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In the 40Owls Gallery's "Distinct Ethnic Magical Tales" exhibition, artists explore colonization, pop cultural iconography, and cultural ownership
Upon entering 40Owls Gallery, a colorful mobile of hanging paper symbols over the door gives way to a room filled with large, paintings using graphic shapes, intricate prints, sculptures, and drawings. These works make up the exhibition “Distinct Ethnic Magical Tales.” Explains, Gabriel Fortoul, a curator of Colombian descent, ”As [guests] walk through the door, I wanted people to forget about the craziness of New York City. They’re somewhere else.” He adds with a grin, “That’s the magical aspect of it. I think the colors and vibrancy of the artwork can do that.”
There are no printed artist statements or accompanying titles of the artist’s works. Only a short biography is left on a registration table. The three artists, Nyugen Smith, Hector Ruiz, Isaac Fortoul, leave ony their visual cues to impart a complex individual history on the viewer. Questions of ownership, in both historical and contemporary context, are the visible threads uniting the artists.
Nyugen Smith, an artist of Trinidadian and Haitian descent, uses painting, performing, and sculptural narrative to describe the continuing impact of colonization on the Caribbean region. The pieces depict a struggle between the archetypes of the peasant, the general, and the aristocracy. For each shift in power, Smith builds a character who retells the colonization narrative from his own viewpoint, whether a colonized individual or a slave general, conflicted between representing his people and answering to his overlords.
Texas-born Hector Ruiz is a first generation Mexican-American with roots from the Kickapoo indigenous tribe. His sculptures are a mix of Hispanic icons, borrowed forms from Buddhist statues and ancient Greek art, and found or pop culture objects. Among his installations include a 3-foot high black lacquered Snoopy statue wearing an Indian headdress. Gabriel explains that Ruiz’s intentions “[are] a comment on how popular culture can take something very spiritual and magical, like the chief’s headdress, and homogenize it. Now it’s Snoopy wearing a headdress. So, [Ruiz] takes Snoopy and makes it his own, like [pop culture] took the headdress.”
Isaac Fortoul’s work consists of full larger than life paintings of bold, graphically rendered hooded figures. Many of the large subjects are recoiling in fear, but yet many figures while others carry swords, an anachronism to contemporary culture. Isaac Fortoul’s deals male/female relationships and plays on the use of the word “hood” in both brotherhood and woman/manhood, as well as spiritual rights of passage.
The show explores discomfort related to race and contemporary power struggles between ethnic communities. While not necessarily shocking, Ruiz, Smith, and Fortoul each continue a voice specific to the individual, but unanimous to a larger minority audience that may identify with their work.
40Owls is located at 150 11th Avenue, from now until July 6th.
Haniya Rae is Guernica‘s assistant art editor. She graduated summa cum laude from the Maryland Institute College of Art where she studied Painting and Art History. Her work has been published in Art in America:Drawing and she was awarded a France-Merrick Fellowship for her work in community arts.