strange (& bitter) crop: giving visibility to the invisible

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Mariamma Kambon’s work traces the tumultuous struggles for power and self-actualization that have existed since historic encounters imposed the definition of race onto humanity, and with it, the racialization of morality, beauty and endemic worth. She uses photography and multi-media installation to decode the connections between our present reality and the past that has shaped it.

“strange (& bitter) crop” is a sparse and impersonal visualization of the hot and contentious harvest of flesh, blood, bone and brain matter that is reaped from the ghettoes of the United States and warehoused in the increasingly sophisticated, calculated, and ever-expanding prison system.

It is an installation that takes up the entire room while barely being visible, since most of its components are completely transparent or easily overlooked. Honing in on the technology used to track inmates – incarcerated, paroled or discharged – the artist used the Internet to gather names of real individuals from an online database for the identification and location of inmates. Tiny slips of paper containing this information were individually encapsulated in clear, plastic cubes, creating an entirely enclosed environment for each human being, aware of, but cut off from society. These cubes are arranged in perpendicular lines and formations on an acrylic replica of a prison cell floor, which hangs in suspension seven feet above the floor of the gallery.

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Viewers on the floor are forced to look upwards, and through the piece to engage with barely decipherable information, which in fact represents human beings, trapped in the separate and isolated world, all but unnoticeable to, and forgotten by the rest of the population. Ironically, with viewers struggling to read and make sense of the data kept just out of their reach, the incarcerated segment of the population is given far more attention than they usually receive.

The collective weight of the individuals and their predicament press downward through the bowing “ceiling” attempting to be felt in the space beneath. Yet daily routines continue without these frozen lives. The “ceiling” is low enough to keep viewers aware of its potential instability, and thus symbolically, the volatile, although invisible presence of caged human beings restricted to an existence on the periphery of society.

The installation can also be viewed from an overhead balcony, which affords a new reading of it, as the scale of the piece is transformed from an overwhelming ceiling, to a fragile, glass-like structure that looks like a microchip that one could easily grasp between two fingers.

A nod to the history of hostile race relations depicted in the poem-translated-to-song, “Strange Fruit”, the cables used to suspend the transparent “ceiling” are left hanging from the gallery ceiling to its floor. Their tangled trail is reminiscent of both roots and veins – referencing the tree, as the site of punishment made into public spectacle; and the people, who historically wrought physical and psychological violence to keep race-specific segments of the population ‘in their place’.

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guests at the opening reception, 9/9/13.

“strange (& bitter) crop”, featured in ARC Magazine, opened at the Experimental Gallery, Ithaca, NY and ran from September 9 -13, 2013.

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