Domestic art: Artist transforms house into an installation

Mar. 31, 2014 @ 09:28 AM

Visual artist and community organizer Kai Barrow wants people to think – about the number of people in prison, about the BP oil spill, about violence against women, about people who labor, about the very idea of home and location.

She also wants visitors to her art installation, titled “Gallery of the Streets,” to make their own art to carry away with them and to help her document the artwork she has been doing at her house on Highland Avenue. The entire house has become an art installation – with painted canvases, found objects, vinyl records and lots of books which Barrow said are “very specifically placed.” (Authors include Bill Moyers, Angela Davis, Che Guevara and more.)

Barrow, a self-taught visual artist and organizer for Critical Resistance (a group opposed to prisons), began working on this installation (also called “EcoHybridity: Domestic Labor”) as a response to the BP oil spill. Before that, she had worked in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. “I was a little devastated about what was in store for New Orleans, so that’s how the project started,” Barrow said.

Photographer and filmmaker Erin Bree is helping to document the installation, which will be on public view April 3-6. “I’m having this space documented because I will have to dismantle it,” Barrow said.

In an artist’s statement in a news release, Barrow calls the work “an homage to Black female-bodied domestic workers – most of whom have experienced dislocation.”

The dislocation theme has an arguably unintended irony. Barrow will open her exhibit a few days before her April 15 eviction notice takes effect. She has been renting the house on a month-to-month lease. When the inspectors for Allenton Management, which manages the house for owners William A. and Kristen Pleasants of Charlotte, inspected the house recently, they informed the owners of the condition of the house, and the owners asked for an eviction notice, said Arnold Spell of Allenton Management.

The eviction notice was originally for the end of March, but was extended until April 15.

Barrow said the owners were not pleased with the artwork, but Spell said the condition of the house, not the art, was the reason for the notice.  

Barrow said there is “no hostile relationship” between her and the mangers and owners. “There is no animosity,” she said. The artwork is “cosmetic,” and she plans to remove the art and restore the house to its bare walls and wood floors, Barrow said. The installation includes dried mulch placed on some of the floor space: Barrow showed a reporter a plastic covering placed under the mulch to protect the floors. 

“EcoHybridity” is her first public installation in Durham. It is one part of what she calls a “visual opera,” and this part of the opera is “looking at the question of dislocation at multiple sites” – physical, home, the Internet – “trying to look at location in a broad way.”

Every room in the house has an installation. She called one room “The Birthing Room” and has dedicated it to three African-American women: poet Lucille Clifton, author Toni Cade Bambara and poet-publisher Jayne Cortez. “Each of these rooms is an homage to a black, female domestic worker.” She defines “domestic work” to include writing, creating art and other pursuits, not just manual labor. “All of us are doing some form of domestic labor,” she said.

The “Birthing Room” includes a large, abstract canvas painting that covers the walls. She was inspired by artist Sam Gilliam’s drapery paintings, which try to make the canvas itself a piece of art, “as opposed to putting something on top of the canvas,” she said. In another room called “The Alley,” she has wrapped a canvas around a dolly to change its shape. The wall of the room contains the slogans “Flower Power,” “Black Power,” even “White Power,” which Barrow said were contributed by a collaborator.

She wants the whole installation to be participatory. A porch area will have supplies for visitors to make their own artwork. She also wants visitors to contribute -- either writing or visual art -- to a catalog that will document the installation.

Barrow is a painter, multi-media and installation artist. She has created public art projects in Chicago and New York. Her work also has been on view at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, The Brecht Forum in Brooklyn, N.Y., and other spaces. She collaborated with Brooklyn High School students on “Subway Vigil,” a public art project about the death penalty.

“It’s been powerful for me to see Kai manifest this work,” said documentarian Bree. It has helped her to rethink the way people tell stories, and “how we inhabit private spaces.”