Review: WATER/ماء: Trespassing Liquid Highways at Gallery 102

“WATER / ماء: Trespassing Liquid Highways,” is the politically-minded, socially engaged and ambitious exhibition currently on view at GWU’s Gallery 102. The exhibition, which focuses on work by Mediterranean and Caribbean artists, uses bodies of water as the baseline with which to explore “movements within/inside/under/around the body of/and water from multi-layered perspectives  — questioning colonialist and orientalist notions of paradise and uncovering forgotten transnational entanglements,” as Tunisian-born curator Ikram Lakhdhar writes in the exhibition catalog. This is a lot for an exhibition to take on, but it does pose an interesting question, which is handled to varying degrees of success: How does an artist or artwork attend itself to enormous conceptual ambitions, historical events, notions of self and personhood, etc., when we are deluged with headlines, images and sound clips recounting these very narratives? What and how can art express that this onslaught of information cannot? In what ways can art acknowledge and transcend the historical contexts in which it is created in order to inhabit another zone of experience, while retaining the traces of that experience?

 Image courtesy of Gallery 102

Image courtesy of Gallery 102

Some of the works aim to educate audiences to the realities of mass migrations across the sea — in particular the conflict in Syria — in a highly illustrative fashion. Lebanese artist Helen Zughaib’s “Syrian Migration” cleverly adopts the narrative style and colorful abstraction of African-American artist Jacob Lawrence’s 1940 magnum opus “The Migration Series.” Sequenced numerically much like Lawrence’s panels were in an effort to tell an episodic tale, the panels clearly illustrate the devastation and uprooting of the Syrian conflict in a highly legible manner. Clusters of people clad in vibrant, patterned clothing are crammed into boats, and journey across the desert under skies filled with military planes. They bury their dead. Sometimes, headline-grabbing images make an appearance. The highly circulated image of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year old Syrian-refugee whose body washed ashore on a beach in Turkey as he and his family unsuccessfully attempted to flee the country by boat, is rendered in the work titled Syrian Migration #10. In this panel, Kurdi’s lifeless body is rendered against a stylized sea of curlicued white and aquamarine waves that toss and undulate menacingly above him as a Turkish paramilitary trooper looks on, his head hung in defeat. To see Lawrence’s narrative style employed for the purposes of elucidating a contemporary human tragedy is undeniably smart. In some panels, Zughaib’s compositions are direct one-to-ones with Lawrence’s 1940 originals, replacing the bodies of black men and women with figures clad in burkas. The story of the Syrian migration is told in a legible, clear and immediate way.

 Image courtesy of Helen Zughaib

Image courtesy of Helen Zughaib

 Image courtesy of Helen Zughaib

Image courtesy of Helen Zughaib

The work on the wall opposite by Ilyes Messaoudi is similar in tone. The Tunisian artist sews scenes of North African migrants making the journey across the Mediterranean, but these scenes are often left without resolve. The works, which are sewn into vibrant floral patterned scarves and fabrics often worn in Tunisia, depict imagery of people thrown overboard from small boats into the ocean while gun-toting soldiers look upon them without remorse. Setting the tone for the room is a work by US Virgin Islands native Ellington Robinson. Titled MATTER, MATRIX, MOTHER, the graphite work on paper looks like a topographic map of a mountain range or the ocean floor: boundaries seen from above; borders and thresholds to be crossed; seas to be traversed; obstacles to be overcome.

Other works are less directly tied to any particular event and are thus open to interpretation, and it is these that linger in the memory. The first work viewers will encounter in the exhibition is Iranian-American Ani Bradberry’s elegant and minimal Surface Tension. A specially commissioned sculpture made for the exhibition, Surface Tension is a single band of green neon that is precariously suspended from the ceiling by an electrical cord into a clear cube aquarium full of water. Risk is inherent to this piece - the sight of an electrically charged object being dangled into a pool of water automatically elicits sensations of fear and anxiety. The white electric cord has been lovingly entwined with a tightly woven spool of red fabric. The fabric signals the presence of the human hand, but also carries connotations of hazard - anyone who has used a blow drier will immediately recall the warning labels of potential electrocution if the machine falls into water. With its silent menace, the piece also alludes to dismantlers of bombs and minefields. One false move and the whole thing could blow. Bradberry’s work quietly and succinctly embodies the transition of an artwork from a literal representation into the abstract terrain of the aesthetic and universal experience: viewers must contend with the challenge that Surface Tension poses to their sense of safety in the gallery space and in their own bodies in a direct and undeniable way.

 Image courtesy of Gallery 102

Image courtesy of Gallery 102

The opposite wall features a duo of large-scale paintings by Dominican artist Scherezade Garcia. The images, a pair of large-scale paintings of ghostly brown faces in flotation devices, are truncated by aqua and gold calligraphic lines that are at once reminiscent of Arabic script and the splashes and undulations of waves. The paintings — hung between a wall of suspended gold flotation devices — are haunting, cryptic and baffling. Who are these brown figures peeking out from under layers of thick gold and blue paint, and why are they in floatation devices decorated with Mickey Mouse patterns? Some wear headdresses, and others, gold crosses and rosary beads. The figures faces look childlike, innocent and void of expression, yet they exist in purgatorial spaces where expressive blue brushstrokes lap their faces like water, or flames. Perhaps these paintings serve as a commemoration to the nameless souls claimed by the ocean; bodies without graves; the gold flotation devices their headstones.

“WATER / ماء: Trespassing Liquid Highways” is a strong exhibition. The work is smart, well-informed and professionally presented, but it relies heavily on accompanying wall text and an exhibition catalog for interpretation. While offering so much information could be seen as a generous gesture by the curator, this choice risks seeming too formal and museological for work capable of speaking clearly for itself. The exhibition seems to strain under the weight of the quantity of information and themes it touches upon. This is at odds with the passion that clearly drives the exhibition, and could potentially limit the chances for work that is more experimental in nature to be folded into the show. For example, DC-based artist Alexandra Delafkaran ephemeral performance The way you say I’m trying was a commissioned part of the exhibition, but it is not accessible for viewers who missed the opening: there is no video documentation, stills or remnants of the performance to attest to its existence. This seems a missed opportunity. All the same, “WATER / ماء: Trespassing Liquid Highways” is a strong debut by a new curatorial voice who has amassed an impressive roster of artists.

Amanda Jirón-Murphy