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Hanes Visiting Artist Lecture discuss intersection of art, liberation and social justice

Maria Gaspar_Radioactive2.jpg

People contemplate a piece by Maria Gaspar, one of the three artists who spoke at “Sousveillance and How to Think Like a Forest”  lecture hosted by the Ackland Art Museum and UNC Department of Art and Art History. Photo courtesy of Maria Gaspar. 

The Ackland Art Museum and the UNC Department of Art and Art History hosted a lecture titled “Sousveillance and How to Think Like a Forest” Monday night as part of the Hanes Visiting Artist Series. 

The event covered the practice of staying under the radar throughout history and the way people connected and persevered. Hương Ngô, Anna Martine Whitehead and Maria Gaspar spoke at the event about their work and the inspiration behind it. 

Hương Ngô

Ngô found inspiration in the indigenous women involved in the anti-colonial movement in French Indochina.

She said these women constantly changed their identities to avoid police eyes, which led her to create an installation reflective of this lifestyle.

“How might we acknowledge encryption, obfuscation and camouflage, not just as modern phenomena, but as creative acts of survival and resistance?” Ngô said. “And how do I, as an artist visualize these acts that some of them were not recorded by the colonial police?”

She reflected this in her work by writing a letter in invisible ink, with the solution needed to reveal the message hidden away underneath breakaway glass.

Ngô also found inspiration in what she called the foil of the anti-colonial indigenous women – the hyper-visible, exoticized indigenous women.

“I wanted to ask how we might reconsider these women as political subjects seeking agency, rather than flattened figures in history,” Ngô said.

She took portraits of these women and put them on black paper and covered it with black ink. Ngô said this let the figures emerge from the paper and haunt the space they occupied.

In what she referred to as the anchor of the exhibition, Ngô excerpted French Indochina concubine novels and printed them with thermal chromatic ink, only revealing the words when they were touched.

Anna Martine Whitehead

Whitehead is a performer whose art doesn’t use a passive audience. Instead, they said it's used to activate and engage participants.

Whitehead’s ongoing project “Future Supper” works with primarily white institutions to host dinner events for people of color. The attendees can choose to share their food with anyone, but the emphasis is that it’s their choice.

“It's essentially an opportunity to practice what we sometimes in school settings called brave space,” Whitehead said. “This is brave space, in particular, in the context of Black and brown joy.”

The other project Whitehead discussed is a box that they built that appears to be a prison shrouded in sequins, but transforms into a ball gown when walked through. They said the inspiration of the piece was the prison-like confinement enslaved people faced and how they survived it.

“This got me to thinking about how, in general, one survives a precarious on freedom, like this, or how one makes a space that looks like a prison cell makes it feel like something other than slavery,” Whitehead said.

Maria Gaspar

Gaspar’s art creates a deeper conversation centered around incarceration and the racial inequality involved. She said her art doesn’t cover up the ugliness, but instead brings it to light.

“I know that my project isn't ending mass incarceration, but I think that it is a kind of rehearsal for what could it look like if we unbuilt prisons,” Gaspar said. “What does abolition look like?”

Her inspiration came from the huge jail in her predominately Latinx and Black neighborhood growing up. 

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Gaspar created a video project centered around showing the inside of the jail and its effect on those incarcerated. She said she filmed men incarcerated at the jail sharing their stories, with an emphasis on the kinship between them.

“It's a sense of trust and belonging that you can create in a place that has been meant to make you feel like you don't belong, and a system that perpetuates that," she said. 

The showing was projected onto the wall meant to hide the jail from the public. She said by throwing light and sound at the jail she hoped to directly oppose the darkness and rigidness the jail imposed over the community.

“We decided that what we would focus on is personifying the interior of the jail and think about the wall as a kind of amplification device essentially asking, ‘If the wall could speak, what would it say?’,” she said.

This was the first visiting lecture of the semester and the Department of Art and Art History plan to host more throughout the year. Enriched in history, the Art Department’s Visiting Artist Series hopes to get master's of fine arts students thinking about how art can be reflected through different mediums.