Elia Alba, Baseera Khan, Sola Olulode, and Maya Varadaraj: Home Body
On ViewSapar Contemporary
February 19 – March 23, 2021
The work in Home Body, curated by Nico Wheadon, reminds us that artists have been inquiring into the self, human relationships, and humanity’s ills long before the COVID-19 shutdown. Though the ideas in these artworks were conceived pre-pandemic, their contemplations into relationships between fellow humans—friends, family, neighbors, or ourselves—seem more relevant during our present moment of isolation.
Like magical objects of ritual, Elia Alba’s hand sculptures perched on pedestals and scattered across the windowsill at Sapar Contemporary draw you in with glimmering details. Sequins, painted silhouettes, and other embellishments adorn each pair of appendages. These loosely sewn forms are made with fabric printed with photographs of the actual hands of Alba’s friends. The effect of the printed photos emphasizes flattened details in the folds of the palms and color gradations where skin gets lighter and darker. Each pair of phantom appendages function like portraits, offering insight into the subject. You may draw conclusions about the person attached to these hands by how they are laid clasped together, grasping flower petals or feathers, or their ornamented markings. Given their imprecise shape, one could almost mistake these objects for gloves that should be tried on, placing yourself in the hands of a stranger.
In the array of blue works on paper that surround the first half of the gallery are the indigo monotypes by artist Sola Olulode. These works are free embodiments of queer Black joy where we see the Black non-male figure in a state of rest, traipsing through forests, or cuddling with their partners. There’s no activism, fighting for justice, or trauma—all tiresome characterizations of Black women in media—just the need for reverie and peace. The quick gesture and hazy impression offered by the medium of monotype suggests liberty for this young British Nigerian artist and reminds the viewer that the over-characterization of Black women as saviors is problematic.
Maya Varadaraj also critiques society’s prescribed roles for women, specifically within South Asian culture. She began this body of work in 2017 with the concept of the woman in the machine. Six of the eight collage works on paper feature disassembled images of pensive women taken from calendar ads from pre-independence India, refigured within a frame of concentric circles like mandalas. The two other works on paper are technical drawings of machine parts that become frames for the artist’s self-portraits as she adjusts herself under a traditional shawl. Though the feminist critique is clear, stylistically, these works on paper feel produced and pristine. The painting on photo-printed canvas—a reference to India’s historical technique of painted portraiture—in Do You Think Anyone Would Notice (2020), however, does reveal more of the artist’s hand.
Two silhouettes of hijabs, one black and one yellow, titled Seat 32 Yellow (2019) and Seat 31 AP Black with Hole (2019), are the more minimalist forms in Home Body by artist Baseera Khan. These cushions, along with four others from the artist’s “Seat” series, fuse industrial materials for diner booths or club seats with prayer rugs, trimmings, and personal textiles into amorphous shapes. Seat 31 AP Black with Hole (2019), referential to a black hijab, has tassels strung across a negative space at its top. The juxtaposition of an absent feminine figure with a conspicuous cultural marker may allude to the complicated relationships some have with their culture or maternal figures.
The earliest piece in Home Body is a 2003 video performance by Elia Alba, If I were a … , in which a performer tries on different skin suits. They primp, pose, and attempt to get comfortable as they try on three suits made from the images of three different bodies. It’s as if they are exploring what it’s like to be a different person. This video was made in the aftermath of September 11 when the city felt a communal loss and an overwhelming empathy for their neighbors. Though this piece was created almost 20 years ago, the sentiment is not so different.
As we waded into the abyss of isolation during the pandemic shutdown, I began to notice versions of two philosophical sentiments circulating around the internet aimed at artists. One was a quote from Toni Morrison: "This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity.” The second was the reassuring anti-capitalist quote, “You are worth so much more than your productivity.” Essentially, they said that work can be a salve right now, but societal pressures to be at your productive peak during a pandemic are toxic. For many artists, holding both these attitudes simultaneously was crucial to staying mentally and emotionally afloat.
Now that we’ve hit a year of being confined to our homes, isolated from our libraries and inspiration in the outside world, many are looking to artists for solutions to societal anxieties. Yet, artists have been disproportionately out of work, getting sick, and taking care of sick loved ones. Though artists may be more comfortable with existential dread, we are not immune from the overwhelming alone time incurred. In a Labor Day feature for the New York Times, Baseera Khan said that they were so desperate from lack of work they began rationing their food. Yes, art has the potential to investigate resolutions for “healing”—a popular term right now—but not because there’s more being produced at this moment. It’s because attention is being paid to what’s been in the works.