Mariamma Kambon takes delicate fragments to create brutal truths in her work, exploring in fine detail ideas of social justice, race and class, civil rights, and genetic memory and how these problems find specific manifestations within the prison industrial system.
“Altars of Poverty” problematizes several notions of being and belonging. It claims a vocabulary for the denial of humanity. It visually describes a set of issues that we have not yet found a language for. And through her art, Kambon brings into stark reality a world that many never have access to, but whose familiarity is undeniable. “Altars of Poverty” attempts to give names to things that are made deliberately invisible.
Her work is engaged with the idea of loss, the corrosive nature of our collective interest in those who disappear into the prison system. But her work is also engaged with what is left behind. What fragments remain for the purpose of worship, for the purpose of reparation, for the purpose of continuity.
For Africans in the diaspora, Christianity and capitalism came as a package deal. They are two inseparable partners in the systematic denial of cultural forms, spiritual truths, family, justice. What is left behind for survival is resistance. Is brutality. Is the assumption of new identities. Esu, Yoruba deity of the crossroads, who creates order out of divine chaos, becomes the devil. At the crossroads between our forgetfulness and our genetic memory is a space where the prison system resides. Kambon carefully constructs this space, with the minutiae of lives half-lived.
Kambon engages the viewer in a nationally enacted farce of knowing. The piles of paper containing faceless, nameless statistics stare out of each obituary. They are both accusation and appeal for recognition.
Kambon taps into a carnvialesque notion of subverting the sacred in the profane. The mask then takes on a dual purpose. It is a tool of both physical transformation and spiritual transformation.
The challenge is to question your own idea of what is sacred and what shapes your personal and/or collective idea of divinity. How do we worship at altars that are so violently opposed to everything that we have been taught to consider sacred? Is it the worship of capitalism’s gods that creates the hell of prison? Is it the assurance of heavenly rewards that dupes the worshipper into a placid acceptance of suffering on earth?
Far from a Christian construction of God creating humanity in his image and likeness, is the problematic dynamic between a white god and the black bodies of worshippers. The gods are frail and it is their frailty that makes them accessible and therefore worthy of veneration. The body is not a body but a temple, melting into its own sacred consciousness. Amid the starkness of the cell, the body in its shroud weeps candle wax tears.
At the crossroads of humanity Kambon challenges us to engage with what we see as human what we imagine to be sacred. What we choose to remember. Which ancestors’ names we deem worthy of calling. Taking the deeply personal and making it deeply political is what this work encourages.