Welcome to VSA Massachusetts' Open Door Gallery, presently featuring the artwork of Arielle Gray, A Jamaican American artist.
The show is titled "Dreams and Tings" and her artwork explores mental health and Afro-Caribbean identity. The exhibit is comprised of 15 pieces along 6 walls. The Open Door Gallery will be defined by eight areas, identified moving left to right as you enter through the double glass doors from the lobby. Upon entering, immediately to your left is a short wall containing the introductory text to the exhibition. This is identified as WALL 1. To its right, facing the glass doors is WALL 2. To the right, beyond the end of that wall, WALL 3 goes straight back. The right end of WALL 3 comes to a corner, meeting a wall which goes to the right. The length of this wall is broken into two sections, the first section, designated as WALL 4 runs for 15 feet. The second section of the same of the same wall is recessed by about 6 inches and continues on another 12 feet. This is identified as WALL 5.
To the right of that, the wall at the far end of the room is comprised of large floor to ceiling windows. This will be defined as the WINDOW area, with 4 pieces there, consisting of 3 to the left, 1 in the center, and two to the right of the area on a small segment of wall that bounds the right edge of the window. Continuing to the right of the window brings you to the office area. This area is not included in the installation nor is wall 6, which is found when leaving the office, and moves back towards the double door entrance. The Intro panel text reads:
Treading the line of surreal and grotesque, writer and multi-media artist Arielle Gray turns her dreams and hallucinations into visual points of entry for the exploration of mental health and Afro-Caribbean identity. Born to a Black American mother and a Jamaican father, Gray was diagnosed with clinical depression at age 19 and subsequently diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder at 22. Each piece represents a dreamscape, an other-worldly space that she's experienced and written about. In these worlds, black deities roam, space and time have no meaning, and convening with ancestors is a quotidienne part of life. Utilizing textural elements like yarn and string that recall the lineage of knitting and crocheting in her family and more modern methods like digital manipulation and photography, Gray blends the boundaries of what is reality and what is dreaming, interrogating our culture's propensity to demonize both black bodies and the mentally ill.
Beginning the show is a white cloud, made from chicken wire form covered in fluffy, white polyester stuffing, which gently floats above our head as Arielle presents us with her first photographs on wall 2. Two golden papier-mâché koi swim near the cloud; one approaches it from the left and the second is leaving it behind. Their paper and cardboard bodies are modeled around Sprite bottles. The approaching fish has white, black, and red scales, while the departing has gold, black, and orange, and both have wire barbels. Their tails and fins stream back like those of celestial koi slipping through a cosmic current. In the photograph below, we see her standing at left in ¾ profile from the shoulders up. Large gold hoop earrings peek out from her halo of tight black curls. A nebulous cloud formation floats closely above her head. She extends her right hand upwards, revealing two tattooed bands encircling her forearm. Her fingers extend in a gesture combining both divine interaction and control over this cosmic cloud emanation.
On wall 3 is a projected loop of imagery of Arielle’s artwork and family photographs accompanied by her audio commentary.
In the corner where wall 3 and 4 meet, we encounter Arielle’s next artwork. It is a life size mannequin wearing a flounced, black synthetic hair garment that flows down to its feet. The synthetic hair Kanekalon is used by women of African descent to create braided hairdos. The feet are white. Only the black right hand is easily visible. The mannequin has no head, instead a red mask takes its place. The mask is framed by a large gold disk, its circumference trimmed in a gold braid. The label reads:
Uneasy Deity, 2019
Synthetic Braiding Hair, Mannequin, spray paint, Mask (This label contains a contextual photograph of a Mende mask)
Mask dancing is a tradition prevalent in Western Africa, often involving raffia costumes and hand crafted masks carved from wood and other materials. From the Igbo people of Nigeria to the Minganji masqueraders of the Congo to the Mende people of Sierra Leone, these dancers employ these raffia adornments and masks to embody ancestral spirits (and sometimes demons) through dance and performance. This standing sculpture draws from this West African tradition of masked dancing and highlights what a more modern cultural concept would look like if memorialized as a part of tradition. The concept of “good hair” is a longstanding, insidious, Eurocentric concept that devalues kinky and curly hair. In an age where black children are being sent home because of their natural hair, in an age where it’s still possible to discriminate against a black person in the workplace because of their natural hair, what if the things we deify in our culture, like "good hair", came alive? Would we worship them the same once these concepts take shape?This piece, though shocking and slightly grotesque, shifts this concept of “good hair” into sharp focus. It forces confrontation and observation. What things are needed to keep this deity alive? How do we, as a society, feed into it?
Continuing with the exhibit and traveling to the right, away from the corner, and along wall 3 Arielle presents us with her next artwork. A delicate scrim of yarn flows down from a stick. The yarn is white at the top and transitions to a gentle orange at the bottom. In the center is a portrait of a woman in front of a gold disk. Her hair consists of tight, quilled gold curls. With crimson lips slightly parted she looks at us, the viewers askance, turning her head ever so slightly to the left as her eyes acknowledge our presence. Luxurious lace clothes her throat and her shoulders are covered with white fluff, evocative of a resplendent fur coat. The label reads:
Woman as God
Yarn, Orange Dye, Wood, Felt, Embroidery Floss, Gold Thread, Lace
This soft sculpture meditates on the use of fabric and textiles and is a subversive take on traditional Victorian paintings. We cannot tell what the woman is thinking, only that she is rendered in all of her great textural complexity, a divergence from Victorian-era pictures or portraits of black women. Most of these materials came from an old sewing desk I inherited from a great-great-aunt, including the floss, lace and gold thread.
