At Parrish Art Museum, ‘Set It Off’ pulls from an international roster of artists to address themes of sexuality, memory, and identity

On May 22, the Parrish Art Museum opened for viewing Set It Off, an exhibition curated by Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas, collectively known as Deux Femmes Noires. The show compiles 50 works by six female artists: Leilah Babirye, Torkwase Dyson, February James, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Karyn Olivier, and Kennedy Yanko. Set It Off is Deux Femmes Noires’s third exhibition curated as a pair, and features combinations of readymade, painting, photography, language, sculpture, and installation.

“We wanted to bring together a group of women who work in a range of media and styles, and whose subject matter spans the personal, historical, and cultural,” Chevremont and Thomas explained in a press release. “Each was chosen for their unique artistic language—for forging their own path and creating work that transcends traditional formal and art historical structures.”

The featured artists explore themes of sexuality, identity, memory, and history. Babirye specifically seeks to address the realities of being gay in Uganda through seven sculptures featured in the exhibition—and no one is more well suited to do so. Babirye fled her home country in 2015 after being publicly outed in a local newspaper. “Recently, my working process has been driven by a need to find a language to respond to the recent passing of the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda,” Babirye says.

James, an artist who specializes in expressive portraits that reflect on perceived Black identity, presents These Are My Ghosts To Sit With (2022), a multi-part installation comprised of a series of portraits and a cardboard living room encased within a wooden frame and set in the center of the room. The central cardboard installation and the portraits are painted in a smudged manner, with the intention of translating our identification with and relationship to memories of objects and spaces into tangible visuals.

“For me, memory gives me fuel, it feeds my soul,” James muses. “It guides me. These oral histories that have been passed down from generation to generation are the beginning chapters of a book. The great novel of life and all the pages before me are blank. I can say I look behind me to understand how to navigate and hopefully discover a way to change the course of what’s in front of me.”

Through seven paintings engaging abstraction, landscape and architecture, Dyson invites the viewer to consider the manifold ways space is experienced, perceived, and negotiated. Her works generally explore the continuity between ecology, infrastructure, and architecture, with an emphasis on the ways Black and Brown bodies perceive and negotiate space as information.

Similarly, East Palo Alto-born Rasheed employs minimalism in Primitive Hypertext, II, a large, text-based wall painting and video that “grapples with the poetics-pleasures-politics of Black knowledge production, information technologies, [un]learning, and belief formation.”

Olivier, known for sculptures and installations that engage history and memory, elevates traditional modes of photography, placing prints on varied materials encapsulated in asphalt and roofing tar. She displays a large-scale sculpture titled How Many Ways Can You Disappear, made up of 13 feet of salt casted pot warp, or lobster fishing rope, recovered from Matinicus Island in Maine, as well as resin and buoys. The colorful ropes are tangled in a pile on the ground underneath fluorescent, multicolored buoys that hang from a white rope above. “I was thinking of what remains from that tangle of rope—salt,” Olivier says. “The ropes lay limp, without function but still hold the sea—memories, unbearable loss. I was thinking of the salt’s history in relation to trade/currency, particularly the practice of trading slaves for salt in Ancient Greece.”

Bushwick-based Yanko displays two freestanding sculptures that attempt to explore the limitations of vision, and utilizes reframing to challenge what viewers think they understand. Yanko uses materials that aim to play with the internal friction that emerges from altering ideas that previously acted as culturally cemented norms. “When operating off of preconceived notions, we lose opportunities of expansion,” Yanko says. “We limit our experiences when we assume, but it’s something we all do so effortlessly. It’s difficult to shift views because we’re comfortable seeing and believing what we want, and it’s harder to be wrong. It’s harder to be embarrassed. Ultimately looking at our beliefs elicits growth.”

The exhibition was designed with the landscape of Parrish in mind, integrating the architecture of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed building. “I hope [viewers] take away a sense of what it is that I get to have and feel while making: the few moments of clarity, and the synthesis of all the experiences that are informing that specific moment,” Yanko says. “I hope viewers can feel some semblance of that multifaceted journey.”

Set It Off is on view from May 22 through July 24, 2022, presented outdoors in the Meadow and in the Parrish galleries.

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