Three views of a connected village

Aug. 15, 2013 @ 03:09 PM

“Pedro Lasch, Susan Harbage Page, Yinka Shonibare,”   Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, through Dec. 1.  This exhibition is a preamble to “Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space,” (Sept. 19-Feb. 2, 2014). The Nasher is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For information, call 919-684-5135.

 

In the gallery at the Nasher Museum of Art, one wall is covered in identical red maps of the Western Hemisphere. Large photographs focusing on abandoned personal items cover the other two walls. On the floor between is a table where 14 life-size headless sculptures sit together, gesturing and arguing.  This exhibition is about the fusion and confusion when cultures cross, and it does not matter how it starts, whether by armed invasion, colonial exploration, trade routes or searching for refuge from economic destitution. In the end each group takes from the other and history can only chronicle the changes.  We call those changes globalization.

The nine maps of the Western Hemisphere are part of the mural, “Latino/a” and “America,” by Mexican-born Pedro Lasch (b. 1975) and cover the largest wall of the gallery.  Under each map, in English and Spanish, are a few facts about a person who crossed the Mexican-United States border illegally.  Chapel Hillian Susan Harbage Page’s (b. 1959) six color photographs show someone’s personal things lost or left behind at the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

In “Scramble for Africa” British born Yinka Shonibare (b. 1962) created the fiberglass figures who sit around a mahogany table with the map of Africa painted on its top.  His assemblage represents the Berlin Conference (1884-85) where representatives of the colonial empires of Europe divided up the African continent among them. The United States was invited, but did not attend.  It is a powerful exhibition with subtle and in-your-face facts.

On the face of it, the 19th-century conference seems to have no connection with human beings crossing the border between two countries.  But as Shonibare points out in his wall label, cultures begin to blend no matter how it all began. For example, the mannequins around the table are dressed in beautiful Dutch wax printed cotton, with colorful designs, which we think of as native African.  In fact the materials were originally manufactured in the Dutch colony of Indonesia and ultimately shipped to West Africa.  And as for the influence of Latin America on the United States, a visit to any grocery store shows how Latino cuisine has blended with the cooking of every region in the States.

Shonibare’s figures are masterful in gesture; the body language is exquisite.  Several figures sit back, with arms folded; the stance says I’ll not compromise on anything.  There is one sculpture whose hand is curled into a fist while he points determinedly with the index finger of the other.  Anger, gestures and strong talk are all here.  A cursory Google search pulls up a raft of facts about the conference.  It is obvious the representatives of the great nations of Europe are not arguing about rights of the Africans; they are arguing about their domination of a particular African region.  The artist invites us to witness the past from the safety of the future and to understand how this conference set up today’s complicated problems in Africa. It is one of the most telling works of art I have ever seen.

Page went to Brownsville, Texas, to shoot her series on “border crossings.”  Her pictures are from the area near the border between Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico, and spotlight objects found on the ground.  There are a wallet and identification papers, there are bits of fabric, socks, scraps of paper and empty plastic jugs, used as a homemade floatation device.  They are things dropped by human beings trying to get across the border; each is a symbol of desperation, of leaving home to find a better life.  The objects sit on land that is lush woods or a mud-baked riverbed, or float in a fast-running, treacherous river.  Page believes her photographs actually record hope rather than despair. 

Lasch’s maps are ones he gave to nine people he knew who were about to cross the border between Mexico and the United States. Each person received two maps.  He asked them to send one back to him when they arrived at their destination.  Five people made their way to New York, three to North Carolina and one to Los Angeles.  Some of the maps are stained and torn and a few look like they were never unfolded.  He gives us just a short line or two about each of the travelers with their ages and their names.  They came from Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Guatemala and Ecuador. One had crossed only once; one had crossed 315 times. 

We are not told why the person had gone back and forth so often and are left to wonder whether he was a guide of sorts.  In one short line, Lasch reminds us we are not the only Americans in our hemisphere.  We are not even the only North Americans.  The United States is our unique place but when we call ourselves Americans we must acknowledge the millions of South Americans and Canadians who are also Americans.

Globalization has been going on since the Romans marched across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.  Colonial expansion was a 17th-century upgrade, and the Free Trade treaties of the past 30 years were another update.  The Internet is the latest and perhaps the most pervasive of all.  Whether we like it or not, we are connected economically and socially to the peoples in every country in the world. We are in an interconnected world where the culture is global.  We are part of a “global village.”

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.