Four Utah Museum of Contemporary Art exhibitions cover range of expressions on cultural identities, community, isolation, racism, social practices

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Four current exhibitions at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art comprise a broad segment of expressions about cultural identities, community, isolation, racism and social practices. Each of these are discussed below. The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) also received two grants totaling $140,000 from The Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts and VIA Art Fund in connection with the Wagner Foundation. The Warhol grant will support the exhibition Haimaz, Heimr, Hjem, Heem, Hām, Home, which opens in January. The VIA-Wagner award will be used by UMOCA to continue experimental practices and community programs in connection to its exhibitions featuring local as well as national artists. 

Tali Alisa Hafoka: Carried Across

To truly comprehend the many layers of the Pacific Islander diaspora, one must think about the Ocean World and the long historical arcs and trajectories of the geographic migrations and population distribution which fostered diverse religious practices, art, food and culture through the civilizations of China and East Asia, as well as India and South Asia and the Pacific Island nations. As noted previously in The Utah Review, among the earliest Austronesian speakers, the Malayo-Polynesians settled first in Madagascar but then spread eastward into Pacific Ocean territories, eventually covering half of the earth. Long before the colonial powers appeared in the oceanic trade, there was an extensive history of long distance trade between the Indigenous peoples of America and Polynesians. Think of the sweet potato, coconut, mango, sugar cane and pork livestock. 

The historical anchor matters in appreciating the themes of Tali Alisa Hafoka’s paintings in her UMOCA show, Carried Across. Hafoka’s exhibition encompasses two thematic pillars. One is built upon the cultural significance of food for the social foundations of Pacific Islander communities and the fluid, portable nature of food and culinary traditions, as the diaspora spread from the Ocean World to new homes on the mainland. The second is reclaiming, for the sake of authentic representations, the exotic and fetishized tropes, motifs and stereotypes taken up by artists who worked in Western painting traditions as well as those found in commercial objects such as dashboard hula dancer dolls. 

Tali Alisa Hafoka: Carried Across. Photo Credit: Zachary Norman, UMOCA.

The paintings of Hafoka, a Samoan who was raised in Hawai’i and later lived in Utah, comprise a captivating, appetizing presentation. She is an artist who confidently navigates the vast ocean world while finding the right hybrid counterpoint of the cultures represented in her island and mainland experiences. Her creative statement arises sincerely from her own heritage and ethnicity.  

Her paintings are vibrant and generous in perspective and magnitude, such as the sight of a roast suckling pig on a spit. There are clusters of paintings emphasizing the versatility of foods and culinary traditions, which highlight how they have been transferred to the mainland. To visitors at UMOCA, many of these foods probably are familiar, given that Salt Lake City is home to one of the nation’s largest stateside communities of Samoans, Tongans and other Pacific Islanders. There also are long rows of takeout food containers, symbolizing an integral element in many Pacific Islander restaurants, hospitality establishments and communities. Hafoka’s paintings also sharpen the distinctions between foods and cuisines authentic to Pacific Islander culture and the popularized but stereotypical versions that sprung in the U.S., from the 1930s onward. Coinciding with the popularity of the Hawaiian Islands for tourists during the 20th century, many American cities welcomed Polynesian restaurants (by American entrepreneurs), featuring recipes based on Cantonese food, and tiki bars, highlighting booze-forward rum cocktails. 

Tali Alisa Hafoka: Carried Across. Photo Credit: Zachary Norman, UMOCA.

The second portion of Hafoka’s exhibition is instructive in its own right. The paintings follow the style of Gauguin’s works but viewers will notice how Hafoka not only places herself in the setting but also breaks some rules, especially in the use of black lines to outline figures and shapes. These works spark a clarifying consideration of assimilation and appropriation. Thinking back to Gauguin, the viewer considers what of the French artist’s works was true and accurate in their representation and to what extent were elements constructed by Gauguin’s gaze as a foreigner. Hafoka’s indigenous Pacific perspective heightens these contemplations effectively. Gauguin gave viewers a stylized veneer of Polynesian paradise while Hafoka grounds her perspective with a more realistic acknowledgment that in paradise, sustaining the historical practices of collective sufficiency and communal care still matters, even in the shadows of commercialism, globalism and mainland ways of life that have found their way onto the islands.

Heydar Rasoulpur: Remembering Together

Many Iranian artists have found Expressionism as a potent stylistic language to create paintings that convey vividly emotions, beliefs and reactions, which normally remain hidden from the public, a result of living in an Islamic Republic society where one cannot openly criticize or challenge it without consequences. Born and raised in Iran,  ​Heydar Rasoulpur studied both visual and performing arts and graduated from the Tehran Fine Art School ​in 2012 for painting. Four years later, he came to the U.S. as a refugee and has steadily expanded his portfolio of excellent work. 

