Between Continents

John Haber
in New York City

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Naeem Mohaiemen, and Juan Antonio Olivares

Toyin Ojih Odutola left Nigeria for the United States at age five, but it will not let go. As one title puts it, she is not just between continents, but Between the Margins. So is Naeem Mohaiemen, stuck in an airport without a passport or a plane. Juan Antonio Olivares sees losing a heritage as losing a mother as well.

"The old world is dying," Antonio Gramsci may have said before his death in Fascist Italy, "and the new world struggles to be born." For the lucky, as in a recent show of Afro-Caribbean artists, it allows time to embrace both past and present in a broader cultural identity. For many more, like refugees that have seen their nation dissolve, it can feel an eternal wait. Odutola pictures traders and ambassadors, Mohaiemen has access to the airport, and Olivares breaks through in the comforting but fragile shape of a stuffed animal, but they are waiting, too. Gramsci's Marxism, even with its stress on cultural institutions, could only begin to grapple with multiple worlds in the present. So how about art? Toyin Ojih Odutola's Between the Margins (courtesy of the artist/Jack Shainman, 2017)

Your presence is required

Toyin Ojih Odutola pictures a young adulthood that she could never have had, in two interlinked families that she might feel privileged to call her own. They survey the family seat and unclaimed estates, with a bottle from the family vineyard on the floor. They maintain an office as representatives of the state. They may also feel trapped by the very demands that they have placed on others and themselves. They go through with barely a smile through the milestones of a marriage, a pregnancy, and the first night at boarding school—when the next generation can or must stand on their own. When an invitation that "requires your presence" lies unanswered on a massive desk, it sounds like an injunction on both the recipient and the art.

Odutola cannot let go of the past, but not in the way of many today. A new academicism has gained in popularity among African American artists, to assert pride in themselves, their ancestry, and life on the street. It rejects "post-black identity," but also turns aside from racism, police killings, and southern history. With Mickalene Thomas and Barkley L. Hendricks, it adopts an overlay of portraiture and glitter. It helps explain why Barack and Michelle Obama have chosen Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald for their official portraits. It may put in question the very status of modernity—and so, far more knowingly, may Odutola's Nigeria.

She, too, has a command of both realism, informed by European and American art, and "Pattern and Decoration." She works in charcoal, pastel, and pencil on the scale of painting. They allow the precise outlines of a face, a figure, or a bridal veil, but also quick scrawls for a handwritten letter or grass. She poses newlyweds in front of wallpaper, an intricate architecture, patterned flooring, and an equally patterned rug. Highlights snake across faces. They belong less to depth than to the picture plane, and they make porcelain skin tones and reserved expressions more unyielding as well.

Odutola stands out from the new academicism in reaching for narrative. Her past shows have had blunt messages but also a growing sympathy for both blacks and whites. Here she creates a history. While the new series has no obvious order, it unfolds implicitly over time. The balding patriarch still has a dark beard and a youthful vitality as he overlooks his estate—and then he sits with "her" scarf, with every implication of a loss. A portrait stands unfinished, as if the sitter could not hold out for an ending.

This black landowner has his inhuman side, too. His estate pulses like clouds for Charles Burchfield in the 1930s, while his high vantage point approaches landscape for Vincent van Gogh. The latter, though, roots his ethics and his art in the labor of those who tend the earth—here barely discernible and barely human. The demands press in on a young man, perhaps the heir apparent, throwing his head back against the wall. They leave a bridal veil as less a triumph than a mask. They may contribute to the anxiety of that boy in boarding school, clinging to oversize bedding even as it threatens to smother him.

The artist, too, has entered the aristocracy, but not as a trader or ambassador like her subjects. Still in her early thirties, she has a museum exhibition in the Whitney's (free) first-floor gallery, with seventeen works from just the last year or so. "To Wander Determined" sounds like a contradiction in terms, but then her subjects feel those very contradictions. They assert their entitlement by abandoning work for leisure, where leisure means loosening one's tie, and they leave unclear what they have contributed to Africa's future. A pregnant woman casts her shadow where one might expect a reflection. With that portrait of an unfinished portrait, Odutola may be questioning or celebrating her artistry as well.

Check your baggage

Many a traveler would be jealous. Naeem Mohaiemen did not lose his luggage. He did not have to pay to check it either, but he dotes on it all the same. He pores over every inch before stretching out on the luggage belt with it, adopting it as a pillow, and hoping for a good night's sleep. He may have found the least unyielding surface in the cruel space of an airport and an unyielding world. The belt is not going anywhere, stuck between signs for New York and Montreal in Greek and English, and neither is he.

Naeem Mohaiemen's Tripoli Canceled (MoMA PS1, 2017)Not that I can swear that the bag belongs to him. Like John Akomfrah, he has an airport to himself, with the freedom to explore it but nowhere else to go. He is stuck there for days—and for more than ninety minutes of screen time, as Tripoli Canceled. Athens abandoned the airport some time ago anyway, even apart from him. Who knew that Eero Saarinen has another great airport to his credit, on top of the former TWA terminal at JFK—and one more that has not stood the test of commercial use? Mohaiemen provides every opportunity to appreciate its halls and runways, as he never will.

