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Ibou Ndoye

Art Review: Ibou Ndoye and Adebunmi Gbadebo at NJCU


Painting on glass is tricky. Glass is not as forgiving as canvas or paper, and it stubbornly resists attempts by artists to convey texture. Yet when glass painting is done right, it shimmers like the surface of a lake — or the probing front of a camera lens. In Senegal, painting on glass is a science as well as a tradition: Masters turn out portraits on the backs of clear sheets, swivel them around, expose them to light, and generate an unearthly gloss and inner radiance that paintings with opaque backgrounds can’t match.

“The Wrestler” by Ibou Ndoye

Ibou Ndoye has plenty of experience painting on glass. In some of his works, the glass is broken, and fitted into the openings in wooden frames, like a ladder or a film strip. “Neighbors Near and Far,” his show at the Lemmerman Gallery at New Jersey City University, doesn’t actually contain all that much glass painting. It mainly consists of huge, boisterous, enveloping canvases hung like tapestries; one of these is so long and broad that it spills down the wall and rolls, carpet-like, on to the floor. But all of these giant images possess the fiercely illuminated, sun-blasted quality of Senegalese glass painting. Glass is a major part of Ndoye’s artistic identity, and the translucent spirits of Dakar animate everything this artist does. Ndoye, who lives and works in Hudson County, doesn’t need to tell us that he was inspired to make these grand canvases after a trip to Africa. He doesn’t need to give us much background at all. The work speaks, eloquently, about his passions and his perspective.

Glass painting in West Africa has roots in a lower-tech era. Yet its modern resonances are undeniable. When done properly, a glass painting is seen through a thin, shiny transparent layer. It’s not unlike the way we modern viewers apprehend most of the images we encounter: through the backlit flat-panel screens of laptops and phones. The people on the seven glass plates in “Neighbors Near and Far” have the candid, shocked-awake, slightly distorted expressions that FaceTime imposes on those who use it. One man, depicted in sandals and a kufi, has his hands up and an entreaty on his worried face; another, a woman, carries an accusation in her eyes and a barbed threat in her hair, which leaps in black spikes from her head and scrapes the rim of the dish. Some of these glass vessels are circles, others are octagonal like a stop sign; all are, like iPhone screens, too small for the lively faces they trap and pin behind glass.

The characters in the wall-hangings play to the audience, too. A group of women sit around a mancala, and though they’re mid-game, they’re not looking at the pits and the pebbles. Instead, they’re staring outward, with smiles on the verge of grimaces, as if they’ve been posed there by an annoying photographer. The “Young Brothers” peer out between the skinny trunks of trees as if to challenge a voyeur treading on their turf. “The Wrestler,” the grey-faced star of a kinetic mixed-media canvas of paint and collage, performs his feats of strength and balance for two crowds — an arc of dispassionate dashiki-clad viewers who stand behind him and the real-life art appreciators on the gallery floor, who will be, I reckon, quite a bit more engaged.

In these scenes, there’s no place to hide: Sun and clear sightlines make every gesture apparent. Ndoye’s characters act like they know it. They’re all onstage or on camera, and their awareness of the viewer is inscribed in the pieces. And it’s this, more than the patterned backgrounds or brilliant colors or interplay of figures or even the facial features of the subjects, that marks this work as unmistakably West African in tone if not in origin. On glass and on canvas, Ndoye paints people who know you’re looking at them. They’re being watched, and they recognize it, and they pull you in to the performance.

“Uprooted” by Adebunmi Gbadebo

“Uprooted,” the other Black History Month exhibition currently on view at NJCU (this one is at the Visual Arts Gallery) addresses visitors in a thinner and sterner voice. The show features work by Newark-based sculptor and fiber artist Adebunmi Gbadebo, who works in a style that will be familiar to anybody who has seen recent avant-garde fiber art installations at area museums. Gbadebo makes large three-dimensional frames out of chicken wire and affixes massive amounts of fiber to the structure until it takes on the appearance of a huge fuzzy boulder or block. The boulder is suspended from a string and appears to float; the blocks are stacked into a great furry monolith of heft and subtle menace. Fingers of fiber climb a far wall as if they’re trying to escape the confines of the gallery. A long, thick rope snakes across the floor, daring visitors to pull it (don’t).

What’s really striking about these works, though, isn’t what they look like. It’s what they’re made of. All of Gbadebo’s artifacts are comprised of human hair — hair, specifically, from people of African ancestry. The artist does some amazing, gravity-defying things with the locks she’s collected: She masses it and hangs it in great bunches like animal pelts, she balls it up and stacks it, she pounds it flat until it has the consistency of paper and prints on it. So complete is her transformation of black hair that it often doesn’t look like hair at all. It’s possible to encounter, and even appreciate, Gbadebo’s work without ever realizing that the fibers she’s weaving, teasing, and flattening contain human DNA.

