Two Artists and Toni Morrison

On March 7, 2013, Nobel Laureate and Cornell University Alumni, Toni Morrison, returned to the campus for the program titled “Reading the Writing: A Conversation Between Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky.”

Toni Morrison addresses Cornell students at the Alice Statler Auditorium

Toni Morrison addresses Cornell students at the Alice Statler Auditorium

Eager fans of the literary giant, Aricka Foreman and I chatted in the line as we awaited entry to the momentous event. Afterwards we discussed the possibility of collaboration, she being a poet and a fellow MFA student, and I being an artist with an affinity for words. Aricka visited my studio and poured through images and books and produced the following essay, published in the 2013 MFA Exhibition Catalogue. I extend my sincere gratitude to Aricka for taking the time to observe and lend her own interpretation to my work.

The Solace and Burden of Historical Utterance

Aricka Foreman

 

inheritance (n): A coming into, or taking, possession of something, as one’s birthright; possession, ownership; right of possession. – Oxford English Dictionary

Mariamma Kambon’s work inhabits the space of the said and unsaid. Bridging history and the subsequent, contemporary subjects, her art enacts a narrative that progresses with process. Featuring figures in the wake of the aftermath of revolution, Black Power’s Inheritance is the visualization of an often unspoken legacy. Kambon’s work enacts what Toni Morrison speaks of in her 1993 Nobel Prize speech, a “narrative [that] is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” In this light, the “us” is a segment of descendants of Black Power Revolutionaries, specifically from the branch of the movement that occurred in Trinidad and Tobago. This narrative exists in the salty waters of fragmented identity, the uncertain, mutable domain, inhabited by those who grow up after, as if history could ever be overcome. Kambon’s art probes the interior life of those she captures in her photographs, bringing to view the indelible, if well-buried, singularity from which they have all emerged.

In her portraiture, Kambon invites viewers to partake in the intimacy she establishes with her subjects. Each photographed individual is situated inside what she says is his or her “personal space.” In one image, a couple is captured in an embrace, shot through the doorway of an adjoining room, as if stumbled upon in their ‘beingness’; in another, a young girl sits in her room – posters of pop-culture, teen icons adorning her wall, an open magazine in her lap – just to the right of a window lined with barbed wire, overlooking a patch of tall trees. Spanning the international borders that dissolve beneath the constantly moving tide of the Caribbean Diaspora, her subjects are captured in a variety of interiors, their unflinching confrontation with the camera, hinting at the possibility of revelation. It is their solemnity that lends the viewer access to the character that bears the weight of what has come before.

Her continuum piece, Strange Fruit 21st Century, steps back into a stream of layered consciousness. Incorporating metal, text, and landscape photography, Kambon’s installation indicts the current system of mass incarceration by pointing to its disturbing roots in plantation slavery. Engraved letter by letter, into a variety of keys, each hung in an individual cell, the phrase “if they had known they were slaves,” can be deciphered once the units are understood as a collective. Harriet Tubman is famously quoted as saying “I freed thousands of slaves and could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.” Visible in the background is a photograph of identical dimensions depicting tree roots dug into the earth. The audience can view and interpret this organic, almost primordial image, through the harsh, metallic grid that contains a code of liberation. Here, without showing the body as landscape for the many histories and struggles of a movement, one hears the whispers of bodies gone, while paying homage to those still locked away. The root emerges from the gravesite of Harriet Tubman. Each component of the piece functions as one of many reapings, among them, the awareness of status that is either chosen or enforced; the history of the pastoral and the violence that accompanies it. These localities have and continue to operate in trade and commerce, making commentaries on enslavement, from chattel slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. Each component is deliberate: Tubman’s words, the stamps on the keys, the placing of the tree-root under the provocatively well-known title – Strange Fruit – a reference to the widespread lynching of African American men in 20th Century United States. Ownership of the human body is called into question. It is through this installation that temporal lines are blurred, eras overlap and narratives converge. The audience has the freedom, just as the subjects in her portraiture do, to take what is one’s birthright. To know is freedom, but it also carries a burden. There is a hard-won critical complication in Kambon’s work, which deals with the facts of many difficult histories. But it does the work, as Morrison says, of “the collective sharing of that information [that] heals the individual – and the collective.”

If awareness of one’s being is a coin, this body of work operates on both sides. Awareness is affirmed in knowing where one has come from, not only as part of a geographical community, but also of a sociopolitical one. While artists can never account for every gap – the fragments within a history between personal and collective memory – Kambon’s work does not shy away from the task. Echoes from the past reverberate loudly in her present.

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