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Fabiola Jean Louis,

Cullum’s Notebook: Powerful photos, porcelain reimagine stories of our lives

Several galleries in the Miami Circle district are, by chance, showing work that shares a common theme – how stories define our lives. Sometimes we learn these stories in detail; sometimes they are just outlines from stories that shaped the world around us so well that the stories themselves are no longer told.

At least through the end of the year, Mason Fine Art is exhibiting framed prints from a portfolio of 11 photographs by Tuskegee Institute photographer P. H. Polk. He produced them in 1981 with South Light and Ohio State University in a signed edition of 60 (plus 15 artist’s proofs.) Although each photograph in the portfolio deserves the title of iconic, its most famous images are ones in which Polk reinterpreted the story of the African American workers living around Tuskegee in the 1930s.

P.H. Polk, Mason Fine Art
In “The Boss,” Polk portrayed an African American worker as a woman in control of her story.

Most notable of these is The Boss, a 1932 image of an African American woman who poses assertively, dressed in her own clothing and not manipulated in any way by Polk beyond the choice of a neutral background.

Unlike the women depicted in popular media in similar circumstances, she is, as Polk wrote in his description of this photo, “not helpless, and she is not cute.” She is decidedly in control of her own story. This is not at all the story that others would have likely told about her.

The other prints are formal portraits employing a distinctive range of visual strategies, and include a carefully composed study of George Washington Carver working in his laboratory.

The question of stories and who gets to tell them is raised again in Can You See Me Now: Black Women Artists, Alan Avery Art Company’s 40th anniversary exhibition (through February 5.) Many of the works tell their own stories without any need for interpretation — Kara Walker’s images from The Emancipation Approximation, for example, use symbols that allow the viewer to fill in the gaps very readily.

Tina Maria Dunkley’s 2015 Company Villages: A Bicentennial Quilt, however, contains details that demand context apart from the aesthetic quality of the work itself. It would be helpful to have a short panel explaining this Atlanta artist’s scholarly research on the 1815 resettlement in Trinidad of the African Americans who escaped slavery and were enlisted by the British government as Royal Marines in the War of 1812.

Fabiola Jean-Louis’ costume-drama photographs also deal with history, but history as reimagined and infused with fantastic imagery. Most of her images in Can You See Me Now deal all too directly with history, whether of antebellum enslavement or of the Seneca Village, established in New York by free African Americans in 1825. The village was removed, with compensation, beginning in 1856, when the land was acquired for the construction of Central Park.

By contrast, Passing, a 2016 photograph from the Rewriting History series, presents history as rewritten for the sake of dreams. It presents a light skinned young Creole woman in aristocratic 19th century finery constructed from newsprint and drafting paper.

She holds a violin bedecked with flowers and photographs that make it clearly the stuff of fantasy. A wicker basket at her feet is stuffed full of tufts of cotton, making clear that this dream is meant to transcend and transmute into an alternative history.

Stingle’s multi-layered “Stories Are Forgotten Dreams” brings porcelain artistry to a new level of skill and expression.

In an extraordinary coincidence, a very different evocation of storytelling as shaper of reality is on display a few blocks away at Signature Shop (through December 4.) Wonderland Part II includes work by Kirsten Stingle and Christine Kosiba.

Stingle has provided a thoroughgoing commentary that turns this extraordinary body of large-scale ceramic sculptures into a full-scale show on storytelling and its consequences.

The most ambitious piece, Stories Are Forgotten Dreams, consists of far more than the primary medium of porcelain, which is handled with consummate skill. The figure’s elaborate gown is hand-sewn fabric with hand embroidery, further bedecked with hand-cut fabric flowers. Her fan is hand-painted and waxed. She is “embellished with glass balls symbolizing the magical and temporary nature of our dreams.”

The theater curtains surrounding an actual vintage television console are also her skirts, formed from hand-cut and painted paper. The open interior of the television contains a smaller ceramic figure mounted on a swan swimming through stylized, storybook-illustration waves.

Stingle’s commentary, which deserves extensive quotation, tells us: “Our lives are composed of stories we tell ourselves and pass to one another . . . this piece is a story within a story and reflects the retelling of past narratives informing new ones. The television represents the transmission of stories and our connection to one another through our shared understanding.”

A technical aspect of this elaborately lit piece is also deeply symbolic in its invisibility: “ . . . a pocket . . . hides the remote control to the theater lighting, disguising the manipulation of storytelling devices.”

The title Stories Are Forgotten Dreams is repeated on the curtains, but in French translation. That, combined with the traditional 18th century imagery imprinted on the figure’s overskirt, suggests a historical reference transmuted through transmission, but this is pure speculation since Stingle doesn’t provide details on her visual reference sources. She may provide more details, however, during her artist’s talk on Wednesday, December 8 at 11:30 a.m. in person at the gallery and on Instagram live.

Whitespace
Floyd’s photographs at whitespace evoke stories waiting to be told about human interactions with nature. (Photo by Jerry Cullum)

It is intriguing to contrast the settled or contested narratives reflected in the Miami Circle shows with the unsettled or utterly unformed tale in progress Nancy Floyd’s Walking Through the Desert With My Eyes Closed, at whitespace through December 4.

In photographs and videos, Floyd shows her fascination with terrains where human intrusion leaves a trace, for instance tire tracks left by an all-terrain vehicle that is clearly meant to be stopped in its tracks by cones embedded in the soil to prevent plunging over a drop of unknown proportions. It’s what the title calls the Edge of the Earth. In the whitespec project room, she provides that terrain with a video soundtrack of familiar tunes such as “Over the Rainbow” or “You Are My Sunshine,” leaving open the question of what sorts of stories go through the head of a solitary walker in a landscape that provides such minimal but potent narrative clues.

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Dr. Jerry Cullum’s reviews and essays have appeared in Art Papers magazine, Raw Vision, Art in America, ARTnews, International Journal of African-American Art and many other popular and scholarly journals. In 2020 he was awarded the Rabkin Prize for his outstanding contribution to arts journalism. 

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