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“If You Say So…” Times Two

by Joseph Andrew A. Carvajal

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Art is experienced; it is also often described as something consumed. My tendency in viewing visual art is to promptly read the supporting text. It is as if I were at the grocery store and really taking time to check the labels. For indeed, I want to know what the product is made of and what its contents are. Which could be a spoiler, though, when it comes to the aesthetic experience. Such was the case with Nina Chanel Abney’s exhibit If You Say So… at Gateway Project Spaces. I already had an idea of what her show is about even before I had a good view of the works. Although I found myself repeating, “If You Say So…” in my head as I strove to reconcile the text with the visuals during the opening, the virtues of Abney’s pieces became more apparent on my second visit. I am glad I took a second look.

Against the silhouettes of the crowd during the reception, the first thing that I noticed were colors, bright colors jumping out of the big painted canvases and collages. Abney is not afraid of color. There were reds, blues and yellows, and greens, violets and oranges: flat, monochromatic, and neon versions of them! Multi-hued circles, triangles and other geometric shapes dancing within the picture planes reminded of the fun music videos of the early nineties. With crisp-edged numbers joining in, the works even momentarily invoked the countdown segments of Sesame Street.

However, having read the exhibition write-up, I soon replaced these associations with what little I do know of samba, Brazil, and their festive visual culture, imbibed from mass media.

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The profusion of color gives the viewer an inkling of what the exhibit is about. For this show, Abney used color not only as a formal element; it is metaphorical. It is central to the backstory of the works. According to the text, these are her response to “the nefarious and widespread transnational pandemic of racial discrimination, economics, and police brutality.” Knowledge of this pandemic made me view the works with a certain lens, through which I found how Abney’s canvases and collages spoke of persistent injustice rooted in differences in skin color.

This underlying theme might not be readily apparent due to the bright colors and shapes jumping out of the compositions. But anchoring the pictures are the blacks and browns, which take the form of anonymous human profiles. After all, the exhibit is about them: ‘people of color,’ a term that I still find uncomfortable to use. For somehow, the term implies that white people are not colored, and as such, the suggestion is that they are pure, better. It is as if whiteness of skin is the default in nature, and any “deviation” from it is wrong. Perhaps this is in the subconscious of those who enact violence – physical and otherwise – on people who are considered black or brown. Perhaps it is taught and learned. In any case, they choose to commit violence.

On my second visit, I realized that the X’s and NO’s in several collages and canvases could be read in at least two ways. They might represent the censuring voice of the perpetuators of racial discrimination and police brutality. There are no clear depictions of wrongdoing in Abney’s works, yet these reprimanding symbols are everywhere. Hence, the irrationality of prejudice becomes underscored. The X’s and NO’s could nonetheless be expressions of defiance, coming from the oppressed. These could be answering back, fully aware that the injustice needs to stop.

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A few teardrops appear in the collection, but these are enough to suggest that there is something wrong, making people’s eyes well up. It is here that the write-up provides context to what the viewer is looking at. Other works in the exhibit feature many other eyes that are open yet seem unmoved. One cannot help but ask why, which adds to the discomfort of viewing the seemingly jovial pieces.

While the upward and downward triangles among the works suggest power struggle and inequality, the numbers and other shapes are a bit more cryptic to me. While I was wondering what their significance is, I thought of playing cards because of the flat-colored hearts and face profiles. To be involved in the power struggle rooted in differences in skin color is never a game, though. Perhaps being brown or black is nowadays more akin to a gamble, which a person just happened to be in: one can never know how people of another color will treat you.

I could have been content with my sunny associations if I had not promptly read the exhibition write-up. Fortunately, I felt the need to read it, which made the aesthetic experience richer and more meaningful. The text shook me out of nostalgia and brought me to the present, wherein skin color apparently still matters and has huge repercussions. Abney’s If You Say So… is a retort to denials of this reality, which goes beyond Brazil. It persists in the USA. Nay, it persists all over the world.

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Nina Chanel Abney’s exhibit If You Say So… runs until March 18 at Gateway Project Spaces,
2 Gateway Center, Newark, NJ 07102.



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