That is part of Gbadebo’s point, one that’s driven home further by her use of indigo dye, a substance associated with the slave trade. We don’t always notice the extent to which the manmade environment that surrounds us was built on the backs of black bodies. Yet to apprehend the full conceptual scope of “Uprooted,” the viewer needs to step back from the pieces and understand the backstory, the artist’s motivations and materials, and the conditions of the work’s creation. The show requires more than the basic transaction between the gallerygoer and the creator: It demands attention to something that can be missed if you aren’t in the know.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Museums in New York City have been mounting shows of that sort for years, and “Uprooted” does feel more like a Manhattan-style exhibition than anything I’ve yet seen in Jersey City. It’s hard not to contrast the Gbadebo exhibition with the tropical wave rippling at the Lemmerman. Ndoye’s figures establish an immediate relationship with the viewer. Gbadebo is quite a bit more parsimonious with her affections and with her energy, too. Instead of a rough neighborly handshake, she offers hard-won beauty. You’re welcome to observe it. Look at it long enough, and you might even get comfortable with it. But she’s certainly not going to do all the work for you.

Neighbors Near And Far: Ibou Ndoye
The Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery
Hepburn Hall
New Jersey City University
Showing Until March 3

Uprooted: Adebunmi Gbadebo
The Visual Arts Gallery
Visual Arts Building
New Jersey City University
Showing Until March 5
Artist Reception: February 19, 4:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Header: Ibou Ndoye

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Education: “We Want to Go Home!”


Despite months of back-and-forth discussion regarding the future of Jersey City’s A. Harry Moore Laboratory School, located at 2078 JFK Blvd. opposite New Jersey City University, a long-term solution to the school’s shuttering remains up in the air.

During the Board Of Education’s meeting November 1, A. Harry Moore School was discussed with parents, teachers, and administrators giving their opinions regarding the Jersey City school whose entire operation was recently relocated to Regional Day School after its ceiling partially collapsed in September.

“We are, right now, in a very challenging setting,” Patricia Holzman, teacher at A. Harry Moore school said, referring to the lack of space for their student population at Regional Day School.

“We want to go home,” pleaded A. Harry Moore’s principal, Steven Goldberg, to the BOE.

The A. Harry Moore Laboratory School has been a learning institute for children and adults with physical disabilities ages 3 through 21 since 1931. The school offers an “employment opportunities workshop” an “adapted” physical education program, and a preschool while also offering physical, occupational, speech, and music therapies. Although operated under the College of Education of New Jersey City University, it is funded by the board of education.

In early September, A. Harry Moore’s roof partially collapsed, but before repairs could begin, further inspections deemed the whole building unsafe for students to return, leaving the school’s future  uncertain. Board President Sudhan Thomas stated the school will remain under the Regional Day School until a better solution comes along, declaring they are searching for a fully utilized space for the school to accommodate staff, students, and the equipment the school will require.

Thomas had disclosed four possible options for the future of the school: refurbishing the entire facility, which may cost up to $25 million and take about five years to complete, purchasing a new building altogether, keeping the program at Regional Day School, or renting a space within New Jersey City University.

“We have collectively, with NJCU, decided that that program will continue at Regional Day School for the interim until we find a proper solution,” he added.

In recent months, there was some speculation regarding NJCU’s discontinuing the program and the Jersey City Public School district’s taking over. Superintendent Franklin Walker addressed this rumor at the BOE meeting. “It’s never been our intention to take over the A. Harry Moore program,” he said. “It’s A. Harry Moore Laboratory School that’s been sponsored by New Jersey City University as a part of their college education program.” Walker went on to say they are still viewed as district students and will be provided for.

Both Goldberg and Holzman explained why providing adequate space is of the utmost importance for these students. “This is not only an academic and therapeutic setting for many of these medically fragile students; this is their lives.”

Thomas addressed the situation by announcing the BOE will be creating an ad hoc committee following the board meeting, which will consist of two board members, a couple of A. Harry Moore parents, and appointees from the board and NJCU’s side and that will meet monthly to devise a solution for the school’s permanent — or possibly temporary — location.

Regional Day School is located almost two miles away from the original site of A. Harry Moore School and is home to about 100 students of its own.

Goldberg urged the board to understand the urgency of the situation, explaining the students thrive in this program. “That’s what happens at A. Harry Moore. They live.”

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Art Review: Maps Everywhere


Maps tell lies.  Oh, they may get you where you want to go, but they’ll whisper distortions in your ear as you travel. The Mercator Projection of the earth — perhaps the most famous map in history — has misled millions by exaggerating the size of land masses at polar latitudes and diminishing the tropics. Many of us deal daily with Mercator’s local cousin: the New York City subway map on which an artificially fattened Manhattan lords over the shrunken outer boroughs. Artist Jacob Ford is a man attuned to the political implications of cartography, and his MTA Peutingeriana redraws one of the most ancient maps of the Roman Empire in the unmistakable colors and fonts of the Big Apple underground. The Romans, too, warped space in the name of clarity and put their capital at the center of the world.

