At first glance, they look like simple masks hanging on the wall — but a closer look reveals the details. Some of them are broken, some are reassembled in fragments, some have pieces of different faces layered on top of one another. And they are anything but simple.
The masks are the work of Brooklyn-based artist Aisha Tandiwe Bell, created for the exhibition that will open on September 9 at Space One Eleven. Bell, SOE’s resident artist for the fall, uses a wide range of media to explore the concept of shifting identities, and the title of her exhibition, Let them eat red earth. Let them eat dirt¸ is a reference to Birmingham’s history.
“I tend to pull from a lot of different places when I shape my ideas, and when I have an opportunity to show in a space with such a rich history, I like to make work at least somewhat specific to the area,” said Bell. “When the chance to show in Birmingham, Alabama came up, I started thinking about Birmingham and just doing research about the space. I got very interested in the iron industry and the history of the iron industry.”
Bell created her sculptures for the exhibition with iron-rich clay, using the masks to explore the multiplicity of identity which helps people fill their different roles within society. “I’m just thinking about things like double-consciousness, and masks that we wear and how we kind of shift through all of these faces and none of them are complete,” she said. “They’re all kind of fragmented.”
Bell’s other installations will address the “traps” that society sets for people and that people set for themselves. Literal, lavishly-decorated traps are the center of her performance piece, and clay sculptures emerge from the wall, breaking free of the “the trap of the two-dimensional state” as they challenge the stereotypes surrounding sex, race and class.
The exhibition will also feature work by Birmingham artist Tony Bingham, whose artistic process leads him to engage in communities and tell their stories through a variety of media. “I’m an African American artist, and so I’m very interested in the conversations, the ways that people have lived historically,” he said. “And then I’m inspired to make objects that might somehow bear witness to those.”
In 59th St Stories: The Ways of the Folk, Bingham uses pinhole photography to explore an “on-going engagement” with the community surrounding Miles College, where he has been an instructor for ten years. When Bingham began working with pinhole cameras, he recognized the power of photography to give a voice to untold or misrepresented stories.
“Historically, it’s not been African Americans able to tell their own story,” he said. “And what we end up with is stereotyped images of how people of color are to be presented. So just in noticing [and] working with the knowledge of the power of photography, I wanted to go into making my photographs kind of grounded in that idea.”
Sculptures from Bingham’s series, Osnaburg Meditations, will also be featured, and were inspired by unmarked African American graves and the material that was given to slaves to make their clothing. “Those pieces were used to adorn the unmarked gravestones,” said Bingham. “And the reason I did that was because I was seeking to mark the lives of the unknown.”
Like many artists, Bingham aspires to create a lasting impact through the pieces that he makes. “We know that art has the potential to perhaps be a catalyst for some sort of change,” he said, “even if the level of change could just be a conversation, getting people to talk about their history. If the work that I do could inspire that, then I think I’ve satisfied my goals for the work.”
Both exhibitions will be on display in Space One Eleven’s galleries from September until February. Together, they will pose questions about history, identity and the fragments that form a whole.
The opening reception for Let them eat red earth. Let them eat dirt and 59th Street Stories: The Ways of the Folk will be from 5:30 – 7 p.m. on September 9 and will feature a performance by Bell at 6:15 p.m. Space One Eleven is located at 2407 2nd Avenue North. The event is free and open to the public.