He looks across the surrounding plains, all the more unable to take flight. He adopts a helicopter, but as a cramped studio apartment or an enigma rather than a means of escape. He attends to his everyday needs as if bewildered by them all. He washes his face, which glistens in the airport lights, uncertain whether to shave. He comes to a halt at last in a grand concourse beside a central escalator. Naturally he prefers the stairs, and naturally, too, he is unable to walk.

He could be having an existential crisis, and characters unable to leave the stage appear often in the glory days of Existentialism—as in No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. On film (and now in an opera), they are stuck in the disturbing dinner party of The Exterminating Angel by Luis Buñuel. This reveler, though, is sad and alone. He could be the artist as outsider, although Mohaiemen uses a professional actor. He could be a surrogate for everyone caught between continents and without a home, although with an unusually pristine refugee camp. He could be the last man on earth.

Yet there, too, he is suspicious. He calls the show at MoMA PS1"There Is No Last Man," a dig at The End of History by Francis Fukuyama and its vision of a triumphant global capitalism. (How's that working out for you?) He also pairs text and images to grapple with a family legacy—a great-uncle who embraced fascism as a response to British rule of India. Mohaiemen, a native Londoner, also cites his father, who could not change planes in 1977 owing, shall we say, to passport issues. The film opens by explaining that this is not about him.

It could be about them all. His very denial raises what it means to dismiss. Mohaiemen's conclusion has that same ambiguity between a sly humor and the brink of despair. The man seated on the stairs starts to intone "Never on a Sunday," the pop tune from the 1960s, ticking off the days of never-ending weeks. And then he breaks into tears. He cannot restrain his despairing music for airports, but you had better check your baggage at the door.

Bear with me

"I think it is a really deep memory," Juan Antonio Olivares begins. He thinks that it might also be yours or mine. Moléculas puts those words in the mouth of a teddy bear, maybe one that you treasured not so very long ago, and it lingers over soft but silvery fur and the very human perplexity in its face. For a child's toy, it has already been through quite a lot. Its left arm is either limp or missing. It begins by climbing off a coach as if at end of a therapy session, but its path to self-acceptance has only just begun.

The ten-minute animation is about all sorts of really deep things—memory and forgetting, transience and immortality, parent and child, and other matters of life and death. Note that the list does not include molecules, and Olivares does not believe in an atomistic universe of every bear for himself. The speaker has just lost a mother, and that puts him in mind of family obligations. "I have to bring her this evening," he continues, "and that kills me everyday." At the same time, he has to set her aside to discover the breadth of his connections to others. As the 2017 video ends, the bear seems to die and then to burst apart, so that its molecules can rejoin the universe, at the Whitney.

First, though, he has to take time for himself. He proceeds from the coach to a mirror, where he might be seeing himself for the first time. He explores his surroundings, a large interior empty of almost everything but a busy desk. He acknowledges his love, enabling him to enter a deeper space filled with many more like him. Tears start to flow, merging with water overflowing the tub and toilet onto the floor. Color enters the picture, including NASA's blue planet and the red of what might be his own no longer beating heart.

A little much? Absolutely, but bear with me. The story is fanciful and sentimental, but also personal and political. For Olivares, the bear stands for "the universal experience of immigration and displacement," and his parents were immigrants to New York from South America, where his mother aged prematurely in the mines. I presume that she has really died. The on-screen flood may be short on detail, but it still belongs to a refugee crisis in which hundreds or thousands have died crossing dangerous waters.

Then, too, the bear is still the psychological mess that went into therapy—the child whose mother introduced him to the chill of New York winters in snow. Its lips move, but the voice belongs to the artist's father. (Olivares says that the spoken words began as an unrehearsed conversation between them.) When the child faces the question of which parent he loved most, his father is demanding. Besides, psychological messes are always halfway funny, and so are teddy bears. Worse comes to worse, treat the animation as one more Hollywood cartoon.

Olivares shares his crisis with a more sophisticated art as well. He has had his own transcontinental changes, including studies in Germany with Christopher Williams. It was a long way to go for a sensibility bred, like John Baldessari, in the conceptualism of Cal Art, but Williams makes even a museum checklist into a riddle. The spare interior also puts Olivares in mind of an upscale apartment, the desk has a source in Le Corbusier, and the coach is a testimony to modern design. The shower scene owes more to Bill Viola than to Psycho. Find your own stuffed toy in the back of a closet, browner now but still cuddly, and call it Modernism.

BACK to John's arts home page

Toyin Ojih Odutola ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through February 25, 2018, Naeem Mohaiemen at MoMA PS1 through March 11, and Juan Antonio Olivares at the Whitney through June 10.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME