Talia Green

Faces, Frames, and Americanism: A Review of the Whitney Biennial 2019

Whitney Biennial 2019 Poster Credit: www.whitney.org

Whitney Biennial 2019 Poster
Credit: www.whitney.org

Written by Talia Green, including an interview with co-curator Rujeko Hockley

If you’re at all acquainted with the contemporary American art scene, you’ve likely heard of the Whitney Biennial. Presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art every two years, and established by the museum’s founder in 1932, the Biennial is one of the most renowned exhibitions which celebrate modern American art. Each Biennial presents a catalogue of the most up-and-coming developments in the art scene, demonstrating a comprehensive collection of what trends within American art look like today.

Myself an art fanatic, living a short car ride from the George Washington Bridge and having never visited the Whitney, I was near-nauseatingly thrilled to attend this year’s exhibit.

Photo Credit: The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

Photo Credit: The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

“The Biennial every iteration is a snapshot of the current moment,” curator Rujeko Hockley explained to me in an interview, “whatever that means to the curators and the artists involved.” Over the last two years, Ms. Hockley and her co-curator, Jane Panetta, had frequented over three-hundred studios in over twenty-five different locations across the United States, searching for the most cutting-edge pieces in American art. And it was an arduous research process. “We spent fourteen weeks in total—not consecutively, thank God—on the road… and came up with the full seventy-five who are in the exhibition.”

Historically, the Biennial not only spotlights the most emergent installations in American art, but also investigates Americanism—an exploration rooted within the museum’s foundation. Behind the collection lay the ever-current analyses: Who is an American, and what is American art? How is our current socio-political and cultural environment represented in trends, from gallery to gallery, and how is that ingrained in an overarching American identity?

That investigation seemed apparent to me in the program’s broad range of artists: the various ages, genders, and cultural identities represented. Ms. Hockley reflected on how their expansive catalogue nudges the boundaries of what it means to be an American: “We have artists who were born in the United States, but live abroad… some members are American, but actually, their primary location is not in the United States, and their primary focus has not historically been in the United States.”

Photo Credit:  MISSION TEENS: French School in Morocco     Meriem Bennani  Born 1988 in Rabat, Morocco Lives in Brooklyn, NY   The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

Photo Credit:
MISSION TEENS: French School in Morocco

Meriem Bennani
Born 1988 in Rabat, Morocco
Lives in Brooklyn, NY
The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

The outside installation on which our interview was conducted offered me a prime example. Ms. Hockley and I spoke under a shaded area of the fifth-floor terrace, facing a video sculpture-garden which expanded across the balcony. The artist, Meriem Bennani, is a Moroccan native who currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. Her work, entitled MISSION TEENS: French School in Morocco explores the remnants of French colonialism in the Moroccan school system, interviewing teenagers in Morocco—most of whom hailing from wealthy families—who had attended French schools. Ms. Hockley explained how the piece evaluates social positioning in Moroccan culture, reflecting on “what kind of values, what kind of education is actually being proposed in those spaces.”

A reminder of the importance of re-evaluating Americanism, and all its implications, breathes intentionality throughout this exhibit’s catalogue. In this Biennial, the exploration of Americanism importantly extends to Puerto Riccan and indigenous artists. Ms. Hockley mentioned how, in her collecting, her internal dialogue included questions of American citizenship—yes, Puerto Ricans are Americans—without worthy representation in American art. Similarly, her inquisitions extended to indigenenous identities.

It’s this versatility within Americanism that spoke to me most profoundly. That this is America: a vibrant versatility, where one individual shares shades of her identity, and identities, with her neighbor—each individual undeniably distinctive. We reflect each other in our expansive array of cultures, citizens, genders, and narratives. Even the variety in the exhibit’s artistic mediums—the photography, the videos, the sculptures, the performances—represents the scale of individualism innate to the American narrative, currently and historically.

I would recommend a visit to this year’s Biennial—closing in September—to anyone able to get their hands on a ticket. As Ms. Hockley herself pointed out, it’s crucial to constantly re-evaluate Americanism, and the multifaceted meanings, identities, and implications embedded in that narrative. That’s exactly what this exhibit will allow you to do.

