The use of art to speak out against oppression is no longer just the province of your local coffeehouse. Amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring and tyrannical regimes enabled by global economics, politically charged art has not only gained legitimacy, it’s downright crucial. Restrictions have necessitated that artists become more cunning in their messages, and the art world has benefited richly from a surge in clever dissent.
The trend came up earlier this year in a conversation between USF Contemporary Art Museum Curator Noel Smith and Museum Director Margaret Miller, when USF CAM’s current exhibition, SubRosa: The Language of Resistance first took shape. Smith — who worked recently with Cuban artists speaking out against the censorship of the Castro regime — was enlisted to coordinate the exhibition.
“Margaret traveled to China for an exhibition featuring Graphicstudio prints and a print workshop, and also to Cuba with me several times,” Smith said. “She observed that Chinese and Cuban artists, in an environment of censorship, shared the ability to get across their political messages in a coded, or sub rosa, way. She came up with the title of the exhibition, which means 'under the rose,' denoting confidentiality, secrecy, discretion. We later decided to expand the geographical reach to include artists from other countries.”
Through various work and personal connections, Smith was able to score works by seven high-profile artists. The collection is as impressive as it is varied, especially given the limited resources of budget-frozen USF. Each artist is discrete in style and tone, but they share an urgency that’s almost incomprehensible to first world viewers. Using a variety of media, the works are at once poignant, chilling and even humorous, brimming with a relatable humanity that transcends cultural differences.
Impersonal but loaded with impact, installations from Chinese rock star-artist Ai Wei Wei and Iranian artist Barbad Golshiri share a space next to the reception area. It’s an interesting choice considering that both Golshiri and Ai’s fathers were detained during their childhoods.
Golshiri’s installation “Distribution of the Sacred System” appears at first like an arcane scroll stolen from a printing press, a giant roll of black digital print on canvas reproduced by Graphicstudio per the artist’s detailed instructions. On closer inspection, you’ll find Persian newspaper-inspired typeface, religious iconography, double-entendres, Iranian prison lingo and schematics, all on what’s actually intended as a giant toilet paper roll, and a translation on the wall reveals the artist has intermingled the truth with sex and defecation. “This piece is steeped in the scatological,” Smith remarked with a mischievous glance. “It’s a very, very tough piece.”
Side note: Golshiri is willing to spare a square. He has made prints from the installation available to collectors upon a direct donation of $350 to Reporters Without Borders (rsf.org).
Ai’s piece is chillingly subdued by comparison, housed in a vitrine (a glass cabinet) propped by a communist-red platform. Inside are manuals he authored, donated by New York’s Museum of Modern Art with strict instructions not to be read or opened. Ai — who this year created an acclaimed installation re-enacting his prison time in China, and addresses the subject in a heavy metal video called “Dumbass” — wrote the nondescript booklets with no art on the cover, just a tiny star, to communicate what he learned about Western art while living in the U.S. in the 1990s and how to relate those lessons to the Chinese underground. The rare, pristine publications on display add an ironic punctuation to his ordeal.
In a nook nearby, videos and sculpture by Khaled Jarrar, a former captain of the Palestinian presidential guard, depict the desolate life of children in occupied territories. With his video “Concrete,” he shows how he chipped away at a segregating wall and created a true-to-size soccer ball from olive branches and cement.
Jarrar’s installation and the vivid and nightmarish comic illustrations of Ramón Esono Ebalé — from Equatorial Guinea and the only artist in exile, now living in Paraguay — are not passive exhibits and require a good few minutes to enjoy. They’re both well worth the effort.
Cuban artist duo José Toirac and Meira Marrero’s works utilize historical and archival research to provide a multi-layered view of Cuban culture. In “Ave Maria,” a patch of electric blue carpet girds a pastel-trimmed table with statues representing the patron saint of Cuba, La Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), a syncretic figure combining elements of Catholicism and Santeria. Apart from being a beautiful installation, the piece offers a poignant comment on racism. Painted in gold are words by famed revolutionary Jose Martí that he first spoke in Tampa: “Either the republic is built on the character of each one of its children … or the republic is not worth a single tear from our women nor a single drop of blood from our brave men.”
On the adjacent wall, the duo assembled “1869-2006,” a series of black-and-white portraits of all of the leaders of Cuba since the late 19th century. The arrangement verges on absurdity with American President Taft in the mix and others in short succession of one another — one in charge for just one day — and at center, a “pentarchy,” a presidency, so to speak, of five men who ruled in 1933. The series ends with Fidel and Raul Castro — and an empty nail at the end, calling into question quite chillingly, “Who’s next?”
A more intimate counterpoint hangs next to the Cubans: South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s portrait series “Being,” which calls out a society that hasn’t caught up with laws protecting LGBT rights (homosexuals are victims of brutal rape and persecution in post-apartheid South Africa). Through her images, Muholi breaks down barriers by making an eloquent statement about the universality of love and identity. We get glimpses of couples (and individuals) that range from the cozy to detached. In “Miss Lesbian” she takes on a tragi-comic beauty queen dressed in Wonder Woman adornments.
Throughout SubRosa, absurdity mixes with tragedy, demystifying the injustices so that the viewer doesn’t feel completely overcome. Best of all, you come away with a more nuanced view of the plights of others and the artists portraying them.
Capping off a successful series of tours, talks and even a Pecha Kucha, two of SubRosa’s final events will take place next week — a screening of the documentary Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry, on Wed., Nov. 13, at Tampa Theatre, and a curator’s tour at noon on Thurs., Nov. 14.
Admission to USF CAM is free, and art lovers should be thankful for that. SubRosa, like the human lives it addresses, is priceless.