Monkeying with maps, it seems, is an ancient pastime, and Ford’s pointed, persuasive piece is representative of a new pair of shows running concurrently at two galleries on the NJCU campus.  Maps Everywhere (curated by Donna David and on view at the Visual Arts Gallery until Nov. 26) and Mapping Life (curated by Midori Yoshimoto and on view at the Lemmerman Gallery on the third floor of Hepburn Hall until Nov. 26) ask and answer questions in slightly different tones, but they’re best understood as a single continuous exhibition. In order to catch both halves, you’ll have to navigate the campus — and yes, that trip across the quad and Culver Street does feel like part of the show.

It’s an exhibition with salience to Jersey City. Our town has been aggressively mapped over the last few decades. Much of this activity has been benign: Signage has improved, there’s been an increasing amount of crosstalk between neighborhoods, and public policymakers, some of whom are affiliated with NJCU, have sought insight into how our town functions. But maps have also been the faithful tools of developers and planners who have redrawn the lines and zones in an effort to squeeze every penny out of land that has rapidly appreciated in value. Walking the streets of Jersey City means engaging with the practical consequences of mapping. In 2019, maps are, as the show suggests, everywhere – and for those who require or prefer hiding places, this is downright problematic.

Under the Big Tree by Noriko Ambe

The omnipresence of cartography is a recurring theme of the show. It’s expressed in visual and tactile language that’s sometimes humble, like Vivian Rombaldi Seppey’s homey slippers made of maps, and sometimes striking and invasive, like David Nuttall’s Human Terrain photographs of naked bodies illustrated with roads and grids. Noriko Ambe’s Under the Big Tree crafts a great hollow stump from history books; Adrienne Ottenberg’s painting A Walk in Algiers is so warmly ornamented that its map of the African city could double as an image of a quilt. Her Algiers is a cloak — a repository of the elements of local culture, a long weave in the making and a comfort on a cold night.

Other contributions to the exhibition are stark, minutely observed, hyper-local, captured with the probing eye of the social scientist. Brooklyn artist Jennifer Maravillas, a specialist in creative cartography, gleans the contours of JERSEY CITY: 1841, 1976, 2013, 2019 from four historic maps and highlights their similarities with bright washes of color. The piece borders on an infographic: It’s as informative as any wordless work of art can be, and it suits a show held on a college campus. Dominique Paul traveled New York City in an electronic dress that doubled as a data visualizer: Wherever she went, her outfit would light up in a hue that corresponded to the street’s median income level (the dress and a video documentary of her trip are both on view at the Lemmerman).

A performance art piece like this wouldn’t be possible without thorough census records, and it shrewdly exposes the benefits and problems that accompany scrupulous mapping.  From one perspective, Paul is demonstrating the remarkable unevenness of wealth in our region, and, in so doing, she’s raising awareness of income inequality. Yet she’s also poking fun at the social-scientific tendency to color code and classify a place as complicated as New York City. What happens to a neighborhood when it’s stigmatized and consigned to the troubled regions of the map? Is it really helpful for the government to know what everybody is making, or is all of this cartography simply an extension of surveillance culture?

At least one of her documentary interview subjects has a strong opinion on the subject. He believes that it’s only the taxman who is interested in his low-rent neighborhood, and he stands to be counted only so he can be shaken down by the authorities for the little he’s got.  Whether he knows it or not, he’s echoing a popular argument against mapping and census taking that goes back at least as far as the Bible. It’s a perspective that Nyugen Smith would probably understand. His beautiful wall hanging of a reimagined Hispaniola echoes motifs common among the maps used by colonizers and juxtaposes them with more alarming images: a skull, dry bones, a snake warning away intruders. It’s an effective critique and a reminder that cartographers were indispensable to the Columbian exchange.

Ironically, it’s also a reminder that the tools of the oppressor could also be beautiful. Nyugen’s Bundlehouse Borderlines No 6 (emembe) really does communicate that sense of curiosity, play, and new discovery that is often visible in maps from the colonial era. Some of these explorers did actually believe in magic, but even those who didn’t had their imaginations fired by the encounter with the not-yet-known. Their maps were unions between the realized and the purely theoretical; they were documentaries, yes, but in another way they were speculative fiction.

It is hard for modern maps to cast the same spell although contemporary artists do like to recapture some of the mystery by blurring those state-sanctioned lines. Abby Goldstein’s Reimagining Brooklyn paintings begin with historic city grids, which she then smothers in her own colored ink — and the artist’s defiant glee as she smooths over artificial divides and mashes neighborhoods together is pleasantly palpable. The full wall of her work at the back of the Maps Everywhere gallery feels gently impudent: a kiss-off to the developers currently dominating her borough. Kingsley Parker’s Atlas takes this desire for a personal and alternative brand of city planning to its logical extreme. His maps look authentic, right down to the book he’s bound them in, but they’re entirely fictitious. This is escapism, pure and simple, and it’s wonderful.

So, it’s more than a little surprising that Maps Everywhere closes with an entreaty to viewers to participate in the collective manufacture of a large wall map of Jersey City. After viewing art that is unmistakably ambivalent about the implications of exhaustive mapping, you’re invited to plot your home and businesses you frequent on the grid. Surely most of the artists featured in these two concurrent exhibitions would agree that such a map would be a very cool thing aesthetically, and practically, too. They also might tell you about the real benefits of getting, and staying, lost.

 

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