Saturday, April 29, 2017

A very belated substitute for a review of an Atlanta exhibition

“Voyages Unforeseen,” which closes at Kibbee Gallery a few hours from now as I write this on Saturday, April 29, 2017, is an exhibition of two independent bodies of work by Corrina Sephora (as Corrina Sephora Mensoff now styles her identity as artist) and Susan Ker-Seymer. I feel particularly guilty at being unable to present analyses of Ker-Seymer’s paintings, in which atmospheric and energetically gestural applications of paint, plus occasional passages of graphite drawing, produce effects that, in a better world than this one, would have received more recognition than the one published review of which I am aware.

But even as this exhibition culminates with a high tea from 2 to 4 p.m. (which seems strangely formal for an event commemorating such traumatic moments of present-day history—but see my ambivalent discussion of hope and optimism, below), I am led to at least attempt to pull together some of the notes about Corrina Sephora’s project, which seems like an extension of her earlier symbolism that acknowledges itself as a work in progress.

Since Corrina Sephora first applied her boat symbolism to historical crises in the group show she organized in response to Hurricane Katrina, and since her MFA show dealt with the personal experiences of “self-loading cargo,” as European emigrants to America were termed, it makes sense that she would turn her attention to the present refugee and migrant crisis. If she had not been prevented by circumstances from carrying out her project of recording and presenting testimony from refugee women, “Voyages Unforeseen” might have become a truly profound show.

As it is, it testifies to the capacity of her symbolism to expand and contract to meet very different types of subject matter. The boats that carried optimistic migrants to a hoped-for Golden Shore that for some proved to be truly golden could easily be transmuted into the solo vessel of a spiritual journey supported and tethered to the earth by tree roots—Corrina Sephora’s trademark symbol over the past decade. It might seem more difficult to adapt this symbolism to the refugee crisis, but the largest metal sculpture in the show, Uprooted Voyagers,
demonstrates that with a change in title, the roots upholding the boat can become the only fragment of a lost homeland that the involuntary migrants still possess. Whether the roots dragging the water under the boat can be successfully transplanted to an alien soil, or whether they have become just one more obstacle to successful navigation, are questions that arise naturally from this artwork regardless of what the artist intended.

The overcrowded boats titled or named Hope for a New World in her 2-D and 3_D pieces are a new adaptation of the symbol, intended to communicate the horror of cramming, say, nineteen people into a boat designed to carry three (one watercolor commemorates this specific recent event) while trying to suggest that it is our responsibility to do something about the world’s crises—“we’re all in the same (overcrowded, unseaworthy) boat.”

The endearing fabric sculptures of passengers in cramped quarters (in other pieces in this show, the boat passengers are made out of metal) hark back to the folk traditions of the works about European migration. However, the show acknowledges that the refugee voyage is one Across Uncertain Waters,

and there is some question as to whether the boats in Hope for a New World will reach a rocky shore or be swamped by the waves. “Hope” is the operative word here, however, and in some ways this veils the fact that for many refugees and economic migrants alike, the trip is not so much hope for a new world as it is a truly voyage unforeseen. The desperately hopeful quest for a new land comes after being uprooted from a home that they had no desire at all to leave. As in the tale of Pandora’s Box, in which hope is the only formerly contained evil that didn’t fly out into the world, the hope for a new world comes for such people because there is no other option.

The show is ultimately about turning hopes into solid realities. If that outcome seems too easily realized in this iteration, it is because the voices of recent refugees were excluded by the uncontrollable circumstances that prevented their documentation. However, since so much of Corrina Sephora’s recent work has been all about how trauma can be healed by retelling the story differently, perhaps this exclusion of the originating pain is appropriate. As Aeneas puts it in reminding his fellow refugees from Troy of their recent suffering (see book I of Virgil’s Aeneid): “A future time will make it pleasant to speak of these things.”