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Historiographical Interventions

Historiographical Interventions

April 10 – May 8, 2022

Curated by Anthony Huffman

Opening: Sunday, April 10, 4-6 PM

Artists: OlaRonke Akinmowo, fields harrington,

Movers & Shakers NYC, Xena Ni, and Cynthia Tobar

To create a more inclusive historical canon, new modes of storytelling and counter-storytelling are necessary. Historiographical Interventions critically examines the processes, methods, and conventions of writing history—and how creative acts can become historiographical ones. Through photography, prints, augmented reality, participatory installations, and oral history interviews, five multidisciplinary artists consider themes of collective memory, cultural erasure, the role of technology in chronicling history, and in/visibility in the historical record. While focusing on different eras and communities, they all generate provocative acts/works of historiographical emendation—acts that confront, annotate, and rewrite superimposed narratives that continue to plague the (American) body politic. This exhibit showcases the extraordinary efforts of diverse creative practitioners who have been relentlessly injecting themselves into historical registries, archives, government systems, public sites, and bodies of knowledge to: critique how history is codified and disseminated; to call attention to the historical elision of oppressed subjectivities; and to excavate marginalized stories and identities.

While one may often consider science, technology, and medicine to be fields emblematic of reason, in fields harrington’s practice he interrogates the history of Western empiricism and scientific systems to address legacies of violence and the entanglement of science, racism, and ideology. He demonstrates that these interrelated bodies of knowledge have not been immune to the contagion of white supremacist thought. Two digital pigment prints, Entropic Path and The Value of an Individual (both 2019-20), are included in the show. With references to thermodynamic equations, a lung capacity table, and pro-slavery surgeon and psychologist Samuel A. Cartwright, the prints explore the invention of the spirometer and how it was routinely racialized and weaponized to prevent Black individuals from qualifying for life insurance. In the multi-sensory installation Redox Drip (2019), inspired by the inventions of Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), a magnetic stirrer heats up medicine in a glass flask with the resultant fume being distilled into a Styrofoam cup. As harrington explains, “[b]y setting a stage in which live chemical reactions, overlooked archives, and interdisciplinary creations meet, Redox Drip enables the emergence of new and transformative knowledges.”

Movers & Shakers NYC’s efforts to highlight the accomplishments and contributions of little-studied historical figures intersect with harrington’s investigation and recuperation of the inventions and narratives of Black engineers like Rillieux. Over the past five years, the artist-activist collective (Idris Brewster, Glenn Cantave, and Micah Milner) has been using immersive technology to challenge the racial and gender disparity of the existing monument landscape in New York. As Cantave has explained, “...we decided to build out this app where we could write Black and Brown history into public spaces.” Working with historians, designers, and storytellers, they constructed a free mobile app and web archive, Kinfolk. The portable, augmented reality-based learning tool allows users to bring underrepresented icons—like Toussaint L’Ouverture, Bayard Rustin, and Frederick Douglass—into public spaces, schools, and even your home, all while making use of researched scripts and voiceover narration. While Kinfolk has a catalog of ten monuments, for this exhibition, the historical figures of Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) and Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) have been singled out to offer users a glimpse into how their respective journalistic and anthropological practices challenged dominant narratives in media and film.

Xena Ni, a Washington D.C.-based designer and artist, similarly makes use of publicly available archives and interactive formats, but rather than share the stories of underrepresented historical figures she has worked to uncover her own family’s challenging immigration story. For Kunstraum’s gallery, Ni has prepared a pared down version of her 2019 large-scale project, The Lottery, which was an interactive installation merging personal stories about immigration with critiques of the United States’s discriminatory wealth-based policies that targeted working class immigrants, namely the Public Charge Rule. The immersive, multi-room project also included a story collection experience designed in collaboration with local chapters of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). For its presentation here, two photographs capture a central part of the original display—The Motherland Room—in tandem with banners, lanterns, and tickets that were part of the full-scale installation. The suspended banners contain immigration rejection letters that she sourced online through public archives.

Whereas Ni uses public records and databases to reflect on the callous immigration system in the US, artist, activist-scholar, archivist, and oral historian Cynthia Tobar works with community residents and organizers to build new digital archives that document and empower historically marginalized communities. Historiographical Interventions features two oral history interviews alongside twelve photographs related to the artist’s ongoing project Visions of Greatness (2022). In her 2015 video interview with Gladys Puglia, the long-time resident of Bushwick and organizer with Make the Road NY reflects on her background in Ecuador, her experience of being offered and refusing a buyout for her rent-stabilized apartment, and how she has been instrumental in tenant organizing. Puglia’s history is one of many that make up Cities for People, Not for Profit, an oral history project tracing ongoing gentrification in the neighborhood. Significantly, these first-hand accounts form an accessible, living archive of resistance, providing community members with resources on alternative housing strategies. Using technology to construct new repositories of untold stories places Tobar’s work directly in line with Movers & Shakers NYC. And, like the collective, she is not asking for permission to engage in new monument-making.

OlaRonke Akinmowo's ongoing interactive installation, The Free Black Women’s Library (TFBWL), has strong affinities with Ni’s and Tobar’s work since all three draw participants in to read and share stories. Founded in 2015, TFBWL is a Black radical feminist social art project centering and celebrating Black women writers, artists, activists, and thinkers of different generations and genres. For many years the library was itinerant, popping up for a few days each month across Brooklyn. Akinmowo’s mobile library opened up inclusive and discursive spaces at sites like Herbert Von King Park, Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Garden, Playground Coffee Shop, and the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art. The interdisciplinary artist and cultural worker has explained her ambitions for the project: “...I aim to illustrate the transformative power of books and community, while lifting up the brilliance, creativity, and diversity of Black women.” As such, both Akinmowo and harrington believe in the transformative power of newly acquired knowledge. The library is comprised of over 4,000 titles by Black women and nonbinary authors, and visitors are asked to donate a book before borrowing one. In its current arrangement in the gallery, Akinmowo has selected roughly 100 texts that speak to the primary motifs of the exhibition: revisionist history, centering suppressed perspectives, and interceding in the archive or canon.

As visitors progress through the show, they are encouraged to reflect on the voice, style, and framing of historical narratives, and how contemporary artists can empower communities by recording and amplifying (hi)stories authored on their own terms. At the same time, guests are pushed to think about how past events have been described in officially sanctioned pedagogical spaces (e.g., textbooks, school curricula, public spaces, monuments, cultural institutions, libraries, government websites, and the press), and question how contemporary events are being documented and historicized.

This project was supported, in part, by a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant

Friday, April 29, 2022, from 6:30 to 8:00 PM

As part of the public programming for Historiographical Interventions, a screening and discussion will take place at The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center. Following a video screening of Cynthia Tobar’s ongoing project Cities for People, Not for Profit, Anthony Huffman will facilitate a conversation between interdisciplinary artist Kevin Quiles Bonilla and Tobar as it relates to themes of space, power, representation, and the framing of historical narratives. This event marks the first collaboration between Kunstraum LLC and The Clemente.

View discussion & screening event on YouTube

Image credit: fields harrington, Redox Drip, 2019, courtesy of the artist


KUNSTRAUM's programs are supported, in part, by Art inGeneral and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature.


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