Things We Carry
Merryn Omotayo Alaka & Sam Fresquez, and Angela Ellsworth
June 5 – September 25, 2021
In the works of Merryn Omotayo Alaka, Sam Fresquez, and Angela Ellsworth, the fearless endeavors of identity give rise to complex and transcendent expressions of place, self and culture. Claiming one’s identity in the public sphere can be fraught with resistance, particularly for women and people of color; however, for Omotayo Alaka, Fresquez, and Ellsworth, the radical power of selfhood is revealed in living patterns and bright monuments, as the artists forge new aesthetic and conceptual spaces with gestures that are both intrepid and intimate.
Merryn Omotayo Alaka and Sam Fresquez produce immersive spaces that reference rituals of self expression and public representation. In considering their installation of multiple floor-length suspensions of synthetic hair, each meticulously gathered into tassel, bubble, and chandelier forms, Omotayo Alaka says, “Because of the scale and material, we are hoping that viewers have a physical relationship with the sculptures…we want the feminine body to be represented and seen here.” These representative objects tend to transform a space, says Fresquez, “They become a landscape, and it really becomes its own world.”
Omotayo Alaka and Fresquez construct their intriguing worlds from personal experience: the installation at Lisa Sette Gallery is part of a series titled It’s Mine I Bought It, a nod to the Princess Nokia song Mine, which both revels in the ways that Black and Brown women wear their hair and rejects the incessant interrogation of these traditions. Omotayo Alaka and Fresquez both acknowledge as formative in their own lives the elaborate rituals of hairdressing, the use of synthetic hair as a facet of self-expression, and the fact that society imposes strict expectations upon the hair and appearance of Black and Brown women in public spaces. In the time-consuming process of constructing each gleaming tassel and tier, says Omotayo Alaka, “We were thinking of these as an extension of our own bodies…I think we were really relating to the sculptures as stand-ins for ourselves and talking about the relationship between self presentation and place.”
Public identity and cultural presence is also at work in Omotayo Alaka and Fresquez’s gleaming, oversize hoop earrings, made of Brazilian gold granite at a Vermont studio that usually fabricates gravestones and monuments. In elevating these familiar objects at iconic scale, Omotayo Alaka and Fresquez draw attention to both their history as an affordable item of adornment and their essential elegance of form. Fresquez remarks: “I’ve always been really interested in the idea of monuments—who they have been made by and for in the United States.” Ultimately, Fresquez remarks of the hoop earring statuary, “They’re monuments because we say they should be.”
Patternmaking is an essential part of both artists’ practices; they see “patterns as a metaphor for intergenerational knowledge and the repetition of information.” Together, Omotayo Alaka and Fresquez produce brilliant printed textiles that pull into focus overlooked but culturally significant items: wheel rims, cosmetic razors, the virgencita necklace. Individually, Omotayo Alaka will exhibit textiles related to the symbolic significance of hair braiding and beading in Yoruba culture; Fresquez will include patterned works that explore the culture of Nascar, which was a part of her childhood experience. For both, patternmaking is a “quiet way to share stories about ourselves.”
Through a series of interconnected performances, rituals, objects and installations, multidisciplinary artist Angela Ellsworth delineates new spaces and ways of existing that are alive to the magic of our lived experiences and shared histories. In Sister Wives, a series of multidisciplinary and performative projects, Ellsworth channeled her female Mormon pioneer ancestors. Ellsworth’s Seer Bonnets, an offshoot of this work, comprised draping, pearline pioneer bonnets, delineated in thousands of bristling corsage pins. Adding to her orbit of startling, spiritually resonant objects, Ellsworth’s Pantelones series employ meticulous arrangements of pearl-tipped pins of various hues to stake out the embodied form and draw on a history of occult figures. In these pincushion bloomers female intimacy becomes power and a private language is manifested to describe the enduring attraction of the unknown.
“I have always been interested in mysticism, divining powers, and tools of translation, particularly mysticism and psychic potential in relation to women. This relates to the bonnets and the sister-wife performances: The body as a tool for accessing something outside perception. In early Mormon practices, groups of women spoke in tongues together, and one woman was the scribe.”
Ellsworth’s recent bonnet and pantaloon pair, Chiaroveggente: As Above, So Below (33.487549, -112.073994), and Pantaloncini: As Above, So Below (33.487549, -112.073994) refer to a confluence of information, from the personal to the geographical to the clairvoyant. The artist remarks: “The phrase “as above, so below” dates back to Hermeticism…It has become a somewhat common expression stating that whatever happens on earth is aligned with the astral or spiritual realm. For instance, what occurs in the stars can affect our daily lives on earth. This is where the practice of magic and mysticism can be ways of understanding the world we live in.
I am thinking about the ancient Emerald Tablet (attributed to Hermes Trismegistus) in relation to the old-but-not-so-ancient text of the Golden Plates connected to [founder of Mormonism] Joseph Smith. Neither the tablet nor the plates have ever been found (or seen) since their translations.”
As though in a process of pinning down the earthly place for these spiritual conveyances, Ellsworth’s titles include the GPS coordinates of the photograph from which she devised the patterns and color schema for each piece: “The camera faced down to the earth where urban planners and utility companies had spray painted colorful and cryptic markings on the asphalt and sidewalk where interpretations are available to only a few.”