In the lobby of a D.C. government building, art and identity politics

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It’s no surprise to find identity politics in Washington galleries. Museums, regional nonprofits and other arts centers have rushed to provide greater access to artists from underrepresented groups, especially institutions that once glossed over race or class entirely. Smart curators put that effort front and center today. Organizations across the country are making the same pivot. D.C. is no different.

But one thing is surprising about identity politics in Washington art: The most strident exhibitions can be found by visiting the most established local institutions.

One example is “Re/envisioning,” a group show with its finger on the pulse. Curated by Nicole Dowd and Allison Nance, the show brings together works by six artists linked by a concern for identity — not merely asserting their own but challenging the rigid systems that might define them as other. There’s no common thread of history or medium to be found, but an undercurrent of radical discontent suffuses this academically minded show. It is on view, oddly enough, in the lobby of a D.C. government building.

The work of Fargo Nissim Tbakhi is the most straightforwardly political. In one video, “Palestine Is a Futurism” (2022), a performer sings phrases that appear on-screen above an installation of textiles. “Sea salt is an internationalism,” “Hunger is a neocolonialism,” “Cactus is a Marxism” and other urgent-sounding yet mystical propositions are sung almost like hymns.

Tbakhi’s pieces suggest more philosophy than art. These phrases are surreal variations on a rhetorical device known as a kritik. In debate or philosophy, a kritik is a tactic for challenging the mind-set of a belief based on critical theory about social structures. A Marxist or neocolonialist or trans-feminist kritik works like a tool to upend the normal parameters of a debate, to push an opponent to affirm or reject these critical theories instead. Tbakhi’s work — both the video and an installation of his poems — is woven through with these didactics.

Some of the work in “Re/envisioning” leans so heavily on social practice that the craft on display can seem a distant afterthought. Adele Yiseol Kenworthy’s “What Is Something You Always Wish I Asked and Knew About You” (2023) features floral bouquets alongside family snapshots whose figures have been cut out. The sense of familial longing in these collages is palpable. Yet the artist has also framed her floral arrangements as an act of political protest or collective action. That’s a different notion altogether, one that makes the collages for “Re/envisioning” seem arbitrary.

Projects by Antonio McAfee and Stephanie J. Williams shine in “Re/envisioning.” McAfee’s “Through the Layers” series (2017-2019) turns Reconstruction-era photographic portraits of Black figures taken from archival collections assembled by author W.E.B. Du Bois and journalist Thomas Calloway into stereoscopic 3D collages. The intentionally imperfect red and cyan visual effect makes it difficult to truly see these portraits, even while wearing 3D glasses — a powerful expression of a theme of invisibility that runs through Black portraiture. Williams’s haunting stop-motion animations also revel in ambiguity. “Hospes” (2022) finds a collection of wormy, misfit puppets trapped inside a circle of doors that keep shutting to them. A viewer might recognize the title as the Latin root for hospitality, but the insight isn’t necessary to understand the video. Her work makes the viewer feel deeply the stifling body horror of being misperceived.

All the wall text in “Re/envisioning” prevents the works from speaking for themselves, even when their meaning is clear — or, more importantly, when the possibilities are many. “Sonic Fracture” (2023) is a piece from an ongoing performance series by Stephanie Mercedes in which the artist melts bullet casings and guns in a foundry and recasts the metal as simple bells. It’s a swords-to-plowshares project, resonant and accessible, that results in small, imperfect minimalist sculptures. Her work points to Richard Serra and Lynda Benglis, artists who revolutionized cast sculptures by flinging and pouring molten materials; more literally, these bells speak to the toll of gun violence in the District.

Yet a placard describing Mercedes’s project frames it in terms of critical theory, not material or process. It includes a quote from political and social theorist Nancy J. Hirschmann: “The hostility frequently expressed against … queer individuals is a function of fear of the undecidability of the [queer] body.”

That’s a heavy quote to hang beside any artwork, and not because Mercedes’s project doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Rather, it’s hard to say who the curators imagine the viewers of “Re/envisioning” to be, or how they think the audience is supposed to navigate the thick soup of critical theory. Is this academic exercise really for people who happen to stop by on their way to the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency?

The office building is also home to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, so it’s not like the show is out of place. But the government affiliation is suspect for an exhibition that urges liberation from capitalism. That could be a subversive gesture by the curators, but it might also be a cynical posture by the agency: to retreat from criticism to the relative safety of the kritik in an overwhelmingly progressive town.

The commission isn’t the only local arts institution to embrace praxis as a mission statement. Consider the Washington Project for the Arts — a venerated local visual arts nonprofit since 1975 — which has all but abandoned showcasing artworks, despite having fought long and hard to open a permanent space on the U Street corridor in 2015. Currently, the WPA is hosting its sixth “artist-organizer in residence” since 2021: Ama BE, who is studying foodways and medicines of local African immigrants. This residency isn’t accessible to the public or necessarily destined to produce visual craft. Which is fine: There’s room in Washington for an experimental progressive incubator. But this tectonic shift in programming stands in contrast to the organization’s annual benefit auction, a gala in which the WPA asks local artists to donate proceeds from sales of paintings, photographs and sculptures — the kind of work the gallery hardly supports.

“Re/envisioning” points to a broader phenomenon, a flattening that happens when curators embrace a dialectical framework over other factors involved with making or seeing art. Elevating discourse may seem like it’s required by the moment. It may seem like the only move that’s relevant or even possible. (Or fundable.) But art offers so many other ways of negotiating the world that also matter. The artists in this show made pointed artworks; the show re-envisions them as political bullet points.

D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, 200 I St. SE. reenvisioningexhibit.com.

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