In Remembering Together, Rasoulpur’s paintings are subtle, complex, poetic expressions of loneliness, isolation, anxiety, displacement and nostalgia. The paintings came from a challenging period in his life. As Rasoulpur was beginning to feel some degree of comfort as an outsider who came to the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic happened and he suddenly was thrust into a new period of isolation. He is a relatively young artist but his paintings convey a mature intelligent sense of melancholy without making them come off as exaggerated expressions of melodrama. The counterpoint of solitary figures as apparitions and the warmer representations of the Iranian family community is elegantly balanced. 

Heydar Rasoulpur, Remembering Together. Photo Credit: Zachary Norman, UMOCA.

Fragile contexts are common experiences for the refugee, especially because not only do they cross geographical borders but also cultural and psychic ones. In their new home, refugees need time and space to feel confident and comfortable enough to find ties and ways of anchoring themselves to a new community. The fact that the pandemic happened just a few short years after Rasoulpur arrived reinforced the psychic impact of feeling displaced and isolated once again. 

But, in 2022, Resoulpur also is optimistic and confident. Many family members and others of the local Iranian community attended the opening of his show. His realistic, introspective vision is wise. Indeed, as his UMOCA show evokes, Rasoulpur can envision great opportunities for his future as an artist and experiences as an Iranian-American.

Jesse Meredith: Overton Windows

One of UMOCA’s Artist-in-Residence (AIR) participants, Jesse Meredith uses sociopolitical ideals to propel Overton Windows, a mixed-media show arising from photographs of classic paintings that celebrate the storyline of Manifest Destiny and the American West as well as those of suburban and peri-urban homes and neighborhoods. He adds construction materials to complete the mixed-media works – notably, clapboard style vinyl siding – which are sliced, folded and bent to highlight the collage effects in the exhibited pieces.

Meredith’s thesis emphasizes how post-WWII development solidified the ideals of access and control in residential spaces and deciding who should have access. Thus, the issues of racial segregation, redlining neighborhoods and tactics of vigilance and surveillance to decide who belongs properly on a residential street or area are sparked by viewing the works.

Jesse Meredith, Overton Windows. Photo Credit: Zachary Norman, UMOCA.

There is historical background to be considered. New housing developments were at a virtual standstill during the Great Depression in many cities in the Midwest and eastern portions of the U.S. But, then when the wartime workforce expanded rapidly and later the G.I. Bill was enacted, huge waves of self-contained residential neighborhoods and suburban communities were built. They were insular, with limited sidewalks and driveways that faced the street, along with cul-de-sacs that fit with the logic of containing these spaces, regardless of their surroundings. Planning boards for housing relied on racial makeup to deliberately prevent minorities and specific ethnic groups from becoming eligible for mortgage financing. This, of course, also triggered the white flight to new suburban areas and reinforced the construction aesthetics that Meredith addresses in his show.

For the benefit of museum visitors, the show would benefit from a more extensive distillation of why Meredith chose Overton Windows as the title. The sociopolitical underpinnings of the Overton Windows concept, which has conservative origins, have recently been muddled, thanks to political advocates on both sides of the partisan divide. Its simplest definition is that the window encompasses public policies that are widely acknowledged as legitimate and acceptable to politicians, voters and society. If a politician challenges policy ideals, those generally fall outside the Overton Window. The window can flex and expand, although it rarely happens suddenly or with stark dramatic impact. It generally flexes within how societal norms adapt to acceptable values and community expectations. 

But the 2016 elections also threw the doors open on how the concept could be defined. Trump’s stance on immigration, for example, suggested that what was acceptable in terms of policy on this specific issue showed a much bigger Overton Window than any had expected previously. Likewise, on the left, with Senator Bernie Sanders’ performance in the Democratic Party primaries, the Overton Window flexed to accommodate “socialism” as an acceptable political identifier. In both instances, the conventional wisdom about the Overton Window had been proven wrong. 

Jesse Meredith, Overton Windows. Photo Credit: Zachary Norman, UMOCA.

The point is, as key members of the Mackinac Center who have studied the Overton Window phenomenon, explain:

Politicians will not support whatever policy they choose whenever they choose; rather, they will only espouse policies that they believe do not hurt their electoral chances. And the range of policy options available to a politician are shaped by ideas, social movements and shared norms and values within society.

