Immersive exhibit charts African diaspora’s cultural heritage
By Brian Boyd
“Wind / roads / oceans / railroad tracks // And what if we are the seeds? // carrying our past, present and future / in one single body?”
So begins the spiraling journey through the spectacular, collaborative exhibit of new work by artists Daniel Minter, based in Portland, and Eneida Sanches, based in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. On view through January 8 at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) in Rockland, the immersive, multimedia exhibit, according to the Center’s statement, “explores the two artists’ shared cultural histories as citizens of the African Diaspora in the United States and Brazil.”
Featuring intricate etchings on copper and paper, painted relief wood carvings, assemblage, video projections, and, at center stage, a large-scale sculptural environment, the show draws its title – “through this to that” – from the last line of Lucille Clifton’s poem “blessing the boats,” which ends: “may you / open your eyes to water / water waving forever / and may you in your innocence / sail through this to that.” In an artists’ talk at CMCA, Minter explained why he finds Clifton’s poem so inspiring: “We all have the ability to imagine a future, but a lot of times our imagination is constrained by our present situation. That is a lot of what this exhibit is about, not allowing the current place where you are to constrain you from imagining and getting to another place.”
Transportation – including what the artists call the “mechanisms of movement that convey both involuntary and voluntary histories” – is a key theme of the exhibit. In her assemblage “Corpo Moeda / Flesh Currency” (the title alludes to the Atlantic slave trade), Sanches ingeniously evokes a pebble shore using pennies slotted horizontally into the paper casting shadows below and light copper-colored reflections above like stones in shallow water. In the water conjured from the white emptiness above the shoreline floats a boat with a bathtub-shaped hull, and both the sail and the wind that fills it are portrayed by a burst of long, striped, paper feathers curling away from the copper mast.
In the first of a two-part series called “Speaking in Tongues,” Sanches turns day to night, with the long paper feathers now representing the waves created by the advancing prow of a ship as it cuts through black water. The large gray stones scattered below on black cloth are a paradox: floating fragments from a wreck, or sudden landfall on scorched earth.
Trained first as an architect, Sanches studied the crafting of brass and copper Afro-Brazilian religious tools as an apprentice to the Bahian master metalsmith Gilmar Conceição. Since then, metal etchings have become her primary medium and the iconography of Candomblé ritual a large part of her artistic vocabulary. “In indigenous cultures, and in the cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora,” said Sanches, “there is a connection between what I cook, how I dress, how I walk, how I think, and all these things are art. So it’s not something that is separated, it’s not something we have in different parts, but everything is very much integrated.”
The human body, inseparable from spirit, is at the heart of creativity for both artists. “Our bodies are understanding organs,” said Sanches. In a striking sculpture titled “Viagem/Journey” that is a magnet for school groups visiting the exhibit, Sanches presents a surprisingly lifelike leg cut off above the knee and made of chocolate and paraffin wax, its cocoa bean toes adorned by bright red beads and a single white cowrie shell. The mottled, scuffed surface gives it both an antique and an enduring feel, as if the leg represents not only one individual’s journey but the journey of a people.
An ambition to expand our dimensions of perception – what Sanches calls “bringing in untamed spiritual entities to transform us” – also animates Minter’s beautiful carvings of women and men, young and old, who look back at the viewer with sincerity, passion, and wisdom. Close observation of the intricate, often surreal details in these figures yield constant discoveries: lacelike patterns on shirts and dresses that reveal the ghostly shapes of okra pods and keys, an ax, or a guinea hen; alcoves and open cavities in chest and stomach that hold a heap of red beans, or a bottle of some mysterious liquid, or a handful of white rice. A woman with indigo skin and black walnuts for hair has what appears to be a bruise on one cheek, its red glow echoed in the red that peeks out from beneath her (real) lace blouse near her heart. A Cubist-style enlargement of one eye gives to a young boy’s sidelong glance a sense of maturity beyond his years.
Everyday objects – carpenter’s tools, a fiddle, a pile of nails or rice or black-eyed peas, etched on copper or paper or displayed in three dimensions in an assemblage – are a kind of lifeline throughout this extraordinary exhibit. As the artists’ talk moderator Dr. Henry Drewal pointed out, when it comes to ordinary objects, Sanches and Minter are both keenly aware of their “sensory attributes of touch and temperature.” Everyday objects, said Minter, are what “connect us with previous generations.”
Following the spiral flow of the exhibit brings us finally to Minter’s assemblage of iron, wood, and mixed media titled “A Path to Possible.” Brilliantly complex and beautifully executed, a kind of station house perched on an intersection of train tracks presents us with four boldly colored doors that seem to invite our imaginations inside these artists’ collaborative vision of the long cultural heritage of the African diaspora and the wisdom that can be gained from communication with nature. George Washington’s ghostly visage from the dollar bill haunts the building’s walls, alongside images of cotton scales, a slave market, police brutality, bandaged hammers hanging from a spray of nails, seed pods, fish, and an abacus. Daniel Minter’s artwork, like that of Eneida Sanches, is symbolic but never dogmatic, encouraging meditation on the stories of suffering and hope that displaced people carry within their bodies and spirits.
The exhibition “through this to that” was organized by CMCA Executive Director and Chief Curator Timothy Peterson, in partnership with Indigo Arts Alliance Executive Director and Curator Marcia Minter, in collaboration with the artists. For more information on the exhibit and the artists, visit: cmcanow.org/event/minter-sanches-through-this-to-that/