had gained with stories of violence and oppression from American TV shows, movies and music videos. The elder nomadic spirits see Alice as an ugly American and she’s banished from their world. In the end she is transported back to the domain of books, movies and media sites, but now the older and wiser Alice join hands with her previous selves to embrace their differences, learn from their oversights and become one.
The shadowboxes used in the video are chock full of collaged watercolors and mediated imagery that provides static clues to the animated tale. Equipped with hand cranks, they cleverly attract by being interactive, which allows the viewer to absorb the vital information while making parts of the piece move. Further clues can be found in the Source Code watercolors, which were created on sketchpad size papers over a period of several years. There are 94 steam of consciousness paintings arranged in a grid that’s meant to be interchangeable—depending on the story each collector of them wants to tell. Some parts are joined together—in groups of two to six—within the whole, while others are standalone works.
The largest work in the show, The Elder Gods Weren’t Male, presents a group of ten medium-scale, oil-on-gessoed-paper pieces that are joined to create a large painting of five haunting figures floating over a topographical map of the MENA region. Characters and text from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Tale of Two Cities are visually woven into the map and godlike figures, which are informed by local textiles, while a playful ribbon of emojis decorates the bottom of the piece like fringe on a gown. The motif of the elders is repeated in the oil on linen painting The Protectors, which points to another important role the figures played in keeping Hird safe during her journeys in rural areas. Painted to look like worn material and sanded down to further distress it, the canvas echoes the way that textiles are used to share nomadic narratives.
A few more midsize works on paper that intriguingly push their compositions beyond their picture frames—including the charming Child of the Pure Unclouded Brow, which depicts Alice in a bouncing row boat on choppy seas—nicely round out the show. Unpacking the visual cues that she’s internalized over a lifetime, Hird has become less interested in what she sees than in how she perceives it. WM
Valerie Hird: What Did Happen to Alice; My Avatar is on view at Nohra Haime Gallery in New York through April 3, 2021.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
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