All of this suggests that politicians are more followers than they are leaders — it’s the rest of us who ultimately determine the types of policies they’ll get behind. It also implies that our social institutions — families, workplaces, friends, media, churches, voluntary associations, think tanks, schools, charities, and many other phenomena that establish and reinforce societal norms [emphasis added] — are more important to shaping our politics than we typically credit them for.

This clarifies the takeaway value of Meredith’s work. In Utah, the state with the nation’s fastest growing population, the process of suburbanization continues at full speed, extending a phenomenon that has been in play across the country for more than 80 years. But, Meredith’s show also poses an important question: Are we ready for a new chapter in housing and urban development, where transit, access, pedestrian-friendly streets, and matters of density are considered as vital to an inclusive fabric for our cities and neighborhoods?

Jesse Meredith, Overton Windows. Photo Credit: Zachary Norman, UMOCA.

Christy Chan: Who’s Coming to Save You?

Christy Chan lives in San Francisco but she was born and raised in Sterling, Virginia. Knowing about her childhood home illuminates the context behind Chan’s impetus in her installation video art. In the early 1960s, when Sterling was established, residents had to be Caucasian. Although a post Civil War law had outlawed housing discrimination based on race, the exclusionary clause Sterling had adopted was found throughout the U.S. In 1966, the first Black family arrived in the community and eventually over the next several decades, local leaders lost the battle to prevent “outsiders” from moving into Sterling. In the most recent U.S. census, Sterling’s population is now less than half White. Among racial and ethnic groups, Asians now account for more than one out of every six residents in the Virginia community.

In 2021, Chris Croll wrote an op-ed for the local media about what racism looks like in the county where Sterling is located. She wrote:

You may be thinking, ‘I have never seen anything like that happen here.’ My question to you is: Have you engaged in conversations with people of color who live here to ask them about their experiences? When you do, you are likely to hear more stories like this. 

The majority of the people who live in Loudoun County are not racist. But many of us were taught to mind our own business unless something impacts us personally. That culture of passivity inadvertently enables the status quo, which, as these stories illustrate, is hurting our friends and neighbors of color. If we want to disrupt the status quo, we must become anti-racists, which requires taking action. How? It all starts with paying closer attention.

Christy Chan, Who’s Coming to Save You?: Photo Credit: Zachary Norman, UMOCA.

In Who’s Coming to Save You?, the video installation in UMOCA’s Codec Gallery, Chan portrays herself as a theater director in San Francisco (where she currently resides and works) who is ordering by phone a Ku Klux Klan hooded robe, which will be made to order in Alabama by a seamstress who specializes in making such garments. The video, which originated a decade ago, is based on transcripts of the phone exchange. She tells Ms. Anne the robe will be used for a male actor in an upcoming production and that she wanted it to be as authentic as possible. In the course of the 26-minute video, the transcripts are reenacted from the calls, which spread over a period stretching from right before Thanksgiving to Easter in the following spring. Chan masks her identity effectively so that Ms. Anne believes that Chan’s interests and order for a custom-made KKK robe and hood are genuine.

While Ms. Anne often seems terse, clipped and no-nonsense in her customer service demeanor, she is unfailingly civil and polite. Chan expresses sympathy to Ms. Anne when she learns that the seamstress’ husband and brother recently passed away. Even, when Ms. Sue stands in for Ms. Anne, there is that same Southern Christian polite demeanor. The humor is naturally ironic at times. Incidentally, the hooded robe that Chan purchased is featured in a short video of about two and a half minutes that is a collage orchestrated to the opening credits of the popular crime action television series from the 1980s, Knight Rider, which starred David Hasselhoff. It puts a fine finishing point on the longer video about the long distance calls when Chan ordered the KKK robe and resonates with the commentary by the Loudoun County resident. Knight Riders (or Night Rider) also have historically been part of the KKK organization.

Christy Chan, Who’s Coming to Save You?: Photo Credit: Zachary Norman, UMOCA.

There are many communities like Sterling across the U.S., including in Utah. They are filled with tidy neighborhoods where homeowners have good jobs and incomes and where there is a growing range of diversity in the community’s residents. Many of those residents will likely say that there is no racism in their community or that white nativism or supremacist sentiments do not exist in their community. But, while there might not be an incident so stark and visible that it could go viral for notice across the country, there also are plenty of seemingly innocuous or benign incidents that barely cover the simmering microaggressions underneath where racism and even more extremist beliefs such as the KKK exist at the center. There is an astute understated tone in Chan’s exchanges with Ms. Anne, the KKK seamstress in Alabama, but the holistic impact also is strong enough to make us confront the question more directly with more active agency than what we have accepted previously: “Who’s coming to save you?”

For more information about the exhibitions and the museum, see the UMOCA website.

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