Moving to the right along wall 4 we next encounter a diptych, meaning a pairing of two, intimately related photographs accompanied by a sculpture to their right at the start of wall 5. The sculpture consists of a flounced, white cotton dress typical of Afro-Caribbean women in the 19th and 20th century, hanging in front of a fabric panel. The panel shows birds alighting on branches bearing a variety of flowers. Ms. Gray wears this off-the-shoulder dress in both photos. Additionally, she stands in front of the floral panel in both photographs. The first photo presents her in profile from the waist up. She stands with her hands gracefully clasped at her waist. In the second, we see her only from the shoulders up. She in the process of turning her head and looking at us, the viewer, acknowledging our gaze. Her lips are parted and her chin up as though ready to speak. In both images, her hair is upswept in a Victorian Gibson Girl styling. Delicate pink, blue, and purple streaks of hair sweep amongst her black locks. Around her neck is a choker necklace of white lace. The label reads:
This dress was made by fashion designer and stylist Michelle Villada for a series of photoshoots with photographer, Sergia Dupoux. Together, they helped develop the concepts for the shoots, including this one that, like Woman as God, turns the traditional “Victorian” image on its head. We were, in part, inspired by the tradition of Black Vaudeville performers, most notably Aida Overton Walker. Walker was a well known vaudeville performer, choreographer and singer in the late 1800s to early 1900s- her style was unapologetic and celebratory, untethered by tradition or expectation. Her husband, vaudeville performer George Walker, co-founded the agency, The Williams and Walker Company, to support Black actors and other performers. This photoshoot was a reimagination of sorts, transforming Victorian-era sensibilities into ones that deify Black culture. In the photos, the woman dons all white, wearing a nest of galaxies on her head. She is, quite literally, a mother of the universe.
The preceding wall panel contains a photograph of Aida Overton Walker. Ms. Walker looks up and away, not acknowledging us as viewers. She wears her hair in an elaborate coiffure, into which are tucked two blooms. It is the same hairstyle Arielle is adorned with in her photos. Walker’s attire is elegant and opulent consisting of a pearl necklace and earrings paired with a gown that is richly embroidered and further embellished with flowers and vine tendrils.
The art on Wall 5 continues with the display of a hanging sculpture. Blue strips cascade down having been tied to chicken wire. Those strips at the top are shorter than those at the bottom and also transition from a paler to darker shade of blue. The strips have unfinished edges, leaving threads occasionally broken, and dangling. The chicken wire is only visible at the top of the sculpture as the strips obscure it as they overlay one another. The label reads:
Blue Dye, Linen, Cotton, Chicken Wire
Jamaica is known as the land of wood and water- both materials hold memory, ancestral trauma and triumph. This transcends both time and country. From the healing waters of Nanny Falls in Jamaica, a place where warriors of old would bathe and prepare for battle, to the raid on the Combahee River led by Harriet Tubman to Igbo Landing in Georgia, where enslaved Africans walked into the sea rather than to be sold into bondage, water has a long connection with death, protest and life. Linen and cotton have been hand dyed and cut to resemble water, while also recalling the long tradition of working with fabrics in my family. Much of the cotton came from my grandparents' old t-shirts. This soft sculpture, which calls you to touch it, asks the question- how do we connect to a sea carrying the bodies and memory of our ancestors? "All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was"- Toni Morrison
As visitors to the exhibit we now come to a right turn and face the window. Reminiscent of the cloud that greeted us at the beginning of the installation, three clouds delicately hover above us. Suspended by the left arm and left leg, a body suit floats. It is oriented with the neck opening towards the clouds and the feet towards two photographs. The suit has sea-foam green cuffs on the wrists and ankles. It closes with a white zipper in the front. The waist is cinched. Pastel pink, purple, white, and yellow flowers populate a field of greens accented by the cuffs. In the accompanying photos Arielle is wearing the suit. She also wears pink Nike sneakers in each. Streaks of silvery, pale blue, purple, and pink delicately contour her cheeks and temples. She is adorned with a septum piercing and thin gold hoop earrings. Her fingers elegantly taper with white and blue fingernails.
The photos are installed one above the other. The top photograph depicts her effortlessly cartwheeling, upside down against a backdrop reminiscent of outer space, with its nebula-like cloud formations, and of some divine realm, both echoing cosmic associations. We only see ¾ of her face and her body is in partial profile view. The bottom photograph contains her floating, as though on her back in a pool, arms outstretched, hands relaxed. She is presented to us frontally. We see her whole body and face. She tilts her head ever so slightly to her left. The label reads:
This playful take on a space suit was made by fashion designer and stylist Michelle Villada for a series of photoshoots with photographer, Sergia Dupoux. Villada took an old comforter, hand dyed it and then crafted it into this piece. The girl, who wears the suit in the photos, is a cosmic deity whose mischievous behavior causes satellites to fall from space and mishaps with spaceships that happen to encounter her during travel. This shoot draws on the concept of Afro-futurism, a term concretized through seminal works of fiction by Octavia Butler. Black people don’t just exist in space in the future- they are an inherent part of the fabric of the universe. As this deity travels through space, she meets other primordial beings like her- including the woman in white on the other wall.