From Behind a Kitchen Window: A Review of Memory for Forgetfulness

Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Literature of the Middle East)  by Mahmoud Darwish (Author), Ibrahim Muhawi (Translator), Sinan Antoon (Forward) ISBN-13: 978-0520273047

Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Literature of the Middle East) by Mahmoud Darwish (Author), Ibrahim Muhawi (Translator), Sinan Antoon (Forward) ISBN-13: 978-0520273047

I was first exposed to Mahmoud Darwish through an Israeli-Palestinian Literature course; his poem “In Jerusalem” was the first that I read. The poem, whose narrative voice perhaps transcends between sleep and wakefulness, chronicles his journey through the epochs of Jerusalem. As he wanders, remembering and not remembering the pathways, the mysticism of Jerusalem seeps into his narration. He expresses his love for Jerusalem, for its holiness, and his love is undying—even if he is displaced from those walls. It was with this eye, already exposed to the hypnotizing writing and familiar themes of Mahmoud Darwish, that I dove into Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982.

It is one of Darwish’s most notable works, and for a reason. It was first published in March of 1995, masterfully translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. Its newer edition, published in May of 2013, includes a forward by Sinan Antoon, offering an extensive introduction to Darwish’s previous works and the historical context from which he writes. This collection of essays—really, a set of prose poems—reflects on Darwish’s experience during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In a meditative rendering, the collection touches upon the political and historical dimensions of the Palestinian exile, and particularly on “Hiroshima Day” during the Lebanese Civil War: witnessing the barrage of Beirut in August of 1982. Through recurring symbols of death, coffee, wakefulness, and memory, Darwish explores fear during conflict: a sentiment which is, as he recounts, constant, pervasive, and disturbingly routine.

The essays are war-ravaged, recreating the violence of a city under siege from behind Darwish’s kitchen window. It is hauntingly mundane, illustrating a ‘day-in-the-life’ of an individual during wartime; as he yearns for his coffee, his “morning silence,” (7), he evaluates whether the walls of his home will protect him from the bombshells. As he listens to the morning birds, awake at daybreak, he wonders “for whom do they sing in the crush of these rockets?” (9). Thoughts of death for Darwish, for a man encumbered by the normalization of war, are thoughts as commonplace as his morning coffee, as the 6am bird songs. It is this normalization - the disturbing interweaving of uncertain death among regular elements of life—that makes this collection so unsettling.

I thank God everyday that I’m unfamiliar with the distresses of war. Moreso, as an Israeli, much of the Palestinian narrative is muffled behind distortions of emotion, of cultural sentiment. On both sides, there is an overwhelming tendency to approach the conflict through biased eyes. When such a conflict involves family and identity, it’s easy for personal narratives to overpower those on the opposing side. But that’s why reading work like this is so deeply important. Beyond understanding from the standpoint of an Israeli, this work offers all readers insight behind the walls of Darwish’s kitchen. It translates experience - a distinct kind of suffering - across all borders, regardless of perspective. The reader is called upon to question the extent of their awareness, and to regard the experiences of those living in one’s periphery. I would argue that that’s the point of this kind of work, this striking, scarring poetry. The transmission of experience. And though I pray I’ll never be burdened by the normalization of war, never be wrought by fears of falling rockets as I brew my morning coffee, I am grateful to consider these burdens through Darwish’s haunting readership.

The Global Acclaim of an Arabic Poet - A Review of Adonis: Selected Poems

The Global Acclaim of an Arabic Poet - A Review of Adonis: Selected Poems

In an interview aired by the Louisiana Channel, Adonis recounts memories from a simple childhood. “There was no school in the village,” he reflects on his first home, a poor Syrian farming town. “There was no electricity either.” He sketches a portrait of an uncluttered life: one without cars, or high-tech gadgets, or formal education. What he had, he testifies with a wistfulness intrinsic to his work, was his culture. “And the essence of the old Arab culture,” he asserts, “is poetry.”

A Word on Language Prejudice: A Review of Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”

A Word on Language Prejudice: A Review of Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”

If you’ve read any of my other reviews (or any of my work at all, really), you’re probably familiar with my mother: the stunning, savvy, Israeli cosmetologist, whose brilliance surpasses that of her art. Her wisdom is so apparent, her intelligence so easily gleaned through her speech -- the difficulty being that most Americans have a tough time understanding her.

 

My mother’s way of speaking is familiar to me. Her heavy Middle Eastern accent and “incorrect” grammar are components of my second language: I understand her English as easily as I understand that of a native speaker. However, I also recognize the effect that her idiosyncratic English has had on her experience in America -- the prejudice she faces in everyday encounters; the stigma surrounding her foreign speech she’s learned to internalize; the “evidence” she receives that her English is inherently lesser, because she doesn’t speak a standard English. That’s something called language prejudice, and it’s a force that’s ever-present and ever-pervasive in her life.