Sunday, July 28, 2019

Bodies of Knowledge at NOMA

Is the world having an identity crisis? Has America forgotten that it is "a nation of immigrants?" Clear answers remain elusive. This “Bodies of Knowledge” exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art suggests that identity is as much a matter of language and culture as DNA. Here work by Manon Bellet, Wafaa Bilal, Garrett Bradley, Mahmoud Chouki, Adriana Corral, Zhang Huan, William Kentridge, Shirin Neshat, Edward Spots, Donna Crump and Wilmer Wilson IV explore the complexity of the many layers of influences that form the identities of people the world over – a complexity seen in the prolific array of supporting events including performances, film screenings and talks spread across the three and a half month run of the show. Many of the more cryptic works in the gallery will benefit from those supporting events, as well as from wall texts, to get their point across.

It helps to know that the series of self-portraits by New York and Shanghai-based artist Zhang Huan, top, are based on family history and folktales that eventually cover his face with Chinese writing. Wilmer Wilson IV's “Black Mask” video similarly covers his face with black post-it notes evoking the paradox of black visibility / invisibility. Writing on hands appears in Iranian art star Shirin Neshat's most iconic works including her “Rapture” photograph seen here, and South African artist William Kentridge's is based on animated drawings from his personal journal that use imagery as a kind of language.

Garrett Bradley honors lost silent films by African American artists by recreating new films starring people from New Orleans communities, above, as a way of graphically re-visioning lost histories. Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal's bookshelf installation is really a novel new way to  restock Iraq's bombed-out libraries, but his photos reinterpreting bombed out sites remind us of the far flung extent of what was lost. Mannon Bellet's calligraphic-looking wall installation of black silk paper ashes reminds us that all things are ephemeral and impermanent while illustrating the ethereal beauty of that impermanence -- just as the provocatively elusive qualities of this show remind us that all identities -- personal, ethnic or national -- are ever-evolving works in progress. ~Bookhardt / Bodies of Knowledge: Eleven International Artists Explore Language and Identity, Through Oct. 13, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.