Director’s Desk: Women Artists Address Migration

At first glance, it might be difficult to identify common threads in works by Ingrid Mwangi, Jami Porter Lara, and Betsabeé Romero. Each artist uses vastly different materials—the female body, plastic water bottles, and recycled tires—to address the challenging subject of migration. Through their art, these women are engaging with topical and consequential issues.

Born to a Kenyan father and a German mother, Ingrid Mwangi of the collective Mwangi Hutter describes being seen as white while living in Africa, but seen as black after immigrating to Germany. She used her body to call attention to issues of migration and racism in her 2001 photo diptych Static Drift, featured in NMWA’s collection. Two photographs show her torso as a canvas. She used stencils and sunlight to create her subject: in one, darker skin surrounds the shape of Africa with the words “Bright Dark Continent,” while in the other, lighter skin surrounds the shape of Germany with the words “Burn Out Country.”

Mwangi Hutter, Static Drift, 2001; Two chromogenic prints on aluminum, 29 1/2 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Mwangi Hutter, Static Drift, 2001; Two chromogenic prints on aluminum, 29 1/2 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-6SBR-0916CE-01, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 10 x 6 ½ in. diameter; Courtesy Central Features Contemporary Art; Photo by Addison Doty

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-6SBR-0916CE-01, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 10 x 6 ½ in. diameter; Courtesy Central Features Contemporary Art; Photo by Addison Doty

While Porter Lara was exploring a remote stretch of the U.S.–Mexico border, she saw discarded plastic water bottles that had been carried by migrants. She also encountered the remains of similarly discarded items: pot shards from ancient cultures. This juxtaposition inspired Porter Lara, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to consider the distinction between artifact and trash. Her thinking about how the plastic bottle might be seen as a “contemporary artifact” led to the creation of her ceramic vessels, which were recently on view in the NMWA exhibition Border Crossing.

Mexico City-based Romero embraces materials and techniques related to popular culture. She frequently transforms automotive components because cars have a broad cultural appeal. Four newly commissioned works are now on view outside the museum in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, the only public art space in Washington, D.C., featuring rotating installations of contemporary work by women artists. Romero’s carved and painted tires symbolize humankind’s profound connection to cultural traditions, as well as a yearning to keep families safe and thriving. The car-based imagery and themes of migration and movement resonate with the hum of activity at this busy D.C. intersection.

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (detail), 2018; Four tires with engraving and gold leaf and steel support, approx. 192 1/2 x 86 5/8 x 9 3/4 in.; Courtesy Betsabeé Romero Art Studio; Photo by Mara Kurlandsky, NMWA

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (detail), 2018; Four tires with engraving and gold leaf and steel support, approx. 192 1/2 x 86 5/8 x 9 3/4 in.; Courtesy Betsabeé Romero Art Studio; Photo by Mara Kurlandsky, NMWA

Be it body, bottle, or tire, these three artists have found their artistic vehicles and used them to convey an intimate understanding of issues that affect our world. From migration to racism to identity, the symbolic content makes connections for viewers and elevates their work. They see a bigger picture outside themselves, and their powerful ideas implore viewers to ask questions.

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Passionate Pathmakers

Dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today create innovative designs, maintain craft traditions, and incorporate new aesthetics into fine art in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each week, compare and draw parallels between works on view in Pathmakers and NMWA collection favorites.

On view in Pathmakers

Gabriel Maher, DE___SIGN, 2014

Maher examines the ways in which design supports and shapes concepts of “male” and “female.” Maher’s work in Pathmakers reveals how gestures, movements, and positions can imply gender norms.

Gabriel A. Maher, DE___SIGN, 2014; Video: directed by Gabriel A. Maher and Kimon Kodossos; Performers: Naomi Jansen, Floraine Misslin, Gabriel A. Maher, Olle Lunden; Courtesy of the artist

Gabriel A. Maher, DE___SIGN, 2014; Video: directed by Gabriel A. Maher and Kimon Kodossos; Performers: Naomi Jansen, Floraine Misslin, Gabriel A. Maher, Olle Lunden; Courtesy of the artist

Who made it?

Australian-born designer Gabriel A. Maher (b. 1983) practiced and taught interior architecture in Australia until 2012 and received a Masters degree in Social Design at Design Academy Eindhoven (Netherlands) in 2014. Maher identifies as gender queer and prefers the pronouns “they” and “them”—representing gender as a spectrum.

How was it made?

Clothes can often reinforce “male” or “female” looks. Maher’s video work DE___SIGN includes a garment designed for personal use. Lacking gendered colors, the gray outfit—or “behavioral tool” as Maher calls it—can limit or exaggerate body movements and postures. Dancers and models wear the garment in a series of performances. The video also shows performers using a chair designed by Maher that enables the body to move into positions often associated with either “maleness” or “femaleness” including knees together or knees spread apart. Together, the clothes and chair in Maher’s work show how gender is constructed and can be reconstructed.

Collection connection

Mwangi Hutter, Neger Don't Call Me (installation view), 2000; DVD, speakers, four wood chairs, and Dolby surround sound; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C., Image courtesy of the artists

Mwangi Hutter, Neger Don’t Call Me (installation view), 2000; DVD, speakers, four
wood chairs, and Dolby surround sound; National Museum of Women in the Arts,
Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C., Image courtesy of
the artists

A work in NMWA’s collection, Neger Don’t Call Me (2000) by Ingrid Mwangi (b. 1975), also explores representations of identity through video performance. A grid of nine frames alternates to a single image showing the artist’s face covered and uncovered with masks made from her own hair. Mwangi explained that her hair represents one facet of her identity. The installation incorporates four wooden chairs with speakers attached under the seats. A recording of Mwangi fills the space, repeating stories from her childhood related to the German word “neger,” or negro, as it translates in English. The artist explains, “Many people can’t say the word because they are so wounded by it, but for me, the more I used it, the history behind the word dissolved.”

Throughout her career, Mwangi focuses on issues of “hyphenated” identity. With Kenyan and German roots, Mwangi has lived in Africa and Europe. Her work often investigates Western culture’s tendency to label people with a race or nationality. Through video and performance art, Mwangi uses and manipulates her body to confront and dismiss these stereotypes. In 2005, Mwangi and her husband, Robert Hutter, merged their names and biographies as IngridMwangiRobertHutter. They consider all new and old artwork as part of their collective.

Visit the museum and explore Pathmakers, on view through February 28, 2016. Join a conversation with Gabriel Maher and design critic Alice Rawsthorn on January 27, 2016 during FRESH TALK: Can Design Be Genderless?

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.